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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.



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.



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.”



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.



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.



Daily Headlines – November 8, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Thursday, 08 November 2012 11:40

An Argentine judge ordered Chevron’s assets embargoed in an effort to enforce an Ecuadorean court ruling, reports the Associated Press. Plaintiffs, who have waged a decades long legal battle against Chevron, have taken their fight outside the country to wherever Chevron has assets. Enrique Bruchou, the Argentina lawyer on the case, told reporters, “This is a ruling that sets an example. What we're telling the world is that in Latin America we want to demand that whoever comes to exploit does it following the same health an environmental standards as they do in their countries of origin.” Other than Argentina, the plaintiffs have filed suit in Canada, Brazil and Colombia.

State legislation legalizing recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado may impact Latin American countries drug war policies, reports McClatchy. The legislation, which the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness found would significantly reduce drug cartel profits, is a “game-changer”, according to Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, the director of the global drug-policy program of the Open Society Foundation. Alejandro Hope, who co-authored the study, noted that, “Politically and symbolically, this is really powerful. My guess is that this will accelerate some countries’ efforts to have a legal marijuana regime.” The head of incoming president Enrique Pena-Nieto’s transition team told the AP: "Obviously we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status…These important modifications change somewhat the rules of the game in the relationship with the United States…I think that we have to carry out a review of our joint policies in regards to drug trafficking and security in general."

Three laborers were killed in Honduras this past week over a land conflict in the Bajo Aguan region, reports EFE. A 2011 report by the International Federation for Human Rights noted that the “The government has converted the area of these agrarian conflicts in Bajo Aguán into a war zone.” EFE points out that some 70 peasants have been killed in the past few years in fights with security personnel and guards from wealthy landowners. Last year an agreement was reached to give some 4,000 hectares of land to the landless families in the region, yet the agreement has yet to be implemented. MUCA, an organization representing the rural workers, released a statement:  “MUCA repudiates ... these cowardly acts of intimidation against the peasants and calls on the regime of (President Porfirio) Lobo to stop this violence against the laborers of Bajo Aguan.” Professor Dana Frank has written extensively about the conflict previously.



The South American Way: U.S. Presidential Campaign Unprecedented in its Populist Appeal Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 07 November 2012 15:49

President Obama won reelection largely because of an economic populist appeal, especially to crucial white working-class voters in battleground states, as I described here. The message got through: an MSNBC exit poll showed that 53 percent of voters thought that Romney favored the rich (as opposed to the middle class or poor) and only 10 percent thought that of Obama. 

U.S. politics are getting a bit more like South America’s in other ways, as the right-wing media creates and maintains a bubble world for Republicans.  A big difference though is that the “bubble media” in South America, in most countries, is much bigger and more influential in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even Brazil.  Paul Krugman and others have commented on the expansion of right-wing bubble influence here, e.g.  how the right-wing media questioned the aggregation of polling data (e.g. by Nate Silver), which turned out to be extremely accurate; and also attacked the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for its September unemployment report.

But the economic populism of Obama’s successful campaign was really the big story that most of the pundits seem to have missed (other than right-wingers accusing him of class warfare).  Most pundits didn’t notice how unprecedented this is for the U.S. :  no prior presidential nominee in at least the past half-century had anywhere near as much an economic populist campaign as Obama’s.  It was also vastly different from his own general election campaign in 2008.  Part of this is because the country has changed in recent years:  the long-term failure of our own neoliberalism finally provoked a turning point in the 2006 and 2008 elections.  This is another similarity to South America, which moved left after its longest period of economic failure in more than a century (1980 – 2003).  Our economic failure was different, in that it was not so much a collapse of economic growth as in South America, but a massive upward redistribution of income.  But it was a colossal setback for the majority of Americans, who joined their counterparts from the South in a revolt at the ballot box.  And then the Occupy movement put the issue of income and wealth inequality on the political agenda as it has not been since the Great Depression.

Another difference:  South Americans (in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Uruguay) got more changes for their votes than we have so far.  That will take a bit longer.

Policies to Match the Rhetoric: Buen Vivir in Ecuador Print
Written by Tara Ruttenberg   
Tuesday, 06 November 2012 15:00

A guest post by former CEPR intern Tara Ruttenberg.

Ecuador made international headlines this week, first for plaintiffs taking their fight to Argentina and Colombia to hold Chevron accountable for decades of toxic pollution, and secondly as a result of the government’s recent decision to tax bank profits as a way to increase state revenue for social spending on poverty alleviation. As Ecuador celebrated the fourth anniversary of its relatively new citizen’s constitution last month, news agencies and policy analysts have made note of the successes of the many changes taking place under President Correa, particularly related to social policies targeting poverty reduction through increased public social expenditure and cash transfers to the poor. These and other reforms embody Correa’s proclaimed commitment to 21st century socialism and an inverted juxtaposition of traditional power relations, placing people and the environment above the market economy and the formerly unbridled reign of the private sector. Ecuador’s social and economic policy platform and successful poverty reduction experience are a strong reflection of wider regional trends in countries governed by left-of-center leaders now nearly a decade into Latin America’s post-neoliberal era.

While analysts continue to draw due attention to Ecuador’s success in reducing poverty and improving socioeconomic indicators by balancing strong economic growth with policies geared toward greater income redistribution (see CEPR publication on Ecuador’s economy since 2007), many have neglected the wider paradigmatic framework within which Ecuador’s new constitution thrives; that is, the indigenous-born and politically articulated concept of ‘buen vivir’ (living well). Buen vivir as a social paradigm incorporated into Ecuador’s constitution seeks to “better the quality of life of the population, develop their capacities and potential; rely on an economic system that promotes equality through social and territorial redistribution of the benefits of development; ….establish a harmonious coexistence with nature… promote Latin American integration; and protect and promote cultural diversity” (Article 276 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador). Refreshingly, we see Ecuadoran policies living up to these ambitious constitutional aims based on buen vivir, with Correa continuing to focus on income redistribution, as demonstrated by the most recent tax on banks.



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