Likely top stories this week: Venezuelan opposition agrees to participate in corruption debate; Chilean presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei registers her candidacy; Humala’s popularity reaches a new low; peace talks resume in Colombia; and environmental groups seek a referendum to prevent drilling in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Forest.
Public Debate on Corruption in Venezuela
On Saturday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would ask the National Assembly for an enabling law to combat corruption, and challenged the opposition to participate in a public debate to discuss the government’s nationwide anti-corruption campaign. The Venezuelan government has made over 100 corruption-related arrests in the last month, including several political and media figures associated with the opposition.
On Sunday, Julio Borges, the national coordinator of Primero Justicia, said the opposition would participate in a public debate on corruption, and called on the president to “tell us the time and location” for a discussion on national TV and radio. According to Henrique Capriles, opposition leader and governor of Miranda State, recent anti-corruption efforts are a strategy to divert public attention from other pressing problems such as insecurity and inflation. Capriles’ offices are currently under investigation for corruption.
Evelyn Matthei Officially Registers her Candidacy
On Sunday, the candidate for the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union—UDI), Evelyn Matthei, officially registered her candidacy for the Chilean presidential election on November 17. Matthei was accompanied by leaders of UDI and Renovación Nacional (RN)—the two parties that constitute the ruling Alianza coalition. After registering her candidacy, Matthei gave a speech that recognized the current lead of former president and current presidential candidate of the Nueva Mayoría coalition, Michelle Bachelet. Still, Matthei expressed hope of taking the election to a second round of voting. If no candidate secures half of the votes in the first round, a second round of voting would be held in mid-December.
Humala’s Popularity Reaches a New Low
On Sunday, the latest Ipsos-Perú survey published by El Comercio revealed that Ollanta Humala’s popularity dropped to 29 percent, the lowest during the two years of his presidency. Despite the government’s recent military win again the Shining Path terrorist group, the president registered 4 percentage points less popular support than in July 2012. The survey also revealed that first lady Nadine Heredia’s popularity dropped to 38 percent, and Lima Mayor Susana Villarán continues to have one of the highest disapproval rates in the country, which reached 69 percent in August.
New Round of Colombian Peace Negotiations
On Monday, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) begin a new round of negotiations in Havana to discuss topics such as political participation. This is one of the most controversial items in the peace agenda as it involves negotiations around the incorporation of the rebel group into the country’s democratic system. According to Humberto de la Calle, the lead government negotiator, the FARC must surrender their arms and reach agreements around the five topics of the agenda to participate in Colombian politics. President Juan Manuel Santos sent a message to the FARC stating his commitment to the negotiations, but warned that the military fight will continue in the interim.
Environmental Groups in Ecuador Vow to Save Yasuní Program
On Sunday, environmental groups, human rights groups and Indigenous lawmakers threatened to take Ecuador’s government to international court over a plan to drill for oil in Yasuní, a protected part of the Amazon rainforest that is believed to hold some 900 barrels of oil—about a fifth of Ecuador’s total reserves. The actions follow President Rafael Correa’s statement last week that the government was abandoning the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, a long-term commitment to refrain from drilling in the rainforest area if the international community came up with $3.6 billion to offset some of the foregone benefits of the oil money. The president said that “the world has let Ecuador down,” as just $13.3 million has been delivered to the country. In the coming days, Correa plans to ask the National Assembly to declare crude-oil exploitation in the Yasuní as a "national interest." In response, some of Ecuador’s Indigenous lawmakers have called for a national referendum to decide on the issue.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa announced yesterday that he would pardon the columnist and three publishers of the newspaper El Universo that were found guilty of libel against the government. The transgressors were facing three years in prison and were ordered to pay Correa $10 million each in damages—a decision upheld by the Ecuador's National Court of Justice in mid-February.
Correa filed suit last year over an opinion column written by chief opinion editor, Emilio Palacio in 2011 and titled “No a las mentiras” (No more lies), which was published by brothers Carlos, César and Nicolás Perez. The column referred to the president as a “dictator” and accused him of ordering troops to “fire at will” on a hospital full of civilians during a September 2010 police revolt. The trial provoked a backlash from international media and human rights groups who accused the president of stifling free speech.
Correa responded in yesterday’s televised address, saying the case was a fight for justice against the “dictatorship of the media.” The president dropped another libel case against two other journalists who wrote a book that said companies tied to his older brother had $600 million in contracts with the Ecuadorian state.
