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Spanish-language Media Jumps on Assange’s “Ecuador is Insignificant” Comment, Disregards Context Print
Written by Alex Main   
Monday, 03 December 2012 15:25

CNN and much of the Spanish language press regaled in an apparent “aha!” moment last week when, in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange referred to Ecuador as an “insignificant country.” CNN en español immediately reported on the incident on its Spanish-language news program. “For Julian Assange, Ecuador is an irrelevant country. Textual quote,” the anchor said, making quote signs with his fingers for added effect.  “The founder of Wikileaks belittles President Rafael Correa in an interview on this network,” he added, before broadcasting a very short excerpt of the interview in which Assange made the offensive remark.

Other Spanish-language news outlets quickly chimed in, eager to inform their audience that Assange, who has spent the last five months in Ecuador’s London embassy, gravely disrespected the country that has offered him asylum.  “Assange doesn’t mince his words, and calls Ecuador ‘insignicant’ ” headlined El Comercio, Ecuador’s leading daily.  Spanish online newspaper Libertad Digital stated:

Despite being six months now in their embassy in London, the founder of Wikileaks hasn’t said very nice things about Ecuador.  In an interview with the U.S. television network CNN, he avoided commenting on the situation of freedom of expression or the control of media by the government of Rafael Correa, as it is a country that is “insignificant” and its decisions don’t have the same importance as those of other states.

But relatively little attention was paid to a statement that WikiLeaks published in reaction to the coverage that Assange’s Ecuador comment had generated.  The statement provides a bit of critical background information that was generally not mentioned, or buried deep inside the articles:

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State Department All a Twitter About Human Rights in Honduras Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 30 November 2012 12:47

The Obama administration has been outspoken recently about human rights, but some statements are somewhat disconnected from actual policy.

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough visited Honduras this week, meeting with President Lobo, “members of his cabinet, and civil society representatives.” At the conclusion of his visit, he issued a statement, saying among other things that

I …extended my congratulations to the Honduran people on their strong participation in a peaceful, democratic, primary election process on November 18, recognizing the commendable work of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

“Peaceful” and “democratic” perhaps, aside from the various assassinations of opposition candidates and members belonging to the LIBRE party this year, and other political repression recently submitted to the International Criminal Court as evidence of “crimes against humanity and impunity in Honduras.” These murders represent another serious threat to Honduran democracy in the wake of the 2009 coup, and have led some analysts to conclude that “free and fair” elections next year are all but impossible. But the Obama administration seems to pretend the repression is not happening by describing the process as “peaceful.”

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, meanwhile, also has become a vocal champion of human rights - on Twitter - reminding followers of significant dates in U.S. history for labor and civil rights, for example, and decrying attacks on women, and other serious rights abuses in Honduras.

On Wednesday, Kubiske Tweeted:

 

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Daily Headlines – November 27, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Tuesday, 27 November 2012 12:45

Yesterday Argentina appealed a ruling by a New York court that could force Argentina to pay holdout bondholders known as vulture funds, reports the Associated Press.  Judge Thomas Griesa ruled last week that Argentina must put $1.3 billion into an escrow account by December 15. If Argentina refuses to do so, the court ruling would force Bank of New York Mellon, which distributes payments to those bondholders who did accept a restructuring following the 2001 default, to stop those payments. The ruling is based on the parri passu clause, which the court interpreted as requiring equal treatment to both the bondholders who accepted a restructuring and those that held out. If, as President Kirchner has indicated, Argentina refuses to pay the vulture funds and the appeal is unsuccessful, it could lead Argentina into a technical default. Siding with Argentina in the court case is the US Federal Reserve, commercial banks and holders of restructured bonds. Also, as the AP points out, even critics of Kirchner in Argentina have criticized the judge’s ruling in recent days, as it threatens the successful economic growth that resulted after the default in 2001. For more on the case, click here and here.

Meanwhile, writing in The Guardian, Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang highlights the need for a sovereign bankruptcy law, similar to what countries offer debt-laden companies. Once a company declares bankruptcy, “the debtor company and its creditors are forced to work together to reorganise the company's affairs, under clear rules.” Unfortunately, as Chang notes, “no mechanism like this exists for countries, which is what has made sovereign debt crises so difficult to manage.” Chang uses the examples of Greece and Argentina, arguing that the effects of their debt problems go far beyond their borders, noting that “In the Argentinian case, we are risking not just an end to Argentina's recovery but a fresh round of turmoil in the global financial market because of one questionable US court ruling.”

