May 29, 2015Read More Tags: FIFA, FIFA corruption, Brazil, World Cup
The U.S. Justice Department accused more than a dozen people this week of being involved in a massive FIFA corruption scandal that spanned more than two decades. Several high-level officials were arrested in a luxury Zurich hotel Wednesday, including former Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (Brazilian Football Confederation—CBF) President José Maria Marin.
“Our investigation revealed that what should be an expression of international sportsmanship was used as a vehicle in a broader scheme to line executives’ pockets with bribes,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a press conference Wednesday in New York. “These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games; where the games would be held; and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide.”
Marin, who led the jogo bonito’s governing body from March 2012 to April 2015, is facing charges of corruption, racketeering and bribery. According to the indictment, Marin split an $110 million kickback with four others in order to help Uruguayan company Datisa secure global distribution rights for next month’s Copa América and the four future editions of the tournament, including the special centennial cup to be held in the U.S. next year. He also allegedly requested bribe payments from Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic for distribution rights of the country’s Copa do Brasil.
Others arrested Wednesday were accused of taking bribes to influence the winning bids of the 2010 South Africa World Cup, 2018 Russia World Cup and 2022 Qatar World Cup, with the latter’s selection facing scrutiny for its poor human rights record. Most of these transactions were done using U.S. bank accounts, which triggered the alarm of American authorities in the FBI, IRS and DOJ.
May 29, 2015Tags: Cuba, SSOT, U.S.-Cuba relations
The era of acrimonious relations between Cuba and the U.S. may soon come to a close as Cuba’s designation on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) has officially been rescinded after a final decision from Secretary of State John Kerry today.
On April 14, President Barack Obama announced his plan to remove Cuba from the list after declaring that Cuba had “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list—where it was listed alongside Iran, Sudan and Syria—had been cited by Cuba as a major impediment to restoring relations.
Congress’s 45-day window to block Obama’s decision to lift the SSOT designation expired today with no override from Congress—despite the fact that Obama’s decision was initially met with mixed reactions. Cuba will also be removed from the Department of Treasury’s sanctions list, “a place reserved for nations that repeatedly provide support for international acts of premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatants,” according to the Bradenton Herald.
New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who visited the island yesterday as part of a Democratic congressional delegation to Cuba, said the move will facilitate further Cuba-U.S. rapprochement. “I think it will be a matter of weeks when we have restored diplomatic relations. This will advance mending of relations, and all other outstanding issues will likely be resolved in a timely manner,” he said.
Cuba was put on the SSOT list in 1982 for allegedly supporting armed left-wing groups in Latin America, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The historic thawing of relations between Havana and Washington began December 17 last year, when Obama declared his intention to revive diplomatic relations with Cuba. According to U.S. and Cuban officials, both nations have been working closely to settle remaining issues—including the half-century old U.S. trade embargo—to pave the way for embassies to be re-opened and ambassadors to be exchanged for the first time since the U.S. formally broke ties in January 1961.
Udall stated that there is bipartisan support for eliminating some parts of the embargo. Udall’s delegation, which included Connecticut Rep. John Larson, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken, met with Cuban government representatives and small business owners. All four are advocates of removing the trade embargo. Obama lifted some restrictions and challenged Congress to abolish the embargo completely in his State of the Union Address in January.
“I think that a majority of the American people and a majority of the Congress would be for lifting the embargo,” Franken said. “But there is work to be done."
May 28, 2015Read More Tags: Immigration, DACA, DAPA, Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Last November, President Barack Obama announced a historic executive action that could allow up to 4.4 million undocumented immigrants to gain relief from deportation and apply for employment authorization documents. This initiative was an important victory for the immigrant rights movement, which had pushed the president to act to protect immigrant families.
President Obama’s executive action would expand the President’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and create a new program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) to request deferred action and employment authorization for undocumented parents who have at least one U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident child. Although it fails to include more than half of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and does not provide permanent immigration status to beneficiaries, this executive action would keep millions of immigrants from being torn away from their families and allow them to more fully engage with their communities—including through lawful employment that would boost our economy by tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Since Obama’s announcement, immigrant rights groups around the country have worked hard to determine the best approach to ensure that their communities have access to high-quality information and can take advantage of this important opportunity for their families. This task has been complicated, however, by recent legal challenges.
May 28, 2015Tags: Soccer, FIFA, corruption
Swiss authorities arrested fourteen people—including a number of top FIFA officials—in Zurich on Wednesday on corruption charges involving the international soccer governing association. Twelve of those arrested are from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The U.S. Justice Department in New York issued the charges, which included accusations of money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering. Those indicted—including Jeffrey Webb, who is president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONACAF)—have been accused of receiving bribes totaling more than $150 million over the past 20 years to determine where matches would be held and who would televise games, among other decisions. All FIFA officials arrested in Zurich are resisting extradition to the United States.
Following the arrests, a second, separate investigation was opened by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General into the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups scheduled to take place in Russia and Qatar.
Latin American football fans and soccer stars like Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Romario have publicly welcomed the corruption charges. While the arrests could potentially affect the Copa América tournament in Latin America, set to begin on June 11 in Chile, so far the tournament is set to continue.
President of FIFA Sepp Blatter, who is up for re-election to a fifth term on Friday and has resisted calls to step down, was not among those charged. FIFA issued a statement supporting the investigation and “welcoming actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.”
Read more about FIFA in Americas Quarterly Hard Talk: Does FIFA’s corruption hurt the beautiful game?
May 27, 2015Tags: Dilma Rousseff, Enrique Peña Nieto, trade, investment
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met Tuesday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City to foster a closer relationship between the two largest markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. This event was Rousseff’s first official visit to Mexico since she first became president in 2011.
Rousseff kicked off her official visit to Mexico on Monday evening and was welcomed by the Minister of Foreign Relations José Antonio Meade. She arrived with a delegation of business representatives interested in exploring investment opportunities in Mexico.
On Tuesday, Rousseff and Peña Nieto signed investment agreements and other accords to increase air travel and tourism. They also agreed to review their bilateral preferential trade agreement (the acuerdo de complementación económica Brasil–México, known as ACE 53) in an effort to lower tariffs overall and extend reduced tariffs to over 6,000 new products. As ACE 53 currently stands, less than half of the products that Brazil exports to Mexico are included in the list of goods with reduced tariffs.
Together, the Brazilian and Mexican economies comprise 62 percent of Latin America’s GDP and make up 58 percent of Latin America’s exports. The bilateral trade between the two countries stood at $9.2 billion in 2014, up from $ 5.7 billion in 2006. With the new agreements, the countries hope to double their trade within the next decade.
Brazil invests a little over $2 billion per year in Mexico, while Mexico’s investments in Brazil total over ten times that amount at $23 billion. Brazil is Mexico’s second largest investment destination after the United States—particularly in telecommunications, food and industrial production. Brazil has investments in steel plants in Mexico and is interested in investing in the Gulf of Mexico through its state-owned oil company, Petrobras.
Since 2013, Mexico and Brazil said they would consider cooperation between Mexico’s Pemex and Brazil’s Petrobras. However, joint projects have yet to be launched.
