Last week ushered in a new era at the World Trade Organization, as Brazilian Roberto Azevedo won the post as the WTO’s next director-general. With the election, Azevedo became the first Latin American to serve in that post [though no matter the outcome of the election, a Latin American would have held that distinction: Azevedo won out over Mexican Hermínio Blanco, who had the support of the US and the European Union]. As Boz points out, the selection of Azevedo is generally controversy-free among member nations.
That said, that does not mean the selection of Azevedo has not raised the ire of some free-trade disciples:
Are you kidding me? A Brazilian to lead the body ostensibly responsible for fostering freer trade? In the real world, this would be a cruel joke. But in the Wonderland of the WTO, this isn’t really all that surprising. Now, I like Brazil. I have traveled there many times and the people, food, and culture are wonderful. But in terms of being a beacon of free trade it is not.
Hudson proceeds to damn the move based on Brazil’s objections to unfettered free trade in the past, its regulatory government, and its willingness to stand up to the US on cotton subsidies that the WTO itself ultimately ruled were unfair. Even beyond the patronizing “I like Brazil’s food, and they’re nice people and all” tenor there, there are several problems with the criticisms Hudson raises. First, the presumption that free trade is the only path to economic development is enormously flawed. As Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, free trade and neoliberalism replicate the exploitative structures of international trade that date back to the colonial era, concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and overseas without creating actual development for the citizens more broadly. Indeed, Latin America has been a textbook laboratory case in demonstrating the negative impacts of increasingly-unfettered liberalization. Philosophically, the system Hudson is advocating here has a long track record of opening up Latin American countries to exploitation of resources and the extraction of wealth to other countries.
A second problem here is the presumption that free trade is the only commercial system worth pursuing. This mindset is not surprising; the neoliberalism of Friedman has come to dominate economics schools in the US to a dangerous degree. Though the crisis of 2008-2009 has led to a mild resurgence in considering alternatives to neoliberalism, it has not destroyed the hegemony of neoliberal discourse. Hudson seems upset that an individual from a country that has not uncritically embraced free trade at every opportunity spells doom. Yet he fails to explain why this is so horrible; he just takes it as a given. Nonetheless, it is not clear that Brazilian at WTO or a reduction in free trade is automatically mean a bad thing. If one takes the WTO as a useful institution or the spurring of international capital trade (and to be clear, that’s not really the purpose of this post), then perhaps innovating in global trade beyond highly exploitative free trade agreements and seeking alternatives that create greater opportunities for all is not a bad approach. Again, drawing on the lessons of 2008-2009, finding alternatives (like more bilateral and regional trade agreements) to the system and economic ideologies and models that created greater international stability than the deregulation that led to the events of 2008-2009 does not seem like such a terrible idea.
This is not to say the WTO’s agenda is appropriate or good, but it’s hard to argue against diversifying trade models and economic relations in ways that prevent the domination of a single neoliberal system that has repeatedly demonstrated how it relies on repression and creates greater inequalities both within individual countries and within the global economy more generally. Indeed, that Hudson thinks a Brazilian in charge of WTO equals no free trade agreements that open up other countries to US/European/multinational exploitation says far more about his own neoliberal agenda than it does about the actual quality of new head of WTO.
-Though the higher-profile case, the conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt was not the only triumph for human rights and justice last week. In Uruguay, General Miguel Dalmao was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the murder of a professor during Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985).
-Brazilian indigenous peoples have once again occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to protest the impact it would have on their lands and on the environment, even while government officials accused the indigenous people of being tied to illegal gold-mining. Though failing to provide any actual evidence of mining among indigenous peoples, the government’s charge is discursively not-insignificant; illegal gold mining takes a significant toll on the environment, while arguments against the dam are often predicated upon the negative impact it will have on the environment. By leveling such accusations, the government seems to be trying to delegitimize indigenous claims by portraying them (again, without offering any actual evidence) as hypocrites who protest environmental damage even while enriching themselves through other forms of environmental degradation.
