Panama’s Supreme Court voted unanimously on Wednesday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption claims against former president Ricardo Martinelli.
Martinelli has been accused by his erstwhile political ally and former head of the Programa de Ayuda Nacional (National Assistance Program—PAN), Giacomo Tamburelli, of ordering the inflation of government contracts worth $45 million for the purchase of dehydrated food. Tamburelli, who is under house arrest, said Martinelli had ordered him to inflate contracts while he was head of PAN.
Meanwhile, Martinelli—who was attending a session of the Parlamento Centroamericano (Central American Parliament—Parlacen) in Guatemala—denied any wrong-doing. “I have not done anything,” he said.
As a member of Parlacen, Martinelli is invested with diplomatic immunity. According to the Spanish daily El País, members of Panama’s National Assembly have called on Martinelli to renounce his immunity. The current president, Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally of Martinelli who broke with the ex-president and accused the administration of corruption before running for the presidency on a strong anti-corruption message, said, “An ex-president must face justice and be held accountable if he didn’t do things right. […] I am a person who respects democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and everyone is responsible for their actions. I’ll answer for mine; let the ex-president answer for his.”
Martinelli has not said whether or not he will relinquish immunity or return to Panama. “I will make that decision in the future, but I am not going to go for a trial arranged by Mr. Varela,” he said.
After a four-year debate, the Chilean Senate has passed a bill allowing for same-sex unions. The law passed on Wednesday with a vote of 25 to 6, with three abstentions.
Under the new law, called the Acuerdo de Unión Civil (Civil Union Accord—AUC), same-sex couples are afforded many of the rights of married couples, including health, inheritance and pension rights. The law was originally proposed under the Sebastián Piñera administration, coined the Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja (Couple Life Agreement—AVP), and has been advocated for publically by President Michelle Bachelet, who promised to pass the AUC during her latest presidential campaign.
“We’re very happy that the State recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples also constitute a family and deserve protection,” said Luis Larraín, president of the LGBT rights group Fundación Iguales.
While the bill has now passed the Senate and the House of Representatives (on a vote of 78-9), it still needs to be approved by President Michelle Bachelet and then will go to the Constitutional Court. Upon its final approval, Chile will be one of three South American countries to allow same-sex civil unions, along with Colombia and Ecuador. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow same-sex marriage.
Taking the next step to same-sex marriage remains unlikely in Chile, which has historically conservative laws based on Roman Catholic ideology. Divorce was illegal until 2004, and Chile is still one of the few countries in Latin America where abortion for any reason is illegal.
Mexican officials confirmed on Tuesday that the 43 students who disappeared in the southern state of Guerrero on September 26 are dead. Citing confessions and forensic evidence, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam concluded that the group of students was murdered and incinerated by a local gang who mistook the students for a rival gang.
The state’s extensive investigation—which involved 39 confessions, 386 statements, 16 raids, 487 forensic examinations, and 99 arrests—provides evidence that “allows us […] without a doubt to conclude that the students were deprived of their liberty, killed, incinerated and thrown into the San Juan River,” Murillo Karam announced at a press conference. The attorney general also denied the involvement of the federal army in the attack.
Relatives of the missing students and thousands of others marched on Monday—marking the fourth month since the students’ disappearance—demanding government action and concrete proof of what happened. Many remain skeptical of the government’s announcement, including fire experts, the lawyers representing the families, and the Argentine forensic anthropologists who were hired by parents to work with federal investigators to verify the fate of their children. The remains of only one student have been identified.
So far, authorities have arrested 99 people for suspected involvement in the students’ deaths, including the mayor and first lady of Guerrero. The Iguala mass kidnapping has sparked protests in Mexico and abroad since September, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized for his mishandling of the case. Peña Nieto responded to protests on Tuesday by saying that “[Mexico] cannot remain trapped [in Ayotzinapa].”
This week's likely top stories: Venezuelan opposition leaders halt protests in Caracas; Haiti swears in its nine-member Provisional Electoral Council; the U.S. hosts the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit; AT&T acquires Nextel Mexico; Rio’s environment secretary announces that Guanabara Bay will not be clean in time for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Opposition Curbs Protests in Caracas: Protests in Caracas—against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, chronic consumer staple shortages and a 64 percent increase in consumer prices—were called to an abrupt end by student opposition leaders over the weekend. Coming nearly a year after the violent demonstrations that led to 40 deaths and the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo López, the protests were quickly disbanded after several protestors clashed with police. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles canceled his speech and organizers emphasized safety, encouraging protestors to go home. A day earlier, in a nationally televised addressed, Maduro held his opponents responsible for Venezuela’s economic troubles, accusing them of organizing an “economic coup,” and criticizing an attempt by former presidents Felipe Calderón of Mexico, Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison.
Election Council Selected in Haiti: Haiti swore in a nine-member Provisional Electoral Council on Friday, in a step towards holding legislative and local elections that had been scheduled for 2011. Haitian parliament was dissolved and President Michel Martelly has been ruing by decree since January 12 due to the stalled elections. The electoral council was sworn in shortly before a United Nations Security Council arrived in Haiti, coming after nearly eight weeks of violent protests calling for Martelly’s resignation. Presidential elections are expected this year.
U.S. Hosts Summit to Discuss Alternatives to PetroCaribe: Caribbean leaders are gathering in Washington today—with the exception of Cuba—for the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit to brainstorm regional alternatives to the Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil subsidy program. The program has kept cash-strapped Caribbean governments afloat with $28 billion worth of oil on favorable financing terms since 2005. Although this perennial petroleum pipeline has been a lifeline in the region, its members owe a combined $12 billion to Venezuela. As the economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate with the declining price of oil, PetroCaribe’s 17 members are now seeking alternative energy sources. Capitalizing on this opportunity to wrest back regional energy influence, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is hosting today’s summit—along with the Council of the Americas and representatives from the EU, UN, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and other organizations—to advise Caribbean leaders on financing opportunities and regulatory changes that would allow them to incorporate natural gas and renewable sources into their national energy grids.
