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Outrage Following Honduran Colonel‘s Attack against U.S. Human Rights Defender Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 20 December 2013 17:44

Last week, Colonel German Alfaro, the commander of Operation Xatruch III in Honduras’ Aguan Valley, personally denounced Annie Bird, co-director of the U.S. and Canada-based human rights NGO Rights Action, on TV and radio, alleging among other things that she is engaging in “destabilization work” in the Aguan. The accusations, which were also covered in La Tribuna and Tiempo newspapers, came just after Bird accompanied campesinos in the Aguan to the Attorney General’s office to file human rights complaints, including some against Honduran soldiers. Alfaro also said he was opening an investigation into Bird’s activities.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement yesterday condemning Alfaro's accusations. This was followed by a statement today signed by representatives of 33 human rights, labor, faith-based and other organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Sisters of Mercy, and the Washington Office on Latin America calling on the State Department to denounce Alfaro's comments.

HRW's Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco also urged the U.S. government to condemn Alfaro's accusations:

Given its ongoing cooperation with Honduran security forces, the US government should use all the tools at its disposal to call a halt to verbal attacks on activists by senior Honduran military officials[.] Whether directed at human rights defenders or campesino leaders, such accusations only add to a climate of fear and intimidation.

Alfaro’s statements fit into an ongoing pattern of violence, intimidation and threats against human rights defenders in Honduras, both foreign and domestic, that has including the kidnapping by armed men of two European human rights defenders in July; threats and public accusations against American and Canadian human rights defenders and electoral observers ahead of and during the elections; and threats and public denunciations of Honduran human rights defenders like Bertha Oliva and Victor Fernandez.

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Was Snowden’s Letter to Brazil a Quid-Pro-Quo Offer? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 19 December 2013 16:11

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s “Open Letter to the People of Brazil” made headlines this week, with many U.S. and international media outlets characterizing it as a quid-pro-quo offer of help investigating NSA surveillance in Brazil in return for asylum. In an article about the letter, Folha de Sao Paulo – which also first published the letter -- stated, “US espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden has promised to cooperate with investigations into the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil. In order to do so, he wants political asylum from Dilma Rousseff's government in return.”

“Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum,” read a USA Today headline for a story about the letter (even though the article stated midway-through that “It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil”). The Financial Times ran a similar headline: “Edward Snowden offers Brazil help on spying in return for asylum.” CNN reported that Snowden was offering “a deal”: “Help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum.”

But in his letter, Snowden does not make his offer of assistance contingent on the asylum. He points out that the U.S. government has constrained his ability to travel, and will do so “[u]ntil a country grants permanent political asylum.”

It is also clear that Snowden is responding, in part, to requests from Brazilian senators for help in investigating U.S. spying in Brazil, which he says he is unable to do while in Russia. As Folha reported:

"Many Brazilian senators have asked my help with their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I expressed my willingness to assist, where it is appropriate and legal, but unfortunately the US government has been working very hard to limit my ability to do so," said the letter.

Snowden was referring to an open [Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry] in the Senate to investigate the activities of the NSA in Brazil, which included monitoring the phone calls and emails of both Dilma and Petrobras.

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Nelson Mandela’s Inconvenient Appreciation for Cuba Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 12 December 2013 17:46

President Obama traveled to Soweto, South Africa this week for the memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela. Over 60 heads of state also attended the services, but only five were invited to speak - among them Cuban president Raúl Castro, with whom Obama shook hands – the first such greeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba since President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in 2000. Obama’s handshake with Castro was condemned by a number of Republican members of Congress. Senator John McCain likened it to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler, while perennial Cuba-hater Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – who in the past has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination – called it “a propaganda coup for the tyrant [Castro].” Cruz made headlines for himself by walking out on Castro’s speech at the ceremony, with a spokesperson saying that “Sen. Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela.”

But while Republicans have received attention for their criticism of the handshake – just as they did when Obama similarly greeted democratically-elected then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez in 2009 – Obama’s speech at the event has been described by some as a rebuke of some foreign governments, including Cuba’s. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said without apparent irony, while in Singapore a U.S. delegation was concluding (unsuccessfully) the latest round of efforts to get other countries to agree to a variety of controversial and potentially harmful measures in a proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. As we have described in a research paper, most U.S. workers would lose out from the planned TPP in the form of reduced wages.

