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LatinNews Daily Report - 26 June 2013

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Main Briefing

Development: On 25 June Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante announced that following consultations with senior members of the judiciary and political leaders the government would promote a national plebiscite on political reform, dropping the idea of a constituent assembly, as proposed by President Dilma Rousseff just 24 hours earlier.

Significance: The strongly negative reaction of the judiciary and senior political leaders including the vice-president, Michel Temer, to President Rousseff’s bold proposal obliged a quick re-think.

A defensive Mercadente yesterday said that the president had only been speaking in a ‘generic’ sense when she mooted a constituent assembly and explained that yesterday’s discussions with the likes of the head of the Brazilian bar association, Marcus Vinicius Furtado, and the supreme court president, Joaquim Barbosa, had resulted in “a convergence” towards the idea of a national plebiscite on political reform, whereby the Brazilian public would be asked to vote on certain proposals, which congress would thereafter legislate for. Mercadante said there was “no time” for an assembly and intimated that the government would push for a plebiscite as soon as September so that congress will have sufficient time to legislate on all the proposals, which may include some constitutional amendments, before the October 2014 general election.

Rousseff now will meet the senate and congress leaders to discuss the nature of the proposals to be put to the public, and will also ask the president of the supreme electoral court, Cármen Lúcia, to advise on the necessary preparations, he added.

Key points:

  • It is totally unprecedented to see such activity in Brasília and the estimated 1.0m or more protestors that turned out all over the country last week can congratulate themselves on having (finally) lit a match under the country’s political class. Yesterday, the senate president Renan Calheiros said that parliament could even forego its upcoming recess so as to respond to the public discontent. The congress was a hive of activity yesterday, with deputies moving at lightening speed to debate measures and pending draft bills to boost spending on health, education and transport.  Among these is a bill sent down by Rousseff to destine all future oil royalties to education (and potentially also health, according to yesterday’s congressional votes), while new measures suggested yesterday included free public transport passes for students, who by and large headed the latest protests.
  • Defending the need for a popular consultation on political reform so that citizens can exercise their constitutional right to request that the congress legislate on their behalf, the ever-more-outspoken Barbosa yesterday noted that a slew of political reform proposals had come and gone in congress for years, all failing because of a lack of political will to see them through.
  • Rousseff has not commented on what looked like a political defeat for her yesterday; Mercandente, one of the founders of the left-wing ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), was the face of the crisis. Critics in the conservative mainstream media accused the president to trying to seek political capital from the protests by separating herself from the political class – and in particular the unpopular congress – with her direct appeal to the people.
  • Her swift change of heart at least showed that the checks and balances mutually exercised by the state institutions (the presidency, congress and the judiciary) are working in Brazil. Although some opposition commentators had dubbed Rousseff’s constituent assembly proposal ‘a Bolivarian coup’, in properly Bolivarian countries – like Venezuela –  all the institutions are subservient to the presidency and so no such reaction would have been possible. When Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) wanted something done, including legally dubious constitutional or political-electoral reforms, the congress and the supreme court hopped to it without ado, and without question. (And when the public rejected a package of constitutional reforms in late 2007, Chávez later used his decree powers to get them through congress anyway, in clear defiance of the popular will).
Andean

Development: On 25 June Colombia’s national police confirmed that two more protesting peasant farmers were killed in violent clashes with its mobile anti-riot squadron (Esmad) in the Catatumbo area of Norte de Santander department.

Significance: Four protestors in the Catatumbo have now died and the tensions in the area over the past two weeks are quickly turning into a political and security crisis for the central government led by President Juan Manuel Santos. The protestors, some of them coca producers (cocaleros), want the government to suspend a newly launched coca eradication programme in the area until it provides local producers with sufficient assistance to grow alternative crops. There also are more general demands for measures to improve the local community. Colombia’s main leftist guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), has a strong presence in the Catatumbo, which extends from north-eastern Colombia into neighbouring Venezuela. Consequently, the Santos government has been hesitant to engage in talks with the protestors, as it suspects that the Farc could be behind the unrest. With the crisis deepening however, the government is under growing pressure to find a solution.

