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Daily Headlines – October 22, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Monday, 22 October 2012 13:41

The killing of indigenous protestors by the Guatemalan military has raised fears about the militarization of police duties, reports the New York Times. The killing has also raised questions about U.S. military aid to Guatemala, as U.S. Marines have been stationed there for the last two months assisting in anti-drug trafficking operations. During the country’s civil war, the military was found to be responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations, including the Dos Erres massacre carried out by the Kaibiles special forces. Current President Otto Perez Molina was himself a former Kaibil. The criticisms echo those in Honduras, where the U.S. is reassessing their assistance to the Honduran armed forces after U.S. agents were involved in a series of deadly raids.  A number of recent op-ed and articles highlight these issues further.

While the killing of protestors by the military is bringing up fears of the past, the relative success at holding those responsible accountable is giving hope that the history of impunity in Guatemala is ending, reports the Associated Press. Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, has the strong support of the international community, and responded quickly in arresting 8 army privates and a colonel, who could face up to 500 years in prison for “extrajudicial assassination.” Kelsey Alford-Jones, director of the Washington-based nonprofit group Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, told the AP, "It is an important departure from Guatemala's long history of impunity for similar crimes…Justice in this case, along with the demilitarization of citizen security, will be a significant step toward ensuring non-violent resolution of social conflict in the future."

Jamaica is pushing forward with a new IMF agreement, reports Go Jamaica. An IMF delegation traveled to Jamaica recently to begin negotiations for a new agreement, and Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said over the weekend that the “government is working as hard as possible to conclude an agreement”. Jamaica returned to the Washington-based lender in 2010, yet the agreement put in place contractionary austerity measures, as documented by CEPR at the time. Jamaica has struggled through years of slow growth and high debt, with some 50 percent of revenues dedicated to debt service. Per-capita GDP is projected to remain below its pre-recession level through 2017. Never the less, indications are that a new IMF agreement would contain many of the same problematic requirements as the previous agreement, despite opposition from within the IMF.

The Ecuadorian government has found new supporters of the Yasuni conservation plan, reports Reuters. The plan, which involves the protection of one of the most bio-diverse places on earth, requires donors to compensate Ecuador for conserving the area and not drilling for oil in the reserve, estimated to hold $7.2 billion worth of oil. Thus far the plan has received some $200 million, mostly from bilateral donors, though corporations are increasingly donating as well.

Argentina is ordering the evacuation of the ARA Libertad, the naval vessel held in Ghana by the vulture fund NML Capital since early October, reports the Associated Press. A judge in Ghana, who denied Argentina’s appeal to have the seizure reversed, also prevented to ship from refueling leaving the 326 crew members without power on board. Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman responded, calling the move “an attack that is nothing more or less than a kidnapping, an extortion and an act of piracy against a sovereign nation." To read more on the vulture fund, their lobbying efforts in DC and their history, see here and here

 
Atlas Shrugs, Honduran “Model Cities” Crash to the Floor Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Monday, 22 October 2012 11:37

Fox Business’ John Stossel knows better than the Honduran constitution and your Economics 101 class, he revealed over the weekend. The pesky Honduran Supreme Court recently ruled 13-2 that proposed libertarian utopia charter or “model cities” – called “free cities” by Stossel – would go against Honduras’ constitution. Remember, this is the same constitution which we have been repeatedly told “socialist,” “Chavez-ally” former president Zelaya was trying to subvert before he was bravely ousted in a coup by the Honduran military, leading to Honduras’ status as a beacon of liberty and human rights today. But sadly for Stossel and model city proponent Michael Strong, apparently the Honduran constitution and Honduras’ post-coup institutions are not as freedom-loving as they seemed during the military coup.

The Supreme Court ruling is a surprising blow to a project that has attracted much interest – and little skepticism – from media outlets such as the New York Times. “Freedom-haters” in Honduras meanwhile, such as Garifuna communities who say their land rights are threatened by a model city plan, were handed a significant victory in a country where the rule of law is weak are institutions are notoriously corrupt.