AT&T Acquires Nextel Mexico for $1.9 Billion: AT&T Inc., the second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier, purchased NII Holdings Inc.’s (Nextel) Mexican wireless assets today for $1.9 billion. The acquisition of Nextel Mexico’s network of 76 million people, its license and its high-paying monthly subscribers will strengthen AT&T’s strategic initiative of providing its first cross-border service between the U.S. and Mexico. This is the Dallas-based company’s third major expansion south of the border in the past year, after its takeover of DirecTV Mexico and Grupo Iusacell SA.
Rio Opts for Damage Control Over Sewage Treatment: The latest chapter in Brazil’s water troubles is Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games’ sailing and windsurfing competitions. With just over one and a half years to go before the opening ceremony, the new state environment secretary, Andre Correa, announced on Friday that the city will not be able to deliver on its pledge to cut the flow of raw sewage and garbage into Guanabara Bay by 80 percent. Correa estimated that diverting sewage from the bay and extending it to the entire metropolitan area would require an investment overhaul of $3.8 billion, and there is no known financing timetable in place. Cleaning Guanabara Bay by cutting the flow of pollutants to the trash-lined bay was supposed to be one of the game’s enduring civic legacies. The cleanup failure could potentially endanger the health of Olympic athletes, but the real losers are the residents of the surrounding favelas.
According to reports in German and Mexican news media, Mexico’s Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Secretariat of National Defense—SEDENA) has been implicated in the illegal sale of German arms in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in cooperation with a representative from German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch.
Guerrero is one of four Mexican states to which the German government forbids the sale of arms, due to the determination that the weapons could be used to perpetrate human rights violations. Reports of illegal arms sales by Heckler & Koch to Guerrero and other embargoed Mexican states have circulated in Germany since 2010, and the company admitted in 2013 that it had illegally sold thousands of weapons in Mexico.
Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifles were reportedly among the arms seized in the aftermath of an attack on student teachers in the Mexican state of Guerrero last September. Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade neither confirmed nor denied that German arms were found in Iguala.
The accusations against SEDENA were first reported by the German daily Taz, and were later picked up by the Mexican news site sinembargo.mx. According to these reports, a letter from Germany’s Bundeswirtschaftsministeriums (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy—BMWi) to German green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele alleges that defense ministry officials provided false information about the final destination of arms shipments in export documents.
“Mexico has violated the political principles of the federal German government with regard to the exportation of military weaponry and equipment,” said Ströbele.
Mexican officials have yet to respond to the accusation.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, defending his government’s socialist economic model and accusing the Venezuelan political opposition of waging an “economic war” that has led to the country’s current financial crisis.
That crisis has worsened in recent weeks as global oil prices have plummeted and the price of Venezuelan crude, the country's chief export, fell from $98 per barrel in 2013 to just $39 per barrel this week. Venezuela’s inflation rate, which Maduro estimated at more than 64 percent last year, is currently the highest in the Americas. The IMF’s Alejandro Werner predicted on Wednesday that Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent in 2015, and Maduro said in his speech that the economy had contracted 2.8 percent in 2014.
Maduro was expected to announce possible cuts to social spending and a devaluation of the bolivar during his speech. However, while Maduro said he was willing to consider raising the price of gasoline and restructuring the country’s three-tiered exchange rate system, he rejected the idea of a currency devaluation and instead announced that social spending would continue, promising to wage raises and pensions by 15 percent and build more low-income housing.
Supporters of Maduro’s government are expected to rally on Friday, prior to a planned opposition protest march on Saturday.
Only two countries in Latin America—Costa Rica and Uruguay—can be considered “full democracies,” according to an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study commissioned by BBC for Democracy Day on January 20. The report says that a majority of Latin American countries hold “free and fair” elections and are better ranked than their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, but democracy in the region has stagnated. The governments of Cuba and Haiti are the lowest-ranked in Latin America and are classified as authoritarian regimes.
The study assesses a total of six factors, including access to the polls, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functionality of the government, political participation and political culture. Each country is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 10 and classified into one of four categories: full democracy, imperfect democracy, hybrid and authoritarian regime.
Nine countries (Chile, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay) are considered imperfect democracies, while six are classified as hybrids (Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Imperfect democracies are characterized by weaknesses in governability, low levels of political participation and an undeveloped political culture. The division between “imperfect” and “hybrid” regimes isn’t clear, says London School of Economics professor Francisco Panizza, but hybrids are generally described as having substantial irregularities in elections, oppression of opposition parties and greater weakness in governance.
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
Today, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments published their revised regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba, following President Barack Obama’s historic December announcement of restored diplomatic relations with the island after over half a century of hostilities. Effective January 16, these changes mark the first practical steps in delivering on Obama’s executive action.
In a Fact Sheet, the U.S. Department of the Treasury spelled out each regulatory amendment to the Cuba sanctions. While U.S. tourism on the island remains illegal, travelers will no longer need to seek advanced authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for their trips, so long as they can certify that they are traveling under one of the 12 existing authorized categories, including journalistic, humanitarian, religious, and educational activities. U.S. citizens will also be allowed to use their U.S. credit and debit cards and to import up to $400 worth of goods acquired on the island for personal use (limited to no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products).
Notably, telecommunications companies will be authorized provide “efficient and adequate” services necessary to connect Cuba to the world under a new general OFAC license. Additionally, U.S. airlines will be permitted to schedule regular flights to Cuba without specific OFAC licenses, pending a U.S.-Cuba agreement on aviation standards. United Airlines has already announced its intentions to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas. American Airlines, which already operates charter flights from Miami and Tampa, Florida, will likely look to expand its services as well.
Although these measures are intended to usher in a new era of contact between Americans and Cubans, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate boom in tourism, which continues to be restricted. The economic embargo is still in effect, and most trade remains illegal. According to Robert L. Muse, a Washington DC-based lawyer who wrote a blueprint for normalizing relations with Cuba via executive action in the Fall 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly, “A couple cannot go to Cuba to educate themselves on a subject like Cuban music. They can only go under the auspices of an organization that arranges a structured educational trip.” Moreover, travelers will still have to acquire visas from the Cuban government and will be constrained by what the island’s meager tourism infrastructure can offer.
