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Thoughts on Brazil Forgiving African Debt

June 29, 2013 Comments off

With all of the recent events coming out of the Brazilian demonstrations recently, other important stories have fallen to the wayside. One of those stories, which took place before the demonstrations, was Brazil forgiving US$900 million of debt to a number of African nations. I had some comments included in the linked story, but I’d like to add a few more thoughts.

Regarding the actual historical context, as I allude to in the piece, the forgiveness figures into a broader effort on the part of Brazilian governments to strengthen ties to the African continent. Such efforts have not been limited to regime types, and have included a variety of ideologies within government, ranging from Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship of 1964-1985 up through the center-left administration of former union-leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and now into the present administration of Dilma Rousseff. The magnitude of these efforts has varied (ranging from jointly-sponsored cultural conferences to hearings before the World Trade Organization), but the forgiveness of debt totaling nearly $1 billion has to be considered one of the biggest steps yet in strengthening these ties. Certainly, the move is symbolic, making clear to African nations that they have a friend in Brazil, but the very real impact of that debt forgiveness could theoretically have a clear impact on many Africans’ daily lived experiences. Should the governments use the monies that would have gone to debt payments to instead pay for infrastructural improvements and growth, then the move will definitely be more than symbolic (though that is contingent as much upon the African countries enjoying forgiveness as it is upon Brazil itself.

Secondly, I think the explanations for the move vary, and bring together a complex matrix of economic matters, international relations, and an effort to project Brazil’s role on the global stage. Certainly, economically speaking, debt forgiveness is a bit of a gamble that will be based upon future outcomes – it is unclear whether it will lead to any real economic deals for Brazil, in the same way that it is unclear whether the debt forgiveness will improve the lived experiences of the majority of the population in countries whose debt has been forgiven. But it also seems quite possible that, in addition to perhaps actually trying to help African populations, the move is designed both with future economic relations and Brazil’s role in the international arena in mind. And I think in this regard, with African in particular, Brazil is trying to offer up an example of how it provides a counterpoint to both the exploitative history of European and North American powers in the continent, and more recently, the growing Chinese presence, based in no small part on resource-extraction, in Africa. I think this could be a case of Brazil countering both historical European/North American and more recent Chinese roles in the continent, serving as a reminder to African nations that they can have friends like Brazil in the international arena without having to replicate relations based on resource-extraction that defined neocolonialism and, more recently, Chinese relations.

Finally, to return to more recent historical precedent, while debt forgiveness is a new component of these relations and thus in some ways a rupture with Brazil’s past ties to Africa, in other ways, Dilma is building on what Lula began. Back in 2007, Brazil brought a case against the US regarding cotton subsidies before the World Trade Organization. It basically argued that the US was refusing to transform subsidies and overproducing cotton in hopes of driving down world prices and hurting other cotton-producing countries. However, though Brazil brought the case before the WTO (which ultimately found the US in violation of international trade agreements), it represented not just itself, but Mali, Burkina Faso, and other cotton-producing countries in Africa – countries that may not have had the resources to challenge the US before the WTO. That marked part of a broader shift from policies that focused on the US and Europe under Fernando Henrique Cardoso to economic policies and diplomatic relations under Lula, policies that turned increasingly to regions like Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Taken in light of earlier policies, Brazil’s forgiveness of a not-insignificant amount of debt seems not to be some sudden appeal to Africa, but part of what is at least a 10-year effort to appeal to African nations and to take a greater role in global politics and economics. The debt forgiveness is not the first move in this process, but it definitely is one of the biggest moves; only time will tell, however, its actual importance, symbolic or real.

Post-Election Paraguay – Is a Return to Mercosur Next?

April 24, 2013 Comments off

After the institutional coup against Fernando Lugo last June, politico-economic trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership. The response was swift, and Horacio Cartes, who at the time was a potential candidate for president, called on Paraguay to maintain faith in Mercosur and to work towards having the suspension lifted. Now that Cartes has won the election, it appears that he was sincere in his comments and that he is now taking steps towards restoring Paraguay’s full participation in Mercosur. Perhaps more importantly, Mercosur members seem willing to restore relations with Paraguay. Both Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina congratulated Cartes on his victory, with Kirchner tweeting “We wait for you in Mercosur” and that Paraguay’s “place is with us in Mercosur always,” while Mujica invited Paraguay to Mercosur’s June summit in Uruguay. Of course, Brazil also has a say in the matter; Dilma Rousseff’s foreign ministry proclaimed that it would be glad to welcome back Paraguay, but only on the condition that Paraguay’s Congress approve Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur (the Paraguayan Senate’s holdup had been what initially kept Venezuela from gaining full membership). Cartes seems willing to take this step, having already spoken with legislators to try to pressure them into accepting Venezuela’s admission. And in another good sign for Paraguay, none other than Nicolás Maduro himself, Venezuela’s recently elected president, called Cartes to congratulate him and to express a desire to improve bilateral relations between Venezuela and Paraguay.  Thus, it seems that, as Greg Weeks suggested, South America is willing to allow the resumption of democracy in Paraguay to heal the relations that were strained with Lugo’s removal last summer, and it appears that, barring any sudden rupture, Paraguay is well on the path to returning to normalized political and economic relations with its neighbors.

