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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.

Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

Around Latin America

April 1, 2013 Comments off

-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.

-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.

-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.

-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.

-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).

-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).

-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.

-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.

-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.

-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.

-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.

On Populist Appeals & the Failures and Successes of Institutionalization in Venezuela

March 15, 2013 1 comment

Over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a piece up on the “Paradoxes of Chavismo.” In it, they do an excellent job concisely explaining why the rhetoric of Chávez (and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales) has resonated so strongly among their respective electorates.

Chávez, like Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, gained support because his proposed political platform stroke a chord with the average voter. These politicians’ diagnosis of the problems on Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia is that the economic ills their countries face stem from the fact that society has been captured by an elite.

How to change this situation? They argued that measures needed to be taken to break the grip on power of elites. The approach of Chávez, and of Correa and Morales, is to strengthen the president and the removal of checks and balances which in the past have been tools for the elites to block reformist agendas, for example that of Carlos Andrés Perez. It is almost as if one needs “fire to fight fire”: institutions have been captured by elites, so we need to break down these institutions in order to build a different society.

Drawing equivalencies between Latin American leaders just because they are from “the” (not always clearly-defined) left is often problematic, but I think this comparison is legitimate. While the national contexts for each vary, historically, elites have maintained control over institutional power through both the colonial and national eras. This control played no small part in perpetuating socioeconomic differences even while hiding behind of thin veneer of so-called “democracy,” a veneer through which the population saw and with which it grew increasingly disillusioned. While the policies, goals, and contexts of Morales, Correa, and Chávez (to say nothing of their individual responses) have important distinctions between nation-states, this shared history of abuses of power and elite domination is a useful comparison, and helps explain while all three men have (or had) resonated with a majority of their populations as they campaigned. Put simply, they spoke not so much to a populism defined by personalism (though there are certainly elements of that as well, particularly in the figure of Chávez); rather, they spoke to a populism that sought to finally incorporate those who had effectively been marginalized from political processes or from the benefits that the state can provide to its citizens. In that regard, Chávez, Correa, and Morales are not so original, as their rhetoric echoes that of populists who came to power by incorporating previously-marginalized groups, including urban and rural workers and women, between the 1930s-1950s, be it in the APRA in Peru, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, or Juan Perón in Argentina.

Speaking of Perón, Acemoglu and Robinson close with the following:

An interesting comparison here is to Argentina. The attack in the 1940s by Perón on the traditional elites created a political machine, and an associated band of political elites, which have dominated politics and run the country ever since, with far more disastrous economic consequences than the previous regime in Argentina. Chavismo, by its un-institutionalized nature, seems not to have created such a machine, which is possibly his greatest legacy and the only cause for hope for the future of Venezuelan democracy.

This is a fascinating point. I’ve commented before that Chávez’s slowness to institutionalize his reforms in state institutions rather than in himself could be an obstacle in ensuring that the reforms are stronger and more enduring than an individual leader (in this case, Chávez himself). By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the lack of institutionalization of chavismo as a political movement may help maintain peace and democracy in Venezuela by precluding machine politics bound in the cult of personality of the party’s leader, a la Peronism in Argentina. Certainly, there are some important differences between the two cases; in particular, regarding party politics, Perón was alive until 1974, more than 25 years after arriving in the presidency in 1946. From 1955 to 1973, he was in exile, meaning his metaphysical presence/physical absence created a far more ambivalent and uncertain path for Peronism, with more radical and more conservative forces fighting over the party’s legacy even while it’s founder was still alive. This obviously would not be  the case for Chávez, even had he created a party bound in his own leadership before his death.  Nonetheless, the suggestion that Chávez’s failure to institutionalize his ideology in a party is a fascinating one that sees the failure to institutionalize Chavismo in one regard as a success.

To be clear, I don’t think those two views on institutionalization as a shortcoming or as a success are in direct conflict; Acemoglu and Robinson are discussing party politics, whereas I was focused more on institutional reform. Thus, it’s not so much a matter of conflicting views as it is a question of differing institutions. I think the reforms need to be embodied in Venezuela’s juridical and legal institutions, while Acemoglu and Robinson are arguing the lack of political institutions [i.e., parties] with Chávez may be central in sowing an even stronger democratic system in Venezuela going forward. In that regard, they may be right.

Thoughts on Institutionalizing Reform in Ecuador

February 22, 2013 Comments off

Last Sunday, Ecuador elected Rafael Correa to a third term. The election wasn’t even close, as Correa finished with 56% of the total vote, 33% more than the runner-up, making him the first Ecuadoran president to avoid a runoff in consecutive elections. As Greg Weeks points out, Correa’s re-election was also a “boring” re-election, and for a country that’s witnessed plenty of tumult in electoral presidential politics in recent decades, that’s a good thing.  Certainly, while much of the US media’s portrayal of him relies on problematic terms and descriptors, there are certainly legitimate criticisms of Correa in areas like indigenous rights and freedom of the press. Yet if Correa finishes his third (and allegedly final) term, he will be the longest-serving president in Ecuador’s history.