Previous backers of the “model city” concept – notably idea man Paul Romer – also recently walked away from the project, shocked at the lack of transparency and fair-dealing by the Honduran government.

“Honduran free city founder” Strong (who actually is from the U.S.) knows when he isn’t wanted. He’ll just find someone else who appreciates him and his ideas:

"We hope and expect that another country will choose prosperity over poverty, but for now advocates of poverty have won in Honduras," Strong says.

Stossel agrees:

I wish him luck in finding other places to start a "free city." It has worked before. Hong Kong was once just as poor as Africa -- but thanks to a government that enforced property rights but did almost nothing else, it is now even wealthier than the United States.

 
Honduras’ Violent “Hot Spots” Help Propel Homicides to a New Record High Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 19 October 2012 15:42

Several new op-eds and articles highlight problems with the U.S. government’s support for the post-coup government of Pepe Lobo in Honduras. New U.N. data reveals that the homicide rate in Honduras – already infamous as the “murder capital of the world” -- has gone up even further, to 92 murders per 100,000 people, over 82 a year ago. This makes Honduras far and away the most murderous country in Latin America (despite what some journalists have contended), and well above that of violent neighbors such as El Salvador (69 per 100,000) and Guatemala (38.5 per 100,000).

As scholars such as Dana Frank, in numerous articles in The Nation, The New York Times, and now Foreign Affairs, have pointed out, the increase in killings has resulted from the climate of instability in the wake of the 2009 coup, which was supported by the Obama administration. While coup opponents, journalists, the LGBT community, and women have been targets of post-coup violence across the country, Honduras is also now home to more than one “hot spot” of bloodshed since the coup.

The 2009 coup against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya cut short a land reform process that sought to resolve conflict in the Aguán Valley region where a few rich landholders have been able to acquire huge swaths of land at the expense of impoverished peasants. “Armed commandos pass[ed] menacingly through defenceless villages during the days after the coup,” as “The government has converted the area of these agrarian conflicts in Bajo Aguán into a war zone” with “low-flying military helicopters and planes" and “the peasants of the region’s organized movement suffer from kidnappings, torture and murders,” a September 2011 report [PDF] by the International Federation for Human Rights noted. The most notorious of these land owners is Miguel Facussé, uncle of former president Carlos Flores Facussé. Miguel Facussé is considered by the U.S. government to be involved in drug trafficking, and is frequently described as the “most powerful man in Honduras.” Facussé also has tourism interests in the Gulf of Fonseca area, on the other side of the country on the Pacific Coast, where forced evictions are also occurring and community radio stations and journalists covering them have been targeted with death threats, shut downs, and arrests.

Read more...

 

 
Daily Headlines – October 19, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Friday, 19 October 2012 10:35

The Honduras Supreme Court struck down a plan to build private “charter” cities, reports the Associated Press. The project, which envisioned areas of Honduras turned over to private investors and run with their own laws, was opposed by civic groups and the indigenous Garifuna, whose land was threatened by the project. Lawyer Fredin Funez told the BBC, “This is great news for the Honduran people. This decision has prevented the country going back into a feudal system that was in place 1,000 years ago.” The Honduras Culture and Politics blog has more on the American company, MGK, which was planning on making the first investment under the law.

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil signed the country’s forest code into law yesterday, reports AFP. The president, who used a line-item veto to rid the bill of some parts that had been included by the pro agri-business bloc in congress, touted the law, saying, “No to amnesty, no to encouragement of illegal logging.” Environmentalists were less optimistic, however. Paolo Adario of Greenpeace noted that, “"The presidential veto slightly improves the text approved by Congress, which was awful, but the result continues to be very bad.” While former Presidential candidate Marina Silva agreed, “We can conclude that illegal loggers won and society lost."

