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Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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Brazil currently has its most conservative Congress in decades. As violence against social movements increases and the criminalization of Brazilian social movements in the media and judiciary intensifies, it is a good time to take a closer look at who these movements are and what they are doing. How did they start, and what is their position in the current political context? This article is meant to serve as a very brief introduction to two of the largest Brazilian social movements: the MST and the UNMP.

During the 1970s, as Brazil suffered under a U.S.-supported neofascist military dictatorship, liberation theology factions within the Catholic Church created political organizing groups, called ecclesiastic base communities, in poor villages and slums. Using methodological tools developed by philosophers such as Paulo Freire, and influenced by Marxism, the priests and nuns began to develop local leaders and organize exchanges among them at the local, regional and national level. There were other factors at work, but the role that liberation theologians played, from the final years of the dictatorship until their censure by the Church hierarchy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was fundamental in the formation of the popular (or “poor people's”) social movements. These movements played an important part in creating one of world's most progressive constitutions, as well as in the formation of the PT (Workers Party), and the elections and re-elections of Lula Inacio da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

FNRUPhoto courtesy of the UNMP-São Paulo.

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST (commonly called the Landless Peasants' Movement, or Landless Workers' Movement), was created in 1984 to address historic inequalities in rural areas (caused by 500 years of monoculture) by fighting for agrarian reform, collectively squatting on and farming on unproductive land under the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” Due mainly to its efforts, this practice is considered legal under the 1988 Constitution (although the Constitution is frequently ignored by local governments and the judiciary in Brazil) and is now regulated, supported and protected by a government agency called the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária.

While the maquiladora export industry is sometimes touted as a symbol of progress and development in underdeveloped countries, the reality for many workers implies otherwise. In Central America, maquilas act as multinational levers to gain profit, but are not a guarantee of a sufficient income for workers.

According to a 2014 report [PDF] published by labor and social organizations, in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – approximately 350,000 [PDF] workers are employed in the maquiladora industry: 80,000 in El Salvador, 150,729 in Guatemala and 120,000 in Honduras.  As Table 1 illustrates, on average, 54 percent [PDF] of these countries’ total exports to the U.S. are produced in the maquiladora industry (42 percent for El Salvador, 55 percent for Guatemala and 65 percent for Honduras).

Table 1

Data from the U.S. Office of Textiles and Apparel shows that Central America and the Dominican Republic produce around 10 percent of all apparel goods purchased in the U.S., of which 70 percent is produced in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This means that Central America is behind only China (which produces 36 percent) and Vietnam (which produces 11 percent) in clothing exports to the U.S. Among the largest sectors that Central America exports to the U.S. are cotton knitted T-shirts (23.1 percent of these U.S. imports in dollars) and cotton underwear (24.7 percent of these U.S. imports in dollars).

The apparel export industry in Central America is concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals. Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, and Gildan Activewear are three of the biggest North American corporations operating in Honduras, employing around 25 percent of maquiladora workers in the country. Fruit of the Loom alone employs approximately 24,000 workers in Honduras and El Salvador. Nike and Adidas also subcontract production to maquiladoras; together they have about 30 outsourcing companies in Honduras alone.

On January 21, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the beginning of a national program called “Mexico with Decent Work” (México con Trabajo Digno), with the stated mission to “promote the respect, protection and guarantee of human rights for workers in Mexico, as well as to ensure decent work is fully in force.” However, only two months later, as Secretary of Labor Alfonso Navarrete boasted that the program was rescuing people working practically in slave conditions, thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley in the Northeastern state of Baja California went on strike, demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the government and multinational corporations.

Negotiations have yet to move forward. The Mexican government seems unable to respond, perhaps because the organized farmworkers are challenging an alliance between multinational corporations, public officials who also have business in the valley, and corporate unionism– a system that protects the interests of employers.

San Quintín Valley is one of Mexico’s largest export regions, employing tens of thousands of farmworkers, many of them first or second generation indigenous migrants [PDF] originally from Southern Mexico. Each year the region generates more than six billion pesos (about $410 million) worth of agricultural products. It is estimated that there are 80 thousand farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley, and yet in the municipality of Ensenada, which encompasses all of San Quintín, there are less than 24 thousand farm workers registered with the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). The most important good produced is strawberries, but only a small portion of these are consumed in Mexico. Most are exported to the U.S. market to be sold by fast food chains, or in supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Safeway, or Whole Foods. Around 84 percent of U.S. imports of fresh strawberries come from Mexico, and Baja California leads Mexico’s production and export of strawberries.

