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Around Latin America

December 4, 2013 Comments off

-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.

-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.

-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote)  and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.

-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.

-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.

-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.

-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.

-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.

-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.

Around Latin America

September 11, 2013 Comments off

-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).

-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.

-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).

-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.

-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.

-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.

-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.

What Force-Feeding Looks Like

July 8, 2013 Comments off

Though reports on the story have been relatively slight in comparison to far more trivial matters that gobble up more TV time, for at least the past four months, detainees at Guantanamo have been on a hunger strike, protesting the conditions in which they are kept, the lack of charges or trials, and regulations that are outraging even the defense attorneys that the Pentagon itself appointed. In response to the strike, US forces at Guantanamo have begun force-feeding the detainees. Though earlier reports already indicated the violence and horrors of forced feeding, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) volunteered to go through force-feeding to illustrate what it is like. The results are difficult to watch (and that is putting it mildly), and the video is graphic, so be forewarned. That said, it is quite effective at conveying just what forced-feeding looks like, and it’s hard to see how it could not be considered torture by many definitions of human rights, not just in Guantanamo, but wherever force-feeding prisoners is used.

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.]

The Cold War in Central America – To What Extent Was the US Responsible?

May 24, 2013 Comments off

I was on the Burt Cohen Show yesterday, discussing the nature of the Cold War in Central America, the annulment of the Rios Montt trial, human rights and justice for ex-dictators, and the complex roles of the US in Latin America in the 1980s. You can hear the whole thing here.

 

Bunkers in the Everglades – Relics of the Cold War

May 21, 2013 Comments off

This is a remarkable story of a bygone era:

The Cuban Missile Crisis was over in 1962. But the militarization of Florida and its national parks had only just begun. Nike Hercules Missile Site — also called Alpha Battery or HM-69 — was completed in 1964. “Nike,” like the Greek goddess of victory, was the name the United States’ government gave to a widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system installed to protect the country from any missile attack — threatened or real. From the mid-20th century, Nike Missile defense sites were built all over the United States in rings around cities and major industrial sites — around 260 all told. But no other state was as physically close to an “enemy” nation as Florida. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with an uneasy détente, it was only after 1962 that the U.S. government realized how especially vulnerable south Florida was. HM-69 — and all south Florida — became the frontline defense against enemy attack.

146 U.S. Army soldiers and technicians made HM-69 their home. Their main task was to operate the site’s three aboveground launchers and, ostensibly, protect south Florida from Cuban air strikes. Flight time for a supersonic jet bomber launched from Cuba to Miami was very short. This meant that the people manning HM-69 were on perpetual high alert. They lived daily with the knowledge that they would receive little or no warning if there was an attack, and that they would not live to tell the story. “We were the first line of defense the Russians would have had to take out before they could attack the rest of the country,” Charles Carter, a veteran who served on the base for three years, told theSouth Dade News Leader last year. The highly restricted HM-69 was also a training ground for CIA-sponsored Cuban exile espionage teams, and a research lab for advanced Cold War-related military sensor technology.

Though the story seems quaint, it’s actually a rather powerful reminder of the daily lived experiences and mindsets of the Cold War. Likewise, the story illustrates how often the mechanisms of nuclear war and militarization were (and are) right next to civilians, and they remain completely unaware of it. No doubt, this applies not only to Florida, but to most of the US – those Cold War relics can often be glimpsed tucked in in landscapes throughout the country, providing a compelling example of the fact that, while the Cold War antagonisms have transformed and faded, the tools of destruction, including nuclear weapons, remain very much a part of the landscape today.

Around Latin America

-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.

On Revealing WHINSEC’s [ex-School of the Americas] Students

April 26, 2013 Comments off

A California court has ruled that the Western Hemispheric Institute for Securirity Operations (WHINSEC), once known as the School of the Americas, must reveal the names of students from Latin America who have trained at the Fort Benning grounds. The ruling comes in response to a 2006 act that classified the names of foreign students at WHINSEC. The move is an important one. On the one hand, it creates a greater sense of transparency at an institution known for operating in secrecy and for training torturers and dictators in the past. On the other hand, it also creates a context in which people can know which individuals from which countries continue to have ties to the US military, and with which Latin American militaries the US is more regularly working.