Uruguay became just the second country in South America after Guyana to effectively legalize abortion, reports the New York Times. The bill, which narrowly passed the Senate, would allow for “abortion in the first trimester, permits abortion through 14 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape and allows later-term abortions when a woman’s health is at risk.” While the bill is a step in the right direction, women’s groups criticized some aspects of the legislation, hoping that it would have gone further, reports Inter-Press Service. Women who are seeking an abortion must first explain to a doctor the “economic, social, family or age difficulties that in her view stand in the way of continuing the pregnancy.” The spokeswoman for Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, an NGO which is leading the push for legalization, told IPS, “We see this law as minimal; it is not what we were hoping for… It has many gaps, and satisfies no one.”

Hospital managers in Peru’s public health system have walked off the job, in solidarity with striking doctors, reports Reuters. This is the latest in a string of labor conflicts between Humala, who was elected on a center-left platform, and labor unions. Peru, which ranks last in Latin America in public health spending as a percent of GDP has refused to provide wage increases to doctors and teachers, a decision unions blame on conservative finance minister Luis Miguel Castilla. Jesus Bonilla, a leader of the doctor’s union, told reporters, “Our country has been growing strongly but pay in the public sector for the last decade has fallen substantially. We haven’t received a cent of increases. Our buying power has fallen 30 or 40 percent.” Criticism hasn’t just come from the left, conservative politician Lourdes Flores told Peruvian radio, “The president told the country he believed in a strong state. But the state is a disaster.”

To get all of the day’s headlines straight to your inbox, sign up for the Latin America News Round-up here. You can also view the archives of past round-ups here.

 
Farmer, Education Groups to Anti-Argentina Lobby: “Uh, Who Are You?” Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Thursday, 18 October 2012 15:30

Last week I wrote about the American Task Force Argentina (ATFA), which has spent more than $3 million lobbying against Argentina. One of the primary players behind ATFA, NML Capital, detained an Argentina naval ship in Ghana earlier this month in an effort to force “full” repayment on defaulted Argentina bonds, which were purchased for just a fraction of their face value.

The lobbying group also lists many farmers associations and education groups amongst its members. These groups have often been cited by ATFA when it has argued that the issue of Argentina being forced, to pay back “full” value is important to mainstream America, and not just hedge fund managers. Never mind the fact that Argentina has reached agreement with 95 percent of bondholders.  But a report from the Wall Street Journal reveals that ATFA is really closer to a “vulture funds…lobby facade,” as Argentina ambassador Jorge Arguello has referred to it. The Journal reports:

Mr. Matlack is president of American Agriculture Movement, a farmers' advocacy group that was listed among about 40 members of American Task Force Argentina, whose stated mission is to help investors recoup money from Argentina's 2001 bond default and subsequent restructuring.

But Mr. Matlack and some leaders of other groups representing ranchers, teachers and farmers, are baffled about why the task force listed their organizations as members "united for a just and fair reconciliation" of Argentina's default.

Reached while he was planting wheat on his farm, Mr. Matlack said he had never heard of American Task Force Argentina. "We don't have anything to do with Argentina's debt," he said.

Also perplexed are leaders of the Colorado conference of the American Association of University Professors, which was listed under members and supporters. "This is absolutely foreign to me," says Ray Hogler, legislative director of the academic group.

Both groups were dropped from the list after the Wall Street Journal alerted the task force to the discrepancies.

This abuse of the names of professional associations to further the interests of vulture funds should give additional pause to those in the House and Senate who have argued in favor of bending the foreign policy of the United States in favor of those funds’ interests.

To read the rest of the article, click here. For some more background information on Argentina and their default and restructuring see here and here

 
More Fallout From the Venezuelan Election Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 16:20

As I have noted previously, fake polling and other suspicious activities in previous Venezuelan elections had helped those with a political agenda, including some journalists, advance their interests.  There was less of this in Venezuela’s October 7 election than in some previous elections, but still plenty to go around.  The dubious achievement awards for this election go to:

  1. Barclays, one of the world’s biggest banks:  put out a report two days before the election stating that “an opposition victory looks likely,” and recommending to its investors that they buy Venezuelan bonds.  Two days later Chavez won by 11 percentage points, and Venezuelan bonds fell by about 5 percent, although they have since recovered much of this loss.  (As an intermediate to long term investment, Venezuelan dollar-denominated bonds are most likely a good buy, since the return is quite high and the risk of default is low.  But those who took Barclays’ advice were betting on the election, and they lost.)
  2. Varianzas, a major Venezuelan polling firm, published an exit poll on the day of the election showing Chavez losing by a margin of 3.2 percentage points.  A result this far off the mark has an extremely small probability of occurring by random error.