-In another reminder of the detrimental impacts of liberalization of markets and free trade agreements on local economies, over one hundred thousand Colombian farmers have gone on strike in protest over the weakening of the Colombian agricultural sector, as cheaper products from North America and elsewhere flood the Colombian market, destroying the livelihoods and jobs of Colombian farmers.
-In a powerful reminder that in military dictatorships, members of the military can and do also suffer repression, sixteen Brazilian soldiers spoke before the Brazilian Truth Commission, testifying about the persecution and torture they suffered when they remained loyal to the government of João Goulart, whom the military overthrew in a coup in 1964.
-Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood status for hundreds this past weekend. Included on the list were Mexican María Guadalupe García Zavala and Colombian Laura Montoya, the first saint from Colombia. However, not all popular saints (those whom people praise as saints but who lack official canonization from the Church) received the Pope’s endorsement, as the Vatican recently declared Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” to be “blasphemous.”
-Hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marched against homophobia in Cuba, seeking to further equal rights and treatment for members of the LGBT who have faced cultural, social, and political repression over the years.
-Speaking of homophobia and hatred, homophobic Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano (who is currently the head of Congress’s human rights commission, offering a sad commentary on the nature of Brazilian congressional politics), cancelled a hearing on a homophobic project to find a “cure” for homosexuality after having earlier taken to Twitter to defend his project.
-After months of relative silence, former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has recently begun speaking out about the challenges facing Haiti and offering some criticisms of the current government of Michel Martelly.
-Finally, Brazil has announced a plan to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to Brazil to help in Brazil’s underserved areas. Greg Weeks does a great job unpacking the various aspects of the story, including how the plan reflects ongoing inequalities in Brazil (a sample take-away point: “When asked if any doctor was better than no doctor, CFM President Carlos Vital responded in the negative. “Pseudo treatment is worse than no treatment,” he said. “If you don’t have a doctor in your city, you can go to the next city and have a quality doctor.” Sure, just go 100 miles to the next city if you don’t have a doctor. Nothing to see here!”)
-Still dealing with the loss to Chile of its only route to the Pacific 140 years ago, Bolivia is set to take its case to the International Court of Justice, a move that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has said would open a “Pandora’s Box” of territorial issues in the Americas (including the territory the US took from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War).
-US President Barack Obama is set this week to make his first trip to Latin America since winning re-election last November, with stops in Mexico and Costa Rica planned. Prior to the trip, he met with Latino leaders in the US, with whom he discussed socioeconomic issues.
-Peruvian President Ollanata Humala may be preparing to pardon former president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving jail time after his conviction for human rights violations that Fujimori oversaw during his 1990-2000 presidency.
-Evo Morales is set to run for a third term as president after Bolivia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of presidents serving three consecutive terms.
-Chilean Laurence Golborne, seen as the frontrunner among conservative candidates to challenge former president Michelle Bachelet in next year’s election, has removed himself from the race amidst allegations of shady business practices.
-Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro will travel to the US to receive an award in Philadelphia next week. Castro had initially been denied a visa to the US, due primarily to the fact that she is the daughter of Raul Castro.
-Colombia is set to resume peace talks with the FARC after a month-long break in the peace process.
-The Catholic Church has excommunicated Brazilian priest Roberto Francisco Daniel (known colloquially as Padre Beto) for his defense of open marriages and his defense of same-sex love. More than a symbolic move, the excommunication marks a split between official church hierarchy and a growing strain of moderate and even progressive Catholicism among some parishioners in Brazil.
-A new scientific study suggests that Latin America is facing a “cancer epidemic” due to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer, as well as to increasingly unhealthy diets, higher levels of tobacco-smoking and alcohol consumption, and an increasingly inactive lifestyle.