A new report from the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean reports on the reduction of poverty in the region over the last few decades, reports the AP. Overall, despite recording the lowest poverty level in three decades, some 167 million people still remain mired in poverty in the region. This is one million fewer than in 2010 and represents some 29 percent of the population. The report, “Social Panorama of Latin America 2012”, released today, also reports on trends in inequality. The report notes that “on average, the richest 10% of the Latin American population receives 32% of total income, while the poorest 40% receive just 15% of income.” Since 2002, the countries that have shown the largest decrease in inequality are Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In all of these countries the Gini coefficient fell at an annual rate of more than two percent. To read the entire report, which “examines paid employment in care activities, as well as household spending on care services, and proposes a series of policy recommendations,” click here. For more on the reduction of inequality in Latin America, see here and here.

Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is in Washington today to meet with President Obama, reports CNN. In an op-ed printed by the Washington Post last week, Peña Nieto lays out his agenda for the meeting with Obama, noting that “It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns. Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way.” As CNN notes, Peña Nieto will focus on economic issues as well as security in his visit. Meanwhile, writing in Huffington Post, John Ackerman a professor at UNAM-Mexico City writes that Obama is losing credibility by cozying up to Peña Nieto. Ackerman notes that the recent election in Mexico was “a far cry from normal democratic politics” and warns that Peña Nieto represents a return to the old guard, which “represents the worst of Mexico's authoritarian past.” Ackerman concludes that by cozying up to Mexico’s new president “Obama sends a clear message that his Latin America policy will be equally as shortsighted in his second term as it was during his first.”

 
Honduras’ Party Primaries: Voters Went to the Polls, But Can Next Year’s Elections be “Free and Fair”? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 21 November 2012 13:04

“Will the elections in Honduras be free and fair?”

This was the question asked yesterday by Aljazeera’s Inside Story Americas, in a discussion with professor Dana Frank of the University of California Santa Cruz, and Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which filed evidence last week with the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding ongoing impunity for crimes against humanity committed by coup leaders Roberto Micheletti, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, palm oil magnate Miguel Facusse, and others. (See our previous post here.)

Honduras’ presidential elections are a year away, but if they are anything like the country’s previous elections in 2009, the answer would be no. Those elections were overseen by an un-elected coup regime, which attacked protesters, raided civil society offices and censored media outlets. An Amnesty International spokesperson declared, “Justice seems to have been absent also on Election Day in Honduras," and most Latin American countries refused to recognize the new government of Porfirio Lobo afterward.

Party primary elections were held on Sunday, with the preliminary results showingMauricio Villeda ahead as presidential candidate for the Liberal Party while the National Party was favoring Juan Orlando Hernández,” and former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya emerged – running unopposed - as the candidate of the new Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) party (which emerged from the National Resistance Front to the coup (FNRP)). Notably, of the three, Zelaya had received the most votes (357,926) as of this writing, with Hernández’s 306,012 second. But, only about two-thirds of the mesas had been examined before technical problems caused a vote count disruption, and Hernández’s National Party challenger Ricardo Álvarez called for a “vote by vote recount.” The Supreme Electoral Tribunal vowed yesterday to issue final results “within 10 days.”

As the CCR and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted in its evidence to the ICC, several LIBRE party candidates and members have been killed this year. Spees told Aljazeera:

We saw the same types of threats and violence around the elections in November of 2009 after the coup, and it’s continued and expanded, and what we’re seeing is either killings of candidates or would-be candidates. We’re seeing threats and attacks. It’s not an atmosphere in which you can legitimately, realistically expect to have free and fair elections.

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Colombian Peace Talks Begin in Havana: Inclusive Participation for Lasting Peace? Print
Tuesday, 20 November 2012 15:51

As dialogue opens on the second day of the much anticipated peace negotiations between the Colombian government and longstanding rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), citizen inclusion and participation in the process have been sought as part of an expressed commitment from both sides to incorporate input from Colombian civil society, a main tenet of the General Agreement for the Termination of Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace. The country’s bicameral congressional Peace Commissions, with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace and technical support from the United Nations, have called for the “extensive participation in the conversations between the Colombian national government and the FARC”, inviting Colombian civil society to present proposals to be included at the negotiating table.