Luis Hernández Navarro, Mexican journalist and coordinator of the opinion section of La Jornada, referred to the working conditions this way:

San Quintín’s day farmworkers labour in humiliating conditions on farms that grow produce for export: tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries. In exchange for starvation wages, they work up to 14- hour days without a weekly day of rest, let alone holidays or social security. Foremen sexually abuse the women, and they are forced to take their children to the premises to perform work.

… Many [workers] are indigenous migrants from Oaxaca (Mixtec and Triqui), Guerrero, Puebla and Veracruz, who have made San Quintín into another of their communities. Three generations of Oaxacalifornianos live there. They suffer constant police harassment. They rely on a single hospital [run by the] Mexican Social Security Institute [IMSS].

The Americas Blog’s friend for the week is none other than Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey! Currently under federal indictment on bribery and corruption charges, Senator Menendez recently took a break from trashing Venezuela and fighting the administration over its attempts to normalize relations with Cuba and reach a deal with Iran in order to add his voice to the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who criticize “Fast Track,” also known as Trade Promotion Authority.

Late last night, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced a Senate Finance Committee hearing with just 12 hours notice. The hearing started off this morning with three Cabinet level officials giving testimony, despite the fact that the “Fast Track” bill had not been published. All three said they had not seen the final text of the bill, which in any event was introduced several hours later, at around 2:30 PM this afternoon.

This rushed timeline and lack of transparency was the focus of a statement published by Menendez and signed by half of the Democrats in the Senate Finance Committee:

With millions of jobs on the line, American workers and manufacturers deserve more than a hastily scheduled hearing without an underlying bill. Congress should undergo a thorough and deliberative committee process for debating trade agreements that account for 40 percent of our world’s GDP. And we should be debating a bill that has seen the light of day and contains strong provisions to protect American workers against illegal trade practices like currency manipulation.

During his time for questions, Senator Menendez rightly pressed the U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Michael Froman, on his estimate of the net jobs effect of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Here is the exchange, taken from a transcript prepared by CQ Congressional Transcripts:

MENENDEZ:

[…] Ambassador Froman, I asked you at our last hearing on the broad question of trade, how many jobs do you expect to be created -- net jobs, I would say, because in every process of trade, there are winners and losers -- net jobs to be created in TPP within the first year, the first five years, the first 10 years?

You didn't give me any figures, and I'm wondering if, at this point, you're in the position to describe what that would be.

FROMAN:

So when the -- the agreement is complete, there'll be a full economic analysis done.

I think the most authoritative analysis right now is probably the one that comes from the Peterson report -- the Peterson Institute that talks about expanding exports when fully implemented by $123 billion a year, adding $77 billion to U.S. GDP and contributing to many more high-paying jobs.

It depends a bit on where you are on the spectrum of full employment. If you're not at full employment, then it adds jobs. If you are at full employment, then it adds better jobs. And so it'll bend a little bit...

MENENDEZ:

So -- so we don't have a number on the jobs? You're talking about just gross?

From April 8-11, President Obama will make his first trip south of the U.S. border since February of 2014.  On April 9, he will be in Kingston, Jamaica for meetings with Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and the leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an organization made up of 15 Caribbean governments.  Then on April 10 and 11, he will be in Panama City where he’ll participate in the seventh Summit of the Americas alongside the leaders of every independent government in the hemisphere including – for the first time – the Republic of Cuba.   

As we had predicted, the last Summit of the Americas that took place in Cartagena, Colombia in April of 2012 was a stormy affair for Obama, with many Latin American leaders objecting to the U.S.’ refusal to allow Cuba’s participation in the summit and criticizing the U.S. “War on Drugs” (not to mention that little scandal involving Secret Service agents and local prostitutes).  Following Obama’s efforts to begin the normalization of relations with Cuba and the lifting of his veto on Raul Castro’s participation in the Panama summit, many expect the U.S. president to receive a warmer welcome this time around.  But dark clouds have gathered again following the White House’s executive order declaring Venezuela an “extraordinary national security threat” and slapping senior Venezuelan officials with sanctions. 

