Likely top stories this week: Xiomara Castro leads her supporters in protest against last Sunday’s election results; Juan Manuel Santos visits the United States; petroleum exploitation moves ahead in Ecuador; Mexicans protest as President Peña Nieto completes his first year in office; a fire engulfs the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo.
Honduran Election Result Sparks Demonstrations: Thousands of Hondurans marched in Tegucigalpa on Sunday after the country’s electoral authority declared Juan Orlando Hernández the winner of last Sunday's presidential elections. Challenger Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who is demanding a vote-by-vote recount at all Honduran polling places and an investigation of the elections by the attorney general, called on her supporters to march peacefully to protest the results. Salvador Nasralla, another candidate, is also challenging the results. On Sunday evening, Honduras’ election tribunal said it would be willing to let LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation party—Liberdad y Refundación) review the electoral record but declined to say whether it would consider a full recount.
Santos Visits the United States: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in the United States on Sunday for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Santos will also make an appearance at the University of Miami on Monday before traveling to Washington D.C. for visits with Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and a meeting at the OAS, among other activities. The purpose of Santos' trip is to encourage additional U.S. investment in Colombia and to discuss Colombia's peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
Correa Announces Petroleum Exploitation in Ecuadorian Amazon: Despite major protests by Indigenous and environmental groups, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced Saturday that Ecuador would permit the exploitation of 13 petroleum blocks in the Ecuadorian Amazon near the border with Peru and on the edge of Yasuni National Park. Correa said that Chilean Ambassador Juan Carlos Lira and a businessman were injured in the protests last Tuesday. Ecuadorian Minister for Non-Renewable Natural Resources Pedro Merizalde said that the first three blocks up for action could hold as much as 1.5 billion barrels. So far, Spain's Repsol YPF, Chile's ENAP, Belarus’ Belorusneft, and China's Andes Petroleum have presented offers for four of the petroleum blocks.
Protests as Peña Nieto Completes First Year of Presidency: Thousands of Mexicans protested in the streets of Mexico City on Sunday as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto celebrated the completion of his first year as president. Protesting teachers, union workers, and self-declared anarchists marched in opposition to Peña Nieto's recent education, tax and energy reforms. According to a poll released Sunday by Reforma newspaper, 48 percent of respondents disapproved of the president's job performance—up from 30 percent in April.
Fire Latest Accident to Hit São Paulo: Less than a week after a construction crane collapsed at São Paulo's Itaquerão stadium and killed two workers, the city's iconic Latin America Memorial—a landmark building which hosts an art gallery, an auditorium and other facilities— was engulfed by a fire on Saturday. The memorial and cultural center was built in 1989 by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died last year at age 104. It is still unclear how the fire started, but it appears no members of the public have been injured in the blaze. Meanwhile, construction workers returned to Itaquerão stadium on Monday to address the damages caused by last week’s accident.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced his intentions to run for reelection this Thursday, just four days before the legal deadline required to submit a candidacy. Santos said his campaign will be founded upon ideals of “peace and prosperity,” directly referencing his continued—although increasingly unpopular—efforts to reach a peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
A poll conducted by Invamer-Gallup predicts a second-round run-off between Santos and opposition candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga of the Uribe Centro Democrático (Uribe Democratic Center) party. Specifically, the poll estimates that 27 percent of voters would support Santos, followed by 15 percent for Zuluaga, a former finance minister. Despite his considerable lead, Santos faces a difficult task of acquiring the 51 percent or more of votes required to win the Colombian presidency.
Political analysts believe the race will be characterized by strong ideological divisions between Santos and his more conservative leaning opponent. During his announcement, Santos said, “There are still great challenges ahead of us, but I am convinced that the way to confront them is not only through blood and gunfire.” In contrast, Zuluaga has vowed to immediately cease peace talks if elected. Following Santos’ announcement, he replied, “We will not accept that our soldiers and police keep being murdered or unjustly persecuted while terrorists, kidnappers and murderers walk freely on the beaches in Havana."
Sixteen members of Colombia’s Cabinet resigned on Monday ahead of a likely Cabinet reshuffle by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the wake of a growing crisis in Colombia’s farming sector.
As a nationwide farmers’ strike stretches into its third week, Santos is reportedly working on an accord with farmers to deal with the protests, which turned violent last week in the capital city of Bogotá. Last Thursday, protests in Bogotá left at least two people dead and hundreds injured. Santos responded by sending 50,000 soldiers into the streets to patrol the city.