To facilitate this process, various platforms have been provided for citizen engagement in proposing solutions to the conflict based on the five-point agenda of the peace process, including regional meetings and a forthcoming online forum for submitting proposals. The regional roundtable meetings were designed to “guarantee the extensive participation of different regional social sectors, including organizations of farmers, indigenous peoples, afro-Colombians, women, union workers, students, human rights defenders, youth, environmentalists, LGBTQ communities, peace initiatives, churches, guilds, businesses, academics, social researchers and victims of the conflict.”

These regional meetings have been held throughout the country, offering a space for civil society leaders to present their organizations’ proposals on the first three agenda items to be discussed at the talks: agrarian development policy, illicit crop substitution, and political participation (future roundtable meetings to be held in 2013 are set to include issues related to victims, a fourth subject area of the peace agenda). Similarly, an electronic forum is said to be in the works as a mechanism to receive additional citizen input, the technical finalization of which delayed negotiations four days from their initially planned start date of November 15. With these participatory mechanisms in place, the stage now seems to be set for the desired inclusion of Colombian civil society in the peace talks as part of the larger process seeking an end to half a century of civil conflict.

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Murders of Teenagers and Opposition Party Members Underscore Impunity in Honduras and the Failure of U.S. “Vetting” Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 16 November 2012 15:39

In previous blog posts we’ve commented on the rampant political violence in Honduras since the country’s 2009 military coup, as well as the alleged involvement of Honduran security forces in extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. Sadly, recent reports from Honduras suggest that the situation continues to deteriorate. Today we’ll provide an update on some of the troubling recent events in Honduras - the recent killing of an unarmed boy allegedly carried out by U.S.- vetted military troops; the targeted killings of opposition politicians – as well as efforts by non-governmental groups to hold Honduran authorities accountable for the ongoing attacks and the country’s pervasive climate of impunity.

U.S.-vetted soldiers allegedly murder unarmed boy

Breaking news this week reveals that soldiers vetted by the U.S. chased after, shot and killed a 15-year-old boy, Ebed Yanes, who supposedly ran through a check point on a motorcycle in Tegucigalpa on the night of May 26. The Associated Press’ Alberto Arce and Martha Mendoza reported that, according to a soldier involved in the incident who came forward:

The boy, he said, did not stop at the checkpoint, but raced through it. They followed him in the Ford pickup, chasing him through the dark alleys for at least five minutes. The boy turned into an alley too narrow for the truck, so the driver stopped. The lieutenant sitting in the front passenger seat ordered the unit to open fire as he jumped out of the truck and started shooting. Two other soldiers got out and fired from 30 meters away, with soldier Eleazar Abimael Rodriguez dropping to his knee in the firing position, said the soldier, who is now a protected witness. The motorcyclist was shot.

AP notes that the soldier alleged to have fired first, Josue Sierra, was trained last year at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), at Fort Benning, Georgia, and has been charged with attempting to cover up a crime and violating official duties. Lt. Col. Reynel Funes, who allegedly oversaw a cover-up of the murder (in part by having the soldiers switch out their weapons) also attended the SOA in 1984, and went to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 2006, AP reports.

The revelations behind Yanes’ murder – only brought to light through the brave investigative work of his father - further demonstrates the rampant impunity and corruption within the Honduran military and police, even by officers “vetted” by the U.S. Despite recent misleading comments by U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske in the Honduran press, the U.S. Congress is already withholding funds to the Honduran police over the national police chief’s past ties to death squads, and counternarcotics operations and radar support to the Honduran police and military has been suspended following Honduras’ shooting down of airplanes, and the May 11 shootings of several local villagers in a counter-drugs operation in the Moskitia region. A State Department official cited in AP’s report yesterday says that “the withholding may reach $50 million, including $8.3 million in counter-narcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.”

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Mexican Senate Passes Labor Reform Bill, Weakening Worker Rights Print
Written by Jake Johnston and Stephan Lefebvre   
Thursday, 15 November 2012 12:17

The Mexican senate approved controversial new labor reforms yesterday, the AP reports. The bill, which has faced mounting public protests, would allow greater flexibility on the part of owners to hire and fire workers, among other changes.  While supporters claim it will generate thousands of jobs, critics contend that it will erode what little benefits workers do have. Alejandra Barrales, a senator from the Democratic Revolution Party, told Reuters, “What we're doing here is annulling worker's rights.”