As many analysts, historians and observers have pointed out, the condemnation of the Obama-Castro handshake is also ironic considering Mandela’s long appreciation for the Cuban government and its unwavering opposition to apartheid and similar racist regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa. Most notably, Cuba provided 36,000 troops to beat back the efforts of the South African military to crush independence in Angola.

As the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas points out, while Cuba provided Mandela, the African National Congress and South Africa with inspiration, guidance, resources, training and doctors, “The U.S. government, on the other hand, reportedly played a role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and subsequently branded him a terrorist -- a designation they only rescinded in 2008. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.” Then there’s the small matter of U.S. and South African support for the counter-revolutionaries in Angola. As Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books including Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 said yesterday in an interview with "Democracy Now”: “…the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation."

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Cuba, on Behalf of ALBA Country Group, Blocks World Trade Organization Talks Print
Written by Deborah James   
Saturday, 07 December 2013 11:06

Bali, Indonesia - Early the morning of December 7th, in the talks of the 9th Ministerial meeting of the WTO, a paragraph was removed from draft text – obviously at the demand of the United States – relating to the embargo/blockade against Cuba. Members are here negotiating a deal on “trade facilitation,” which would simplify customs and border procedures, but which also puts binding conditions on developing countries to ensure fast and efficient transit procedures (meaning that other members could file cases against them in the WTO for failure to comply).

Civil society organizations working here have sharply criticized the texts for putting binding rules on developing countries for further pro-corporate liberalization commitments that are not to their advantage, while not offering enough changes to existing WTO rules which limit developing – but not developed – countries from investing in farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

Given the topic of the negotiations, facilitating trade, it must have appeared reasonable to Cuba to insert a paragraph setting down a binding rule against discriminatory measures on goods in transit. However, when negotiators convened on the last night of the conference at 9 p.m., after a long week of negotiations focused on other issues, and the Chair of the Ministerial distributed the draft text for final approval, Cuba noticed that its paragraph[1] had been removed. After repeated efforts to gain the floor, the Cuban Ambassador, Nancy Madrigal, appears to have been treated rather brusquely by the chair, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan of Indonesia, who did not even let her speak.

Upon reconvening the meeting, Ambassador Madrigal sought clarification of how the negotiations on the pending issues would continue, given that Cuba’s text had been removed without even the slightest consultations. The chair, however, did not offer a path to further negotiations, and instead was clearly expecting everyone to simply affirm their agreement. At that point Ambassador Madrigal read a statement on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) countries of Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela, rejecting the entire text.

What we have before us remain unbalanced and we will do everything within our reach and power so that the WTO does not continue to be used for neoliberal globalization. What we see is a perpetuation of subsidies and support policies used by developed countries that remain untouchable. It is inconceivable that an organization that [is accepting a deal on trade facilitation] is incapable of adopting one paragraph against discrimination on goods in transit. [paraphrased excerpt]

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Honduras’ Flawed Election: The Case of El Paraíso Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Friday, 06 December 2013 17:01

In El Paraíso, a city of 14,000 that sits right near Honduras’ border with Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party secured an impressive 81.4 percent of the vote. In second place, with 7.2 percent of the vote, was “invalid.”

Last week the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), declared that Hernandez had been elected president of Honduras with 35 percent of the vote, compared to 27.4 percent for Xiomara Castro, of the newly formed LIBRE party. Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 military coup. Alleging fraud, LIBRE has yet to recognize the results and is reportedly in discussions with the TSE to begin a recount process.

But no matter the outcome of the recount, if it ever occurs, there were numerous other irregularities on election day, including a number of reports of voter intimidation as well as other, perhaps more nefarious, means of voter manipulation. Although it is generally difficult to directly link election results to acts of voter intimidation, the case of El Paraíso provides an interesting example.

El Paraíso, in the Copan department[i] of Honduras, is located directly on what is known as the “road of death.” The road is a well-known drug trafficking route which travels through Honduras and on to Guatemala. The presence, and influence, of Mexican drug cartels has steadily been rising in the area. 

The mayor of El Paraíso, Alexander Ardón, who has referred to himself as “the king of the people”, is a member of the ruling National Party. A 2011 report from the Wilson Center states that, “Ardón works with the Sinaloa Cartel,” according to “Honduran police intelligence.” The report continues:

Ardón has built a town hall that resembles the White House, complete with a heliport on the roof, and travels with 40 heavily armed bodyguards. Cameras monitor the roads leading in and out of the town, intelligence services say. And there are reports that the mayor often closes the city to outsiders for big parties that include norteña music groups flown in from Mexico.