May 26, 2015Read More Tags: Hillary Clinton, U.S. Primary Elections, Jeb Bush
Following US presidential politics is a favorite Canadian pastime, and the2016 campaign will be no exception. While the Canadian opinion is ultimately inconsequential, as we will continue to be a key ally, friend and economic partner to the USA, no matter who wins the presidential election, I can already predict that an overwhelming majority of Canadians hope Hillary Clinton will be the next President.
Despite fluctuating relationships between United States Presidents and Canadian Prime Ministers, our countries have more in common—given our shared geography, economics and politics—than any other allies on the planet.
The 2016 race is on, and from the outset I believed a Clinton-Bush rerun likely to occur. This being said, both Hillary and Jeb Bush have stumbled of late, leading observers to question whether inevitability will carry the day. Hillary is still dogged by the email controversy, and her responses to and management of the issue seem slow and erratic. It looks like old politics—a throwback to the 1990s type of spin and verbal platitudes.
At the same time, Jeb Bush's responses on Iraq were quite simply pathetic in style and content, considering the predictability of the questions. The advantages of name recognition and establishment connections seemed, as with Clinton, also out of the 1990s. Bush is no longer the one to beat, there are newer faces emerging. For example, Florida's Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul appear fresher. Look for a new player who could upset the prohibitive favorites such as Ohio Governor John Kasich, whose strategic state will guarantee him a close look for the top spot or that of Vice President.
May 26, 2015Tags: FARC peace negotiations, Sexual violence, Jineth Bedoya
On Monday, Colombia commemorated the first annual National Day for the Dignity of Female Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict in an effort to highlight the toll the country’s ongoing conflict has taken on women.
Colombia’s National Victims Registry estimates that during Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war, members of armed rebel groups and national security forces have sexually violated nearly 9,000 women and girls and just over 1,000 men and boys.
On a national level, Colombia’s National Health Institute reports that 5,243 cases of sexual violence have been reported thus far in 2015, an average of 38 per day.
Last year President Juan Manuel Santos signed into law Decree 1480, which seeks to provide justice for victims of sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict. Earlier in 2014, a report from Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in armed conflict, found that in 2012 and 2013, 154 people were victims of sexual violence related to the ongoing civil conflict.
Bangura traveled to Colombia last March to urge ongoing peace negotiators to put greater emphasis on addressing sexual violence perpetuated by all sides during the conflict and to ensure an end to the pervasive “culture of impunity.”
The date chosen for the National Day for the Dignity of Female Victims of Sexual Violence caused by the Internal Armed Conflict honors the activism of Jineth Bedoya Lima, a journalist who was abducted, tortured and raped on May 25, 2000, while reporting on arms trafficking by state officials and the far-right paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia—AUC).
Colombians observed the national day of commemoration as the latest round of peace talks between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) continued Monday in Havana. Delegations of women’s and gender activists began taking part in peace talks last December as part of a greater push to recognize the conflict’s victims of sexual violence.
May 22, 2015Tags: Guatemala, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala
Guatemalan authorities arrested 17 people, including the head of the Guatemalan Central bank, on Wednesday in an ongoing investigation into fraud at the Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social (IGSS—Guatemalan Institute of Social Security) that resulted in the deaths of at least five kidney failure patients.
In December 2014, IGSS changed its supplier of kidney dialysis treatment from Baxter to PISA, a Mexican firm, awarding it a 116 million quetzal contract ($15.67 million). This was to provide dialysis for 530 patients. However, CICIG wiretaps revealed that IGSS employees, businessmen and the head of the Bank of Guatemala stood to make 15-16 percent of the contract in kickbacks.
The Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH—Human Rights Ombudsman) received a number of complaints this year about the treatment, including a lack of personnel and poor facilities. Since December, a number of patients have died, while others have contracted peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen. On May 15, IGSS revoked the contract with PISA, citing "deficiencies in the educational plan" of patients and announced there would be a new tender for the service.
Ramiro Lorenzana, a doctor and spokesman for PISA, responded to complaints in an interview with Nomada.gt, saying, “Patients are already in a terminal phase of the disease. Anything that happens today is down to them experiencing a failure of their kidneys. I insist they will die sooner or later.”
The 17 suspects arrested in connection with the scandal have been charged with an array of offenses, including fraud, bribery, conspiracy, influence peddling, illegal collection of fees, illicit association, and insider trading. Depending on investigations to be carried out by the Ministerio Público (Public Ministry—MP), further charges of culpable homicide in the deaths of at least seven patients could be filed.
"We found documentary evidence that members of the board [...] were committing the crime of fraud, due to the board unanimously approving the bid, "said Iván Velásquez, head of the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG—International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala).
Julio Roberto Suárez Guerra, the president of the Bank of Guatemala, is among those facing charges of fraud. Other notable captures include Otto Fernando Molina Stalling, son of Supreme Court Judge (CSJ) Blanca Stalling—whose sister-in-law, Marta Sierra Stalling, is currently being investigated for her role in a bribes-for-bail scandal. Max Schoeder, the private sector go-between with IGSS, was an Air Force reserve during Guatemala’s civil war and was linked to bombing raids on Indigenous civilians in the 1980s.
Another suspect, IGSS’ board chairman Juan de Dios Rodríguez, was captured in a private hospital in Zone 13 of Guatemala City. Dios Rodríguez is a lawyer and retired Colonel, who was appointed as private secretary to Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina when he assumed power in January 2012. A year later, he was made the chairman of IGSS.
Dios Rodríguez will stay in the hospital until he is examined by a team of independent medical personnel. He was admitted to Hospital Maranatha on Tuesday evening, suffering from depression, anxiety, a peptic ulcer, gastric reflux, and diabetes.
The case is expected to continue with the first hearings on Friday, chaired by Judge Silvia Violeta de León Santos of the Sixth Court of First Penal Instance. In a CICIG report from November 2012, the judge was one of 18 judges flagged for investigation for decisions that favored criminal networks, according to Francisco Dall'Anese, CICIG commissioner at the time. In 2013, CICIG asked for immunity against the judges to be revoked, but the CSJ denied every request.
Carmen Aida Ibarra of the civil society organization Movimiento Pro Justicia (Pro-Justice Movement) claimed that the defrauding of IGSS went further, with Dios Rodríguez using cash from the organization to influence election results. Nominating committees for the attorney general, comptroller and judicial appointments were allegedly compromised.
Guatemala City was the scene of yet more protests on Wednesday as President Otto Pérez Molina faced continued calls for his resignation. Thousands of farmers marched on the capital to protest poor public services, the appointment of a controversial new vice president, Alejandro Maldonado, and an appeal for compensation for those families affected by a confrontation with soldiers in Totonicapán in October 2012 which left seven dead.
At a news conference, Pérez Molina brushed calls for his resignation aside. "I put my trust in all of these people, but that does not mean that I become responsible for what they did (the charges the suspects face and patient deaths); they have defrauded the trust,” said Pérez Molina. “I am the first to regret this situation and if they are responsible they should be brought to justice and convicted."