On April 7, two senior White House officials, Ricardo Zúñiga – National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs – and Ben Rhodes – Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications – provided the press with a briefing on Obama’s trip to Kingston and Panama City.  As a service to our readers, CEPR has the pleasure of offering its own background briefing on some of the key issues that are sure to come up during Obama’s trip, with a few choice contributions from the aforementioned White House briefing.

Let’s start with Jamaica.  On April 9, President Obama will, in the words of Zúñiga, “have an opportunity to speak to Prime Minister Miller about (…) our strong support for Jamaica's work to deal with a debt crisis, with a fiscal crisis, and its strong performance in the last two years in working with the IMF and World Bank and others to address that, in support of the prosperity and security of her citizens.”

The kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students from a teacher-training college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero has sparked renewed attention to the devastating effects of the U.S.-backed drug war in Mexico. More than six months have passed since the students’ disappearance, and while dozens of police officials and local drug gang members have been arrested, the investigations are marred with allegations of coerced confessions, and investigators are accused of covering up the truth by suppressing information.

Currently, a “caravan” of family members of the victims is traveling around the U.S. to bring attention to the terrible consequences of the war against drugs in Mexico. Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, spokesperson for the group of parents and a member of the Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa Guerrero, said the caravan aims “to shed light on the foreign policy of the United States, specifically the Mérida Initiative and its connection with the socioeconomic conditions and violence in Mexico.”

The Mérida Initiative was negotiated behind closed doors between former presidents George W. Bush of the U.S. and Felipe Calderón of Mexico in March 2007, and was inaugurated in December 2008. The former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Antonio O. Garza, said months before it was approved that it was “the most aggressive undertaking ever to combat Mexican drug cartels.” U.S. funding for judicial processes, forensic services, investigative capacity, and Mexico’s judicial reforms doesn’t seem to have had much impact so far: impunity remains rampant in Mexico, with 98.3 percent of crimes going unpunished. According to a recent U.N. report, Mexican security agents regularly engage in torture. The U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances has also found that the problem of disappearances of civilians at the hands of the police and military is worsened by the government inaction.

I recently discussed these issues, by email, with Jesse Franzblau – a policy analyst who has been researching U.S. foreign policy and human rights in Mexico and Latin America since 2006. Franzblau has carried out research and written articles for the National Security Archive, The Nation, Al Jazeera, NACLA, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Law Review and other outlets. Last year he was nominated, along with Mike Evans of the National Security Archive, and three Mexican journalists Carmen Aristegui, Daniel Lizárraga and Irvin Huerta (all formerly of Mexican news network MVS Noticias), for the 2014 Gabriel García Márquez Award for investigative journalism for their coverage of secret U.S. surveillance programs in Mexico.

Plan Colombia has been on the lips of many U.S. officials lately, who tout the 15-year-old plan as a model to stabilize the country and promote human rights and transparency. This week, two new reports alleged sexual exploitation by U.S. security forces in Colombia, underscoring the detrimental (and hypocritical) role of Plan Colombia and U.S. military and police presence in the region.  

A report [PDF]released Thursday by the U.S. Inspector General (IG) investigating the DEA found that DEA agents stationed in Colombia allegedly had “sex parties” with prostitutes bankrolled by drug cartels. This follows last month’s even more alarming report, commissioned to inform peace talk negotiations, that revealed sexual abuse of more than 54 young Colombian children at the hands of U.S. security forces between 2003 and 2007.

According to the IG report, Colombian police officers reportedly provided “protection for the DEA agents’ weapons and property during the parties.” It also states that “the DEA, ATF, and Marshals Service repeatedly failed to report all risky or improper sexual behavior to security personnel at those agencies” and expressed concern at the DEA’s general delay and unwillingness to comply with the investigation.

While the sex party report has garnered a fair amount of media attention, the Colombian report of sexual abuse has gone largely unmentioned. (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting points out that, although the claims in have received some international attention, there has been almost no coverage of the claims in the U.S. media.) That report was commissioned by the Colombian government and the FARC in an attempt to determine responsibility for the more than 7 million victims of Colombia’s armed conflict. It reported that U.S. military personnel sexually abused 53 young girls, filmed the assaults, and sold the footage as pornographic material. In another instance, a U.S. sergeant and a security contractor reportedly drugged and raped a 12-year-old girl inside a military base. The alleged rapists, U.S. sergeant Michael J. Coen and defense contractor Cesar Ruiz, were later flown safely out of the country, while the girl and her family were forced from their home after receiving threats from “forces loyal to the suspects,” as Colombia Reports described them.