Aspects of the bill that unions had advocated for; the right to a secret ballot and increasing transparency of union finances, were stripped in the lower house and not included in the Senate version. Those reforms were seen as key to diminishing the power of the PRI-backed, non-democratic unions and supporting the development of smaller more independent groups.  The PRD did manage to get Senate approval for two articles (388 and 390) that allow workers to choose which union they want based on majority vote and require unions to submit proposed contracts to union members.  Ultimately, these were left out of the labor reform bill and sent back to the lower house for discussion and approval.

These reforms would have been especially important in the Mexican context because often collective bargaining agreements are signed by ‘unions’ that are company-backed.  Without independence, these frequently fail to represent the interests of workers, many of whom are unaware that their labor group is essentially an extension of the company they work for

Senator Manuel Bartlett told reporters Tuesday night that, “This law is an attack against social justice, and the only ones who will benefit are going to be the business owners.” For example, the law legalizes trial periods and initial training contracts, which allow employers options for offering more tenuous employment and paying lower wages with fewer benefits.  With respect to outsourcing, a practice already used but now formally sanctioned, the law allows employers even more ways to combine low wages with little or no health, housing, severance and profit-sharing benefits, according to the AP.

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Daily Headlines - November 14, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Wednesday, 14 November 2012 14:26

Inequality is falling in Latin America as some 50 million people have risen to the middle class over the past 15 years according to a newly released World Bank report. The Guardian reports on the study, which notes that Latin America remains one of the most unequal parts of the world, “but a combination of favourable economic conditions and interventionist policies by left-leaning governments in Brazil and other countries has brought it more closely in line with international norms.” According to the World Bank report, 30 percent of the population is now part of the middle class, similar to the number who are considered poor. Meanwhile, 38 percent are classified as “vulnerable”, living just above the poverty line, but below middle class.  Previous CEPR research has shown that, as the Guardian notes, left-leaning governments have performed especially well in reducing inequality. As CEPR’s researcher Juan Montecino has written, “there is a relationship between moving away from the Washington Consensus and reducing inequality.”

The wage gap between men and women in Latin America is decreasing according to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, reports Univision. Despite obtaining more education than men, women in Latin America receive 17 percent less than their male counterparts, similar to the 18 percent gap in the United States. This is down from 22 percent in 1992. Chile and Brazil have the largest gaps, while Mexico and Central America have the lowest. Reporting on the World Bank study cited above, Inter-Press Service also notes how the increasing role of women in the economy has had a huge impact on the decrease in inequality and the rise of the middle class. Citing World Bank research, Stephanie Leutert, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes “Latin American women have been responsible for 30 percent of the region’s extreme poverty reduction in the past decade, as a result of their increased workforce participation and higher earnings.” Adding, “the global economic downturn hit men’s incomes the hardest. In response, Latin American women picked up the slack, causing more than half of 2009’s poverty reduction.”

For the 21st year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The United States was joined by Israel and Palau in voting against the measure, which was approved by a vote of 188-3. As the AFP notes, this was a record number of countries voting for the measure.  Ian Williams, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, comments, “The UN vote on the Cuba embargo reminds us yet again that U.S. foreign policy is concocted in a bubble detached from the real world, where most nations recognize that the boycott is designed to pander to the most reactionary Cuban emigres in Florida. Even dissidents in Cuba think that it is counterproductive, giving the Cuban government an excuse for its inefficiencies, while, like most such sanctions, harming more the population than those in power. Obama, embarking on a second term, and winning Florida despite the Cuban vote, owes them nothing. He should use his influence to call off the embargo and allow free travel to and from Cuba.”

Ecuador’s Rafael Correa announced his decision over the weekend to run for another term in office, reports Reuters. The decision, widely expected for some time, paves the way for Correa’s reelection in February. He currently has the highest approval rating in the hemisphere at around 80 percent. A recent survey showed Correa receiving 55 percent of the vote, over 30 points ahead of his closest rival. As the AP recently pointed out, a major reason for Correa’s popularity is that “Ecuador now devotes a greater share of its economy, 10 percent of gross domestic product, to public investment in infrastructure, education and other purposes than any other nation in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Echoing these points, Elma Lincango, an Ecuadorean nurse, told Reuters, “I want all the public works to continue, and he needs another term in office to do that ... My grandparents say that in their lifetime, he's the only president that has worked exclusively for the poor.”