However, following the Caso SAT customs fraud scandal and now IGSS, Pérez Molina is facing increasing pressure. How untenable a position must Pérez Molina occupy before it is too untenable? At the very least, the last seven months of his presidency should be spent cleaning up Guatemala’s public services and putting systems into place so that history will not repeat itself.
More protests are set for this weekend and the next, heaping further pressure on the president to resign. Many worry that civic action could either turn violent or be violently repressed. No matter which party wins the election this fall, Guatemalans have lost patience with corruption and the pillaging of public funds.
May 22, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, corruption
Guatemala’s Ministers of Interior, Energy and Mining, Environment, and the Secretary of Intelligence resigned on Thursday, amid a series of corruption scandals. The resignations come two weeks after Vice President Roxana Baldetti was forced to step down due to a top aide’s involvement in customs fraud.
Despite the resignations, President Otto Pérez Molina refuted claims that his government is collapsing. “[Rumors] that the cabinet is being dismantled [are] totally false, none of the ministers have indicated that they want to leave, not even in the most difficult of moments. I am making this decision with each one of them. Therefore, this is just a speculation. They are leaving their post at my request,” the president said.
May 21, 2015Read More Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, Rule of Law
Manuel Contreras, the former police chief during Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, received a 15-year sentence for murder on Wednesday, adding to the 490-year term he is currently serving. In 2013, the Supreme Court convicted Contreras, 86, for the December 1974 disappearance of Alejandro de la Barra and Ana Maria Puga, members of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR—Revolutionary Left Movement). Four other officials from the Pinochet era were also convicted by the Court.
The Court’s rulings are a historical feat in Chile, marking the first time that disappeared Chileans have been acknowledged as victims of secuestro permanente (permanent kidnapping), which enables the crimes to be prosecuted despite the country’s 1978 amnesty law. The only way Contreras would have been able to evade a prison term on permanent kidnapping charges was “by producing the remains of the disappeared person or fully demonstrating that he or she is indeed dead,” according to Latin America Press.
Contreras has been found guilty of a slew of atrocities. Throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship, Contreras headed the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA—National Intelligence Directorate), an agency responsible for managing torture centers where hundreds were slain. Contreras completed a seven-year prison term between 1994 and 2001 for the 1976 assassination of former Ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. In 2004, Contreras was sentenced to 12 additional years in prison for the kidnapping and disappearance of a MIR guerrilla member Miguel Ángel Sandoval. Contreras received a 490-year sentence for crimes against humanity carried out during the early years of the military regime.
May 20, 2015Tags: DAPA, executive action, Undocumented immigrants
Immigration reform activists staged rallies and protests across the United States on Tuesday as part of a national day of action, calling for the implementation of President Barack Obama’s executive actions for undocumented immigrants. The day of action fell on May 19, the original date that one of the president’s blocked executive action programs, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), was to begin accepting applications.
Under DAPA, certain undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents would be eligible for deportation relief and could apply for work permits. DAPA is an offshoot of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was to be expanded on February 18. On February 16, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction against DACA’s expansion and DAPA’s launch, and both programs remain delayed.
Still, proponents of DACA and DAPA are pressuring lawmakers to push for the programs’ implementation and are preparing members of the undocumented community to be ready if and when this happens.
On Tuesday—six months after Obama first announced DAPA—immigrant rights and labor groups held demonstrations, voter registration drives and town-hall meetings in 33 cities in 20 states, many outside government buildings and the offices of lawmakers who have supported a multi-state lawsuit against the program. On social media, DAPA advocates—including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—used the hashtag #Fight4DAPA to keep the programs on the national agenda.
At a rally in California on Tuesday, activists launched Ready California, a statewide initiative to educate undocumented immigrants about the executive action programs and ensure they are ready to apply if the injunction blocking them is overturned. California was home to nearly 2.5 million undocumented immigrants in 2012, and an estimated 1.5 million Californians would benefit from DAPA and an expanded DACA.
“We’re coming together to make sure our community is informed and prepared because we are convinced that it’s not an if— it’s a when the stay [injunction] is lifted,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told a crowd in Los Angeles. “We’ll be ready to further empower the immigrant community in California and throughout the nation to give them the protection and peace of mind they deserve.”
The legal battle over Obama’s programs is expected to take many months. Even if the administration comes out victorious, some fear that the next president could reverse the executive action programs. In the meantime, immigration advocates continue to push for the programs as steps toward relief in a legislative landscape that appears increasingly hostile to any form of comprehensive reform.
May 19, 2015Tags: WTO, Country of Origin Labeling, NAFTA
Mexico and Canada won a final appeal from the World Trade Organization (WTO) yesterday, when the trade body upheld an early decision that found that U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for meat products violated international trade law. Both countries have warned that they may pursue punitive measures against U.S. exports unless the requirement, which was adopted in 2009 and amended in 2013, is dropped. The USDA describes COOL as a “consumer information program.”
The Canadian Ministers of International Trade and Agriculture and Agri-Food, along with the Mexican Secretaries of Economy and Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food, issued a statement yesterday that said, “Once again, the WTO has confirmed Canada and Mexico’s long-standing position that the United States’ mandatory COOL requirements for beef and pork are blatantly protectionist and are a violation of the United States’ international trade obligations,” adding that “our governments will be seeking authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports.” According to estimates, the COOL requirements have cost Canada $1 billion a year. Industry groups have argued that the rule hampers trade in livestock due to the added costs of tracking animals along the supply chain and separating them according to country of origin.
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have signaled that they will move to repeal the legislation. “It is important now more than ever to act quickly to avoid a protracted trade war with our two largest trade partners,” said Michael Conway, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, whose office has reportedly downplayed the impact of COOL requirements on food safety.
U.S. consumer groups, however, have decried the ruling. “Today’s WTO ruling ... effectively orders the U.S. government to stop providing consumers basic information about where their food comes from," said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, a consumer group.
Meanwhile, U.S. beef and cattle producers have offered mixed responses. Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producers Council, called the prospect of Mexican and Canadian tariffs on U.S. exports a “death sentence for U.S. jobs and exports,” urging Congress to act quickly. Others, including Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, maintain that any resolution to the dispute “must involve continuation of a meaningful country-of-origin labeling requirement.”
May 18, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, Otto Perez Molina
Maldonado Aguirre was not originally included in the shortlist of candidates that President Otto Pérez Molina sent to Congress. The original list included police reform commissioner Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, Minister of Labor Carlos Contreras and Adrian Zapata, executive secretary of the Cabinet for Rural Development. But due to a constitutional impediment, Contreras was replaced by PP Congressman Oliverio García Rodas.
However, if Congressman García Rodas left his seat in Congress, he would have been replaced by former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s personal assistant, Daniela Beltranena, which would have exacerbated the widespread discontent with the current administration. This forced Pérez Molina to remove García Rodas from the shortlist and replace him with Maldonado Aguirre.
In the final vote count, 115 members of Congress voted for Maldonado Aguirre, 14 voted against him and 29 were reported absent.
