Top stories this week are likely to include: Mexico’s presidential candidates debate; Dilma and the forestry law; Humala and Santos travel to Asia; and Venezuela proposes an alternative to the IACHR.
Challengers Hammer Peña Nieto in Presidential Debate: The leading presidential candidates in Mexico held their first debate last night, and frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was the biggest target of attacks from candidates Josefina Vázquez Mota (Partido Acción Nacional) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Partido de la Revolución Democrática). Peña Nieto’s challengers painted him as a corrupt politician who oversaw a poor economy in Mexico state. During the debate, Peña Nieto noted that Vázquez Mota and López Obrador “seem to have come to an agreement… they’re coming with knives sharpened.” However, political analyst Jorge Zepeda opined that “Peña Nieto survived…I don’t think the debate will have a big impact.” Adds AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak: “Without a clear winner in last night's debate, look for the campaign to turn increasingly hostile as candidates seek to make up ground against Peña Nieto.” Now that the candidates have squared off in their first debate—the next one will be held in June—look for how the Mexican electorate responds on the campaign trail.
Dilma May Partially Veto the Forestry Law: In a political setback to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s legislature approved a controversial forest code on April 26 at the urging of the powerful farmers’ lobby. The code gives way for further deforestation of the Amazon and provides an amnesty from being fined for illegally clearing trees. Rousseff is now being pressured by environmentalists to veto the law, especially ahead of next month’s Rio+20 global summit on sustainable development. Advisors in Brasilia are now indicating that the president may issue a partial veto to two particularly controversial clauses: one on amnesty from prior deforestation and another on reducing vegetation on the margins of the rivers. Look for news this week.
Humala to Asia: Peruvian President Ollanta Humala will make his first official trip to Asia this week, aiming to sell his country as a trans-Pacific destination for trade and investment. Humala arrives in Japan tomorrow for trade talks with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Emperor Akihito, then continues to South Korea where he will sign a declaration of strategic association with Prime Minister Lee Myung-Bak. “Coming on the heels of nationalizations in Argentina and Bolivia, Humala will likely use the trip to exhibit the stability for investments in Peru,” notes AQ’s Jason Marczak.
Santos in Singapore and China: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos landed in Singapore yesterday for a six-day trip to Asia that will also include a state visit to China. Santos is accompanied in Singapore by a business delegation and his ministers of commerce, mining, transport and agriculture, and foreign affairs. He lands in China tomorrow to build “a much closer framework of cooperation between the two countries,” according to Xinhua and will depart on Saturday.
Venezuela Proposes IACHR Alternative: After suggesting last week that his country should withdraw from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his administration have proposed an alternative human rights body for Latin American states that would exclude the United States. Chávez has accused the IACHR, under the aegis of the Washington-based Organization of American States, of being a tool of the U.S. government. However, the informal proposal of an alternate commission issued over the weekend in Cartagena, Colombia, by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro should bring cause for concern that Venezuela is flouting its international commitments. The move has been criticized by Venezuelan human rights groups and the United Nations. Look for formalized proposals going forward.
The Argentine Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday to decriminalize abortions in cases of rape. The landmark decision came out of a case where a 15-year-old girl was raped by her stepfather, a senior officer of the police force in the Argentine province of Chubut. In 2010, a Chubut court had ruled in favor of the adolescent having an abortion, which meant that yesterday’s decision formally backed the original ruling. The victim went forward with the abortion after the initial court decision.
Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, abortions were only considered legal in cases where the woman was mentally ill or if her life is threatened by birth. Doctors who performed illegal abortions could have faced between one and four years in prison. But the Supreme Court’s decision now permits doctors to perform abortions with the legal permission of the rape victim without having to seek court orders.
Another Cuban, Wilmar Villar, died in a hunger strike on the island last week protesting the abuses of the Castro regime. His wife was not permitted to see his body. Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger who has received several international awards and who is not permitted to travel abroad, reported his death on the Internet.
For weeks Cuban exiles had been calling on governments and human rights organizations for help. We do not know if Cardinal Ortega Alamino, who has access to General Raúl Castro, interceded privately with him on behalf of Wilmar who is the father of two children; or if the Cuban Cardinal, who participated in the arrangement where Cuba released political prisoners and forced many of them and their families, including children, into banishment in Spain, alerted the Holy See about the impending death.
The Cuban regime can no longer murder in secrecy; it fears the Internet and the Cubans who are willing to die demanding respect for human rights. But the regime continues to enjoy international impunity for its unspeakable deeds. The opening to Havana sponsored by the Obama Administration has emboldened the Castro brothers who are engaged in a widespread human rights crackdown. Right now Senator Richard Durbin is in Havana, presumably discussing ways of further lessening of U.S. sanctions with Cuban authorities.