Colombian farmers say that the country’s free trade agreements (FTAs) with the U.S. and Europe are making it impossible for domestic agriculture to compete with cheaper imports. The farmers, who installed roadblocks across the country two weeks ago in protest, agreed to lift some of the blockades last Friday after Santos said he was dissatisfied with his officials’ handling of negotiations with the protesters. The roadblocks had cut off some towns from shipments of fuel and food.
Santos emphasized his committment to improving rural development in Colombia and in working with all sectors of the Colombian economy. "We will work to construct a grand national pact for agriculture and rural development and we will include all interested parties in that process," he said on Friday.
The resigning Cabinet members offered full support to Santos in a statement on Monday. This will be the second time that Santos has shuffled his Cabinet since taking office in 2010. Since then, his approval rating has fallen from a high of 74 percent to below 50 percent in July. He has until November to decide whether he will run for a second term as president in the May 2014 elections.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denounced the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) on Tuesday for what he described as a “flagrant violation” of the group’s commitment to end kidnappings prior to its peace negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana.
Santos’ comments, delivered at the opening of Colombiamoda (Colombian Fashion Week) in Medellín, marks the second time in the span of a week that the Colombian leader has spoken out strongly against the guerilla group. Last weekend, FARC soldiers ambushed and killed 19 Colombian soldiers in separate attacks in Arauca and Caqueta departments, putting increased pressure on those around the negotiating table in Havana. In response, Santos vowed to use decisive military force against the rebel group if necessary.
The president’s most recent statement comes just days after the FARC offered to release former U.S. Marine Kevin Scott Sutay, who was abducted on June 20, as a gesture of goodwill in light of the ongoing peace negotiations. Santos responded to the announcement by saying that the FARC “did not abduct him before [the peace talks], they recently kidnapped him, without any justification,” thereby violating a statute of the negotiations.
As part of the release, the FARC requested that a humanitarian commission composed of the International Committee of the Red Cross, former Senator Piedad Córdoba and a delegate from the community of San Egidio be sent to retrieve Sutay. Santos refused to allow anyone but the Red Cross to be involved in the handover, saying that he would not allow Sutay’s release to become a media circus.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cali on Tuesday for the largest demobilization of members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN) in Colombian history. A 30-member unit of the guerilla group, which included three pregnant women, surrendered in the southwestern city.
The ELN, with its estimated 3,000 members, has shown interest in convening peace negotiations with the government, but has thus far been rebuffed by officials who insist that they must demobilize and release all of their hostages before beginning negotiations. President Santos welcomed the unit’s surrender and encouraged all of Colombia’s guerrillas to fight for their ideals, “but without violence and without arms.” Integration into the political system has been a key point in the ongoing negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) in Cuba.
While the 30-member unit’s demobilization is seen as a positive step toward the end of armed conflict in the region, it remains to be seen whether the ELN, which has been operating in Colombia for nearly 50 years, will agree to the conditions for negotiations set forward by government officials.
The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) began their tenth round of peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba on Monday. This round of talks will address the second point in the five-point peace agenda: integration of the rebel group into Colombian politics.
The FARC’s post-conflict participation in Colombian politics is one of the most controversial points in the agenda, and the guerrillas have made a number of demands to ensure their participation. FARC Commander Luciano Marín Arango, known by the nom-de-guerre “Iván Márquez,” asked the government to postpone Colombia’s May 2014 presidential election to allow the talks to continue uninterrupted under the current administration. The group claims that political campaigning could get in the way of the talks, and wants to call a Constitutional Assembly to enact the political and institutional changes now under discussion.
The FARC also claimed that it is pursuing a “unification process” with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN), Colombia’s second-largest rebel group. Though the ELN is not part of the peace talks in Cuba, its leaders have expressed their willingness to participate in the negotiations.
The Colombian government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de La Calle, has rejected the guerrilla group’s proposal. While he recognized that one of the key objectives of the negotiations is to enable the FARC to become a political party and have broader participation in local and national politics, he refused to consider any proposal that lies outside of the previously agreed-upon peace agenda. “This [agenda] is what the government is ready to discuss and nothing else," he said. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also rejected the rebel group’s proposal and ruled out the possibility of extending the electoral terms.
Despite these differences, some progress has been made in the negotiations. The parties achieved a partial agreement on land reform in May, which includes a consensus on the use and distribution of the land—a key issue that led to the FARC’s emergence in the 1960s. Other topics on the agenda include the fight against drug trafficking and the compensation of the victims of the armed conflict.