The 2013 Elections

In the weeks prior to the election on Sunday, November 24, rights groups in Honduras began to hear about possible fraud in El Paraíso. Prior to election day, with few local observers willing to go to polling places, a number of monitors were bussed in from other cities. The human rights group COFADEH released a statement on election day (see here for testimony from an electoral observer there), reporting that:

Also this day in the town of El Paraíso in the department of Copan, about 50 people who have been designated to monitor the election tables were locked in a hotel by over 100 armed men who threatened to burn them if they left the hotel to go to the voting centers.

Another group heading to 10 voting centers succeeded in making it through the obstacles at first, but on the way there the road was blocked by two Prado SUVs with heavily armed men who proceeded to stab their vehicles' tires with knives and threatened to kill anyone who continued toward their destination.

The intimidation seems to have its desired effect. In the two elections (2001 and 2005) prior to the 2009 military coup, El Paraíso had a voter turnout of 63 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In 2013, turnout was reported to be 85 percent. According to the official results from the TSE, the National Party took 81.4 percent of the vote. Looking deeper, the results are even stranger. There were 16,135 voting tables in Honduras; the ten which showed the highest number of votes for Hernandez were all located in El Paraíso. The 81.4 percent that went to the National Party was over 11 percentage points higher than in any other city in the entire country.

Overall, in Copan, the National Party took over 47 percent of the vote, one of their highest rates in the country.

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Venezuela Leads Region in Poverty Reduction in 2012, ECLAC Says Print
Written by Dan Beeton and Joe Sammut   
Friday, 06 December 2013 10:19

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has highlighted a slowing of progress in poverty reduction in Latin America, citing “rising food costs and weaker economic growth” as contributing factors:

Poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean is now easing at a slower pace, the UN's regional economic body said on Thursday, calling on governments to make policy changes that encourage growth while reducing the huge gap between the rich and poor.

UN economists based in Santiago said about 164 million people, or 28 percent of the region's population, are still considered poor. That is nearly unchanged from last year. Out of those, 68 million of them are in extreme poverty.

But there are bright spots. ECLAC’s new “Social Panorama of Latin America” report [PDF] notes that Venezuela and Ecuador led the region in decreasing poverty in 2012:

Six of the 11 countries with information available in 2012 recorded falling poverty levels (see table 1). The largest drop was in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where poverty fell by 5.6 percentage points (from 29.5% to 23.9%) and extreme poverty by 2.0 percentage points (from 11.7% to 9.7%). In Ecuador, poverty was down by 3.1 percentage points (from 35.3% to 32.2%) and indigence by 0.9 percentage points (from 13.8% to 12.9%).

This 5.6 percentage point decrease in Venezuela translates into a 19 percent decline in poverty overall last year, which CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot noted last month “is almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas for 2012, and one of the largest – if not the largest – in the world.” 

This dramatic decrease in poverty is likely due to the impact of two new misiones (social programmes), the Gran Misión En Amor Mayor Venezuela and the Gran Misión Hijos de Venezuela, which were, by January 2013, benefitting more than 1,400,000 people.

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Honduran Elections: Live Blog Print
Written by The Americas Blog   
Sunday, 24 November 2013 00:00

Monday November 25

8:30 P.M. EST: The National Lawyers Guild International Committee has released the following statement:

The National Lawyers Guild, with a delegation of 17 members who observed Sunday's elections in Honduras, will be issuing a press statement tomorrow.   In advance of that statement, the NLG International Committee wants to alert our members and other interested parties that US media and government reports of a free, fair and transparent election in Honduras are premature and inappropriate.  Such unsupported claims will only exacerbate tensions in a country that recently suffered a coup, followed by massive attacks on human rights defenders, opposition party candidates and activists that continue to this moment.  

Honduras has a flawed electoral system with many deficiencies including control of the process by political parties, unregulated and undisclosed campaign financing, and inadequate resources, training and voting facilities that disadvantage poor communities.  In addition Honduran electoral law provides for no run-off election. Without a runoff election in which a majority of voters choose leadership, the electoral aspirations of two-thirds of Honduran voters who voted for change, are frustrated, and the winner of a mere plurality is denied a real mandate.

The NLG will issue a press statement tomorrow to be followed by the delegation’s comprehensive report.

