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Around Latin America

August 25, 2013 Comments off

-In spite of a recent attack that left 13 Colombian soldiers dead, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC continue, in an attempt to end civil war and conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years and left tens (if not hundreds) of thousands dead and millions displaced.

-Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to remove powerful union leader Elba Ester Gordillo earlier this year, her absence has not prevented broader teacher mobilization against unpopular education reforms that Peña NIeto has pushed through. Thousands of teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City, protesting against an evaluation system they say is designed to fire teachers.

-Speaking of protests, in Colombia, thousands of farmers have mobilized, protesting against the government’s economic policies and issuing a wide number of demands, including access to potable water and lower taxes on agricultural goods.

-In Brazil, plans for a highway through the Iguaçu Falls National Park have prompted protests and intensified struggles between environmentalists and government officials.

-And in yet one more example of popular demonstrations in Latin America in the last few weeks, in Ecuador, protesters expressed anger at President Rafael Correa’s decision to open parts of the Yasuni National Park to oil exploration. Anger is understandable, given the ongoing effects of decades of toxic spills, pollution, environmental degradation, and health crises that resulted from oil production in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin.

-Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre has stepped down from his post as the head of Chile’s national electoral service after revelations that he was involved in the Chilean military regime’s practice of taking children of arrested and murdered activists.

-Meanwhile, in other episodes involving the legacies of the PInochet regime and the ongoing quest for justice, a judge has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s family members for embezzlement and corruption, while another judge rejected a legal request to try former General Fernando Matthei for the murder of General Alberto Bachelet, an officer who opposed the 1973 coup. Bachelet was the father of former president (and current candidate) Michelle Bachelet.

-Twenty-two soccer players in El Salvador have been suspended amidst allegations of match-fixing.

-I previously commented on the non-military ways in which drones could be deployed in Latin America. Peru is adding to that list, now using drones to protect and further learn about archaeological ruins, simultaneously combating the effects of illegal mining, squatting, and scavenging at sites even while learning more about what these sites hold.

-A battle between rival gangs at a Bolivian prison has left at least 31 people dead, including an 18-month old child who was living with a parent in the prison, a practice allowed in Bolivia if children six years old or younger have no other living relative with whom they can live.

-Finally, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law new provisions designed to protect and aid rape victims, including guaranteeing medical treatment and providing emergency contraception to those who have been raped. The new provisions are part of a broader effort to combat rape in Brazil, where recent data suggest it is a broad and, for far too long, unaddressed problem.

More Victories & More Protests (or, Why Reducing Bus Fares Won’t Make Brazilian Protests Go Away Immediately)

June 20, 2013 Comments off

Following up on the reduction of bus fares in several cities Tuesday, yesterday, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo both announced they were reducing fares for their public transport in the wake of protests over the past week (down to R$2.75 in Rio, or about US$1.25, and to R$3 in Brazil, or about US$1.40). The announcement marks yet another victory for the protesters. In São Paulo, this of course meant the elimination of the 20-cent hike in fares that was originally scheduled and was the cause of protests (and violent police suppression) in São Paulo last Thursday.

Yet these announcements were made just a few hours after demonstrations in Fortaleza (where a Confederations Cup game was taking place), turned violent, as police once again cracked down against protesters expressing their anger at the expenses of the World Cup and the lack of internal and infrastructural development in Brazil. And after the announcements, people across the by from Rio de Janeiro gathered to protest in the city of Niterói, carrying signs objecting to the money that went to the World Cup and even shutting down the vital Rio-Niterói bridge that over 100,000 people cross every day as they travel between the two cities.

And these protests before and after the bus fare announcements get at the heart of why the protests are not likely to just disappear with the concession of lower fares for public transport. Yes, the fares were the superficial cause of protests in São Paulo last Thursday, but by the weekend, it was clear they were just part of broader demands that included anger at government spending for the World Cup, the disconnectedness of Brazil’s political elites from the citizenry, the police’s brutal and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators, and numerous other issues. Indeed, both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch now asking the government to investigate the police’s excessive use of force against protesters, making clear that these issues are not going away just because bus fares went down.