In other Cartes news, he has also finally apologized for blatantly homophobic and hateful remarks he made regarding homosexuality. While that does not mean he is any more open-minded regarding diversity, at least he had the wherewithal to acknowledge what he publicly said was offensive, hateful, and contributing to a climate of sexual discrimination and fear.

Early Thoughts on Paraguay’s Elections

April 22, 2013 Comments off

Yesterday, Paraguay held its first presidential elections since the ouster of democratically elected Fernando Lugo last year, and as expected, Horacio Cartes won with over a million votes (45.8%), defeating runner-up Liberal Party candidate Efrain Alegre, who finished with over 800,000 votes for 37% percent of the vote.  Mario Ferreiro of the Avanza Pais coalition finished with just 5.9% of the vote (around 140,000 votes), while Anibal Enrique Carrillo of the Frente Guasú, the party formed out of Fernando Lugo’s old coalition, received 3.3% of the vote (nearly 80,000 votes). Nearly 3% of the ballots were turned in blank, while another 2.5% were null ballots, be it through mistaken voting or as a sign of protest against the options. That Ferreiro finished a distant third is unsurprising, but it should be remembered that he and Carrillo both still had support; indeed, the New York Times‘ Simon Romero tweeted a photo of a campaign poster yesterday that called both Cartes and Alegre “golpistas,” or coup-mongers, a reminder of the ongoing anger at the removal of Lugo last June. Such resentment over his removal, and the support Ferreiro and Carrillo received, reveals that some Paraguayans have not given up on the message of social reform and a more equal society.

Though Cartes was expected to win, the election is not without its own allegations of corruption; although over 300 international observers monitored the elections, some reports said people were selling their votes for as little as 12.50 dollars (though in other areas it was apparently going for 25 dollars), a reminder not just of political chicanery but of the very real economic inequalities and troubles that lead people to sell votes just to find some extra income. To what degree such practices took place is unclear; what is clear is that, barring any massive scandals, institutional coups, or medical emergencies, Cartes is set to be President for the next five years.

However, the prospects for Paraguayan citizens going forward are bleak. As an individual, Cartes, who had not even voted in an election prior to 2009, represents the wealthy, landed elite of Paraguay, and as a member of the Colorado Party, he represents a return to the conservative and corrupt practices that defined Paraguayan politics for the latter half of the twentieth century during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (with whom the Colorado Party was a willing accomplice) and into the twenty-first century. Though Cartes insists he will change Paraguay’s path, such a claim seems unlikely, as he has been repeatedly connected to smuggling and fraud as well as having ties to organized crime. (And it’s not like the Liberal Party that ultimately abandoned Lugo last year would have marked a significant alternative in this regard, given its recent scandal involving land and the use of government money for political alliances). Given Cartes’ victory and his background and the Liberal Party’s status as runner-up, it seems unlikely that Paraguay will see a sudden shift towards transparency or more egalitarian politics in the executive or the legislative branches.

The problems are not limited to political corruption, either. The victory of Cartes, a landed and wealthy oligarch, means Paraguay is unlikely to see any substantial socioeconomic reforms. Indeed, the outcome of yesterday’s election suggests that  inequalities and unequal development will most likely continue to plague a country where, according to a CEPAL study, 56% of the population lived below the poverty line as late as 2009 and where less than two percent of the population controls over 77% of the land. And it is not as though Cartes is exactly open-minded on other social and cultural issues; the now current president-elect publicly compared homosexuals to monkeys and said he would “shoot  [himself] in the testicles” if he had a gay son who wanted to marry another man.

There are other very real issues also confronting Paraguay, beyond economic inequalities and social bigotry. Perhaps most visibly, there’s the issue of Paraguay’s poorly-monitored border with Brazil, where the drug trade is highly active; indeed, in addition to being the world’s second-largest marijuana producer, Paraguay’s border is also a key region for the transportation of cocaine and other drugs to Brazil and on to Europe. And regardless of what one thinks regarding the debate of the legality/illegality of marijuana, the production and transportation in Paraguay’s border region is a major social and environmental issue. The production of marijuana transforms and shapes the environment of the Paraguayan forests and lands. And the power of organized crime shapes society at the local level in this borderland, complicating the state’s role in the region even while providing a means to rapid (if illegal) acquisition of wealth for those impoverished Paraguayans looking to improve their standards of living. Thus, the drug trade and drug production constitute their own very real social issues, and what, if anything, Cartes does about these issues will be worth watching.