But Correa’s address did little to placate his critics. Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that Correa is acting more like a king than a president, and is “using archaic and outdated laws to silence critical journalists.” Human Rights Watch’s director for Latin America, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said the case “will certainly contribute to an environment of self-censorship.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made his first official visit to Ecuador on Monday, accompanied by Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín and Minister of Transportation Germán Cardona Gutiérrez. President Santos met with his Ecuadorian counterpart, President Rafael Correa, to discuss ways to cooperate on trade, infrastructure and security.
One of the early outcomes of the visit was an agreement to consider flights between Quito and Bogotá as domestic travel, which President Santos said would avoid “red tape and cost overruns.” The leaders also pledged to agree on a maritime boundary and announced the construction of a bridge above the Mataje River that would join the coasts of both countries.
Minister Holguín also announced yesterday that both presidents seek to end the conflict involving truckers along the border. The Colombian Truckers Association began a protest in October, claiming that Ecuador’s truckers, by failing to comply with regulations established in the Community of Andean Nations regarding the transportation of cargo, created unfair competition.
President Santos’ visit comes almost four years after Colombian security forces conducted a deadly attack against a FARC camp on Ecuadorian territory in March 2008. President Correa pledged Ecuador’s commitment to cross-border security, saying “any criminal group that comes to Ecuador from Colombia will be sent back.”
From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Helicopter Crash Claims Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Official
Mexico’s Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora died in a helicopter crash on Saturday en route from Mexico City to Cuernavaca. The accident, which killed seven other people, was ruled a weather-related accident. In 2008, then Interior Minister Juan Camila Mouriño died in similar circumstances: he perished in a plane crash in Mexico City nearly three years to the day from Saturday’s accident. Blake was a powerful force in President Felipe Calderón’s war on drug trafficking, and his loss was a blow to the president’s administration’s war on drugs. Blake was also the fourth interior minister under Calderón, so his death could be a setback for Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) prior to next year’s presidential elections.
López Obrador to Lead PRD Ticket in Mexico
Mexico’s leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) chose Andrés Manuel López Obrador as their candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Known as AMLO, the former mayor of Mexico City narrowly lost the presidential election in 2006. James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz writes that the nomination could actually help the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, since after AMLO’s 2006 loss, “bouncing back is going to be tough for him.” He also believes that current Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard would have been a more viable candidate for the PRD, with larger national appeal.
Security, Drug Trafficking Concerns Colored Michoacan Election
Sunday’s elections in the Mexican state of Michoacan resulted in a victory for the PRI, with the PRI candidate for governor, Fausto Vallejo, eking out a victory over PAN candidate Luis Maria Calderón (sister of the current president). The candidate from the PRD, which has ruled Michoacan for the past ten years, came in a distant third. A piece by Animal Politico evaluates the reasons behind this win, including very high voter concern for insecurity and drug trafficking. Michoacan has become one of the most violent states amid President Calderon’s war on drug trafficking. Those concerned with insecurity generally voted for the PRI, while those concerned with drug trafficking tended to support the PAN.
Official sources in both governments have confirmed that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will hold talks at the Rio Group Summit in Cancún, Mexico. The summit will take place from Monday, February 22 to Tuesday, February 23, but the exact date and time of the bilateral meeting has yet to be confirmed.
This will be the first time the leaders have come together bilaterally since Ecuador severed diplomatic relations with Colombia in 2008. According to several sources, the meeting comes as the result of an informal conversation they had at the Cumbre de la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) meeting earlier this month on Haitian relief efforts.
Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez has said his government has committed to bringing proposals to the meeting that address a variety of sensitive issues in the hope of “restoring full diplomatic relations.” Ecuador’s president has also expressed his goodwill: “We are glad to be able to work on rebuilding the historically fraternal relations between Ecuador and Colombia.”
Members of Ecuador’s opposition parties staged massive demonstrations yesterday in Guayaquil to protest the government of President Rafael Correa. The demonstration was called by Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot in response to the federal government’s decision to slash the city’s budget by $17 million, which the opposition believes was a calculated moved designed to undermine officials from opposition parties.
During a 45-minute speech to an audience of an estimated 40,000 people Mr. Nebot called on demonstrators to, “fight to stop the dictatorship.” The mayor declared that protests would remain peaceful for now, but that they would oppose using any available means a shift toward what he called a “Venezuelan type failure.”
President Correa reacted immediately to the protests by criticizing Mayor Nabot’s management and stating that the city government “will not receive 20 cents more that what the law stipulates.” The president also accuses the mayor of being a pelucón (wealthy businessman) whose policies only benefit the rich elite and do nothing to improve a city facing high levels of poverty and unemployment.