May 18, 2015Read More Tags: Li Keqiang, China-Latin America, Foreign Investment
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang begins an eight day trip to South America today, landing in Brazil with a promise of some $50 billion in Chinese investments in Brazilian infrastructure. This trip follows on and is consistent with the promise that President Xi Jinping made in January to invest $250 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next 10 years.
Talk about checkbook diplomacy: whether each of these investments is ultimately consummated—and China has a history of big announcements that go unfulfilled—Latin American and Caribbean nations are paying attention.
The promise of infrastructure development is not unwelcome, even by the United States, which sees chronic underinvestment in Latin America’s creaking infrastructure to be a limiting factor in regional development. Resources are insufficient, and Chinese largesse meets a need. At the same time, China is not pursuing charity. Investments up to this point and into the future are clearly focused on the procurement of strategic natural resources, including energy and agriculture, and also the infrastructure to bring them to market—i.e. get them to China.
Monday Memo: Guatemalan Protests—Costa Rican Discrimination—Chinese Investment—Guyana Election—Technology in Honduras
May 18, 2015Read More Tags: President Otto Pérez Molina, LGBT Rights, Chinese Investment in Latin America, David Granger
Demonstrators Call for Pérez Molina’s Resignation: Thousands of protestors marched across 13 cities in Guatemala on Saturday to call for President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation. The protests came as a response to a customs tax fraud scandal uncovered by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) in April that led to the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti earlier this month, though she denies involvement in the scheme. The protests were organized via social media, without any clear leadership. While Pérez Molina had originally announced his intent to let CICIG’s mandate expire, the scandal later prompted the president to announce that he will request a two-year extension.
Costa Rica orders Executive Action against LGBT Discrimination: In honor of International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia on May 17, Costa Rican Vice President Ana Helena Chacón announced new legislation that will punish public workers found discriminating against others on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While the decree does not outline what the sanctions for discrimination will be or how they will be issued, the decree does mandate training on equal access for employees of public organizations, as well as the redefining of a couple or partner to include same-sex partners for all institutions under the executive branch. Chacón, who has long been a supporter of LGBT rights, announced the decree on Friday at Costa Rica’s Casa Presidencial. Despite the new measure, same-sex marriages and civil unions are currently not recognized in Costa Rica.
May 18, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, Foreign Investment, Brazilian Economy
Brazil is up for sale, and bargain-hunters from Sam Zell to Stephen Schwarzman are looking for deals.
If the country’s economy could be spread onto a monopoly board, distressed domestic utilities like Companhia Energética de Minas Gerais S.A. (Cemig) would be selling for a bargain, while infrastructure like airports and railroads would be begging for investment. Meanwhile, any of the dozens of companies implicated in a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) might seem impossible to give away amid the ongoing risk of legal liability and financial fallout.
In that context, foreign investors are rolling the dice that Brazil will stage a turnaround. C’mon snake eyes!
It takes a certain type of investor to be drawn to the country right now. The economy is expected to contract more than 1 percent this year. The government is in a state of political paralysis amid calls for President Dilma Rousseff’s resignation and Congress’ refusal to sign off on belt-tightening measures meant to avert a sovereign credit downgrade. Rich Brazilians are fleeing for Miami.
Dominican Republic Denies Extension Request from 18 Haitian Migrant Rights Organizations for the National Regularization Plan
May 15, 2015Tags: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Dominican Republic-Haiti relations, citizenship
On Wednesday, the Dominican Republic government denied a deadline extension request for applications to the Plan Nacional de Regularización (National Regularization Plan) from 18 advocacy organizations dedicated to defending Haitian migrant workers’ rights. The deadline for registration is scheduled for June 17. Roudy Joseph, spokesman for the coalition of organizations, announced that a document would be submitted to Haitian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Daniel Supplice, calling on the Haitian government to formally appeal for an extension until December.
The decision to deny the extension request comes during a time of deteriorating relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti following the passage of Sentencia 168-13 in September 2013, a law that effectively rendered hundreds of thousands of Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic stateless. The ruling retracted citizenship from anyone who was born to undocumented parents residing in the country. After immense pressure from the international community, the Dominican government established the Plan Nacional de Regularización in June 2014 to offer legal status to immigrants, primarily Haitian, who either entered the country illegally or who had been rendered stateless as a result of Sentencia 168-13. Over 200,000 people have already applied to register. Those unable to meet the deadline may face deportation.
Behind the request for an extension is the low registration rate for the plan, granted the Haitian population living in the Dominican Republic is estimated to be nearly one million. This has been attributed to the failure of the Programa de Identificación y Documentación de Haitianos en República Dominicana (Program for the Identification and Documentation of Haitians in the Dominican Republic)to provide Haitian residents with the required government identification documents to apply. Despite these complications, the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of the Interior affirmed that the deadline will not be extended and that the government has already begun coordinating logistics to deport those in the country without proper documentation. Amid criticism from Dominican citizens and the international community, Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrés Navarro justified the government’s position, asserting national sovereignty and reaffirming the country’s adherence to human rights law.
Both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have begun preparing in anticipation of the nearing deadline. On Tuesday, Haiti announced that a refugee plan is underway for deported immigrants. Two organizations based in Santiago, la Asociación de Promotores y Constructores de Viviendas del Cibao (Association of Developers and Home Builders in Santiago—APROCOVICI) and the Asociación de Comerciantes e Industriales (Chamber of Commerce and Production—ACIS), signed an agreement pledging their commitment to work with authorities on the Plan de Regularización.
May 14, 2015Read More Tags: Colombia, glifosato, salud, Narcotráfico
Más de 20 mil firmas alcanzó en pocos días la petición hecha en la plataforma Change.org para acabar con la fumigación con glifosato de cultivos ilícitos en Colombia. La abogada ambientalista Astrid Puentes Riaño de la Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), autora de la iniciativa, espera recaudar 25 mil apoyos antes de este 14 de mayo, que es cuando el Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes se reúne en Colombia para decidir sobre la petición del presidente Juan Manuel Santos, de acabar con el uso del herbicida en la guerra contra las drogas.
Aunque no es un camino expédito, (el período de transición para encontrarle reemplazo al herbicida se vence el 1 de octubre), después de 16 años de ensayo y error usando la aspersión aérea, el viraje del debate es excepcional: ahora la guerra es contra el glifosato.
La reciente evaluación de la Agencia Internacional para la Investigación sobre el Cáncer, que aumentó la calificación de riesgo del agrotóxico para la salud humana, vino a respaldar lo que por años han dicho organizaciones de derechos humanos en departamentos como Putumayo y Nariño, conceptos de la Corte Constitucional en Colombia y un sinnúmero de estudios científicos: el glifosato hace más mal que bien.
Los cultivadores re-siembran con facilidad las zonas asperjadas sin mencionar que muchas veces son sus cultivos para consumo los que terminan afectados. Según un paper de la Universidad de los Andes, para eliminar una hectárea de coca con glifosato, hay que fumigar 30, lo que cuesta 72.000 dólares, muchísimo más del valor en el mercado de los kilogramos de droga que esa hectárea podría producir. Ya Colombia tuvo que pagar a Ecuador una indemnización de US$15 millones, cuando el gobierno de Rafael Correa denunció al de Álvaro Uribe ante la Corte Internacional de la Haya por fumigar en zona fronteriza afectando la salud de los pobladores.