-In what is an important step in addressing impunity (albeit a significant issue in its own right), sixty officers in Rio de Janeiro have been arrested on charges of corruption, even while another five officers were arrested for the murders of a journalist and a photographer who were working on a story on militias in Brazil’s interior state of Minas Gerais.
-The next president of the World Trade Organization will be from Latin America, as the remaining to candidates for the position are Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo.
-Finally, when I studied in Costa Rica about a decade ago, the “best” beer one could find was Heineken, so this is excellent news for Costa Rica.
This is beyond outstanding:
Andrea Benítez simply did what many rich, connected Mexicans have always done: she used her influence to step on the lower born. Witnesses said that when she was not given the table she wanted on Friday at Maximo Bistrot, a popular Mexico City restaurant, she called in inspectors who worked for her father at the country’s main consumer protection agency to shut it down.
“Dreadful service,” she wrote on Twitter, before announcing she had arrived at the agency to complain. “They have no manners.”
What followed, however, caught much of Mexico by surprise. Instead of enjoying the perks of privilege, Ms. Benítez and her father have become the targets of a broad and swift social media campaign — with tens of thousands of Tweets condemning them — that led the president’s office on Monday to announce a formal investigation into allegations of abuse of power. [...]
Twitter users immediately gave Ms. Benítez a hashtag: #LadyProfeco. Profeco is the abbreviated version of the office that her father directs, and “Lady” referred back to another recent incident labeled #LadiesDePolanco — when some drunken young women in the posh neighborhood of Polanco were caught on video berating police officers for being “salary men.”
As of Sunday evening, Twitter had logged around 42,000 messages referring to #LadyProfeco in every manner of vulgar insult.
Certainly, that is an amusing story. But it is also actually an important reminder of the ways in which social media can empower people. Certainly, we saw the utility of social media platforms like Twitter in the events of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Yet the importance in providing people with a new voice and a new method to challenge the powerful is not limited to overthrowing governments. While the article suggests that an actual investigation into abuse of power is unlikely, that may be beside the point. The fact is that one’s abusive flaunting of power and connections in public can lead to this kind of public embarrassment, social backlash, and governmental involvement in ways it did not want to be involved. The use of social media for public and widespread shaming for shameful arrogance and favoritism is a not-insignificant way in which people can cause real problems for governments, and that is not nothing.
Nearly two months ago, Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law an educational reform bill that reduced the power of teachers’ unions, and then promptly arrested union leader Elba Ester Gordillo on charges of corruption. At the time, I commented that “it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some pushback from teachers.” It would appear that that pushback has happened.
Easter vacation was over, but there wasn’t a teacher in sight at the boarding school for indigenous children on the edge of this sunbaked southern Mexico hill town. [...]
Pena Nieto’s first major legislative victory after taking office in December was a constitutional amendment eliminating Mexico’s decades-old practice of buying and selling teaching jobs, and replacing it with a standardized national teaching test. That’s heresy to a radical splinter union of elementary and high-school teachers in Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and worst-educated states. The teachers claim the test is a plot to fire them in mass as a step toward privatizing education, although there is little evidence the government plans that.
Reform advocates say the dissidents simply fear losing control over the state education system and the income it provides, despite the need to reform a system that eats up more of the budget and produces worse results than virtually any other in the world’s largest economies.
The 20,000-member group walked out more than a month ago, turning hundreds of thousands of children out of class. Then it launched an increasingly disruptive string of protests.