I have sometimes noted that in the current “four legs good, two legs bad” discourse about Venezuela, journalists can write almost anything about the country and no one will question it – so long as it is something negative.  On Saturday, March 13, the Wall Street Journal published this chart on its front page in the print edition, below, and claimed health care spending as a percent of economic output was “lower in Venezuela than in all other major economies in Latin America.” The chart shows Venezuela’s health care spending at 1.6 percent of GDP.

WSJ Table


The chart and text don’t say it, but they are referring to public (i.e., government) spending on health care, which one can find by looking at the original data from the World Health Organization.  When I read this, I thought, this can’t be true:  The Venezuelan government spends about the same percentage of GDP on health care as Haiti? The lowest of 19 countries in the hemisphere? Less than some of the poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa? And these numbers are for 2012, when the economy was booming (5.7 percent real GDP growth), Venezuelan oil was at 103 dollars per barrel, and the government built more than 200,000 homes. They had no money for health care?

In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations handed a 78-page submission to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) claiming that the Government of Honduras violated its commitments under the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) Labor Chapter. In response to these claims, DOL published a report that “found evidence of labor law violations in nearly all the cases.” The DOL provided a series of recommendations to address the concerns raised and called for the implementation of a monitoring and action plan.

Although the report included a number of problems that ended up demonstrating labor rights violations in Honduras, some issues were addressed in a way that make the case’s future seem uncertain.

The report was published almost three years after the submission was handed in (March 26, 2012). This is not the first instance in which the DOL has been slow to respond to claims of CAFTA-DR labor violations. In April 2008, the DOL received a submission from the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan workers’ organizations alleging that the Guatemalan government had violated its obligations under the CAFTA-DR to effectively enforce its labor laws. After reviewing the submission, DOL issued a report in January 2009 finding significant weaknesses in Guatemala's labor law enforcement and making specific recommendations for improvement. It also stated that the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) “will reassess the situation within the next six months following publication of this report and determine whether further action is warranted.” However, instead of six months, six years have passed and OTLA has still not announced what it will do. In the case of the new Honduran report, the OTLA assures that within 12 months it will assess whether there has been progress in resolving the labor violations, but is there any chance that this timeline will be respected?

We will be live blogging the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Venezuela this morning here.

The hearing, “Deepening Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela: Implications for U.S. Interests and the Western Hemisphere,” will be presided over by Senator Marco Rubio, one of the co-sponsors of sanctions legislation against Venezuela passed last year. The hearing will consist of two panels, with officials from the U.S. State Department and the Treasury followed by representatives of civil society.

Estaremos blogueando en vivo desde acá esta mañana la audiencia de la Comisión de Relaciones Exteriores del Senado de EE.UU. sobre Venezuela.

La audiencia, titulada “La profundización de la crisis política y económica en Venezuela: implicaciones para los intereses de EE.UU. y para el hemisferio occidental”, estará presidida por el Senador Marco Rubio, uno de los copatrocinadores de la ley de sanciones contra Venezuela que fue promulgada el año pasado. La audiencia consistirá de dos paneles, con funcionarios del Departamento de Estado y del Tesoro, luego con representantes de la sociedad civil.
Haga click aquí para acceder a los vínculos de todos los testimonios

CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot recently appeared on The Diane Rehm Show to discuss Escalating Tensions Between The U.S. And Venezuela. The audio of the show is available here, and a transcript follows.

In a significant change in reporting at The New York Times, the newspaper yesterday became the first major news outlet in the English language media to report on what the rest of the governments in the Western Hemisphere think of U.S. policy toward Venezuela.

This is potentially important because this part of the story, which has heretofore been ignored, could begin to change many people’s perceptions of what is behind the problems in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, if other journalists begin to report on it. The Obama administration is more isolated in Latin America than even George W. Bush was, but hardly anyone who depends on the major hemispheric media would know that, because the point of view of governments other than the U.S. is not reported.

The Times article contains this very succinct and eloquent comment on the new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela from Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa:

“It ought to be a joke in bad taste that reminds us of the darkest hours of our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by the imperialists,” Mr. Correa wrote. “Can’t they understand that Latin America has changed?”