May 14, 2015Tags: Joaquim Levy, Austerity, Brazil budget
On Wednesday, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies passed its second austerity bill in a week, just hours before approving an amendment that changed the bill’s direction and increased federal spending for retirees. If passed by the Senate, the amended bill faces a possible presidential veto and represents a roadblock to the government’s strategy for increasing revenues.
The initial bill, which passed by 277 votes to 178, limited sick leave and restricted access to social security pensions for relatives of deceased employees in an attempt to save an estimated 7.5 billion reais ($2.47 billion) in public funds. The measure was a key component of the government’s strategy to balance fiscal accounts and avoid an impending credit downgrade, and its initial passage represented a win for President Dilma Rousseff’s current fiscal agenda.
However, amid backlash from the country’s largest labor union, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers' Central—CUT) and members of the president’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT), the lower house passed the amendment with a vote of 232 to 210. Nine PT members approved the changes to the bill, while five did not attend the vote. O Globo reports that the bill would not have been changed had all PT members in the lower house voted against the amendment.
Bloomberg called the amendment to the austerity measure the “first major setback” for Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, who has pushed an austerity agenda in order to reduce a growing federal deficit. Levy called last week’s approval of a bill reducing social-security benefits a “victory for all of society.”
Rousseff has threatened to veto the second bill after Wednesday night’s amendment passed, and is negotiating with labor unions and lawmakers to avoid a congressional override of the veto.
Seven more amendments to the bill were scheduled for a vote on Thursday.
May 14, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, Caso SAT, corruption
On May 8, Guatemalan authorities arrested three lawyers representing defendants in a massive customs tax fraud case known as Caso SAT that has thrown the current administration into a state of disarray and forced Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign.
The UN Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which launched the investigation into the La Linea corruption network, accused lawyers José Arturo Morales, known as “Chepito,” Jorge Luis Escobar and Ruth Emilsa Trigueros of running a “law firm of impunity” that bribed corrupt judges to make unjustified decisions favoring organized crime groups.
A total of 27 individuals—including the director and former director of Guatemala’s Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (Tax Administration Superintendency—SAT)—Álvaro Omar Franco Chacón and Carlos Enrique Muñoz Roldán, have been arrested as part of the wider investigation into La Linea.
Wiretap recordings show how six other leading defendants in the case—Francisco Javier Ortiz, known as “Teniente Jerez,” Salvador Estuardo González, known as “Eco,” Miguel Ángel Aldana, Mónica Patricia Jáuregui, José Rolando Gil, and Carlos Ixtuc—used the three lawyers to bribe the judge presiding over the case, Marta Josefina Sierra González de Stalling, in exchange for obtaining release on bail and unguarded house arrest instead of prison.
May 13, 2015Read More Tags: TPP, trade, President Obama
The U.S. Senate voted 52-45 on Tuesday against a bill that would grant President Barack Obama a “fast track” to close the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal. This outcome not only marks a defeat for one of Obama’s trade priorities, but also highlights the challenges he faces within his party ranks.
The TPP is a multilateral trade agreement among 12 countries that together represent approximately 40 percent of world GDP and nearly a third of world exports. Chile, Mexico and Peru are the three countries from Latin America that are included in the agreement.
In a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April, Obama said, "TPP will help level the playing field. [It] will have strong protections for workers and the environment and help us set high standards for trade in the 21st century."
Yesterday’s results fell just shy of the 60 votes Obama needed to enact a legislative procedure known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which enables trade deals such as the TPP to be voted on by Congress with a “yes” or “no” approval without amendment. Congress has enacted TPA since 1974, but it expired on July 1, 2007. Under current law, the trade promotion authority must be voted on and renewed by Congress every two years.
Democrats have been the most vocal opponents of the TPP. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren co-authored an opinion piece in the Boston Globe with Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro earlier this month, citing corporate influence and a lack of transparency as reasons to reject the deal.
“Powerful corporate interests have spent a lot of time and money trying to bend Washington’s rules to benefit themselves, and now they want Congress to grease the skids for a TPP deal that corporations have helped write but the public can’t see,” they said.
In addition to these issues, other bipartisan concerns about the TPP include the lack of provisions on human trafficking, currency manipulation, child labor laws, displaced workers, and unfair trade practices, among others. These pending concerns reveal that TPA is not the only hurdle the TPP deal is facing right now.
After the vote, Obama called on ten Senate Democrats who had publicly backed the fast track provisions in order to discuss the outcome and work on a strategy to get the votes he needs. The outcome of these discussions are yet to be disclosed, but will certainly shed more light on the future of TPP.
May 13, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, Roxana Baldetti, Caso SAT, corruption
Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned last Friday, ending a tumultuous three weeks of protests after an investigation raised questions about her possible involvement in a high-profile corruption scandal known as Caso SAT. Baldetti’s former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was recently accused of organizing a corruption network targeting Guatemala´s tax collection agency—the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT)—and is now at large.
President Otto Pérez Molina praised Baldetti’s “brave decision” in a press conference on Friday. He said, “This was a voluntary, personal decision of the vice president. It was thoughtful, difficult, courageous, but consistent with her principles and values.”
The vice president was facing a congressional impeachment hearing this week, after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to send one of the four motions filed against Baldetti about her possible involvement in Caso SAT to Congress.
Baldetti’s resignation marked the culmination of a difficult period. In March of this year, she was left on the sidelines of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala. She received further scrutiny after the disappearance of Monzón, who is suspected of masterminding the SAT’s fraud. By the time Guatemala’s business elite from the Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee of Agriculture, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations—CACIF) withdrew their support for Baldetti, the writing was on the wall. A few days later, the Conferencia Episcopal de Guatemala (Episcopal Conference of Guatemala—CEG) publically condemned fraud committed by the SAT.
May 12, 2015Tags: Vaccines, Simojovel, IMSS
After two infants died and 29 others fell ill after being vaccinated against hepatitis B in the southern state of Chiapas on Friday, the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (Mexican Social Security Institute—IMSS) announced yesterday that it has sent samples of the vaccines to Mexico City for analysis. The move follows the launch of an investigation into the case by the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) on Saturday, and a visit to the affected families by the IMSS director, José Antonio González, and the governor of Chiapas, Manuel Velasco, on Sunday.
On Saturday, the IMSS announced the national suspension of tuberculosis, rotavirus, and hepatitis B vaccinations, but later clarified that the suspension applied only to the lots of hepatitis B vaccine used in the municipality of Simojovel, where the affected children were vaccinated. “We still don’t know what caused the problem,” said Rodrigo Romero Feregrino, secretary of the Asociación Mexicana de Vacunología (Mexican Vaccinology Association). “We must wait for the results of the investigation. I think it was a human error.”