So, what I want to know: was anybody fired for these mistakes?  Bloomberg noted that the lead analyst for the Barclays report was a Venezuelan who had “run unsuccessfully for public office as a member of Capriles’s Primero Justicia party.”  Was it incompetence or just a desire to help the cause of the opposition that led to this gross error?  You make the call. Polling firm Consultores 21 predicted a Chavez loss by 4.6 percentage points before the election.  Consultores 21 had a track record of significant bias toward the opposition, but it was used by many media outlets to say that the election would be close.  Will any of these people be taken seriously in other forecasts?  If they made these enormous errors in the U.S. presidential race, the answer would be an obvious no.  But there are special standards for sources on Venezuela  . . .

Seven polling houses in September showed an average lead for Chavez of 11.7 percentage points.  (The Wilson Center reported this as “Though major polling firms differ on where the race stands, they seem to agree that the final outcome is almost impossible to predict.”)  So just taking the average would have gotten you within 0.7 points of the actual result.  CEPR’s statistical analysis of the polling, correcting for past bias, estimated a 13.7 percent lead for Chavez, and gave Capriles a 5.7 percent chance of winning.

Some of the pre-election analysis was not dishonest but still difficult to understand.  Political scientist Iñaki Sagarzazu analyzed past and current polling data and concluded on Oct. 2 that “As it stands the race is extremely close.”  An 11 point margin is not extremely close, in the sense that pollsters with reasonable skill should to be able to predict the winner of such and election in advance.  

_______

As bad as the major English-language media coverage was, the Spanish-language media coverage was worse.  ABC in Spain reported wild stories of a Chavez government “plan” to take over the country by military force if they lost the election – stories that were completely ignored in the major English-language media, but picked up in major Latin American newspapers.  The Latin American media is the main reason that most people in Latin America have a view of Venezuela that is as distorted as, or worse than that of most U.S. residents.

Peru’s La Republica ran a piece this week by political scientist Steven Levitsky, who invented a new label for Venezuela under Chavez, “Competitive Authoritarianism.”  For him, the Chavez government is “equally authoritarian” as the Fujimori government in Peru.  Fujimori carried out a presidential coup in 1992, dissolving the Congress and suspending the constitution; the legitimacy of his government was widely questioned internationally throughout most of his tenure.  He is currently serving a prison sentence for murder, kidnapping, and corruption that he was found to be personally responsible for during his presidency.   Venezuela, by contrast, has had 15 elections or referenda under the Chavez administration, without any serious question of legitimacy; it has vastly increased voter registration and participation (more than 96 percent and 80 percent, respectively in the most recent election, which Jimmy Carter called the best electoral process of 92 countries that he had observed).  

But for Levitsky, “there is not democracy in Venezuela,” but rather a form of authoritarianism like Fujimori’s Peru.   This is a bit like asserting that the United States and Saudi Arabia have the same political systems, since in both countries the vast majority of the people have little or no input into the most important national policy decisions that affect their lives.  Probably no political scientist could get away with such an exaggeration.  But hey, this is about Venezuela – exaggeration is the norm, and anything goes.

 
Daily Headlines – October 17, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Wednesday, 17 October 2012 10:29

Ecuadorian plaintiffs, seeking to collect $19 billion in damages from Chevron, will be able to seize some $200 million of the company’s assets in Ecuador, a court ruled Monday. Reuters reports that the court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador ruled that assets, including money in Chevron bank accounts in Ecuador and money the Ecuadorian government owes to Chevron, be turned over to the plaintiffs. Just last week the U.S. Supreme Court dealt Chevron another blow, rejecting an attempt to block enforcement of the $19 billion ruling in the U.S. The plaintiffs have filed suits in Brazil and Canada to try and enforce the ruling. On the victory Monday, Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer for the affected Ecuadorian communities, told Reuters, “This is a huge first step for the rainforest villagers on the road to collecting the entire $19bn judgement.”