An article in the fall issue of Americas Quarterly, released today, explores the record of Chinese state-owned mining corporations on labor and the environment. In “Do Chinese Mining Companies Exploit More?” three researchers from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) explore the impact of China’s foreign direct investment in natural resource extraction in Peru—underlining China’s increasing economic footprint in emerging regions like Latin America.
The article highlights an issue that is of growing concern. Just this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 122-page report outlining labor abuses by Chinese firms operating in copper mines in Zambia. The HRW paper states that the Chinese firms clamp down on union activity, promote low pay compared to the international average of copper mines, enforce 18-hour workdays, and operate mines with workplace safety concerns. The Chinese embassy in the Zambian capital of Lusaka has flatly denied HRW’s charges.
In comparing the practices of two OECD-owned companies to those of two Chinese companies, the PIIE scholars note some alarming differences in adherence to international labor and environmental standards. For example, the Shougang Corporation, which purchased the Hierro Perú mine in 1992, “angered the local population by cutting the Peruvian workforce in half and bringing in Chinese laborers. It reduced the quantity and quality of workers’ housing, while leaving blocks of homes once occupied by workers vacant in a town with an acute housing shortage.”
Nonetheless, Chinese firms may be treading a different path since the days of their earliest investments. According to the PIIE research, the Aluminum Corporation of China “appears to be working to avoid the behavior of Shougang.” It has not imported labor from China, has conducted public hearings with members of the local community, and has invested in infrastructure and community development.
The U.S. Department of State yesterday released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which evaluates states’ actions to combat human trafficking around the world. The 2011 report shows an increase over 2010 in the number of countries that fail to take adequate steps to prevent human trafficking. In Latin America, Venezuela joined Cuba on a list of Tier 3 violators—a status given to countries that do not make sufficient efforts to address the problem.
Of 13 states cited for insufficient action in last year’s report, the Dominican Republic is the only country to be reclassified due to progress. In April, 2011 Dominican President Leonel Fernandez met with leaders of the U.S. armed services’ Southern Command to develop a plan for an Antinarcotics War Coordination Center—to be headquartered in the Dominican Republic—which will also combat human trafficking in the Caribbean.
The report also honors ten individuals for their extraordinary efforts in the fight against human trafficking. Two TIP Report “Heroes” hailed from Latin America: Leonel Dubon, founder of El Refugio de la Niñez (Children’s Refuge House), a Guatemalan NGO that provides shelter to underage sex-trafficking victims and human trafficking specialist Dilcya Garcia, a former deputy prosecutor in Mexico City’s Attorney General Office.
The TIP Report was first published in 2001 following the passage in the United States of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Its classification system also includes Tier 2 countries, which do not currently meet TVPA standards but are making significant progress, and Tier 1 countries—like the U.S.—that are fully compliant with anti-human trafficking standards. Of the 184 countries evaluated in 2010, 23 were given the lowest, Tier 3, designation.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón yesterday signed into law 11 articles that will reform the Mexican constitution to increase protections for human rights and bring Mexico into conformity with international human rights agreements. According to reports, the reform is designed to grant greater power to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by broadening its authority to investigate reports of human rights violations. It will also allow any Mexican to challenge the constitutionality of federal and local laws that might violate the rights of any citizen. The signing ceremony included Juan Silva, president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, president of the Senate and Raúl Plascencia, president of the National Commission on Human Rights.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay lauded Calderón’s decision in a press release saying, “This tangible and positive reform ought to take Mexico towards better and stronger recognition and implementation of the human rights contained in the constitution and international treaties.”
Reactions by human rights groups have been mixed. Some question whether the Calderón administration, whose security policies have led to an upsurge in drug-related violence in recent years, will permit stronger scrutiny of its actions. Other groups claim that ambiguities in the new law will make enforcement difficult.
Uruguay’s Senate voted yesterday to annul the Ley de Caducidad, or Expiry Law, which since 1986 had granted military officers immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity committed during the country’s military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985. The vote effectively overrules two prior national referendums in 1989 and 2009, which had upheld the Expiry Law, and opens the door to the possible prosecution of former military officials. The measure keeps intact amnesty for crimes committed during the same period by left-wing militants.
The vote fulfills a major demand of the left-wing members of the Frente Amplio (FA) governing coalition and complies with a 2009 Uruguayan Supreme Court ruling that found the Expiry Law unconstitutional. The measure faced opposition from right wing political party leaders, retired military officials, and even some members of FA like retired Colonel Jose Carlos Araujo, who says repealing the law despite two referendums shows a lack of “respect [for] the decisions of the people.”