According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, the principal theory among specialists and the Mexican Secretaría de Salud (Health Secretariat—Ssa) is that the deaths and sickness were caused by errors in the storage or handling of the vaccines. According to Rafael Gual Cosío, the director general of the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Farmacéutica (National Pharmaceutical Industry Chamber—Canifarma), the vaccines may have been spoiled due a lapse in temperature control during storage or transport. In an interview with the news site El Economista, he said, “What surely happened here is that part of the vaccine that was sent to this locality didn’t maintain adequate cold chains, at some point it was broken, and that’s what could have caused the vaccines to decompose.”
Meanwhile, the parents of the children in Chiapas await answers. “They ask for justice,” Marcelo Pérez, a priest in Simojovel municipality said. “They want a deep investigation into what really happened, and why. That’s what they ask for. There’s a lot of pain.”
Monday Memo: Castro visits Pope—Chilean Cabinet—Colombian Coca—Guatemalan Corruption—Central American Geothermal
May 11, 2015Tags: Raul Castro, Michelle Bachelet, geothermal energy, Roxana Baldetti
This week’s likely news stories: Raúl Castro has an audience with the Pope; Michelle Bachelet shakes up her Cabinet; Colombia bans coca spraying; a Guatemalan judge is linked to a corruption scandal; Germany will invest in Central American geothermal projects.
Cuban President Meets with the Pope: Cuban President Raúl Castro met with Pope Francis this Sunday at the Vatican and thanked the Pope for his assistance in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. On several occasions, the Pope has called on the U.S. to end its embargo on Cuba. Castro said he was so influenced by his audience with the Pope that he might return to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is planning to visit Cuba on his way to the U.S. in September 2015. Also this weekend, French President François Hollande travelled to Cuba in the first visit by a French leader since 1898. Hollande is expected to meet with Castro on Monday, although the Cuban government has not confirmed whether or not there will be a meeting. France hopes to benefit from new openings with Cuba, and Hollande is travelling with business leaders as well as ministers.
Bachelet Names New Ministers to her Cabinet: On Monday, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced changes to nine ministers in her cabinet, following her request last week that all of her ministers resign. New appointments include Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdés, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos, Minister of the Government Secretariat Jorge Inzunza, and government spokesperson Marcelo Díaz. Tiago Severo, Latin America economist at Goldman Sachs, noted that “Rodrigo Valdes is certainly going to be most likely perceived as a market-friendly new minister, who could perhaps instill a renewed sense of confidence in the outlook for the economy.” The reshuffling of the cabinet comes amid record low approval ratings for Bachelet after a number of corruption scandals marred the administration.
Colombia Announces Ban on Coca Spraying: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced this weekend the decision to stop using glyphosate in the country's coca spraying programs. On Saturday, he asked the National Drug Council to ban glyphosate sprayin gdue to the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the substance is likely carcinogenic. The aerial spraying of coca fields, a program started in 1994 and backed by the United States, has been highly controversial. Farmers have claimed that the herbicides have killed their coffee plants and other crops, and citizens have called on the government to end the program due to the health risk. Santos stated that despite the decision, he will continue to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.
Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Implicated in Corruption Scandal: On Monday, Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stalling was implicated in the corruption scandal that forced Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign on Friday. Wiretappings uncovered by the AP include a conversation between lawyers, suspects, and businessman Luis Mendizábal that reveal a judicial bribery scheme to get suspects detained in the recent customs corruption scandal released. In the phone call, Mendizábal reportedly told defendant Javier Ortíz that he would be released soon, and mentioned Stalling. Stalling denies any wrongdoing.
Germany to Invest in Geothermal Energy in Central America: On Saturday, Nicaraguan news site El 19 reported that Germany will lend $112 million for geothermal energy projects throughout Central America. This weekend, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met with Klaus Krämer, the head of the Division of Regional Development Policy for Central America and the Caribbean of the German Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry, to discuss the program and how Nicaragua can participate. Following the meeting, German Ambassador in Managua Karl-Otto König stated that there is a strong desire on both sides to continue collaboration. Last Thursday, the German Development Bank extended a line of credit of $6.71 million to Nicaragua for a water treatment project in Managua.
May 8, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Joaquim Levy, Brazilian Economy
A proposed government austerity package may keep Brazil from a credit rating downgrade, but could cost President Dilma Rousseff some of her biggest supporters: the country’s labor unions.
Lawmakers in Brazil’s lower house passed a proposed bill this week that would limit thousands of workers’ access to social security benefits. The MP 665 bill was approved by a narrow 252-227 vote during a heated debate late Wednesday.
Finance Minister Joaquim Levy called the legislative decision a “victory” and said it could potentially lower government spending by 18 billion reais ($5.9 billion) this year.
“It’s a victory for all of society,” Levy told journalists in Brasília on Thursday. “We will meet our objectives so that we can start an agenda that goes beyond the fiscal adjustment.”
Earlier this week, representatives from the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers’ Central—CUT) met with the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) congressional leadership and said they were against the bill.
CUT is considered one of the largest unions in the country and one of the PT’s founding groups, and has been a strong supporter of Rousseff and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s governments.
May 8, 2015Read More Tags: Internet acces, Digital Divide, Information Technology
The number of Latin Americans with access to the Internet will increase by 20 percent over the next twelve months, according to the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Address Registry (LACNIC). The Uruguay-based NGO is one of five Regional Internet Registries in the world that assigns and administers IP addresses to local Internet service providers—it also advocates for Internet development in the region.
LACNIC’s director, Oscar Robles, shared his organization’s prediction of increased Internet usage in a private breakfast with news reporters on Thursday in Montevideo. Robles, who is from Mexico and was appointed director of the organization in April, said that predicted growth in Internet usage could be attributed to improved regulations and new education initiatives. He estimated that at the end of 2015, there will be 370 million Internet users in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is more than half the region’s population.
Internet availability still varies among countries in the region, and Robles said that governments should democratize access by “providing a certain level of promotion and awareness that the Internet is necessary to meet the needs of society”.
Robles praised specific countries for leading the region in Internet expansion. In Brazil, government regulations allow multiple service providers to operate in the country, encouraging connection in both urban and remote locations. In Uruguay, the Plan Ceibal initiative equips school buildings with WIFI and provides laptops for students.
Robles also stated that Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the Latin American countries most ready to implement the new version of Internet Protocol (IPv6), which will replace the previous version (IPv4) and assigns a unique alphanumeric address to computers on networks and also routes Internet traffic.
“While IPv4’s days are numbered, the fact that certain technologies exist that can help mitigate this situation have provided operators with a false sense of security, Robles wrote in April. “In some countries of the Latin American and Caribbean region, a significant percentage of networks (ASN) support IPv6 and are currently ready to handle IPv6 traffic.”
On Thursday, Robles also suggested that IPv6 would secure a greater sense of Internet autonomy for the region—referring to revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied electronically on other countries.
May 7, 2015Tags: President Michelle Bachelet, corruption, Chilean Cabinet
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called for the resignation of her cabinet Wednesday as the fallout from a corruption scandal among top-level officials continues to take its toll on her administration. The president announced her plans to reshuffle the cabinet the same day a new poll put her disapproval amongst Chileans at a record high.