The last line really sums up the situation: They really don’t understand that Latin America has changed.  One can follow all the foreign policy debates in Washington about Latin America, in the media or in journals such as Foreign Affairs, and there really is almost no acknowledgment of the new reality. In this sense the discussion of hemispheric relations is different from most other areas of U.S. foreign policy, e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, even Israel and Palestine – where there is at least some debate that reaches the intelligentsia and the public. (The new Cold War with Russia is perhaps exceptional in the pervasiveness of a sheep-like mentality and uniformity of thinking – as Russia expert Stephen Cohen of Princeton has pointed out reminiscent of the 1950s; but it remains to be seen how long this can last, and even in this robust display of groupthink there is a small smattering of exceptions that break through.)

Woman farmer in Ecuador

(Photo credit: FAO)

Experts have argued for some time that small farms can play an important role in the struggle against climate change and that governments should prioritize strengthening and protecting small and medium-sized farms. Yet small farmers continue to be the victims of land displacement, killings, and other human rights violations, often perpetrated by state security forces, private companies, and paramilitaries, in many parts of Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. Rural workers face the destruction of their environment and culture, lack access to basic needs, and rarely have a say in the policymaking processes that affect their lives.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), says his organization emphasizes that such “smallholders are among the most effective clients for public funds for dealing with issues around climate change.” Yet a focus on making profits for agribusiness has led to the breakup of Indigenous organizations; increased hunger; environmental destruction; migration from rural areas to cities; and unregulated, unsafe, and low-wage work. As Diego Montón from la Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo points out, agribusiness and its transnational companies have transformed food into a commodity at the mercy of financial speculation. Through mechanisms such as the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture and General Agreement on Trade in Services [PDF], corporations wield enormous influence over how prices of goods, agricultural models, and trade mechanisms are determined, including the standards for quality, efficiency, and distribution.

In response to Wednesday’s announcement that the United States would work to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Mexico’s former ambassador to Cuba revealed that his country had pursued a strategy of provoking the Cuban government in order to gain favor with the Bush administration. Ricardo Pascoe, who served as Ambassador from 2000-2002, says that Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda worked to appease the White House by damaging Mexico’s ties with Cuba, while he fought to maintain the bilateral relationship. Pascoe says his position is now vindicated since Mexico, a natural interlocutor between the U.S. and Cuba, which could have played a large role in the two country’s negotiations, lost out to Canada as host for secret bilateral talks.

“Mexico was in the worst position of all: completely left out,” said Pascoe, also exclaiming: “They didn’t choose Mexican territory for the talks (as would have been natural in other times). But with Fox and Castañeda we lost our historic standing with the island!”

Pascoe explained that the bilateral relationship between Mexico and Cuba could not be repaired under the governments of Felipe Calderón and current President Enrique Peña Nieto. For Pascoe, this not only demonstrates the failure of Mexico’s foreign policy toward Cuba, but more generally the country’s foreign policy toward Latin America.

Theresa Jessouroun’s new documentary, “A Queima Roupa” (“Point Blank”) tells the story of the past 20 years of massacres committed by the Rio de Janeiro military police. These chacinas are frequently committed in retribution for a killed police officer and traditionally involve coming into a poor neighborhood and killing random, Afro-Brazilian youth. In the film, Ivan Custódio, a former police officer and member of the “Cavalos Corredores death squad that orchestrated the notorious chacina in Vigário Geral, tells how police hide most of the bodies, and claims to have killed more than 300 people. The film focuses on Rio de Janeiro, but could have been made anywhere in Brazil. Last month in the city of Belém, after an officer was killed, off-duty cops announced their massacre on Facebook and proceeded to go into a slum and kill an estimated 35 people. As usual, most of the victims were Afro-Brazilian teenagers who had no criminal record and were killed to create a climate of terror in their neighborhood.

As solidarity protests spread around the world over racially motivated police violence in Ferguson and New York, it is important to note that this problem is not limited to the United States (or Mexico). In 2012, approximately 23,100 Afro-Brazilian males between the ages of 15 and 29 were murdered in Brazil, according to Amnesty International.  A large number of these were executions, perpetrated by death squads, militias or vigilantes, three groups that are primarily made up of off duty or former police officers. A 2009 study by economist Daniel Cerqueira [PDF] found that Afro-Brazilians are twice as likely as whites to suffer violence from the police. The ratio of police officers to citizens killed by police this year was 21:1, and the National Public Security Forum estimates that 2,212 people were killed by the police in 2013, but some experts believe the actual numbers may dwarf these estimates.