Indeed, the connection between soccer and police violence is seeming to become intractable. In protests in Rio last Saturday, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, even chasing protesters (and non-protesters) into the subway system. And again yesterday in Fortaleza, we witnessed a similar experience, even after it was clear that police violence played no small part in the rapid expansion of protests throughout the country earlier this week. This seems to be because soccer and police violence are interrelated. Protesters angry at the $13.3 billion spent on preparations for the World Cup gather at the most obvious symbols of that excess: the stadiums themselves. Meanwhile, the police have nowhere to retreat when protesters show up, even as they try to cordon off and protect the stadiums and to prevent protesters from entering no matter what the cost, both for the sake of Brazil’s image and for FIFA’s own interests. And when FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke claims that “less democracy is better for organizing a World Cup” and praises Putin’s Russia for maintaining “less democracy,” it’s clear where FIFA stands on Brazilians taking to the streets, an attitude Brazilians themselves are not likely to welcome. And thus, the expenses of the World Cup and FIFA’s presence in the Confederations Cup this year and World Cup next year will continue to fuel anger and protest in Brazil.

And so, the movement will not just disappear or dissipate in the wake of a reduction in bus fares. Certainly, it can continue without taking to the streets, and so perhaps the demonstrations will fade for the time being in the coming weeks, as the Confederations Cup comes to a close. But that won’t resolve the broader macroeconomic troubles, the political abuses and corruption, and the sense of disillusionment with traditional politics among many Brazilians, and the ramifications at the state and local levels could be felt for quite some time. Indeed, last night, protesters gathered at Maranhão’s state capitol in São Luís to voice their anger at politician (and former president) José Sarney, who has long used his personal connections among elites to remain in power for decades even while flaunting that power (including getting a court to order a blogger to pay $900,000 in fines for a comment some visitor to her site left on her blog). Discontent with politicians existed well before the issue of bus fares arose, and readjusting bus fares in a handful of cities is not going to get rid of the deeper and more widespread discontent with politicians throughout many parts of the country.

Additionally, the recent demonstrations have reminded a new generation of Brazilians that organizing, publicly protesting, and making their voices heard can and does have very real effects, and provides a powerful way to shape democracy in Brazil. For a country that hadn’t seen such mobilizations since the early-1990s, that is a powerful lesson indeed, and one that a new generation of Brazilians is unlikely to forget, just as those who took to the streets to demonstrate against corrupt president Fernando Collor in 1992 still recall their role in the eventual resignation of the president.

Thus, with deep-rooted issues and inequalities still endemic to Brazilian society, and with the new lesson of the power of popular mobilization, the likelihood of the popular movement that we’ve seen in the last week seems unlikely to suddenly disappear completely. Some temporary victories have occurred, but they haven’t resolved Brazil’s bigger problems even while they’ve reminded Brazilians of the ways that they can shape the path of their country and their government. As thousands of Brazilians have uttered, in the streets, on Twitter, and elsewhere: “the Giant has awoken.” And it’s hard to see that giant demobilizing or forgetting the lessons of June 2013 anytime soon.

On Allegations that Argentine & Italian Dictatorships Fixed World Cups

April 26, 2013 2 comments

This week, FIFA is hosting a conference on the World Cup in history. Scholars from throughout the world are gathering to look at how the World Cup has been more than just a sporting event, filtering into the politics, society, and economics. At the conference, however, two scholars have made some rather bold claims about the connections between the World Cup and politics:

Soccer’s biggest prize may have twice been won with the help of dictators fixing matches for the host team.

Argentina’s triumph in 1978 and Italy’s in 1934 were said to be influenced by military leaders seeking propaganda coups, delegates were told Thursday at a symposium titled ”The Relevance and Impact of FIFA World Cups.”

”It’s the same old story: Sport and politics are brothers and sometimes sport is under the other brother,” Italian writer Marco Impiglia told The Associated Press.

Impiglia presented a paper suggesting Benito Mussolini ensured favorable refereeing decisions, helping the Italian team win.

Raanan Rein, an Israeli professor of Latin American history, said he was ”100 percent persuaded” that Argentina’s military junta influenced a 6-0 win against Peru. The match is a notorious chapter of World Cup lore and ensured Argentina advanced to the final instead of great rival Brazil.