Evans Paul took office yesterday as Haiti’s new prime minister amid continued political uncertainty after Parliament was dissolved on Tuesday. Paul, a former journalist, former mayor of Port-au-Prince and presidential candidate, was nominated by Haitian President Michel Martelly to replace Laurent Lamothe, who stepped down as the country’s prime minister in December. Florence Duperval Guillaume had been serving as interim prime minister since Lamothe’s departure.
Paul, 59, has not been confirmed by the Haitian Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, he was able to become prime minister automatically because legislators could not come to an agreement over a disputed electoral law before their mandates expired on Monday, leading to the dissolution of Parliament. Martelly said on Sunday that he was on the verge of reaching a deal with the political opposition, but the negotiations collapsed, and Martelly can now rule by decree until new elections take place.
On Wednesday, Paul said that he would appoint a new electoral council to organize long-delayed legislative elections in 2015. Elections were originally slated for 2011, and their postponement has led to widespread protests across Haiti, with many Haitians demanding that Martelly resign. A presidential commission that Martelly set up in December to resolve the political crisis recommended that then-Prime Minister Lamothe resign. Paul is now the fourth prime minister that Martelly has appointed since taking office as president in 2011.
Dominican President Danilo Medina arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday to meet with Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla in a series of meetings aimed at creating stronger ties between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, as well as improving relations in Latin America and the Caribbean. New agreements were also aimed specifically at expanding the job market and increasing trade through both imports and exports.
President Medina was joined by a delegation of thirteen Dominican government officials, the largest group of Dominican officials to visit the Puerto Rico on business. While the topic of the economy dominated the conversation, the two leaders also discussed other pressing topics, signing a historic agreement divided into 10 sections—three on education, two on the environment, two on trade, two on security, and one on taxes.
Although Puerto Rico remains a territory of the U.S., the accords will allow for greater strategic collaboration with other neighboring countries and territories. They will also give the Dominican Republic easier access to the U.S. market through Puerto Rico, while at the same time creating greater unity in the Caribbean.
“We firmly believe that our foreign relations should start with strengthening relationships with our neighboring [countries and territories] that will make us all successful,” said President Medina.
Protesters and family members of the 43 student protesters who disappeared last September in Iguala, Mexico tried to enter an army base in Iguala on Monday.
The families of the missing students and their supporters allege that the Mexican government has failed to examine the role of the military in the tragedy. Participants in the demonstrations tried to force entry into the Mexican Army’s 27th Battalion in order to look for the missing students. They also threw beer bottles at security forces stationed outside of the base. In a statement released on Tuesday, protesters reported six injuries due to tear gas and rocks thrown by the military.
Various witnesses claim that back in September, soldiers saw conflict between the students and the police right before the students’ disappearance, and said that the soldiers refused to intervene. Relatives and other students have called for investigations into the military and their actions on the night of the disappearance. Family members continue to reiterate that they will not rest until the authorities provide evidence of the deaths of their loved ones.
Since the disappearance of the students, citizens across Mexico have come together in mass protests against corruption and apparent links between criminal organizations and political authorities in the country.
This week's likely top stories: Haiti attempts to negotiate its way out of political deadlock; Cuba frees 53 political prisoners, holding up its end of the rapprochement deal with U.S.; Mexico cuts funding to PEMEX causing major oil sector layoffs; the U.S. Supreme court declines to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban; China and CELAC hammer out the details of increased economic partnership.
Haitian Lawmakers to Vote on Electoral Law to End Political Deadlock: On the eve of the five-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitian President Michel Martelly reported on Sunday that he had come to an agreement with the opposition to hold long overdue elections by the end of 2015. Martelly announced that he’d reached a deal with 20 opposition politicians, although the leftist party Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), a major instigator of anti-government protests, was not involved in the deal. The agreement commits to organizing elections for two-thirds of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies by the end of the year, in addition to presidential elections. It also attempts to lend legitimacy to the political system by creating a nine-member electoral council made up of church, union and media representatives, but excluding political delegates. The current legislature’s mandate will elapse at midnight today, and if legislators do not approve the deal by then, President Martelly will rule by decree, a situation that opposition politicians claim that he has deliberately planned.
Cuba Frees 53 Political Prisoners: Cuba upheld its promise to release 53 political prisoners this weekend as part of December’s historic agreement with the United States to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. Working with Cuban activists and human rights groups, the U.S. presented the Cuban government last spring with a list of prisoners to be released, and the Cuban government agreed to release 53 of those prisoners. Cuban dissidents said on Sunday that they only knew of 39 people who had been freed since December 17, but the U.S. Interests Section in Havana confirmed that all of the prisoners have now been released. The White House is expected to provide the names of the freed prisoners to Congress, which will then make the prisoners’ identities public.
Budget Cuts at PEMEX Lead to Major Layoffs: About 10,000 oil service workers were laid off at the end of last week as state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (Mexican Petroleums—PEMEX) cancelled contracts due to budget cuts stemming from the global oil slump. Against a backdrop of a 10-year decrease in oil output at Pemex—the world’s ninth largest oil producer—and the price collapse of oil to nearly $46 per barrel, the Mexican Finance Ministry decided to withhold 50 billion pesos from Pemex in the interest of streamlining the management of public sector finances. PEMEX responded by terminating exploratory rig contracts, which may clear the way for foreign drillers to fill the gap in accordance with Mexico’s 2013 energy reform. Job losses could reach 50,000, according to Gonzalo Hernández of the Economic Development Chamber in Ciudad del Carmen, where many oil service companies are based.
U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Challenge to Gay Marriage Ban: The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban on Monday, and took no action on four similar cases in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee—though it may act on those cases this week. The decision was not surprising, since a challenge to the ban is still being decided in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and that court has not yet ruled. However, lawyers for the Louisiana plaintiffs opposed to the ban sought Supreme Court review because they said there is a “pressing need” for the court to definitively review the marriage bans as soon as possible. Gay marriage is now legal in 36 U.S. states, and if the Supreme Court strikes down one or more of bans in the 14 states that still prohibit gay marriage, all remaining bans could be overturned.