The peace talks began in November 2012, and aim to end half a century of armed conflict that has led to more than 600,000 deaths and millions of displaced people.
Ecuadorian Minister of Defense María Fernanda Espinosa and her Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim, expressed their “concern” over Colombia’s ongoing discussions with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during a press conference yesterday in Quito, Ecuador.
The defense ministers’ reaction came in response to a series of statements by the Colombian government over the past week regarding the country’s intention to pursue a closer relationship with NATO, which originally began with President Juan Manuel Santos saying last weekend that Colombia was “to start a process of rapprochement and cooperation” with NATO. Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia’s defense minister, later clarified that although the country would extend its “cooperation” with NATO, he ruled out the possibility of membership in the alliance. Instead, he explained that the government’s goal is to cooperate as a partner similar to the relationship that Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries have with NATO. Those countries’ efforts are centered on areas such as terrorism, military training, conflict management, disaster relief, and intelligence.
A NATO official also clarified that Colombia does not meet the geographic qualifications for NATO membership since the alliance is only “open to states in the North Atlantic area.”
Still, the flurry of statements has provoked strong opposition from Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Bolivian President Evo Morales asked that Alí Rodríguez, secretary general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), convene an emergency meeting. Colombia is a member of UNASUR.
On Monday, after three days of severe disapproval, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ruled out his proposal to run for re-election in 2014 only to serve for two more years—half the usual term—and amend the constitution to extend the presidential term limit to six years. “Four years are not enough to finish the job, he said.
The Colombian constitution currently allows incumbents to seek re-election for a consecutive four-year period. The bill submitted on Friday would extend term limits to allow presidents to serve for six years—but with no possibility of re-election—to give leaders more time to accomplish their government plans. The bill also extended the six-year term limits for mayors, governors and legislators to align the ruling terms of all elected officials in Colombia.
Santos, who came to power in August 2010, expressed that under no circumstances he would present a bill to congress that would cause more divisions among the ruling political parties. He also clarified that his proposal has nothing to do with the ongoing peace process between his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which began in November 2012.
The president, however, did not rule out the possibility of running for re-election in May 2014, but faces decreasing popularity. According to a poll released on Monday by Colombian firm Ipsos Napoleón Franco, Santos’s popularity has plummeted to 47 percent and only 39 percent of Colombians favor the president’s re-election.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced today that six members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) and two policemen were killed in an attack near the Venezuelan border. The announcement comes only days after the president requested that the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN) set free two German citizens who were seized last week in the northern Catatumbo region. These events have raised concern about the viability of the peace talks in Havana, but both the government and the FARC remain optimistic about progress.
Iván Márquez, head of the FARC’s negotiating team, believes there are many reasons for his side to be optimistic about the peace process. “Destroying the road towards peace over claims of armed conflict would be unreasonable,” he stated. But since the group’s two-month ceasefire came to an end on January 20, kidnappings and violence have resumed in the country.
Smaller but more politically motivated than the FARC, the ELN has also expressed its interest in engaging in peace talks with the government, but the group refuses to stop its attacks on civilian and military targets as a precondition to begin the negotiations. The peace-building process held in Cuba recently concluded its third phase, with no major progress made toward ending the longstanding conflict. Land reform is currently the main focus of the negotiations.
Yesterday afternoon, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) guerrilla group complained that the Colombian government’s usage of military force during peace talks threatened the harmony of the negotiations. Iván Márquez, chief negotiator for the FARC, stated that “in contrast with our act of humanity, President Santos announces that he will intensify the war on all national territory,” adding it was “nonsense.”
Although the FARC declared a two-month ceasefire last month, the move turned out to be unilateral as Santos made clear that the Colombian government would not reciprocate, and would continue a military offensive until a peace agreement is reached. The Colombian army has been largely successful in its effort, killing 20 FARC fighters earlier this month. In declaring its ceasefire, the FARC has petitioned for a bilateral ceasefire but to no avail. Márquez renewed the call yesterday: “[if the government] continues to be adamant in war, it should at least […] sign a treaty of regularization […] searching always to preserve the lives of the people and respect for their rights.”
The bilateral negotiations began ceremoniously in Oslo, Norway, this past October and intensified the following month in Havana, Cuba, where Cuban- and Norwegian-mediated talks—with Chilean and Venezuelan observation—have been taking place intermittently since the middle of November. The FARC was established in 1966, and its rebellion against the Colombian government marks Latin America’s longest running internal guerrilla conflict.