 

6:56 P.M. EST: Although the TSE has yet to announce the final results of the election, current Honduran president Porfirio Lobo has congratulated Juan Orlando Hernández on his election, reports La Prensa.

6:30 P.M. EST: The TSE continues to update their website with partial results, however a few discrepancies have emerged. The main page of the TSE website shows 61.77 percent of voting tables as having been counted, however on the results by department page, the TSE reports 57.99 percent of voting tables as having been counted. On the main page, the TSE reports a total of 15,147 voting tables while on the results by department page, the TSE reports a total of 16,135 voting tables.

The results by department page, which includes both null and blank votes, shows a total of 2,009,101 votes as having been processed. However if one adds up all the votes for each candidate as well as null and blank votes, the total is 1,928,450, a discrepancy of over 80,000 votes.

The TSE has yet to make any formal announcement today with updated results, but check the TSE website periodically for updates.

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John Kerry’s Rhetoric Does Not Match Reality Print
Written by Stephan Lefebvre   
Tuesday, 19 November 2013 17:08

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a major address at the Organization of American States on U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he continued to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America as a partnership between “equal partners.” Kerry did not reveal any new policy changes, and his talk contained few specifics, but we can still take time to appreciate some of the contradictions in his statements.

First of all, it seems abundantly clear that the U.S. does not treat any country as its equal, especially not any Latin American country. This has been proven recently by the Obama administration’s disregard for “collateral damage” in the war on drugs and its support for the Cuba embargo despite opposition from all of the countries in Latin America, indeed all the world’s countries except Israel recently voted against the embargo at the U.N. Other examples are not hard to find.

Second, Kerry continued the U.S.’s half-acknowledgement of espionage targeting foreign citizens, leaders and companies. He incorrectly placed Latin American countries on the same side as the U.S. when he referred to “understandable concerns around the surveillance disclosures.” Actually, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have received praise for their work around U.S. government transparency – their disclosures are credited with having brought to light an issue of vital importance for international trade, sovereignty and human rights. The “understandable concerns” are about the surveillance itself. The postponement of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit was only the culmination of a long series of failures on the part of the U.S. government to offer an acceptable explanation or apology.

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US Congress Continues to Slam Political Repression Ahead of Honduran Elections Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 15 November 2013 14:45

With Honduras’ presidential and legislative elections just around the corner (November 24), members of the U.S. Congress continue to weigh in, expressing concern over whether the process will be “free and fair,” and also decrying ongoing human rights violations. A letter from Senator Tim Kaine’s (D – VA) office, also signed by another 12 senators, warns that

Fragile institutions and a besieged judiciary have done little to punish the perpetrators of the violence, encouraging a climate of impunity and undermining citizens’ confidence that their political, civil and human rights will be protected.  Moreover, Honduran journalists are regularly the targets of violence and threats, and political candidates have been killed as a result of running for office. These challenges raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections. The United States must press the Government of Honduras to ensure the right of all its citizens to peacefully assemble, campaign and vote.

In a press release announcing the letter, Senator Kaine was quoted as saying:

“I’m very concerned by the ongoing violence in Honduras and the impact on the November 24 elections,“ said Kaine, who served as a missionary in Honduras in 1980. “We are receiving reports of threats against journalists and even assassinations of candidates.”

Emphasizing that the United States has no preferred outcome other than clean elections that win the confidence of the Honduran people, Kaine said, “only a legitimate Honduran government can work to stem the systemic violence, end criminal impunity, and create opportunities for Honduran youth.”

As we have previously noted, some 18 members of the LIBRE opposition party of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya – including candidates – have been murdered since May last year, at least as many as from all the other major political parties combined, according to a recent Rights Action report [PDF] that mostly cites Honduran media sources and human rights organizations.

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New Report Highlights Rising Poverty and Inequality in Honduras Print
Written by Jake Johnston and Stephan Lefebvre   
Wednesday, 06 November 2013 00:00

A new CEPR report examines Honduras’ economy and finds that much of the economic and social progress experienced from 2006 – 2009 has been reversed in the years since. The paper shows that economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically since 2010, while poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply, with many more workers receiving less than the minimum wage. While some of the decline was initially due to the global recession that began in 2008, much of it is a result of policy choices, including a decrease in social spending.

honduras-inequality-one-pager

Click for a larger image or check out the report, "Honduras Since the Coup: Economic and Social Indicators."

 
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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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