"A few hours ago, I requested the resignation of every minister," Bachelet said during a TV interview on Wednesday, adding that she may decide to keep certain ministers in her cabinet. The president said the decision would have come sooner were it not for a recent series of natural disasters in the country, including severe flooding in the north and the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in the south.
The president’s move—which Reuters reports was received positively by most members of Bachelet’s center-left party—came as her approval ratings fell to the lowest level in her political career. A Gfk Adimark poll released Wednesday measured the president’s disapproval at 64 percent.
Fourteen months into Bachelet’s second administration, the Chilean political class is facing a crisis marked by scandal. In addition to allegations of illicit campaign finance schemes involving wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicians, members of Bachelet’s own family have also been accused of corruption. In Februrary, her son Sebastian Davalos resigned from his position as socio-cultural director of the presidency amid allegations that he and his wife used their political connections to obtain a $10 million bank loan to purchase land they later sold for $15 million.
The cabinet reshuffle is one of several moves the president have made to react to the corruption scandals. In March, Bachelet announced a series of anti-corruption measures requiring government officials to publically declare all assets.
Bachelet has attributed her falling approval ratings to a “crisis of confidence” among Chileans rocked by corruption allegations in a country traditionally perceived as the least corrupt in the region. On Wednesday, she said a new cabinet would represent a “new cycle.”
May 6, 2015Read More Tags: Canada, Alberta, Jim Prentice, Rachel Notley
Any political party that loses an election after 44 consecutive years in office and ends up in third place is the object of some kind of "revolution." Such was the fate of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta’s general elections on Tuesday.
The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), under the charismatic leadership of Rachel Notley, earned a decisive majority government victory in Canada’s oil-rich province, Alberta, winning 53 out of 87 seats and 41 percent of the popular vote. It is a first for the NDP in Alberta. The party’s closest rivals were the Tea Party-like Wildrose Party, with 21 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservative Party, with 10 seats.
Some three years ago, I wrote in AQ Online that Alberta had rejected its version of the Tea Party when the ruling Conservatives confounded the polls by defeating the upstart Wildrose Party. I had characterized the victory as one of moderation over a more extremist, ideological political formation. I also defined Alberta as Canada’s closest version of Texas because of its fossil fuel resources, low tax rates and strong libertarian streak.
In three short years, has Alberta become so transformed that the left-leaning NDP could so easily unseat an entrenched political establishment party like the Conservatives? Alberta has changed, but not that much.
May 6, 2015Tags: Colombia, corruption, Alvaro Uribe
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe responded yesterday to the Colombian Supreme Court’s April 30 sentencing of two high-ranking members of his administration who organized a spy ring targeting Uribe’s political opponents and critics. María del Pilar Hurtado, former head of the now-defunct Colombian intelligence agency Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), received a 14-year prison term, while Uribe’s former chief of staff, Bernardo Moreno, received an eight-year sentence.
Hurtado and Moreno are two of many former Uribe top aides who have been either convicted or under investigation for conspiracy and corruption since 2010. The two were convicted in February of illegally spying on journalists, human rights activist, and opposition leaders during Uribe’s 2002 to 2010 term as president.
Hurtado fled to Panama in 2010, seeking asylum, but turned herself in to Colombian authorities in January in the hope that she would receive more leniency.
Uribe, now a senator for the conservative Centro Democrático party, urged Hurtado to negotiate with the Supreme Court for a shorter sentence. “[Hurtado] should negotiate without involving innocent colleagues from the government or third parties,” Uribe said. “She should negotiate her liberty and that of Bernardo Moreno, saying everything that she should about me and if I committed a crime, I should be tried.”
Uribe has denied any knowledge of the spying ring and referred to the investigation and convictions as a “shameful massacre.”
May 5, 2015Read More Tags: Colombia, Teacher Protests, Juan Manuel Santos
Over 330,000 teachers will continue to strike in Colombia after a 20-hour round of talks between the government and the Federación Colombiana de Educadores (Colombian Teachers’ Federation—FECODE) failed to produce an agreement. The results of the meeting were announced yesterday by the Defensoría del Pueblo(National Ombudsman’s Office), which is mediating the negotiations.
The strike, which began on April 22 and centers around teachers’ demand for higher salaries, better health services and the repeal of teacher evaluation, is affecting an estimated 9 million-plus students, who have not attended class since the strike began. After nationwide protests late last month, Colombian Minister of Education Gina Parody seemed to discount the possibility of resuming negotiations until the strike ended. Protesters marching on the Ministry of Education were greeted by a banner strung across the ministry’s façade that read: “Let the children return to class.” “My urgent plea is to not affect the children,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at the time. “The children should not have to pay for the consequences (platos rotos) of these protests.”
The government has been in negotiation with FECODE since February to reach a compromise, but the union rejected an earlier deal that included a 10 percent raise in teacher salaries because it was tied to a reform package that would have had to have been approved by the Colombian Congress. After the latest round of talks, the government’s negotiators, including Minister Parody, Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas, and Labor Minister Luis Eduardo Garzón, accepted a package proposed by the Ombudsman that incudes a 12 percent salary increase.
FECODE, however, has indicated that it wants Santos to take a more active role in the negotiations. “The government commission has shown a series of limitations when it comes to negotiating,” a FECODE spokesperson said after the talks concluded, noting the union’s hopes “that it will be President Santos who gives clear instructions about the path to follow.”
Monday Memo: Brazilian Corruption—Bolivian Opposition—Bolivia-Chile Dispute—Marijuana in Puerto Rico—Chemical Leak in Costa Rica
May 4, 2015Read More Tags: Chile-Bolivia dispute, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Movimiento al Socialismo
This week’s likely top stories: Former Brazilian president investigated; Opposition gains influence in Bolivia; ICJ hearing on Bolivia-Chile border dispute begins; Puerto Rico legalizes medical marijuana; Costa Rican coast suffers chemical spill.
Report of an Inquiry into Lula Shocks Brazil: On Friday, Brazilians were shaken by news of a probe regarding possible influence-peddling by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). The anti-corruption division of the Public Ministry is examining da Silva’s relationship with Odebrecht, one of the largest companies in Brazil, and whether he used his position as president to get loans for Odebrecht from the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (Brazilian National Development Bank—BNDES). An Odebrecht spokesperson denied any misconduct, and da Silva did not address the investigation on Friday when speaking on International Worker’s Day. The inquiry will determine whether or not there is reason to open a wider investigation. The governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) has suffered recently, with current President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s successor, also tainted by a corruption scandal involving the PT and the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. However, investigations have not uncovered any wrongdoing by Rousseff.
Opposition Wins Runoff in Bolivia: On Sunday, Bolivian citizens from Beni and Tarija voted in runoff municipal elections after the initial elections failed to produce clear winners. The ruling Movimiento al Socialismo party (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) prevailed in five of nine states in March 2015. The opposition won in both Beni and Tarija yesterday, giving the opposition a stronghold in the four richest states in Bolivia, which includes La Paz. Carlos Dellien from Nacer beat Alex Ferrier of MAS in Beni. In Tarija, Adrián Oliva of the Unidad Demócrata coalition (Democratic Unity) beat Pablo Canedo by a wide margin (61 percent to 38 percent).