China and Latin America Hammer Out Increased Economic Partnership: At the close of last week’s first ministerial meeting of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged on Thursday to invest $250 billion dollars in Latin America over the next five years. The framework for cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and technological innovation is expected to include an increase of two-way trade to total up to $500 billion over 10 years—about twice its current level of $275 billion. Together, China and the countries represented by CELAC—which excludes the U.S. and Canada—account for one fifth of global land area, one third of world population and one eighth of the world’s total economic aggregate. Meanwhile, China is expected to surpass the European Union by 2016 to become the second-largest trading partner of most South American countries, after the United States.
Thirteen police officers in the Mexican city of Medellín de Bravo in the state of Veracruz were detained on Thursday as part of the investigation into the kidnapping of the journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo.
Sánchez Cerezo, the director and editor of the small, local publication La Unión, was abducted last Friday, January 2 by unidentified assailants, who also took his cell phone, camera and work computer with all of his archives. Earlier this week, the full police squad of 38 officers was brought in for questioning.
Sánchez Cerezo, who supported La Unión through money he earned as a taxi driver, had received a number of threats in the past over his publication, including some allegedly from Medellín de Bravo Mayor Omar Cruz, although Cruz denies the allegations. Currently, DNA tests are being carried out on two bodies that were found after Sánchez Cerezo’s disappearance.
Mexico has gained a reputation for being the most violent place in the hemisphere for journalists, in large part due to drug trafficking and organized crime. Over 100 journalists have been murdered since the year 2000, and within Mexico, the state of Veracruz is considered to be the most dangerous state for journalists.
Yesterday, a group of journalists protested the abduction of Sánchez Cerezo at the state congress in Xalapa. In addition to protests against the government for Sánchez Cerezo’s kidnapping, the Peña Nieto administration is facing ongoing protests over the disappearance of 43 students in September of last year.
In a video statement released yesterday, Colombia’s Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN) reaffirmed its willingness to join formalized peace talks with the Colombian government and announced that it would consider a ceasefire.
In the video, ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez said, “The government […] has called the insurgents to the table. We will attend this dialogue to examine the will of the government and the Colombian State. If we conclude that arms are no longer necessary, we will consider quitting using them.”
For two years, the Colombian government has been conducting formal peace talks with the country’s largest rebel movement, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia—FARC). On December 20, 2014, the FARC declared a unilateral, indefinite ceasefire, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently said that he had instructed government peace negotiators to “accelerate” the talks with the FARC.
Last June, Santos revealed that his government and the ELN had begun separate preliminary peace talks in January 2014. Until now, little was known about the progress of those talks. The two sides recently concluded a “spiritual retreat” in the Colombian city of Cartagena, after which the President Santos urged the ELN to consider a ceasefire.
“We have given much thought to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire, in this regard with must recognize that the FARC have delivered. We want to invite the ELN to join the initiative and to reach an agreement as soon as possible regarding the issues we have been discussing for some time,” Santos said.
Read more about the Colombian peace negotiations here.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández launched a new investigative body on Tuesday in an effort to reduce violent crime and impunity in the world’s most violent country. The Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal (Technical Criminal Investigation Agency—ATIC) is a new branch of the Public Ministry of Honduras charged with “investigating serious crimes with strong social impact.”
Creation of the new, 60 million lempiras ($2.8 million) investigative branch was approved in January 2014 by the National Congress as part of reforms to the Law of the Public Ministry. ATIC graduated the first 97 agents specialized in criminal investigations on Monday, and hopes to have 250 agents by the end of 2015. The investigative unit will operate from two of the largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
ATIC is a hybrid technical-military police force whose primary task is investigations and prosecutions, not arrests. “[We told the agents,] your main weapon is not a rifle or pistol but your mind and knowledge,” said Attorney General Óscar Fernando Chinchilla.
The ATIC agents—39 women and 58 men—underwent three months of intensive instruction in law, criminology, forensic sciences, and investigative techniques, as well as physical and tactical training. The investigative body is divided into four units: crimes against life and sexual liberty, organized crime, public administration, and a technical-scientific department.
According to the Alliance for Peace and Justice in Honduras, 96 percent of homicide cases between 2010 and 2013 remained unsolved.
Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz said yesterday in a press conference that the country rejected any possible mediation from the Pope in a dispute with Bolivia over sovereign access through Chile to the Pacific Ocean that dates back to the nineteenth century.
Muñoz’s comments came after Bolivian President Evo Morales’ statement on Sunday that Pope Francis had requested documentation about the border dispute. On Monday, after a meeting with the advisory committee for the legal case, Muñoz said, “Chile has not accepted in the past, does not accept and will not accept any mediation in a matter that is absolutely bilateral, that concerns only Chile and Bolivia. Chile will never consider, does not accept nor will accept ceding territory under pressure or through any form of mediation. This is crystal clear for us, even more so as there is a case in The Hague.”
Bolivia decided to bring its case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on April 24, 2013, with the goal of forcing Chile to negotiate a point of sovereign access to the ocean—which Bolivia lost after the War of the Pacific, when it signed a peace treaty with Chile in 1904 that Morales says was forcefully imposed on his country. On July 15, 2014, Chile filed a preliminary objection to the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the matter. In November 2014, Bolivia filed a declaration claiming that the ICJ did have jurisdiction to rule on the case.
There have been heightened tensions recently regarding the longstanding conflict, with Morales asserting at the end of December 2014 that Bolivia would recover its access to the sea. Meanwhile, Muñoz published a piece in the Brazilian publication Folha de São Paulo entitled “What the Bolivian Lawsuit is Hiding.”
This week's likely top stories: the Panama Canal gears up to expand its Pacific coast facilities; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels to China and OPEC countries; the 114th U.S. Congress starts its session on Tuesday with a Republican majority and plenty of hot button issues for the Americas; the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide resumes; Uruguayan First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirms she will run for mayor of Montevideo in 2015.