Chilean student leaders, Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman, are in the United States this week where they will receive the 2012 International Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award presented by the Institute for Policy Studies. Democracy NOW! speaks with the two student leaders, who have helped organize some of the largest protests in Chile since the Pinochet dictatorship. Titelman said, “our public education is dying, we have only 36 percent of students going to public schools. Here in the States, it’s almost 90 percent. It’s really a very special example of how privatized can a state become.” Meanwhile, back in Chile, thousands of students took to the streets in Valparaiso to demand urgent action on education reform, reports the Associated Press.

State intervention is back in Latin America, and helping to create social policies and reduce inequalities, according to the regional director of the UN Development Program, Herlado Muñoz reports Mercopress. As opposed to the 90s when the Washington Consensus dictated that the government was the problem, Muñoz notes that, “For the first time in many decades the State is back in Latin America.” CEPR research has shown that there is a relationship between moving away from the Washington Consensus and reducing inequality. Juan Montecino, using econometric techniques to look at the data, determined that left-of-center governments have on average decreased inequality more than their counterparts. 

As Colombian government and FARC negotiators head to Norway to begin peace talks, a judge in Colombia ordered the return of some 160 acres of land to 14 families in the country’s first land restitution ruling.  President Santos enacted the Victims and Land Restitution law last year, yet since then progress has stagnated and violence against those seeking restitution has continued. The issue of land reform is one of the main demands being sought by the FARC in peace negotiations.

To get all of the day’s headlines straight to your inbox, sign up for the Latin America News Round-up here. You can also view the archives of past round-ups here.

 
“Free Trade” and the Presidential Debate Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 16:38

The second presidential debate will take place tonight at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. The topics will range from domestic to foreign policy, meaning the issue of “free” trade* is sure to come up. On this topic, there is little daylight between the two candidates. In 2008, candidates from both the Republican and Democratic Party participated in an “anti-NAFTA off”, competing in Rust Belt states that have lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), stated clearly after the election that the “results demonstrated Americans’ continued rejection of NAFTA style trade agreements."

Nevertheless, the last four years have seen a series of “NAFTA-style trade agreements” passed despite significant opposition from within the Democratic Party. President Obama has signed trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Korea and is now negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal with at least 10 countries that Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach describes as “NAFTA-on-steroids with the world.” During the last debate, President Obama touted the trade deals as boosting exports while Romney said he would push for even more “free trade.” Wallach writes:

In an election dominated by the urgent agenda of U.S. job creation, it is a sorry statement about the domination of corporate money in American elections that both presidential candidates tout these NAFTA-style "free trade" deals. Repeated polls show that opposition to these NAFTA-style deals is one of the only issues that unites Democratic, Republican and Independent voters. 
Read more...

 

 
Daily Headlines – October 16, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 10:41

Reforms to Mexico’s labor law have faced growing resistance, writes David Bacon for In These Times. The law, which Benedicto Martinez Orozco, president of the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), calls “a monstrous law,” would allow for greater flexibility on the part of owners to hire and fire workers. It would replace daily wages with hourly wages, allow for hiring through labor contractors, and limit employer’s liability for back pay, among other changes. One aspect of the reform that unions had fought for, the right to a secret ballot, seen as key to diminishing the power of the PRI-backed non-democratic unions, was stripped from the bill. Over the past weeks, a broad sector of groups have protested the bill, going so far as blocking the doors of congress last week to prevent them from considering the labor reform.