This latter part is particularly important. As Mike Allison points out, references to past SOA/WHINSEC alumni are rather tired and old at this point:

SOA or maybe it’s the media in this case need to move beyond people who attended or taught at WHINSEC’s predecessor half a century ago. In AP article, they mention Rios Montt, Manuel Noriega, Hugo Banzer and those involved in the 1989 Jesuit murders.

Guatemala’s Rios Montt attended the SOA in 1951! (That’s right, during the Arbenz regime.)

Panama’s Noriega attended the SOA in 1967! (Dustin Hoffman starred in The Graduate)

And Hugo Banzer of Bolivia attended the SOA in 1956! (Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” become his first #1 hit)

Even the Salvadoran soldiers involved in the UCA murders in El Salvador attended thirty or so years ago.

Certainly, the SOA absolutely and fairly should be criticized for its ties to these men, and for its role in shaping them in terms of tactics and ideology. Yet the SOA is not just in the past; it continues to teach, train, and play a role in teh political formation of officers throughout Latin America. Bringing up Rios Montt and Noriega time and again does little-to-nothing to help us understand the current status, function, and diffused impact of WHINSEC in the hemisphere. Revealing the names in a responsible fashion means that the Latin American countries and activists throughout the hemisphere can know what their own military’s ties to WHINSEC are, in turn providing important public checks and balances on the authority of those who train at WHINSEC and who all too often in the past operated with impunity.

Israel, Guatemala, and the Question of Genocide

April 24, 2013 3 comments

As the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt appears to be headed back to square one after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, NACLA has a fascinating piece up on Israel’s ties to Ríos Montt:

Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.

[...] A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Timemagazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”

In spite of emphasis on US support for Guatemala and other brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s (and certainly the US absolutely was the keystone in supporting these regimes), it was not the sole actor. Both Augusto Pinochet’s government and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 sent weapons and military aides to right-wing military regimes in Central America. That Israel, more often than not an ally of the US during the 1980s, was also a willing supporter of Ríos Montt is an untold part of the story, but not necessarily a surprising one, for rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.

And of course, that also means Israel was directly tied to a regime that committed genocidal acts itself. There is a quotation from Ríos Montt’s own press secretary in the 1980s that gets at the heart of the mindset behind the regime’s brutal tactics, which may have killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982 alone:

Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.

This certainly appears to be genocide, or “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And it is not as if the targeting of indigenous groups was a secret even at the time. As an evangelical pastor at the time himself put it,

 The army doesn’t massacre Indians. [...] It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.

That is, simply put, the targeting of an ethnic group for massacre, for destruction, and it was a fact that people at the time were willing to admit. Ríos Montt’s trial may be undone by a technicality, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to genocide in Guatemala under the military leader. That Israel supported such a genocidal regime is tragically ironic, if somewhat unsurprising, in the context of the final decade of the Cold War.

Guantanamo Detainee: “Gitmo Is Killing Me”

April 15, 2013 Comments off

In case you haven’t read it yet, the New York Times today published an op-ed from a prisoner at Guantanamo, providing a rare glimpse of the treatment and living conditions for those held without charge as part of the US’s “War on Terror.” Suffice to say, it is incredibly powerful:

I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.

I could have been home years ago — no one seriously thinks I am a threat — but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a “guard” for Osama bin Laden, but this was nonsense, like something out of the American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore. But they don’t seem to care how long I sit here, either. [...]

The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.

And that is only concerning the abstract and philosophical question of humane treatment and speedy trials. The details of the actual force-feeding are far more harrowing:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.

There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.

During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. I called the interpreter to ask the doctor if the procedure was being done correctly or not.

It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.

Regardless of what one thinks of the presumed innocence or guilt of those detained at Guantanamo (or of those doing the detaining), the fact remains that the prisoners still have not been given the opportunity to have that innocence or guilt proven in a court of law. And it is worth remembering that nearly  four and a half years ago, Obama promised to close the prison at Guantanamo, yet it still operates today in conditions that are cloudy yet repressive. Indeed, while the hunger strike has received some mild coverage (and was mentioned here, here, and here), it has not been the subject of significant reporting in the US. Not helping is the fact that the US government’s account of what is going on the base has never been forthcoming or definitive, and constant shifts (from “it’s just a minority of strikers” to “well, it’s a lot of strikers, and for a long-enough time that we’re force-feeding them,” to today’s op-ed) do nothing to suggest the government is forthcoming. Again, regardless of what one thinks of the individuals detained in Guantanamo, prisoners still have basic human rights, rights that the US has been far too slow to acknowledge.

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