Panama Prepares to Expand its Pacific Canal Facilities: On Saturday, the Panama Canal Authority approved the development of a new transshipment port in the Corozal region, the canal’s entrance to the Pacific Ocean. This two-phased expansion project will improve the port’s capacity on the Pacific side from five to eight million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) by 2020 through the construction of a 2,081 linear-meter dock, a container yard, offices and warehouse facilities within a 120-hectare area. The new terminal will also include port facilities capable of accommodating mid-size cargo ships that can pass through the canal. Aware of impending competition from Nicaragua, which inaugurated the construction of its own canal megaproject on the Pacific Coast just before Christmas, Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge Luis Quijano said, “This new facility will increase inter-oceanic cargo traffic, consolidating Panama’s position as an international logistics and maritime hub.” The Panama National Assembly will review the bill for final approval this week before issuing a call for bids from construction companies for a twenty year contract.
Maduro Packs His Bags for an Economic Relief World Tour: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro left Caracas on Sunday night to commence an urgent diplomatic mission to China and several as-yet-unspecified Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations in pursuit of assistance to lift Venezuela out of recession. China, Maduro’s first stop on his economic tour, is Venezuela’s principal foreign lender and is keeping Venezuelan state welfare projects afloat through an $8 billion oil-for-loan agreement. Maduro is expected to discuss financing options with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would help Venezuela meet its debt obligations and tamp down inflation. Since Venezuela’s economy has suffered from OPEC’s decision in November not to curtail oil output despite the price drop, Maduro will visit OPEC countries in the second leg of his trip with the hopes of establishing “a strategy for recovering the price [of oil] and strengthening the organization.” Venezuela’s oil basket has fallen nearly 50 percent, to about $47 dollars per barrel since the summer, with each dollar drop in oil prices costing the government an estimated $700 million per year in revenue.
Republican-controlled U.S. Congress Convenes: The 114th U.S. Congress will start its session in Washington DC on Tuesday, with a Republican majority set to take over the Senate and continue control of the House of Representatives. The new Congress is expected to clash with President Barack Obama over policy on Cuba-U.S. relations, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to win approval in Congress last year. In November, Obama announced executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba in mid-December after more than five decades. However, Cuban authorities’ arrest of dissidents at the end of the year has amplified concerns about the state of human rights on the island, and some members of Congress who have opposed improved relations have suggested that the Senate may refuse to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Meanwhile, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that a bill approving the Keystone pipeline will be an early priority for Republican lawmakers, though it could still be vetoed by Obama.
Genocide Trial Resumes for Guatemala’s Ríos Montt: After 14 months, the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges—for his alleged role in ordering 15 massacres of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Maya from 1982 to 1983 during Guatemala’s Civil War—resumes today. While the former president was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison in May 2013, Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) upheld a measure that annulled the verdict and required that the trial resume where it stood on April 19, 2013, claiming that the general had been denied due process. Ríos Montt will not appear at his trial proceedings, which begin today and will presided over by Tribunal President Janeth Valdez, due to his health. At 88, he remains under military house arrest in an upscale neighborhood of Guatemala City.
Uruguayan First Lady to Run for Mayor of Montevideo: Uruguayan Senator and First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirmed she will run for mayor of Montevideo in the May 2015 elections. Topolansky, who is married to outgoing Uruguayan President José Mujica, is a member of the Movimiento de Participación Popular (Movement of Popular Participation—MPP) political party, the largest voting bloc within the ruling left-wing Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front—FA). The Uruguayan first lady accepted the candidacy on some conditions, including a respectful campaign against Daniel Martínez, another FA candidate from the Uruguayan Socialist Party who is competing in the mayoral race. With Topolansky as mayor, the MPP would control Uruguay’s main electoral region and add to the FA’s absolute majority in the legislature.
Americas Quarterly was saddened to hear that one of its former Innovators, Antonio Rodiles, was among the democratic activists detained this week in Cuba. Antonio and others were heading to a peaceful rally organized by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at Havana’s Revolution Square. The event, titled #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand), was planned to be a series of open-mic presentations by independent activists about their view of Cuba’s future. Other dissidents, such as Reinaldo Escobar, were also detained—and Reinaldo’s wife, Yoani Sánchez (featured in the Fall 2014 Americas Quarterly), was prevented from leaving her house to attend. Our thoughts and prayers are with Antonio and the other dissidents who have been detained.
Happy Holidays! The AQ team is on vacation until January 5. Until then, readers eager for analysis on the region can always catch up on our print issues and remember to give the gift of AQ to their loved ones for the holidays.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday asked the U.S. Justice Department to designate a special prosecutor to examine the CIA’s use of torture as well as other illegal measures when questioning terrorism suspects.
Just two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report about the use of torture by the CIA when interrogating criminal suspects in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In light of these new findings, the ACLU and HRW wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, requesting further investigation and denouncing the “vast criminal conspiracy, under color of law, to commit torture and other serious crimes.”
However, officials reported that the U.S. Justice Department does not intend to reopen investigations into CIA interrogators, as investigations have already been carried out and the Justice Department did not find sufficient evidence for prosecutions.
Various human rights workers and politicians have called for further examination of officials that were involved in the CIA’s interrogations. On Sunday, a The New York Times called for an investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, former CIA Director George Tenet, CIA employee Jose Rodriguez Jr., and a number of other Bush administration employees.
This week's likely top stories: Florence Duperval Guillaume is named Haiti’s interim prime minister; farmers set up blockades to protest the Nicaraguan canal; Saudis tell non-OPEC producers to reduce output; Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says she will not replace Petrobras CEO; Four more prisoners are released from Guantánamo.
Interim Haitian Prime Minister Named: Haitian Health Minister Florence Duperval Guillaume was named Haiti’s interim prime minister on Sunday, filling the empty post left by former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who resigned last week. Duperval is expected to hold the position for a month until Haitian President Michel Martelly presents a permanent candidate to Haiti’s Parliament. Protests and unrest have erupted across the country since early December, with Haitians calling for long-postponed legislative and local elections that were scheduled for 2011, and members of Haiti’s political opposition demanding that Martelly resign. Parliament could dissolve by mid-January if the elections are not held.