Paraguay’s foreign minister, Jose Felix Fernandez Estigarribia, confirmed that he traveled to the US last week to meet with a South American ambassador about Paraguay’s reincorporation into UNASUR and Mercosur, regional groups which Paraguay was suspended from following the ouster of Fernando Lugo. Mercopress also reports that two ambassadors will be returning to Paraguay, expected to be from Colombia and Panama. Following the 2009 coup in Honduras, both Panama and Colombia sided with the US and supported the electoral process under the coup government, while the rest of the region refused to recognize the results.

What place will the FARC have in Colombian politics if the peace negotiations are successful, asks Chris Kraul in the Los Angeles Times. While a main plank of the negotiations will be ensuring a political voice for the rebels, they will try and avoid the fate of Union Patriotica a former party with ties to the rebels. Over 1,100 members of the party were killed during the 80s and 90s by right wing paramilitaries. Some analysts believe the FARC will try to enter the political debate through Marcha Patriotica, an agrarian reform movement that has launched large demonstrations throughout Colombia recently.

News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate, is expected to add Alvaro Uribe, the former President of Colombia to their board today, reports Roque Planas for The Huffington Post. Free press advocates note that it seems like an odd choice given the wiretapping scandals that both News Corp. and Alvaro Uribe have been embroiled in. Many ex-aids to Uribe are facing criminal probes into the illegal wiretapping of supreme court judges, human rights workers and journalists by the Colombian intelligence agency. News Corp., for their part, is still dealing with the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal at News of the World last year. Political scientist Claudia Lopez notes one difference, “News Corp., as far as I know, never threatened anyone with death…Institutions that answered directly to Alvaro Uribe did.”

To get all of the day’s headlines straight to your inbox, sign up for the Latin America News Round-up here. You can also view the archives of past round-ups here.

 
Daily Headlines – October 15, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Monday, 15 October 2012 11:53

The New York Times reported Saturday on U.S. drug efforts in Honduras. Following a series of bungled raids and downed airplanes, the Times reports that “All joint operations in Honduras are now suspended,” while U.S. officials develop a new plan which will encompass other areas of reform. On the deadly raid in Ahuas, which CEPR policy analyst Alexander Main and Annie Bird of Rights Action documented in detail here, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told the Times, “This operation was bungled in its conception, in its implementation and in its aftermath.”

Many former recipients of IMF loans spoke out at the annual meetings this week against the conditionalities imposed by the IMF, Reuters reports. The IMF released new research last week showing that the austerity policies they imposed as lending conditions caused up to three times more economic damage than they had previously estimated. Argentina, which defaulted on their debt after an economic crisis triggered in part by IMF austerity policies in the early 2000s, noted the IMF’s admission was a “first step”, but Finance Minister Hernán Lorenzino added, “Once again... the IMF is endorsing policy conditionalities and reform strategies that are bound to fail, worsening recession and unemployment levels in programme countries and leading to unsustainable debt paths and social failure.” A CEPR report in 2009 looked at all the IMF’s borrowing agreements, finding that 31 of 41 contained pro-cyclical policies that could lower economic growth.

At the annual IMF meetings in Tokyo, Colombia announced it would leave the voting bloc aligned with Brazil in favor of Mexico, reports Bloomberg. Brazil, a member of the BRICS countries, has been one of the most vocal advocates of IMF reform. An agreement to shift more voting rights to developing countries has been held up for years as the traditionally dominant European countries have resisted moving their voting shares more in line with their share of world economic output. Colombia’s Central Bank chief Dario Uribe commented on the move to Mexico’s voting  constituency, “It’s a group where there’s a receptivity toward a country like Colombia, where there are great historical and commercial ties.”

Last week a “vulture fund” belonging to American Task Force Argentina, a lobbying group seeking to recoup the “full” value of Argentina’s defaulted bonds which were bought for cents on the dollar, detained an Argentine naval ship in Ghana to try and force repayment. The lobbying group lists some 40 members of their organization on their website, including many farmers associations, yet this weekend the Wall Street Journal reported that many of them had no idea how they became affiliated with the group. "We don't have anything to do with Argentina's debt,” Larry Matlack president of the American Agriculture Movement told the Journal.

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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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