 
Jamaica’s Unnatural Disaster Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Tuesday, 13 November 2012 16:20

When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Caribbean it caused massive damage to the island-nation of Jamaica, but it’s not the reason Jamaica’s economic prospects are so poor right now. A large share of the responsibility for that lies with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been squeezing the country since 2010. The damages caused by Sandy provide just the latest example of the negative effects of the severe austerity policies pushed by the IMF and backed by the Jamaican government. Early estimates are that Sandy has caused over $60 million in damages (some 2 percent of non-interest government expenditure), yet there may be limited action the government can take without cutting important spending elsewhere. That’s because the Jamaican government is trying to reestablish a lending agreement with the IMF, and the lender is demanding an extremely tight fiscal policy. Last week, Finance Minister Dr. Peter Phillips said that despite the massive damage from Sandy, the government will have to keep to “the strict fiscal program.”

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Tropical Storm Nicole hit Jamaica in the fall of 2010, during the time of the previous IMF agreement, causing damages equal to 1.7 percent of GDP. Yet, because the storm “did not have hurricane-force winds, the government was not eligible for relief under the World Bank-administered Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF).” Rather, the IMF agreed to adjust the fiscal target by 0.2 percent of GDP, just a fraction of what was needed to repair and prepare for the next disaster. In the end, Jamaica increased expenditures to cover the damages but it was entirely offset by cuts elsewhere. (The IMF stopped disbursing money to Jamaica in 2011 for their failure to adhere to the program, yet the Jamaican government still hit the required primary budget surplus target nearly right on. More likely the agreement went off-track because the government decided to honor previous commitments to raise wages and pay back-wages to public sector workers, a big no-no for the IMF.)

As Juan Montecino and I have documented, first in May 2011 and then again in May 2012, the Jamaican government responded to the worldwide recession with austerity policies pushed by the IMF. The result, as anticipated, was slower economic growth and a failure to reduce the debt (the ostensible reason for pushing austerity). Meanwhile, what expenditures Jamaica did make went towards paying interest on their crippling debt, which has absorbed over 30 percent of expenditures the past three years. Jamaica has the largest debt burden in the world, greater even than debt-riddled Greece. The result has been an estimated ten-year period of negative per-capita GDP growth.

Recent IMF research has shown that cutting spending during a recession has greater negative effects on GDP than they had previously estimated. Perhaps this is a reason why the economic downturn for Jamaica was so much worse than the IMF anticipated. Unfortunately, neither the Jamaican government nor the IMF seems to be learning from their past mistakes. While Jamaica needs real debt relief and public investment to spur growth, as they once again approach the IMF, the signs are pointing to more of the same – not even a devastating hurricane can get the IMF to relax their conditions. 

 
U.S. Congressional Committee Shifts, State Referendums Could Impact Latin America Policy Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 08 November 2012 16:34

Tuesday’s elections could bring some changes to U.S.-Latin America policy, but how significant they are remains to be seen. At the administration level, Obama’s second term is likely to continue the 12 years of the “war on drugs,” support for coups d’etat, funding of opposition groups in left-leaning countries, promotion of “free trade” deals and other policies that characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Latin America and which were carried on by Obama. As we have previously noted, the Obama administration has largely left Latin America policy to the State Department – itself a clear sign that it was a low priority compared to the Middle East, Asia, Europe and other regions.

It was other votes that could spell some changes in U.S.-Latin American relations. Some vocal Latin American policy proponents on the right were defeated, but committee leadership changes could result in a more right-leaning policy. Meanwhile, landmark referendums to legalize recreational marijuana use in two states – Colorado and Washington – could have an impact beyond the U.S. borders, depending on how the Federal government reacts to them.

First, Congressman Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV, aka Connie Mack, lost his Senate bid to incumbent Bill Nelson (D – FL). Since Mack gave up his House seat in order to run for Senate, this means that Mack will no longer chair the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and therefore will have to abandon his dream of having Venezuela declared a state sponsor of terrorism. He will be gone from Congress, but not forgotten – his entertaining conspiracy theories will still be available online for anyone that likes a good story, as will video of his classic dust-up with former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura on Larry King Live. Mack’s chairmanship of the subcommittee will likely go to Rep. Michael McCaul (R – TX), currently the vice-chair.

Speaking of conspiracy theorists, Mack’s like-minded Florida neighbor, Allen West (a Republican from the 22nd District who has said there’s 81 communists in the House of Representatives) may also be on his way out, pending final election results.

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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.

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