The overtly anti-labor tone of the article aside, this taps into several main issues. On the one hand, just because there is “little evidence” that the government is using the reform to move towards privatization, that does not mean such a move is rendered impossible down the road; that the teachers are mobilizing to try to ensure that doesn’t take place at some future moment is understandable. On the other hand, the system for hiring teachers as it currently operates is also open to plenty of cases of corruption and abuse. And of course, the issue of teachers’ pensions in Mexico’s poorer areas taps into broader socio-economic problems: that the benefits and pay for teachers in rural areas is much higher than other employment opportunities is a harsh reminder of the impoverished conditions and exploitation of workers that continues in Mexico’s countryside; and that that pay is used to keep a lot of families fed and supplied with goods makes the pensions issue not just a teachers’ issue, but a social issue for non-teachers as well in these areas.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peña Nieto uses the strength of the federal government to crack down on the teachers. The arrest of Gordillo is already increasingly looking like an early warning shot across the bow of the teachers’ unions, making clear Peña Nieto’s efforts to curb their power. And in the face of the state police apparatus, teachers are relatively outmatched in power. And that is not automatically a good thing for, if there are real problems with education in Mexico today, eliminating the power of unions and allowing the government to unilaterally control and dictate the terms of education is equally problematic. Things could work out, but quite honestly, right now, there does not seem to be a real encouraging exit one way or the other to the political struggle between the President and the teachers.
A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the potential of drones in helping reduce deforestation in Brazil. Brazil is not the only place looking at drones as possibly serving useful, non-military capacities. Mexican company 3D Robotics provides another reminder of the non-military ways in which drones shape society, providing domestic jobs to Mexicans and helping the country’s technological capacities develop even while producing drones for non-military purposes. Again, that is not to deny the potential threats drone warfare could pose or the civil rights issues it raises, but it is important to remember that military capacities are only one of the ways in which drones are used.
There has been a recent wave of stories regarding human rights in Latin America in both the past and present worth covering.
-With the ongoing issue of the disappeared in Mexico in the 21st century, and, after a tortuous path that saw initial rejection before Enrique Peña Nieto signed it into law, there is now a Victims’ Law that seeks to provide compensation and closure for families whose loved ones have gone missing. While the law has some issues to work out, and while it’s not clear how it will be institutionalized, it’s an important step in dealing with the issue of violence and memory in Mexico.
-In Uruguay, hundreds gathered to protest a Supreme Court ruling that effectively restores an amnesty that exempts military members who committed human rights violations during the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1973-1985. Congress had initially overturned the amnesty in 2011.
-The recent death of former New York mayor and congressman Ed Koch brought a reminder of his human rights efforts. In the 1970s, Koch sponsored legislation to cut off funding to Uruguay after reports of human rights violations under its dictatorship. The legislation was ultimately successful, and, as detailed in John Dinges’ excellent The Condor Years, two Uruguayan officials threatened to assassinate Koch. Although the CIA discovered the death threat in July 1976, it was only in October that CIA Director George H.W. Bush told Koch of the threat.
-Families of victims of the Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) used the 24th anniversary of his downfall to demand justice for the more than 400 people murdered and disappeared and the 20,000 detained and often tortured during his regime.
-In a disturbing trend, the number of attacks on and murders of human rights defenders and activists has increased, with a murder every five days on average, and an attack once every 20 hours on average. Suffice to say, the attacks undermine efforts to ensure human rights in Colombia are respected.
-Mike Allison recently put the degree of human rights violations during Guatemala’s Civil War in succinct but devastating terms that shows the common flaw of the “both sides committed atrocities” arguments in Guatemala: “Of the 1,112 massacres (more than four people but usually much more than four), government forces were responsible for 1,046 (94.06%). Government forces include the army, military commissions, PACs, death squads, and police. [...] The guerrillas were responsible for 46 (4.14%).” It’s hard to imagine a more disproportionate use of state force and terror than that.
-While former human rights violators in Argentina have been sentenced to house arrest, it turns out that the “punishment” is in many ways nominal, as rights violators continue to move freely about in public, pointing to real loopholes and problems in enforcing more lenient “punishments” for older rights violators.
-Authorities in Brazil arrested 61-year-old Gonzalo Sánchez, a fugitive Argentine officer charged with participating in the torture, murder, and disappearance of dozens during the military dictatorship.