Certainly, there is little doubt that dictatorships benefited from World Cup victories, and it is not even limited to Argentina and Italy. Though Brazil was not the host country in 1970 (Mexico was), its victory there and its status as the first ever tri-champion allowed dictator Emilio Garrastazu Medici to lead the country into the worst excesses of nationalistic pride, even while the military dictatorship was at the height of its most repressive phase. Certainly, dictatorships and repressive governments have benefited from World Cup victories in the past. Nonetheless, as tantalizing and fascinating as the idea is, the key sentence from the article is really this:

Still, Rein and Impiglia said their claims lack documentary proof.

Suffice to say, that’s a pretty big problem. That’s not to say the allegations are totally baseless – for years, there have been allegations and oral accounts from participants or politicians suggesting that Argentina’s 6-0 defeat of Peru in particular was suspect and may have counted on support from any number of officials, be they Peruvian coaches or players, or the referees themselves. Nonetheless, these allegations have generally been whispers, with a lot of contradictions between stories and not a lot of corroborating evidence. Documentary evidence could go far in helping clarify the issue, but that is something Rein and Impiglia lack. One can be “totally convinced” that match-fixing took place, but that does not address the actual issue of whether there is enough evidence to empirically say it did indeed occur. Indeed, although the allegation of manipulating the 1978 or 1934 World Cups is a sexy argument, it distracts from perhaps the more important (and demonstrable) fact that, regardless of whether or not regimes fixed matches, the World Cup played a key role in drumming up popular support for brutal regimes not just in Argentina and Italy, but in Brazil as well. Indeed, the World Cup was and continues to be one of the most visible forms of ultranationalism and sport in the world today, regardless of regime types or match-fixing.

Around Latin America

December 18, 2012 Comments off

-While Hugo Chávez’s health is increasingly in question as he underwent surgery for cancer yet again, his political vision appears to remain alive. In gubernatorial elections yesterday in Venezuela, his political coalition won 20 of the 23 elections for state offices. Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez in October, was also re-elected governor of the state of Miranda.

-Human rights appear to have taken a step backwards in Colombia, where Congress passed a bill that allows military members who commit crimes to face trial in military courts rather than in civil courts. The move further strengthens the potential for impunity for Colombia’s military, already closely tied to numerous human rights violations, and represents a significant step backwards in the quest for preventing human rights violations in Colombia.

-In a case of an unbalanced counter-offer, Chevron countered two civil lawsuits for $20 billion for its role in oil spills in Brazil by offering to instead pay $150 million to resolve the suits.

-In a step towards equal marriage rights, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow gay marriage and would permit couples to decide whose surname goes to their children in what order (thus helping equalize what has culturally been a patriarchal practice). The bill next heads to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.

-On the other end of the spectrum of equal rights, two teenagers in Brazil were arrested in the murder of a gay college student. One of the two teens confessed to killing Lawrence Corrêa Biancão out of homophobia in what appears to have been a calculated and cold-blooded murder that, in its homophobic extremity, is not so dissimilar from the murder of Chilean Daniel Zamudio earlier this year.

-Honduras is in the midst of a brewing institutional crisis as Congress and the Supreme Court are locked in a battle over power and legislation even as President Porfirio Lobo bandies about allegations of a planned coup against him.

-Brazilian rapper Mano Brown has begun pushing for the impeachment of São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin (who unsuccessfully ran for president of Brazil in 2006) for allowing police to allegedly target Afro-Brazilian youths in South America’s largest city.

-Speaking of police violence in Brazil, police were caught assautling a journalist covering a protest in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

-Authorities in Paraguay have charged 14 farmers for killing 17 people in land disputes that ultimately led to the removal of President Fernando Lugo from office in June. The charges come even as the causes and events of the actual showdown remain unclear.

-While the image of indigenous peoples as inherently better stewards of the environment is a highly-charged and problematic image, that does not take away from the fact that indigenous groups have become important actors in environmental conservation in the 21st century, as Peru’s Achuar people remind us.