In 2003, an independent peace commission found that 175 political opponents were killed during the 12-year dictatorship, including 26 in clandestine torture centers. Only about a dozen officials have been prosecuted for those killings. The repeal passed by a 16-15 vote after a 12-hour debate. It is backed by President José Mujica and will now move to the Uruguay’s lower house for amendments and a vote, which could come as soon as May 20.
Jimmy Carter arrived in Cuba yesterday afternoon for a three-day visit to the island by invitation of the Cuban government. Carter’s travel to the island, billed as a private trip, will include meetings with Catholic and Jewish authorities as well as a meeting with Raúl Castro. The former President is expected to address U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban economic reforms and the upcoming sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba scheduled to meet from April 16 to 19.
There is also speculation that the former President will also seek to gain the release of imprisoned U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced two weeks ago to a 15-year prison term for providing satellite communication equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Authorities claim this was an attempt to provide Internet access to dissidents to destabilize the island.
This trip marks the second time Carter has visited the island and he remains the only sitting or former U.S. President to visit Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Carter’s last trip to Cuba was in 2002 during which he pressed Cuban authorities to improve human rights and to introduce democracy. Upon his return, the President urged U.S. authorities to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. As in 2002, Carter will once again be accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn.
Yesterday, Carter met with the head of the Council of the Hebrew Community of Cuba and with Cardinal Jamie Ortega of the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana. Today, he is scheduled to visit the Belen Convent in downtown Havana followed by a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro. A press conference will be held at the Havana Palace of Conventions before returning to the United States.
On the day before Argentina marked the 35th anniversary of the military coup that installed a seven-year dictatorial regime, an ex-general was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity. Luciano Menendez, 83, was head of the army’s Third Corps during the dictatorship period of 1976-1983. This was his sixth life sentence.
According to a verdict released by Argentina’s judiciary branch, Menendez was found guilty of homicide and unlawful entry in an army and police assault in a home in Tucumán province on May 20, 1976. A group of Montoneros, a leftist urban guerrilla group, was meeting inside the house before the forces launched explosives and entered. Five people were killed and buried in a common grave.
The verdict, which also found former Tucumán province police intelligence chief Roberto Albornoz guilty in the same case, is part of a recent series of trials that have taken place after the 2007 decision of then-president Néstor Kirchner to annul pardons against former junta members. In a particularly high-profile case, General Jorge Rafael Videla, the former leader of the military dictatorship, was sentenced to life in prison in December 2010 for crimes against humanity.
On March 24, 1976, a military junta led by Videla overthrew the elected government and began a period of military rule in Argentina that lasted until 1983. During this period, Videla and the generals that succeeded him undertook a “national reorganization process,” more commonly known as the Dirty War, to maintain social order and eradicate any political subversion. Human rights groups estimate that as many as 30,000 individuals were killed or disappeared as a part of this war, with still others tortured and/or forced into exile.
Yesterday—the National Day of Memory, Truth and Justice—thousands of people marched on the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities to remember those lost during the Dirty War and to celebrate the work of human rights groups since then. Marchers included human rights activists, including the famous Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, as well as ordinary citizens, both young and old.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was at her family’s home in the town of El Calafate in Santa Cruz province and did not participate in any of the rallies.
In a meeting with diplomats from various Central American countries yesterday, Mexican Senate president Manlio Fabio Beltrones promised to draft new immigration legislation that will protect and guarantee the human rights of undocumented migrants in Mexico. The new legislation proposes to resolve issues not yet addressed by current law including protections for migrants who witness crimes, higher penalties for human trafficking and increased access to health, legal and financial services. These changes are directed toward undocumented immigrants who have already settled in Mexico as a means of normalizing their status.
Estimates are that approximately 300,000 Central Americans travel through Mexico on their way to the United States annually. Mexican authorities apprehend and deport less than a third of those undocumented migrants. At the same time, the systematic abuse of undocumented migrants is on the rise in Mexico with reported assaults and kidnappings increasing in recent years including the most recent murder of 72 undocumented migrants last August by drug cartels.
Mr. Beltrones’ proposal was met with praise by the ambassadors and consuls from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Speaking on behalf of the Central Americans, Ambassador Hugo Roberto Carrillo of El Salvador thanked the Mexican authorities for their efforts on behalf of undocumented migrants while noting that transgressions against migrants were being perpetrated by both Mexican authorities, in overly aggressive efforts to control the flow of immigrants, and by organized crime. Despite this announcement, human rights activists and the United Nations demanded that the disappearances of migrants and past abuse of migrants to date be investigated and resolved.