-With Dutch monarch Queen Beatrix recently stepping down, her son Prince Willem-Alexander is set to assume the (symbolic) throne, creating the first ever “Argentine Princess.” For Prince Willem-Alexander’s wife is Argentine Máxima Zorreguieta. However, while Argentina has celebrated at the rise of one of its own citizens, it turns out her past is not without its own dark roots, as her father was Minister of Justice under General Jorge Videla, when the government tortured, murdered, and disappeared tens of thousands, during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.
-A couple of years ago, I posted a series of photos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) on ways in which the Argentine dictatorship continued to be criticized and memorialized in public spaces. Lillie Langtry points us to this article (in Spanish) with more examples of how Argentines continue to remember the regime and its victims, thirty years after it finally collapsed.
-Speaking of public space and memory, many of the prisons and sites where torture took place during Brazil’s dictatorship are disappearing from public space in São Paulo. The destruction of these buildings is significant, as they served as physical memory-sites that served to remind people of the deeds and impact of the military dictatorship; as scholarship on memory, human rights, and space has repeatedly demonstrated, the removal of such buildings can and does accelerate the receding of memorialization of human rights violations in public memory itself.
-It’s not just the physical landscapes of cities where the dictatorship is disappearing. Brazil’s military schools sadly, if unsurprisingly, are using textbooks that gloss over or ignore the military dictatorship and its deeds (original in Portuguese here), prompting scholars and members of the Truth Commission to suggest the need to overhaul military educational materials so as to better address Brazil’s past for future soldiers and officers.
-Even while markers of the dictatorship disappear both from public spaces and textbooks, however, the deeds of the dictatorship are being recorded in other ways. Brazil’s Truth Commission, which has been drawing on interviews, documentary evidence, testimony, and other materials to investigate the regime’s deeds, recently reopened an investigation into the death of former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek, who was one of the regime’s highest-profile critics after 1965, died in a car crash in 1976, and rumors swirled around his death, including the possibility that the regime forced the crash (rumors aided by the fact that another high profile critic, fashion designer Zuzu Angel, whose son the regime “disappeared,” died in similar circumstances that the state ultimately acknowledged responsibility for).
-Not all are happy with the Truth Commission, however. Marcelo Rubens Paiva, the son of a politician who the regime arrested and disappeared, criticized the commission for being “timid” and needed to be firmer and stronger in its investigations.
-While the Truth Commission investigates the deaths of people the regime killed, the Organization of American States has announced it will launch its own investigation into the death of Vladimir Herzog, a journalist who died under torture during the administration of Ernesto Geisel.
-Meanwhile, a former torturer was recently discovered as having worked as a teacher for 24 years before his death in 2009. Under a false name, Cleber de Souza Rocha taught geography classes in São Paulo, often showing up to class drunk.
-The recent execution-style killing of Cícero Guedes, a leader for land reform and peasants’ rights in Brazil, provided another tragic reminder of the dictatorship, as his murder took place in a region where the dictatorship killed and disappeared land activists during its most repressive years.
-While Chile has had several official investigations into the Pinochet regime’s rights violations, some mysteries remain unsolved. One of those mysteries is how Pablo Neruda died. Officials are exhuming the Nobel laureate’s body to see if he may have been poisoned when he died just twelve days after the Pinochet regime overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende.
-Neruda isn’t the only high-profile cultural figure who died in the Pinochet era. The regime infamously arrested and cut off the hands of folk singer Victor Jara before ultimately murdering him. In the wake of the arrest of several officers connected to his death, J. Patrice McSherry has this great report on the case, its history, where it stands, and the impact of his widow Joan’s efforts to keep the case and his memory alive.
Apparently, it won’t take so long to see at least one of the consequences of Mexico’s massive educational reform. Just one day after Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a reform that greatly weakened the teachers union on Monday, yesterday afternoon, the government arrested teachers’ union leader Elba Ester Gordillo for the alleged embezzlement of 2 billion pesos during her 23 years as the head of the teachers’ union (English version here). The reform Peña Nieto signed already had gone after Gordillo’s authority, granting the federal government power to fire and hire teachers, rather than letting Gordillo exercise such power. Apparently, though that was not enough, as the government has now gone directly after the powerful union leader herself.