-Finally, it was an excellent weekend for Brazilian sports, as Brazil officially opened the first finished stadium a year and a half in advance of hosting the 2014 World Cup, even while São Paulo’s Corintians football team defeated Chelsea 1-0 to become the first Brazilian club to win the World Club Cup since Internacional did it in 2006.

Around Latin America

December 8, 2012 Comments off

-In a move that could have implications for equal marriage rights throughout the country, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that a state law in Oaxaca that banned gay marriage is unconstitutional.

-Gunmen assassinated Paraguayan peasant leader Vidal Vega, who fought for the rights for Paraguay’s landless and whose land occupations marked a key moment in the eventual coup that removed Fernando Lugo, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is calling for an investigation into the murder.

-Speaking of Lugo, he has announced his plans to run for Senate in April of next year in a move that could make for some uncomfortable moments should he win and take seat with those who removed him from the presidency.

-In a case that is prompting international outrage, human rights groups have found severe abuse of women and children at one of the larger psychiatric hospitals in Guatemala, where newly-admitted minors were kept in isolation and where patients had died from preventable illnesses.

-In the ongoing struggle for indigenous rights among Chile’s largest indigenous peoples, a Mapuche community is protesting the creation of a new airport that some say will encroach upon indigenous lands in the southern part of the country.

-Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Brazilian indigenous peoples from 70 groups are also protesting the invasion of their lands by loggers, ranchers, and others. At the same time, hundreds of people, including native peoples, students, and artists, marched in protest of the planned privatization of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, the largest stadium in the country and the host of the 2014 World Cup final.

-Famous (or infamous, depending on one’s tastes) Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was laid to rest in Rio de Janeiro’s São João Batista cemetery, the resting place of other famed Brazilians, including Carmen Miranda and Tom Jobim.

-In a likely reminder that the wounds of torture victims run deep long after authoritarian regimes fall, Rodolfo Picheni, an Argentine union leader who suffered torture at the hands of the military dictatorship in 1976, committed suicide this week. While the sources of his decision may have been diverse, it’s nonetheless a reminder of the ways the basic violation of human rights can impact one’s life in the long term.

-Colombia has withdrawn from the International Court of Justice after the court ended a decades-long dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua by granting Colombia possession of  a series of small-but-contested islands but extending Nicaragua’s maritime borders further into what could be oil- and gas-rich waters.

Around Latin America

June 4, 2012 Comments off

-With just over a month to go before the Mexican Presidential Election, center-left candidate Manuel López Obrador has narrowed the gap, and is now trailing PRI-candidate and frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto by only four percentage points in one poll.

-Venezuelan soldiers captured Diego Perez Henao, the suspected leader of the Colombian drug cartel Rastrojos (“Leftovers”), in Venezuela this weekend.

-A controversial dam project in Chile has suffered a major blow as Colbun, one of the two major sources of funding for the dam, withdrew its support for the project. The dam would flood thousands of acres in Chilean Patagonia and had faced significant opposition from a variety of groups, including indigenous peoples and environmental groups, even while increasingly-embattled and unpopular president Sebastián Piñera continues to support the project.

-It has been just over one week since Honduran President Porfirio Lobo named Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares the new national police chief, and already Bonilla Valladares is once again facing allegations of being involved in the the murder and/or disappearance of at least three civilians ten years ago, when he served as a regional police official in the late-1990s and early-2000s.

-Peru declared a state of emergency last week as protests against mining projects after protests took a violent turn, and officials have arrested a mayor for “inciting” the protestors. This is not the first time the government of Ollanta Humala has taken such measures; late last year, the government took similar measures during protests against a gold mine in Cajamarca.

-In a different type of protest, thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest and demand justice for Rosa Elvira Cely, a street vendor who was assaulted and raped and who died of her injuries.

-As expected, Rio de Janeiro closed its largest landfill, the Jardim Gramacho, just six weeks after it announced the shutdown of the site, which provided over 1000 people with their livelihoods.

-Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo returned from a two-week trip to Asia that his administration described as an attempt to find new markets for Paraguayan goods (especially soy and beef), while his detractors criticized him the time and money spent abroad. While the trip may not lead to any definite trade deals, not traveling to spur foreign investment would certainly prevent any trade deals, so time will tell whether Lugo or his detractors were right.