OPEC Pressures Non-Members to Scale Back Production: Nearly one month after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided to maintain its crude oil production ceiling of 30 million barrels per day (bpd), Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said they would continue to meet their output targets, blaming non-OPEC producers for the oil glut of about 2 million bpd that has driven prices down by 20 percent since late November. By pressuring non-members to rebalance the oversupplied market, OPEC hopes to secure its share of market production in 2015. This could potentially soften the blow to the cash-strapped Venezuelan economy—which is almost wholly dependent on oil exports—but non-member Latin American states like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil will have to decide whether to reduce oil production or face even more devastating price shocks.
President Obama signed a bill yesterday authorizing sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of protesters in the South American country earlier this year. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the measure, tweeting, “I reject the insolent measures taken against Venezuela by the Imperial Elite of the Unites States; Bolivar’s Fatherland is to be Respected.”
Under the sanctions, Venezuelans accused of being involved in the repression of anti-government protesters in protests earlier this year could see their assets frozen or visas denied or revoked. According to an unnamed U.S. embassy official, ”These sanctions are not against the Venezuelan people, or against the Venezuelan government as a whole, but against individuals accused of violations.”
Analysts point out that the sanctions may offer Maduro a convenient scapegoat. Invoking the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said “The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function. It’s a way of deflecting attention form the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”
In a statement published on one of its official websites Wednesday, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) declared an indefinite, unilateral cease fire and end to hostilities in Colombia, on the condition that the rebels are not attacked by government forces. The announcement was made as part of the peace talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration in Havana, and it marks the first time the guerrilla group has declared an indefinite halt to the fighting.
However, Santos has so far refused to reciprocate the gesture, saying that a bilateral ceasefire could potentially allow the FARC to regroup and attack, as they did during the failed peace negotiations that took place from 1999-2002. The president’s wariness also stems from an incident this September that nearly foiled accords again, when the FARC took General Ruben Dario Alzate and two of his traveling companions hostage in September, along with two others in a separate incident. All the hostages were released in November in order to continue the peace negotiations.
Currently, the Colombian government and FARC negotiators have reached agreements on three points of the original five-point peace agenda, but have stalled on the fourth point of restitution for victims. The Colombian government and FARC leaders have been engaging in peace talks in Havana since 2012. That same year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed a temporary Christmas truce proposed by the FARC by saying, “The sooner we get to a peace agreement, the sooner we will silence the guns.”
Over 200,000 people have been killed since the internal war began between the guerillas and the government began in 1964. The FARC ceasefire will go into effect this Saturday, December 20.
Read more in AQ’s Fall 2014 issue on Cuba and Colombia.
Follow ongoing developments in Cuba here.
Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
Paulo López, a Paraguayan journalist who reported being mistreated by police nearly a year ago, was arrested on Sunday upon returning to his country from Argentina for the holidays. In January 2014, police arrested López in Asunción while he reported for media outlet E’a on detained citizens who had been protesting transportation price hikes. López said that he was arrested arbitrarily and tortured, and that his camera was confiscated. He later filed a complaint over the mistreatment by the police with the Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights.
However, a few months later, the precinct supplied a medical report showing that one of the police involved in his January arrest had a “light swelling in his cheek,” and charged López with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer in September. Santiago Ortíz of the Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Paraguayan Journalists’ Union—SPP) affirmed that neither López nor his lawyers were notified of the charge. In October, López was declared in contempt of court, though he was in Argentina studying for a master’s program at the time.
The Coordinator for Human Rights in Paraguay (Codehupy) and the Paraguayan Union of Journalists (SPP) intervened after López was detained at the border on Sunday, ensuring that his hearing took place on Sunday night in the Palace of Justice. He was released after the hearing, but López is not allowed to leave the country or change his address, and must appear before prosecutor Emilio Fúster every month until his case is settled.
Ortíz of the SPP asserted that the charge against López is meant to “intimidate my colleague to desist from his complaint. We qualify (the arrest) as a violation of human rights and a new outrage from the government on the exercise of journalism.” On Thursday, the SPP is planning a festival for freedom of expression in honor of López.
This week's likely top stories: Colombians march against possible amnesty for FARC; Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe steps down; Chinese railroad company wins $275 million in orders from Argentina; Venezuela seeks to expand PetroCaribe despite its fragile economic situation; Thousands gather across the U.S. in anti-police brutality protests.
Uribe Leads Protest Against Possible FARC Amnesty: Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s Centro Democrático party and the Colombia Quiere movement led marches across the country on Saturday to protest a possible amnesty for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in peace talks between the rebels and Colombian government in Havana. Currently, the government and the rebels are meeting to determine how to disarm FARC combatants and whether to prosecute them for crimes. Protesters across Colombia said that the FARC should face justice, and expressed concern that the peace talks would grant the guerrillas amnesty after 50 years of armed conflict. Further inflaming tempers, seven people—including two children—were shot to death on Friday in the department of Antioquia, in what appears to have been an execution. However, it is unclear whether the shooting involved members of the FARC, the ELN, or members of criminal gangs in the area.
Haiti in Turmoil over Long-Postponed Elections: Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe stepped down on Sunday in an effort to quell protests over government corruption and delayed elections that have roiled the Caribbean nation since December 5. Lamonthe, who began his term in 2012, is the third prime minister to resign since President Michel Martelly took office in 2011. Despite international support for Lamonthe’s efforts to attract investment to Haiti, a commission appointed by Martelly last week called for the resignation of the prime minister, the head of the Supreme Court and the current members of the Provisional Electoral Council. Meanwhile, Haiti has yet to hold legislative and local elections that were scheduled for 2011, leaving 10 out of 30 Senate seats unoccupied. Martelly has blamed the stalled elections on opposition senators who refuse to pass his election law. If Haiti fails to hold elections, the parliament will be dissolved in mid-January and President Martelly will rule by decree. The president announced that negotiations to resolve the political crisis would begin today.
Chinese Railroad Company Brings in $275 million from Argentina: In another strong display of “railroad diplomacy,” state-owned China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd. (CSR) confirmed this morning that it received a $275 million order from Argentina for Chinese locomotive products. The 80 locomotives and more than 2,000 freight cars from China will be used to populate Argentina’s Belgrano Cargas line once a $2.1 billion railway rehabilitation project—contracted to China Machinery Engineering Corp (CMEC)—is complete. The project will be financed by a supplemental loan agreement finalized by Presidents Xi Jinping and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in July. CSR, which has been supplying trains and other railway products to Argentina since 2006, is currently considering a merger with its principal domestic rival, China CNR Corp Ltd, which would make it competitive with multinational railroad behemoths Siemens and Bombardier.