It’s tough to say what the fallout from this will be right now, but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some pushback from teachers; though opponents have long accused Gordillo of corruption, she also enjoys massive support among her constituents, having been recently reelected to another 6-year term at the head of the union without a single vote against her. The government’s swift action against a popular union leader is a bold move, and one that is not without risks. Though far from definite, it seems far more conceivable today than it did yesterday that the government and teachers could be heading towards a face-off over just how far the new educational reforms should go.
Certainly, some components of the reform will take time to develop and make their impact felt. Clearly, though, the government has wasted little time in attempting to assert its authority over the teachers’ union. How that move will play out remains to be seen.
We’ve discussed the wave of educational reforms (or lack thereof) throughout the Americas here periodically, from Chile to Guatemala, from the Dominican Republic to Brazil. Now Mexico has also officially entered the fray, as yesterday President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a major educational overhaul into effect. Among other things, the reform weakens Mexico’s teachers unions, expands federal oversight of the educational system, and seeks to improve completion rates among middle school students. Although Peña Nieto insisted the reforms will improve Mexico’s educational system, some critics charge that the new bill will lead to increasing privatization of education in the country. There are definitely some potential negatives in the reform, but it will all depend on how the government acts and implements the reform going forward. It’s hard to argue against improving the quality of education, but the devil is always in the details; it will definitely be worth watching what the specifics of Peña Nieto’s vague platitudes about the reform will be going forward.
Human Rights Watch issued its report on the Disappeared in Mexico, and the findings are grim. The report documents 249 disappearances in just the last six years; that’s more than half of the official number of disappeared or murdered (475) during Brazil’s entire 21-year dictatorship. Additionally, the report finds that the Mexican state, through its security forces, is responsible for 60% (149) of those disappearances. And in over 60 cases, state security agents worked directly with organized crime in “disappearing” victims and extorting their families.
Typically, uniformed officials took the victims into custody themselves; when families inquired about the fates of their loved ones, the police denied that detentions occurred, in spite of eyewitness accounts. This latter fact is particularly alarming; although Mexico is a functioning democracy, the tactic of denying an arrest ever happened chillingly echoes what took place in military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay during the 1950s-1980s. Authorities have failed to act on requests from the families of the disappeared to investigate their cases, creating a climate of impunity even while such disappearances continue, and even when such investigations occur, the police usually simply say the individual was involved in illegal activities, prompting the prosecutors not to investigate further and putting the burden of investigating the disappearance on the victims’ families.
And perhaps most damning of all? As the report itself puts it:
The nearly 250 cases documented in this report by no means represent all the disappearances that occurred in Mexico during the Calderón administration. Quite the opposite, there is no question that there are thousands more. Officials in Coahuila, for example, told Human Rights Watch that 1,835 people had disappeared in that state alone from December 2006 to April 2012. More alarming still, a provisional list compiled by the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office—which was leaked in November 2012—contains the names of more than 25,000 people who were disappeared or went missing during the Calderón years, and whose fates remain unknown. While the list’s information is incomplete and its methodology flawed, the number leaves little doubt as to the unprecedented scale of the current wave of disappearances.
Of course, as historical and human rights studies on the disappeared in other parts of Latin America have amply demonstrated, this has a devastating impact on the relatives of the families and friends of the disappeared, leaving them with the uncertainty of their loved ones’ remains or fates and disrupting their lives at the most basic level. I’ve mentioned before that this is a major crisis facing Mexico; the new report helps us further understand just how endemic the problem has become since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. That such a crisis still exists in a civilian-led republic in the 21st century is as shameful as it is disturbing, and human rights should and must be a top issue for new president Enrique Peña Nieto.