-A new poll shows that Chileans overwhelmingly support reforms to the dictatorship-era electoral system Augusto Pinochet’s government left behind, with less than 25% of those polled supporting the so-called “binomial system” that favors coalition politics and larger parties/coalitions over smaller parties and that undermines majoritarian governance in Congress.

-Luis Moreno Ocampo, an Argentine who prosecuted high-profile human rights violations cases (including Moammar Ghadafi) for the International Criminal Court, will now be going after a different type of criminal activity, as FIFA has nominated Ocampo to serve as the football organization’s chief of anti-corruption.

-Ricardo Patiño, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Ecuador, spoke out against this week against what he called US and British colonialism in Puerto Rico/Guantanamo Bay [Cuba] and the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, respectively.

-Finally, in mixed environmental news from Chile, people donated over 60,000 trees to reforest the Torres del Paine National Park that was ravaged by a forest fire last December, while Chile’s largest hog farm is trying to figure out what to do with half a million pigs after months of complaints and pollution led to the industrial agribusiness having to shut down operations.

Around Latin America

-Amnesty International has issued a report criticizing Colombia for failing to investigate human rights violations and allowing an atmosphere of impunity to persist, including failure to investigate and prosecute right-wing paramilitary groups and individuals who historically have been tied to Colombian governments. However, in at least one isolated instance of progress, a Colombian court sentenced six soldiers to serve 30-50 years in prison for murdering a developmentally disabled man and then falsely reporting his death as a guerrilla combatant.

-As many had hoped she would, Dilma Rousseff has used her line-item veto power to reject 12 clauses and amend 32 others in a highly controversial rainforest bill that had the support of powerful landowners and the business elite but the opposition of the Brazilian Academy of Science, the Catholic Church, and environmental groups (and which saw several Facebook campaigns to promote awareness of and speak out against the law).

-In Argentina, authorities have identified the body of Roque Orlando Montenegro, one of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” in Argentina whose remains washed up in Uruguay in 1976 but were never identified. Both Montenegro and his wife were “disappeared” in the months leading up to and during the Argentine military dictatorship, and their daughter, Victoria, became one of the many cases of children who were adopted and falsely raised by military officials and their supporters as if they were their own children after the infants’ biological parents were arrested, murdered, and “disappeared.”

-Following their protest against PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, thousands of Mexican university students again took to the streets this week to protest against what they argue is the media’s clear bias in favor of Peña Nieto.

-Further south, Hondurans also took to the streets yesterday to protest the increasing violence against and  murder of journalists in Honduras specifically and in the region more generally.

-While three Uruguayan ex-presidents came out to declare that Mercosur has “failed,” their words should be taken with more than a slight grain of salt, as the three men represent parties not included in the current leftist ruling coalition of President José Mujica.

-Five hours after going on strike, São Paulo’s subway workers returned to work after agreeing to a 6% increase in wages and increases in their meal and household foodstuffs vouchers (among other things, Brazilian labor laws require many employers to provide workers with payment for their meals while on the job).

-All of that talk that Argentina’s nationalization of oil producer YPF would lead to European countries reducing trade with Argentina clearly does not apply to one product, at least: the United Kingdom’s importation of wine from Argentina jumped 15%, making the UK the third-largest consumer of Argentine wine (just behind the US and Canada and ahead of Brazil).

-Speaking of alcohol, a new report says that Latin America consumes “considerably less” alcohol than the United States or Europe, though regional metrics vary widely, with El Salvador at the bottom end with only 30% of its population having consumed alcohol in the past year, while 83% of Venezuelans had consumed alcohol in the same time period. Given the deliciousness of Brazilian cachaça, Peruvian chicha, Chilean pisco, and Argentine wine, I can’t help but admire and question (in equal parts) the 15% of the population that are teetotalers.

-Finally, for all of the criticism that NBA owners received for their business practices prior to last year’s lockout, it appears they may not be the worst offenders in the hemisphere; in Brazil, the twenty football (soccer) teams in the first division have a collective debt of $1.85 billion dollars, with four of the top five indebted teams from Rio de Janeiro (sadly, my Botafogo is in the first slot).

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