Key points:

  • General Yesid Vásquez, Norte de Santander’s police commander, said the latest fatalities followed a clash between an Esmad squadron and demonstrators near the municipality of Ocaña. Vásquez said the Esmad squadron initially came under attack, with homemade shrapnel-filled bombs (‘tatucos’) launched at it, injuring various police officers. This led to a fire-fight between the Esmad and armed protestors, resulting in the casualties. Eight Esmad officers have also been injured.
  • The Farc often uses ‘tatucos’ to attack the security forces, further prompting suspicion about its involvement in the protests. President Santos has already accused the Farc of “infiltrating” the protests to pressure the government for a speedy implementation of some of the agricultural reform measures already agreed as part of its ongoing peace talks with the Farc; in particular the establishment in the area of a Zona de Reserva Campesina (ZRC), a semi-autonomous peasant farming territory. Yesterday, Vásquez said that he had information that the Farc was “financing the uprising” and was forcing the peasants to continue protesting even though the government had agreed to a dialogue.
  • The minister-councillor for social dialogue, Luis Eduardo Garzón, yesterday arrived in the local  municipality of Tibú, another focus of protests, where he will hold a first meeting with the protestors today (26 June), before heading to Ocaña. Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo has said that the government would listen to the protestors’ demands on the condition that they refrain from violence and remove the various road blockades they have put up.
  • However one protest leader, Juan Carlos Quintero of the Asociación de Campesinos del Catatumbo (Ascamcat), said his organisation would not lift any blockades “until concrete agreements are reached”. Quintero also rejected accusations that the movement had been infiltrated by the Farc and called on other peasant organisations across the country to join the protests. The government has already expressed concerns that similar uprisings may now spread to other areas of the country.
  • Even before the latest deaths, on 24 June an NGO, the International Federation for Human Rights, denounced and condemned the “repression and criminalisation of the social protests in Ocaña”; and called on the authorities to “immediately cease the hostilities, aggressions and violations of the demonstrators’ rights”.
Central America & Caribbean

Development: On 25 June Edwin Castro, the head of President Daniel Ortega’s ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) bench in the 92-seat unicameral legislature, presented a supreme electoral court (CSE) resolution sacking FSLN Deputy Xochilt Ocampo.

Significance: Castro failed to explain the CSE’s decision. Like other state institutions, the CSE is controlled by Ortega and opposition deputies from the Bancada Democrática Nicaragüense (BDN) were quick to note that Ocampo was the sole FSLN deputy (out of 62) who voted against the government bill granting the Hong Kong head-quartered HKND Group a concession to build and operate the proposed new inter-oceanic canal project (‘Gran Canal’). Ocampo’s expulsion, which according to the opposition breaches the organic law of the legislature, underlines Ortega’s intolerance of dissent.

Key points:

  • Ocampo, 29, who was serving her second term as an FSLN legislator, will be replaced by her substitute, Johana Luna Lia. The 2006 organic law of the legislature (Art. 24) states that deputies can only be removed from their seat by: death, resignation, a prison conviction, for abandoning their duties over a 60-day period or for receiving payment from other State institutions.
  • Ortega’s crackdown on internal dissenters coincides with allegations that the president has again moved to persecute his estranged stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo, who in 1998 controversially alleged that he had sexually abused her when she was a minor. Yesterday Ortega Murillo’s partner, Carlos Ariñez, a Bolivian human rights activist, was deported from Nicaragua, where he had been living for the past four years. The move came after the two had publicly sided with senior citizens demanding pension rights from the Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS). Officially, Ariñez was deported for not having his paperwork in order, but Ortega Murillo told reporters that she had received a phone call from her mother, First Lady Rosario Murillo, who reportedly told her that “these were the consequences” for her actions. Ortega Murillo plans to file a complaint before the Nicaraguan centre for human rights, Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Cenidh).
  • Separately yesterday, the Ortega government and the senior citizens grouped under the Unidad Nacional del Adulto Mayor (Unam) signed a six-point agreement to end the protests. The government refused Unam’s demands for a partial pension, reiterating a lack of funds, but agreed to concessions like eye tests and measures to expedite the monthly distribution of their ‘solidarity bonus’; a monthly cash stipend of C$1000 (US$40) for those without pensions launched by the Ortega government in 2010 with Venezuelan cooperation.

SECURITY | Top police commanders replaced. On 25 June President Danilo Medina issued a decree (181-13) appointing General Manuel Castro Castillo as the new commander of the national police force, replacing Mayor General José Armando Polanco Gómez. In addition air force Colonel Julio César Souffront Velásquez was promoted to the rank of general and appointed as the new head of the national police anti-drugs directorate (DNCD), replacing Mayor General Rolando Rosado Mateo. The unexpected changes come as the Medina government prepares to submit to congress a long-awaited proposal to reform the national police, which for years has been criticised as overly authoritarian and allegedly corrupt. In recent years, various DNCD agents have been arrested on suspicion of links to drug trafficking rings, putting the commanders under intense scrutiny. The latest decree provided little explanation as to the reason for the changes but it did stress that both Rosado Mateo and Polanco Gómez, who will now become Medina’s new security adviser, were “honourably discharged from their duties”.