ICJ Hearing on Bolivia-Chile Maritime Dispute Begins: On Monday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague will hear preliminary arguments on the maritime case that Bolivia brought against Chile in April of 2013. Felipe Bulnes, the former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., will speak today, arguing Chile’s position that their border dispute was already settled in 1904 by a previous agreement, and that the ICJ does not have jurisdiction over the matter. On Wednesday, the Bolivian delegation is expected to speak, reiterating the Bolivian right to sovereign access to the sea. The ICJ will have until the end of 2015 to determine whether or not the case is under its jurisdiction. The maritime dispute has been a source of tension between the two countries for decades.
May 1, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, CasoSAT, corruption, Roxana Baldetti
Tens of thousands of Guatemalans protested last Saturday, calling for the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti for her alleged role in Caso SAT, a scandal involving the defrauding of hundreds of millions of quetzales from the Guatemalan government.
On April 16, Guatemalan authorities arrested 22 people in the culmination of an eight month investigation by the Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad (Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau—FECI)—part of the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) and the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry—MP). A number of officials from the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT), Guatemala’s tax collection agency, were detained, including the head of SAT, Omar Franco, his predecessor, Carlos Muñoz, and the private secretary of Baldetti, Juan Carlos Monzón.
CICIG was investigating an alleged corruption network called “La Linea” (The Line) that targeted Guatemala’s customs system. Businesses that had their goods in two ports, Puerto Quetzal or Puerto Santo Tomás, would call a certain cellphone number to negotiate the rate to have their property released after passing through Customs. A review of 500 containers revealed that 40 percent of customs taxes would be paid to the state, 30 percent to the fraudsters and the remaining 30 percent was a discount to the company.
May 1, 2015Read More Tags: Intellectual Property Rights, trade, Piracy
The government of Ecuador released a statement on Thursday dismissing the headline of an earlier article by the Spanish international wire service EFE that Ecuador is on a United States “black list” of countries in violation of intellectual property rights. The EFE story was an interpretation of an annual report, also released on Thursday, issued by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) titled “Special 301,” which evaluates U.S. trading partners on their protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights. The Ecuadorian government said that the EFE headline misconstrued the intentions of USTR and that the report was not a black list.
The second section of the Special 301 report gives country-specific details and is divided into two parts titled ”watch list” and “priority watch list.” Ecuador appeared on the watch list of last year’s report, but has been elevated to the priority watch list for 2015. The report states, “This decision is based on Ecuador’s 2014 repeal of its criminal [Intellectual Property Rights] provision….the current lack of criminal procedures and penalties invites transnational organized crime groups that engage in copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting to view Ecuador as a safe haven.”
The statement released by Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Trade on Thursday highlighted a section of the report indicating that the U.S. will reconsider downgrading Ecuador from its status on the priority watch list if Ecuador “reinstates the repealed provisions or adopts new acceptable procedures and penalties by December 30, 2015.” The Ministry of Foreign Trade remarked that such a statement in the report “implies a tacit recognition of the process of regulatory change that [Ecuador] conducts.”
The statement by Ecuador’s Ministry of Trade also asserted that it is working on improving its compliance with international standards on intellectual property rights and foreign trade. On April 23, the Ministry of Foreign Trade asked Ecuador’s Justice Commission of the Assembly to accelerate reforms that would criminalize offenses against intellectual property. The reforms outline penalties against offenders that include 31-45 days of imprisonment and fines consistent with the value of stolen intellectual properties. Thursday’s press release by the Ministry of Trade stated that the Justice Commission of the Assembly will consider the reforms in the coming days.
The proposed reforms were reportedly issued to protect trade relations with other regions of the world. Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Trade Diego Aulestia stated on April 23 that if Ecuador fails to address proper compliance with international intellectual property standards, it would have “serious consequences for national interests”.
The USTR report listed a total of 13 countries on its priority watch list— Argentina, Chile and Venezuela join Ecuador on the list.
April 30, 2015Tags: Freedom of the press, journalists, Media Law
Only two percent of Latin Americans in 2014 lived in a media environment considered free, according to a press freedom report released Wednesday by the research institute Freedom House. The report registered no collective improvement for press in the Americas from the year prior, when press freedom dropped to its lowest level in five years. Globally, press liberties in 2014 fell to their lowest point in more than a decade.
According to Freedom of the Press 2015, 15 countries in the Western Hemisphere were considered free media environments, 15 were considered partly free and five not free—Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. Aside from Cuba, those countries and Peru received their worst press freedom score in over a decade, with Ecuador ranking among the five countries globally posting the sharpest five-year declines. The report cites “hostile rhetoric from the government combined with pervasive legal harassment of journalists and media outlets” as contributors to the country’s decline. In 2013, Ecuador’s government passed a controversial media law which heightened state regulation of the media, a move that critics say reduced transparency and press freedom.
In Honduras, pervasive violence and alliances between media owners and the government resulted in a four point drop in the country’s score on the report’s 100-point scale. Journalists in Central America face particularly grave threats to their personal safety. The murder of three Guatemalan journalists in March highlighted the high risk journalists take exposing government corruption.
Cuba was the only country in the Americas to make the report’s list of the ten worst countries or territories for press freedom due to the government’s official censorship of the media and imprisonment of political figures. The country’s release of over 50 political prisoners in early 2015, however, may improve the country’s score in the coming year.
In North America, the United States’ score fell one point due to police harassment of journalists covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Mexico received its lowest score in a decade due to high levels of intimidation and violence toward journalists exposing the country’s organized criminal networks. Additionally, the country’s new telecommunications reform law had a detrimental effect on Internet liberties, the report says.
Read Americas Quarterly’s Fall 2013 issue on press freedom in the Americas here.
April 29, 2015Read More Tags: El Salvador, Citizen Security, Northern Triangle, Alliance for Prosperity
Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle has been at the center of attention for the past two weeks, and not particularly for the right reasons. Stories of corruption, impunity, deteriorating security, and the revival of the ghost of presidential re-election covered newspaper headlines throughout the isthmus.
The news coming out of the region comes at a time when the diplomatic offensive from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala intensifies as the countries seek quick approval and funding for the Alliance for Prosperity from the United States.
El Salvador’s spike in homicides has illustrated the urgent need to address the structural causes of violence. After a failed gang truce brokered by the Catholic Church and the Salvadoran government with the country’s main gangs failed, murder rates increased dramatically. In the first four months of 2015, street gangs murdered over 20 police officers and the targeted murder of members of the Armed Forces also increased.
Facing growing pressure from citizens, the government initially flip-flopped in their policy response. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Defense Minister General Munguía Payes first blamed the surge in violence on the media; arguing that “media coverage of violence does more harm than the attacks on police precincts.” The push-back from media and ordinary citizens living under the shadows of extortion and other crimes didn’t wait. Citizens were further infuriated by reports of plasma televisions and video game consoles, among other illegal items, being discovered within the country’s prisons.