While anything could change in the next four years, there seems to be one subtle indicator that, at least for now, Correa may be sincere in his expression to leave office after this term. Unlike Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (to whom Correa is often compared) Correa seems to be playing an active role in attempting to institutionalize the reforms of the “Citizens’ Revolution” that he has overseen in his first two governments, unlike Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, to whom Correa is often compared. While the country is still heavily dependent on oil revenues to provide the socioeconomic reforms that have improved the lives of many Ecuadorans, his stated goal of diversifying government revenue through tariffs seems to suggest a possible path to continue generating revenue for social programs even in the (inevitable) even that oil prices drop. Likewise, improving infrastructure, increasing autonomy in energy production, and restricting imports while still encouraging private capital development within Ecuador are all a part of Correa’s apparent agenda to ensure that the reforms and social changes over the previous 6 years of his two terms can remain in place. Even the selection of a technocrat rather than a traditional politician as his new vice president suggests a shift to a concern with governance and institutionalization rather than of politicking and elections. Thus, in many ways, it seems that Correa is preparing Ecuador to continue and cement the social reforms begun under his presidency even after he is possibly out of office, something that his Venezuelan counterpart was slow to do, in turn ultimately reminding us that simple categorizations of Venezuela and Ecuador as part of some (falsely) monolithic “new left” really glosses over significant differences in government, governance, and style between them (and other countries in the region).

Around Latin America

January 8, 2013 Comments off

-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.

-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.

-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez,  another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.

-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.

-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.

-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.

-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.

-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.

-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.

-Preparing for re-election, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa announced he is taking a one-month leave in order to campaign for a third term.

-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.

-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.

Around Latin America

October 11, 2012 Comments off

-In the wake of his re-election this past Sunday, Hugo Chávez has named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro his new vice president. I originally suggested that, in the wake of the election, one of the big questions would be whether Chávez made any attempts to institutionalize his policies and programs in the event he has to leave his office; the selection of Maduro suggests that Chávez himself, whose health is regularly a matter of speculation, may be moving towards institutionalizing his reforms and considering a time where he is no longer able to hold office.

-Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is under fire after alerting a pro-life group to a rape victim who was seeking an abortion at a hospital. Macri made the move in what is a clear infringement on the woman’s rights in an attempt to pressure her to avoid abortion. Earlier this year, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that rape victims could not be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy that was the result of a rape, though that has not stopped Macri from consistently rejecting women’s reproductive freedoms by vetoing municipal bills that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.

-Citing tongue cancer and other medical issues, Alberto Fujimori’s family has formally requested a pardon for the imprisoned ex-president and convicted violator of human rights.

-Colombian paramilitary leader Hector German Buitrago (AKA “Martin Llanos”) confessed to the murder of villagers in 1997’s Mapiripan massacre as part of the right-wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; AUC).

-This past weekend, Mexico’s military killed Heriberto Lazcano, one of the key figureheads in the Zetas cartel, one of the more powerful and violent cartels in the country, in what the Mexican government is now saying was an “accident.”

-The US Supreme Court has rejected Chevron’s appeal of an Ecuadoran decision that ruled the country owes $18.2 billion in damages for the systematic discharge of toxic waste that led to the destruction of the environment and an increase in diseases, including cancer, related to the pollution in the Ecuadoran Amazonian basin.

-Indigenous peoples and environmental activists in Brazil have again blocked access to a construction site at the controversial Belo Monte dam, protesting against the environmental impact and the destruction of indigenous lands that the dam will cause. At the end of August, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled construction on the dam could proceed, but opposition from indigenous groups and activists, as well as environmentalists, continues.

-Calls for Guatemala to investigate the military have mounted after armed forces shot into a crowd of protesting indigenous peoples, killing eight natives, and the opposition party has begun investigating the possibility of filing charges against officials in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration. While such charges seem unlikely right now, the murder is not insignificant; military violence in Guatemala is still a highly-sensitive and charged issue since the end of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which the Guatemalan armed forces regularly targeted indigenous communities in a genocidal campaign.

-In a historic moment for Brazilian politics, Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa was chosen as the first ever black president of the court.

-Finally, in a logic that can at best be described as dubious, Trinidad’s Minister Jack Warner has announced the country will no longer release crime statistics to the public because such data (Warner alleges) encourages people to commit more crimes.

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