Venezuela to Expand PetroCaribe Despite Oil Glut: On Sunday, at a summit in Havana marking the 10th anniversary of the leftist Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas—ALBA), Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro revealed his intentions to expand the already frail PetroCaribe oil subsidy program, which has been providing Caribbean countries with oil at low interest rates and a favorable long-term payment plan since 2005. In light of the fact that PetroCaribe shipments fell 11 percent in 2013, which forced beneficiaries to diversify their energy portfolios, Maduro insisted that, “Petrocaribe, what it must do at this stage, is consolidate, strengthen, grow and deploy itself.” However, Venezuela’s capacity to deliver on its promise remains questionable, considering the impact of the severe global drop in oil prices on Venezuela’s economy, with inflation already hovering around 60 percent. In order to finance the expansion, Venezuela is considering a plan to sell billions of dollars of PetroCaribe debt to Wall Street.
Tens of Thousands March in U.S. to Protest Police Killings: Tens of thousands of Americans marched on Saturday in the largest anti-police violence protests since Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this August. Marches took place in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington DC in memory of victims of police shootings and to denounce the racial injustice and police impunity. No arrests were made at the Millions March in NYC—by far the largest event—which drew approximately 30,000 participants in a procession that ended at the NYC Police Department’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan. An estimated 25,000 people rallied in the nation’s capital, including the families and relatives of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford.
A group of lawyers representing Ecuadorian villagers asked Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday to try their decades-long case against Chevron in Canadian courts. The lawyers, led by primary attorney Steven Donzinger, are seeking compensation of about $9.5 billion dollars, granted by a judge in Ecuador for environmental damages in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Whether or not Canadian courts will take on the case relies on a juridical technicality called “corporate veil.” Although Chevron has subsidiaries with billions of dollars in assets in Canada, the corporate veil principal distinguishes subsidiaries from their parent companies and establishes that they are not responsible for the actions of their parents, thus making it difficult for Canadian courts to have claims to the case.
The lawsuit was originally filed against Texaco in 1993 for environmental damages caused between 1964 and 1990 by the company’s disposal of billions of gallons of oil sludge into local tributaries, in what has been called the “worst oil-related pollution problem on the planet.” After a $40 million dollar cleanup, Ecuador and Texaco signed a contract releasing the company from further charges. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and in 2003, Donzinger filed a suit against Chevron that in 2011 resulted in $19 billion dollars awarded in favor of Ecuadorian villagers. That amount was later reduced to $9.5 billion, which the oil powerhouse has refused to pay.
After more than two years of research, Brazil’s Comissão Nacional de Verdade (National Truth Comission—CNV) delivered its official report yesterday on human rights violations committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988—with a focus on the country’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.
According to the report, “Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers.” The report increased to 434 the proven number of the dead or disappeared during the period of military rule, and calls for a revision of the country’s controversial 1979 amnesty law, which shields those accused of dictatorship-era human rights abuses from prosecution.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff—who was herself a victim of torture—broke into tears while delivering a statement on the report. “We who believe in the truth, hope that this report helps make it so the ghosts of a sad and painful past can no longer find shelter in the shadows of silence and omission,” she said.
In addition to documenting cases of human rights violations, the report names 377 perpetrators responsible for deaths and disappearances during the country’s dictatorship. According to the Spanish daily El País, 191 of these alleged perpetrators are still alive.
The CNV has no prosecutorial power, but the report’s non-binding recommendations posit that the amnesty law does not apply in cases of crimes against humanity. Despite President Rousseff’s pledge to “consider the commission’s recommendations” and take all necessary actions based on the proposals, it is not yet clear whether she will push for any change in the amnesty law.
The U.S. Senate approved a bill on Monday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials found responsible for violating demonstrators’ rights during anti-government protests that left more than 40 dead and 800 injured since February. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act authorizes sanctions that would freeze assets and ban visas of individuals that authorized, directed or otherwise assisted the government in infringing on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly” of protesters.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill, which was passed by a voice vote. “For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” said Menendez. The House passed a similar bill in May with a broader number of targets, but the Obama administration insisted sanctions would interfere with negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Earlier this month, White House officials signaled they would be willing to move forward with additional sanctions.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the “insolent imperialist sanctions” and accused the U.S. of meddling in his country’s affairs. The Maduro government has already faced international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations. In May, the United Nations condemned the violence and called for the government to adhere to its human rights obligations.
The new U.S. Senate bill comes as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continues to be held in prison, while Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was recently accused of plotting to overthrow the Maduro administration. The Senate’s version of the bill must now be passed in the House, and signed by President Obama for it to become law.
The leaders of Latin American and Iberian countries were on hand for the opening of the 24th Cumbre Iberoamericana (Ibero-American Summit) in Veracruz, Mexico yesterday. Just as notable as who was present, however, was the long list of absences. A block of six presidents—representing Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba—snubbed the two-day summit, which Bolivian President Evo Morales dismissed as a platform for “Spain’s monarchs [to discuss] their own interests.” The president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, reportedly had to withdraw from the summit to due health issues.
The summit’s focus—“Education, Culture and Innovation”—was reportedly calculated to avoid ideologically charged territory. Yet the summit has faced flagging interest in the face of newer regional fora such as the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR). As a result, after this year, the summit will transition towards a biyearly schedule.
Nonetheless, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo qualified the summit as a success. “We are reflecting on a renewed relationship between Latin American and the Ibero-American countries […] we are achieving concrete results, and we are creating important synergies,” he said.
By the end of the first session, the attendees had reportedly reached five agreements due to be included in summit’s concluding declaration. Among them are an agreement to share information and present a more united front in international fora such as the G20 or the OECD, an agreement on arbitration practices for small and medium-sized enterprises, and an agreement to foster increased talent mobility among the participating nations.