Alexandre Ciconello, the researcher responsible for Amnesty International Brazil’s “Jovem Negro Vivo” campaign against what many call the genocide of young, Afro-Brazilian males, says, “We don’t know how many people the police kill in Brazil. All we have are estimates. Some states don’t report on the issue or provide very poor information. Some states include homicides committed by police outside of working hours, and others don’t. When you look at a state like Rio de Janeiro, which doesn’t calculate murders committed by off-duty police, this becomes a problem because of the militias.”

On December 9th, CEPR Senior Associate for International Policy Alex Main testified about the human rights situation in Honduras before the Subcommittee of International Human Rights of Canada’s House of Commons.  The Subcommittee asked Alex to discuss the state of human rights in Honduras since the November 2013 elections, focusing in particular on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and justice sector workers.  He was also asked to comment on government measures designed to address human rights abuses, on the implementation of precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and on Honduras’ electoral process.

In his opening statement, Alex discussed these points and others, including the growing militarization taking place in Honduras, and in conclusion said:

Honduras’ human rights situation remains as dire as ever and, in many cases, targeted attacks against members of at-risk sectors – including human rights defenders and journalists – have recently increased in number.  Meanwhile, impunity around these and other crimes remains appallingly high. 

The government’s response to this situation over the last 12 months has been grossly inadequate and, in some areas, completely counterproductive.  The processes by which the government claims to address corruption and criminality within the security forces and the judiciary are arbitrary and ineffective.  Genuine police reform appears to be off the agenda, following the dissolution of a reform commission whose proposals were systematically ignored, despite the backing of the human rights community.  The government’s plans to further militarize law enforcement activities, and to involve the military in other traditionally civilian tasks, including state-sponsored extracurricular activities for young people, is an alarming, negative trend that will further undermine human rights and democracy in Honduras.

In short, the government’s record over the last 12 months indicates that it has little real will to address Honduras’ human rights crisis.

On November 14, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the three countries that comprise Central America’s Northern Triangle – presented their “Alliance for Prosperity” plan [PDF] at an event at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). The plan was originally made public in September, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández presented it to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. General Assembly. But the Washington event was the real “coming out” party for the proposal, as it appears key funding will emanate from the IADB, the U.S. government and other Washington-based sources.

Ostensibly a response to the root causes of migration that led to this summer’s child refugee “crisis,” the plan appears to be nothing less than a blueprint for a major economic and social transformation of the region, including large-scale reforms in education, policing, energy, finances and legal and justice systems, and requiring sizeable investments in areas such as infrastructure, job creation and crime reduction. To say the plan is ambitious is an under-statement.

The leaders of the three countries telegraphed the rough concept for the plan during their July visit to D.C. in which they called for a “Plan Colombia” for Central America. It is notable that two major proponents of Plan Colombia’s creation during the Clinton administration – Vice President (then Senator) Biden and IADB President Luis Moreno (then with the U.S. Mission in Colombia) – spoke at the IADB event.

Biden’s remarks on November 14 suggest a reversal from his earlier response to the presidents, in which he said that the U.S. would not invest in a “Plan Colombia” for Central America because “Central American governments aren’t even close to being prepared to make some of the decisions that the Colombians made, because they are hard.” As a Senator, Biden had pushed for support for the Colombian military to be a key part of Plan Colombia, saying that the military “have never been accused themselves of doing human rights abuses.” (In the wake of the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military was caught killing civilians and dressing them like FARC, Biden’s comments seem especially shocking, but the Colombian military’s human rights record was already scandalous at the time.)

In 2012, a congressional coup brought down Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo over allegations that he had mishandled the conflict between rural workers and the family of the late businessman and ex-senator Blas Riquelme over a 2,000 hectare territory named Marina Cué located in Curuguaty in the department of Canindeyú. In June of 2012, the conflict that had been escalating for years erupted in a violent land eviction effort that ended with the deaths of 11 farmers and 6 policemen. Federico Franco, the Vice-President, replaced Lugo and ruled until Horacio Cartes, from the Colorado Party, won elections in April 2013 and took office in August. Today the conflict remains unresolved and the drama is being played out in a scenario that reflects the vast and historic injustices for rural workers, an alarming concentration of land, and a nation with inadequate public institutions to serve and protect its citizens.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article covering Wednesday’s protests in Ecuador against President Rafael Correa, but key facts were missing and the article contained several misleading statements.