Mexico

Development: On 25 June Mexico’s foreign minister, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, expressed concern over US plans to step up security along the two countries’ common border, saying they “depart from the principles of shared responsibility and good neighbourliness”.

Significance: While Mexico supports President Barack Obama’s efforts to carry out a comprehensive reform of US immigration laws that would allow millions of Mexicans currently living in the US illegally to be regularised, it is taken aback by talk of a deal being struck in the US congress between the Democrat administration and the Republicans that would significantly ‘militarise’ the common border. The government led by President Enrique Peña Nieto says trade requires a more open, rather than a more closed, border.

Key points:

  • The Obama administration has been seeking to introduce the biggest reform of US immigration law in over two decades. At its heart are the plans to offer a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country; but in order to get Congress to accept this, the government has been asked to show that it can tighten border controls so as to effectively stop those seeking to enter the US illegally. It is estimated that up to 11m Mexicans live in the US without proper residence papers.
  • An amendment to the current immigration bill in the US Senate calls for a doubling of the number of agents patrolling the southern border to 40,000 over the next ten years;  the construction of 700 miles of additional border fencing; and the introduction of more high-tech equipment to prevent people from coming across. Senate Republicans have supported the amendment, which envisages investing up to US$46bn on additional border security. It was passed in a 67-27 vote and the bill is now set to go to the House of Representatives.
  • Critics of the changes proposed by the Senate say it would lead to a high-security border, appropriate perhaps for the boundaries separating North and South Korea, but not for two democratic countries with peaceful relations and significant bilateral trade and tourism. The US lobby group, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), has noted that in 2003-2012 the number of border agents has already multiplied by a factor of five, but the number of illegal immigrants turned back per agent has fallen sharply.
  • Meade made it clear that Mexico also thinks this is the wrong approach. As he put it: “we are convinced that fences do not unite, fences are not the solution to the migration phenomenon, and are not in line with a modern, safe border”. Both metaphorically and literally, Meade said that instead better bridges were required between the two countries to encourage trade.
  • Ironically, just as the Senate discussed increasing border security, Mexico’s tourism minister, Claudia Ruiz Massieu, was meeting officials at the US Customs and Border Protection agency to discuss making it easier for US tourists to visit Mexico. Visa and immigration procedures are being streamlined; about 8.0m US visitors travelled to Mexico in the first four months of this year.
Southern Cone

Development: On 25 June President Sebastián Piñera said that his government would “fulfil its duty” and ensure that the 13m Chileans registered to vote in the 30 June presidential primaries would be able to do so.

Significance: Some of the schools due to serve as voting centres are currently occupied by protesting secondary school students. While President Piñera said that his administration “would continue to seek dialogue” with the students, his remarks were widely considered a threat against those that are refusing to leave the premises. According to the Chilean association of municipalities (AChM), 14 voting centres are currently being occupied. The students’ intransigence is fuelling concerns about potential violence ahead of the vote. In a recent (23 June) TV debate the presumptive 2013 presidential candidate for the opposition Concertación coalition, Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), called on the authorities to prevent a “blood bath”, a comment that earned her a harsh rebuke from the government spokesperson, Cecilia Pérez.

Key points:

  • The government has drawn up a plan providing for evictions in those schools where fewer students are on site. It is also identifying alternative voting centres to those schools occupied by a greater numbers of students. Defence Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter and other government officials have been clear that the responsibility for carrying out evictions will lie with the Carabineros police and not the military.
  • Further fuelling tensions yesterday the parents of one student leader, Pedro Aguilera, the president of the students’ centre at the Manuel Barros Borgoño secondary school in Santiago, presented a complaint against the Carabineros’ special forces for alleged torture during a 13 June forceful eviction. The Carabineros general director, Gustavo González, is due to appear in congress to clarify the incident.
  • Students from the Instituto Nacional, one of Chile’s most prestigious public schools, yesterday voted to end their occupation of the school premises after nearly a month. This followed the resignation on 19 June of the school’s dean, Jorge Toro, one of the various demands presented by the students, who are unhappy with the institute’s administration.

Development: On 25 June Argentina’s federal government led by President Cristina Fernández said it would enforce a freeze on the price of bread and demanded that agricultural exporters divert their shipments of wheat and flour back onto the domestic market.

Significance: The price of bread has increased sharply across the country in recent weeks on a shortage of wheat, prompting the government to take drastic action. Politically, rising bread prices are never a good thing, particularly a few months before mid-term congressional elections (in October). The Fernández government will also be aware that a relatively ‘small issue’ – a few extra cents on the cost of public bus fares – triggered spiralling public protests in neighbouring Brazil. All this suggests that her government will need to move sharply to resolve this problem.