This week's likely top stories: Brazilian prosecutor plans to indict at least 11 in the Petrobras scandal; Haitian protestors in Port-au-Prince demand long-overdue elections; Latin American currencies drop as U.S. job growth surges in November; U.S. releases six Guantánamo prisoners to Uruguay; Meixcan government identifies the remains of one of 43 missing students.
Brazilian Prosecutor to Indict 11 in Petrobras Scandal: On Saturday night, Brazilian Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot announced his plans to indict at least 11 construction company executives arrested in mid-November on charges of bribery and money laundering in connection with the Petrobras graft scandal. “We are following the money and we will reach all of these perpetrators,” Janot said. The historic scandal has rocked the nation since former Petrobras executive Paulo Roberto Costa exposed the wrongdoing in a plea bargain after his arrest in March. An opinion survey released on Sunday by Datafolha showed that 68 percent of Brazilians hold President Dilma Rousseff, the former energy minister and Petrobras board chairwoman, responsible to some degree for the bribery scandal. In a country plagued by political corruption and impunity, Janot will be arguing at the helm of a landmark case that has the potential to inject much-needed accountability into Brazilian governance.
Haitians Turn Out in Strong Numbers to Demand Elections: On Friday, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets in Port-au-Prince to demand that President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resign from office. Haitians are enraged by President Martelly’s continuous postponement of midterm and senatorial and municipal elections since 2011—a stalemate allegedly caused by political differences between the ruling party and a group of opposition senators. Protestors called for the long-overdue elections to be held without delay as they clashed with police in Haiti’s capital. The last major demonstration took place in late October, when the National Assembly failed to pass an electoral law in time for the scheduled election date.
Latin American Currencies Remain Weak after November U.S. Job Surge: The United States’ surprisingly robust addition of 321,000 jobs in November has set the U.S. economy on its fastest pace of job creation since the Clinton administration. However, this positive job growth in the U.S. has had a decidedly negative impact on Latin American currencies, since the Federal Reserve is likely to respond to November’s labor boost by raising interest rates sooner than expected. As a result of this possibility, the Mexican, Chilean, Argentine and Colombian pesos and Brazilian real stagnated at the week’s end, and are likely to remain weak against the U.S. dollar for the visible future. Analysts will not be able to fully assess the scale of short-term losses for Latin American economies until a scheduled release of a report on Friday that will evaluate the United States’ 2014 Producer Price Index for the 2014 fiscal year.
Guantánamo Prisoners Granted Refugee Status: Six prisoners—four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian—were released this weekend from the U.S. Guantánamo Bay detention center after 12 years, bringing the total number of detainees transferred from the prison in 2014 up to 16. The six arrived in Uruguay after President José Mujuica agreed to patriate the prisoners on humanitarian grounds in March, calling their detention for their alleged ties to Al Qaeda “an atrocious kidnapping.” There are currently 126 inmates eligible for transfer at the Cuban-based detention center who have not been released, due to instability in their home countries. The six detainees, now considered refugees in Uruguay, were never charged with a crime. Uruguay is the second Latin American country to receive former detainees from Guantánamo; El Salvador accepted two Chinese Muslim refugees in 2012.
DNA Links Charred Remains to One of Mexico’s Missing Students: Despite calls for caution from forensic experts, the Mexican government on Friday hailed the identification of the charred remains of Alexander Mora Venancio as confirmation that the 43 students abducted on September 26 after clashing with municipal police in Iguala were incinerated in a Cocula landfill by the Guerreros Unidos gang. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team insisted that the search for the missing students continue, stating that the evidence linking the site of the massacre with the site where the remains were found was largely based on witness testimony. The parents of the remaining missing students pledged to continue protesting until all of their sons have been found. Meanwhile, embattled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled a plan to disband municipal police forces, putting them under federal control through constitutional reforms late last month.
Human rights experts from the United Nations on Friday called for a review of U.S. laws permitting police to use lethal force, in light of the failure of grand juries to indict two police officers for killing unarmed black citizens in separate cases.
The failure of a grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, stirred mass protests on November 24. Just days later, on December 3, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that put Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, in a fatal chokehold in July 2014.
This second case set off another wave of protests across the country, with thousands of angry citizens demanding an end to impunity. On Thursday in New York City, the Holland Tunnel, Manhattan Bridge and the Westside Highway were temporarily closed, and police reported arresting over 200 protesters during a second night of demonstrations.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a civil rights investigation into the Michael Brown case, but human rights experts are still concerned over the decisions not to bring the officers to trial. UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsak said on Friday, "the decisions [of the grand juries] leave many with legitimate concerns relating to a pattern of impunity when the victims of excessive use of force come from African-American or other minority communities." UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary executions Christof Heyns criticized the lenient state laws governing the use of lethal force by law enforcement in the United States.
Experts not only urged a complete review of police procedures, but also demanded an end to racial profiling by U.S. police. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed the U.S. to do “anything possible to respond to demands of greater accountability.”
The Venezuelan state prosecutor’s office formally charged former Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado with treason and conspiracy for allegedly plotting to kill President Nicolas Maduro this Wednesday.
The indictment comes after a chain of emails plotting to start a coup to overthrow the Maduro administration surfaced in May, allegedly between U.S. officials and Machado, an opposition leader who was kicked out of the National Assembly in March after she publically supported the protests against the government earlier this year. In one email Machado reportedly wrote, “I believe the time has come to join forces, make the necessary calls, and obtain the financing to annihilate Maduro […] and the rest will come falling down.”
Venezuela’s most publically known opposition leader, Leopoldo López, has been in jail since February, despite pleas for his release from international organizations, including The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), who declared his detention illegal and ordered his immediate release. Arrest orders for conspiracy against the government were also ordered for opposition figures Henrique Salas Romer, Diego Arria, Ricardo Emilio Koesling, Gustavo Tarre Briceño, Pedro Mario Burelli, and Robert Alonso.
The public prosecutor’s office released a statement threatening to punish anyone “from inside or outside national territory” with jail time should they seek to “conspire to destroy the nation’s republican political style.” If Machado is found guilty, she could face eight to 16 years in jail.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.