First, it is curious that the WSJ chose to focus on a protest of reportedly “around 3,000 protesters,” when a much larger demonstration took place on Saturday in favor of the government’s labor reform policy. The pro-government rally had participation from 100,000 people, according to organizers, and news outlets such as EFE reported participation of “tens of thousands of workers.” Perhaps an argument can be made that protests are more interesting than rallies supporting measures championed by the government, but the WSJ used the same word, “thousands,” to describe the number of attendees at both events.

The piece also includes a line that reads, “Mr. Correa took office in early 2007 and promptly engineered a new constitution that allowed for his re-election.” In reality, a constitutional convention (i.e. adopting a new constitution) was one of Rafael Correa’s campaign promises the year he was first elected (with 56.7 percent of the vote). Further, the old 1998 constitution allowed for indefinite re-election, though not consecutively, for the presidency, while the 2008 constitution set a limit of two-terms for the presidency, which could be served consecutively. Neither of these basic facts was mentioned in the article.

During a visit to Washington in late July, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina jointly called for a regional security initiative modeled on Plan Colombia in response to the rampant violence sweeping their countries.  In an October 29th Congressional briefing, human rights advocates from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia made a distinctly different appeal.  Describing how militarized security programs cut from the same cloth as Plan Colombia had undermined human rights and democracy in their countries, they earnestly called on the U.S. Congress to reconsider its ongoing support for these programs. 

The briefing, hosted by the office of Representative Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and co-sponsored by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Just Associates, CISPES and CIP-Americas, was entirely videotaped by CEPR, and can be viewed here (in Spanish with no subtitles). 

For those who are interested in these issues but don’t speak Spanish or have limited time, we provide a translation of key excerpts from each of the four powerful presentations made by the human rights defenders.

First, a quick summary of the event:

Iduvina Hernández Batres, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, discussed how the U.S. security agenda in Guatemala undermines citizen security. Bertha Oliva, Coordinator of the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), talked about how abuses by U.S.-backed security forces have increased, while judicial authorities justify rather than investigate the violence. María Luisa Aguilar López of the Mexican human rights organization Tlachinollan, explained how the recent disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero is not an exception, but rather a representative case in a country that has recorded at least 22,000 forced disappearances since the U.S.-backed, militarized drug war began in Mexico in 2006.  Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination, described the dire effects of Plan Colombia on human rights and democracy in Colombia, including thousands of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, and how the U.S. is now helping export the Colombian model to other countries. 

Kathryn Johnson, from the Washington office of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, moderated the panel.  In her introductory and closing remarks she shared passages from a statement by the MesoAmerican Working Group on the impact of U.S. security assistance on human rights in Mexico and Central America, including policy recommendations for U.S. lawmakers.  The statement is available here [pdf].

Karen Spring of the Honduran Solidarity Network writes that in a recent meeting

… Juan Orlando Hernández (President of Honduras), Daniel Ortega (President of Nicaragua), and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (President of El Salvador) defined their nation's [sic] interests in projects that would develop the [shared area of the Gulf of Fonseca] and came to an agreement on investments in the following sectors: Infrastructure, tourism, agroindustry, and renewable energy.

The meeting declaration mentions, among other projects

…the "implementation of a Employment and Economic Development Zone (ZEDE) [known as a Model City] that includes a logistics park." The idea is to convert the Gulf into a "Free Trade and Sustainable Development Zone."

Radio Progreso has noted that the Honduran government is courting investment for the projects from “the European Union [and] the Inter-American Development Bank and is seeking investors in Panama and the United States.”

The ZEDEs, or “model cities,” are areas in which large portions of the Honduran constitution will not apply, including various sections that apply to fundamental and internationally-recognized human rights.

A National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation recently traveled to Honduras to investigate the legal implications of the proposed ZEDEs. In a report released in September, the NLG described how few articles of the constitution residents of the ZEDEs would actually enjoy:


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