Likely top stories this week: results in the race for governor of Baja California; protests over legislation in Peru; Costa Rica approves same-sex civil unions; Brazil responds to surveillance reports; and UNASUR divided over Evo Morales’ flight interruptions.
Baja California’s Next Governor
On Sunday, nearly half of Mexico's 31 states held elections for mayors and local legislatures, but the most watched contest is the unfolding results in the governor’s race in the state of Baja California—the only gubernatorial election on Sunday—where the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) has held the governorship for the last 24 years. Significantly, in 1989, the PAN’s electoral win in Baja California was the first state loss for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), and a victory that is often seen as eventually leading to the PAN winning the presidency in 2000.
On Sunday, shortly after polls closed, both Francisco "Kiko" Vega de Lamadrid of the Unidos por Baja California alliance (which includes the PAN and Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD) and Fernando Castro Trenti of the Compromiso por Baja California alliance (which includes the PRI) claimed victory. With 92.5 percent of the votes counted as part of the Preliminary Electoral Results Program (PREP), Kiko Vega held a slight advantage (47.19 percent versus 44.09 percent) over Castro Trenti.
A dispute in the electoral results could result in new tension in the Pact for Mexico—an agreement of 95 loosely defined proposals signed by the three main political parties and unveiled on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first day in office last December.
Peruvian Students and Civil Servants Protest Reforms
On Thursday and Friday, Peruvian police clashed violently with protesters, when hundreds of students and civil servants in Lima marched toward Congress to protest reforms that would impose tougher standards on universities and public employees. According to the protesters the reforms would force many students from their jobs and would compromise the autonomy of the country’s universities. President Ollanta Humala, who proposed the law, says it aims to improve the quality of government services and bolster a higher education system that lags behind many in the region. Humala signed the Civil Service Law, which imposes strict annual evaluations for government employees, on Thursday. A separate bill to reform universities and tighten standards for professors is pending in Congress.
Costa Rica’s Congress Inadvertently Approves Same-Sex Civil Unions
On Friday, Costa Rica’s Congress was shocked to learn that it had inadvertently legalized same-sex civil unions after President Laura Chinchilla signed a bill late Thursday governing social services and marriage regulations for young people. Earlier versions of the bill had defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, but the bill that the mostly conservative Congress approved included revised language that "confers social rights and benefits of a civil union, free from discrimination." Jose Villalta of the Broad Front Party had inserted the new language that was unanimously approved.
When lawmakers noticed the new language—after having approved the bill—they asked Chinchilla to veto the new law, but she refused. A group of conservative congressman from the Christian Costa Rican Renovation Party has pledged to launch a legal challenge to the new law.
Brazil Demands Explanations about Reports of U.S. Surveillance
On Sunday, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota expressed deep concern over a report that the United States has collected data on billions of telephone and email conversations in Brazil. Over the weekend, O Globo newspaper reported that information released by National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden shows that the NSA had logged nearly the same number of telephone and email messages in Brazil as it had in the United States. The article was written by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian reporter who originally broke the Snowden leak story. The Brazilian government demanded clarifications from the U.S. embassy in Brasilia and pledged to approach the UN to set ground rules for international espionage to protect citizens’ privacy and to preserve national sovereignty.
UNASUR Holds Emergency Meeting
On Thursday, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) held an emergency meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to discuss the bloc’s response after several European countries closed their airspace to Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday over concerns that his plane, which left from Moscow, was carrying Edward Snowden. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador called for the meeting, which was attended by Morales, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, and José Mujica of Uruguay. The Colombian, Chilean and Peruvian presidents—all of whom maintain strong relationships with the United States—did not attend. During the meeting, regional leaders called for apologies from Italy, Portugal, France, and Spain for violating Bolivia’s sovereignty and condemned the U.S. for violating human rights through their surveillance programs. The lack of participation among key UNASUR members highlights the bloc’s divide on the issue.
The National Council of Justice of Brazil, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, ruled yesterday that government licensing offices cannot deny homosexual couples marriage licenses. The ruling is expected to accelerate a law legalizing same-sex marriage in the Brazilian Congress.
Basing their decision on the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that recognizes same-sex civil unions and guarantees homosexual and heterosexual couples the same rights under the constitution, the council ruling bars notary publics from denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The ruling also calls for government licensing offices to convert a civil union into a marriage if requested by the couple. While 14 of Brazil’s 27 states have already legalized same-sex marriage, national legislation has failed to pass the Brazilian Congress, which has a strong religious faction.
Barbosa rejected the notion that a congressional decision was necessary to begin issuing marriage licenses. "Are we going to require the approval of a new law by the Congress to put into effect the decision that was already taken by the Supreme Court? It makes no sense," he said on Tuesday, adding that the high court’s decision should be followed by the lower courts as it “is binding." A challenge of the council’s decision by the Supreme Court is not likely.
Should Congress act and pass legislation regarding same-sex marriage this year, Brazil would follow Argentina and Uruguay and become the third Latin American country to legalize gay marriage.
In a 23 to 8 vote, the Uruguayan Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that brings the country one step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage. If passed, the bill would implement gender-neutral terms in marriage licenses and change the definition of civil marriage to "the permanent union, under the law, of two people of different or the same sex."
The 23 senators who voted in favor of the bill include all of the Broad Front (Frente Amplio—FA) lawmakers, as well as seven opposition senators from the National Party (Partido Nacional) and the Red Party (Partido Colorado). The House of Deputies approved a similar bill last December. Before the bill can become law, the lower chamber will have to ratify the senate amendments.
While the measure has been sharply criticized by the Catholic Church, the bill fits into Uruguayan President José Mujica’s left-leaning policies. President Mujica supports the bill and has committed to signing it into law once it passes the legislature.
If the bill becomes law, Uruguay would become the second Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage after Argentina
President Barrack Obama’s pronouncement in favor of gay marriage certainly qualifies as both historic and courageous, not only for its content but also for its timing. Some critics already see some political machinations in this statement, which came shortly after Vice President Joe Biden seemed to indicate support for gay marriage. The polling data, however, would indicate that the president made a somewhat risky move whose ramifications remain uncertain.
The issue of gay marriage has been a polarizing issue more so in America than in my home country of Canada. In the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign cleverly used state referenda on banning gay marriage or defending traditional marriage as an instrument to bring out the religious right in favor the president. Considering the narrow victory by Mr. Bush over Senator John Kerry, it has become conventional wisdom to consider the tactic a success.