Key points:

  • The cost of bread has almost doubled in the past 30 days to reach approximately US$4.00 per kilogramme. High bread prices and supply problems seem to be emerging not only in the capital Buenos Aires, but in provincial cities too. Gerardo di Cosco, head of the bakers’ association of Rosario, says bread consumption there has fallen by around 30%.  Behind this lies the fact that wheat production in the 2012/13-crop year fell by 36% to a record low of 9m tonnes, down from 14m tonnes in 2011/12.
  • Leading farmers’ organisations blame the Fernández government for the fall in wheat production, arguing that its policy of taxing exports and controlling prices is primarily responsible for the decline in output. A number of the country’s main farming lobbies organised protests last week. “When there was no market intervention or export taxes we produced between 16m and 18m tonnes a year. If we are now short of wheat in Argentina, it is the government’s fault”, Luis Miguel Etchevehere, the president of the Sociedad Rural Argentina (SRA), said.
  • The government is trying to get to grips with the problem. The domestic trade minister, Guillerno Moreno, says he has reached an agreement with bakeries to freeze the price of ‘pan felipe’ bread rolls at Ar$10 and is asking exporters to divert some 370,000 tonnes back to the local market. Days before this announcement, bread prices had reached as much as Ar$16-20 a kilo. Argentina exports most of its wheat to Brazil. Sources say the government may also ban flour exports. Moreno could not resist a political interpretation of the problem. He claimed, without much explanation, that the rise in bread and flour prices was caused by Héctor Magnetto, the chief executive of the Clarín media group, one of the government’s main critics. “This is a story set running by Magnetto to cause trouble”, he declared.
Security Update

The government of President Federico Franco has ordered the army into the field in the northern department of San Pedro to track down the guerrillas of the Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP). The decision was taken on 31 May, hours after the murder of rancher Luis Lindstron, supposedly by the EPP. The following day Interior Minister Carmelo Caballero announced the arrest of 18 people suspected of being part of the EPP’s logistical apparatus.

Lindstron had been kidnapped by the EPP in July 2008 and was released two months later after the payment of US$130,000 ransom. Caballero admitted that Lindstron had been let down by the government, as he was not provided with the necessary protection. He added that the upper echelons of the police in San Pedro had been replaced as a result of this.

Some officials ventured that the killing of Lindstron might have been a reprisal for the arrest in Kurusú de Hierro, Concepción (adjacent to San Pedro), also on 31 May, of Alcides Godoy Romero, suspected of being a member of the EPP. The timing renders this implausible. On the other hand, the arrests announced by Caballero may have been linked to the investigation that led to the capture of Godoy. The police in Concepción say that Godoy is a relatively new member of the EPP, as is his younger brother (now being sought), and that both are part of a recruiting drive by the insurgent group. The public ministry predicted that more arrests would follow.

Caballero said that the police needed better training to fight the EPP, given the guerrillas have been trained in Colombia. This, he noted, had emerged from documents seized in police raids. Along with the official reports of an EPP drive to recruit ‘new soldiers’, there also appears to be a shift away from playing down the group’s importance by the authorities.

Retired army General Carlos Liseras, the former head of the supreme military court, told the local media on 4 June that the EPP “has infiltrated everything, and has even reached the highest spheres of the republic; their head is not in San Pedro or Concepción — it is on this side ”. Asked for clarification, Liseras responded that everyone from government officials to military personnel should be viewed with suspicion. He added, “Nobody knows how many they are; they are recruiting people who are not even 18”. In his view the military have the necessary skills to defeat the EPP, but that for some reason successive governments had not made full use of this. Liseras went on to say that a defeat of the EPP’s military arm would not be enough, because there would still be surviving “ideological and logistical arms”.

Liseras made headlines back in 2011 when he stated that “a first phase of Bolivarian infiltration of [Paraguay’s] garrisons is being carried out vigorously”.

The Catholic Bishop of Concepción, Zacarías Ortiz, said on 5 June that his priests in rural areas had arrived at the conclusion that the local police were colluding with the EPP. “In many places”, he said, “our priests verified that those people [the EPP] were on the verge of being captured, but that the police had got in the way, which implies that in some way the police are protecting them”. Bishop Ortiz said that the EPP has a camp where it indoctrinates youths of 14 to 16 as a prelude to recruiting them.

Ortiz also claimed that the EPP had not been defeated because the government had underestimated their strength. “President [Fernando] Lugo [2008-2012] himself told me that they were an insignificant group of five or six”, he said. More recently police sources put the strength of the group at about 30.