Beyond the domestic outcome, the completion of an election may help Paraguay diplomatically. Greg Weeks argues that Honduras may be a model for reacceptance that could apply to Paraguay. Of course, Honduras was a regional pariah after the 2009 coup of Manuel Zelaya; yet once the country held elections to elect a new president, other countries in the region eventually renewed diplomatic and economic relations with it. That could be good news for Paraguay, a pariah as well since last year, most notably through its suspension from Mercosur. However, the issue of Cartes’ alleged ties to possible drug lords could complicate matters as Paraguay seeks re-integration into regional trade networks. Certainly, neighboring countries have yet to directly indicate whether they are willing to once again accept Paraguay, and Cartes’ social stances and dubious background could be a hindrance. Nonetheless, based on recent historical events in Honduras (and at least one cryptic tweet from Argentine president Cristina Kirchner), it seems more likely that the region will eventually move on and Paraguay will become reincorporated more directly. And even if South America is slow to respond, Paraguay can count on one country for aid: the US. Paraguay is the only country in Latin America to see an increase in bilateral aid from the US even while the US slashes aid to other countries in the region.

That said, what happens to Paraguay internationally is a geopolitical question with no clear answer yet. From a domestic standpoint, however, it is hard to see how the election of Cartes will lead to a marked improvement in the daily lived experiences of most Paraguayans socially, economically, or politically.

Lula on the Future of the Left(s) in Latin America

March 14, 2013 Comments off

I’ve been remiss in not getting to this sooner, but, after the death of Hugo Chávez, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva published an editorial in the New York Times addressing not just the legacy of Chávez, but the future of politics of the left in Latin America. Lula is praiseworthy of Chávez’s efforts to address social inequalities in his country. He also speaks highly of Chávez’s efforts towards regional integration, saying it falls on the surviving leaders in South America to

consolidate the advances toward international unity achieved in the past decade. Those tasks have gained new importance now that we are without the help of Mr. Chávez’s boundless energy; his deep belief in the potential for the integration of the nations of Latin America; and his commitment to the social transformations needed to ameliorate the misery of his people.

In theory, regional integration sounds wonderful, especially given the historical economic context in which local elites and international capital collaborated to extract resources while gross socioeconomic inequalities continued and even worsened throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. And certainly, having regional institutions like the Bank of the South to serve as a counter to the attempted hegemony of the World Bank and IMF is a good thing. However, one can’t help if the idea of the Union of South American Nations attempting to “move the continent toward the model of the European Union” seems like a more questionable goal, particularly in light of the European Union’s recent troubles. Certainly, that’s not to say the Union of South American Nations has to take that same path,

The piece also contains what seems to be an awareness, if not concern, over the ability to institutionalize Chávez’s reforms in his absence:

Mr. Chávez’s legacy in the realm of ideas will need further work if they are to become a reality in the messy world of politics, where ideas are debated and contested. A world without him will require other leaders to display the effort and force of will he did, so that his dreams will not be remembered only on paper.

To maintain his legacy, Mr. Chávez’s sympathizers in Venezuela have much work ahead of them to construct and strengthen democratic institutions. They will have to help make the political system more organic and transparent; to make political participation more accessible; to enhance dialogue with opposition parties; and to strengthen unions and civil society groups. Venezuelan unity, and the survival of Mr. Chávez’s hard-won achievements, will require this.

That other leaders will have to continue his legacies if the reforms are to remain in place is clear; whether or not they can is another question. Although Lula states the challenges simply and elegantly, it is clear that they are not insignificant, and include subtle digs on Chávez’s own government: in addition to needing to “strengthen unions and civil society groups,” Lula points to the need for Chávez’s successors to make politics “transparent” and “to enhance dialogue with opposition parties,” things that were not always present under Chávez. In other words, Lula is saying that so-called Chavismo has to adapt and transform in the absence of its leader, and that there is room for improvements in how governance with reforms can occur. These comments aren’t exactly uncritical of Chávez, and show the ways in which there were and are real disagreements in both policy and style between leaders of “the” left in Latin America.

If Lula’s criticisms were not yet fully clear, he makes them so in a thinly-veiled description/critique of Chávez that simultaneously serves as a reminder that discussion of “a” Latin American left is misguided:

One need not agree with everything Mr. Chávez said or did. There is no denying that he was a controversial, often polarizing, figure, one who never fled from debate and for whom no topic was taboo. I must admit I often felt that it would have been more prudent for Mr. Chávez not to have said all that he did. But this was a personal characteristic of his that should not, even from afar, discredit his qualities.

One might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology, and a political style that his critics viewed as autocratic. He did not make easy political choices and he never wavered in his decisions.

This comment precisely cuts directly to the reason why a talk of “the” Latin American left is so frustrating. Such characterizations of a singular left assumes such a uniformity in ideologies, practices, and tactics among leaders as to almost be insulting, treating Latin American leaders as generic, interchangeable pieces without any regard for distinctions in their personal ways of governing, to say nothing of the varying contexts of their nations, the issues facing their individual countries, or the pluralities in their electorates. Lula’s clear that Chávez’s outspoken methods were not necessarily the type he would adopt, and when he says that “one might also disagree with Mr. Chávez’s ideology,” it seems reasonable to suppose that Lula includes himself in that category (current president Dilma Rousseff herself also pointed out that Brazil didn’t always agree with Chávez). Leaders can share similar goals – greater inequality, economic growth, more democratic openings, etc. – without being of the same ideology. Lula’s aware of this fact; would that more North American media commentators were as well.

On This Date in Latin America – January 1, 1994: NAFTA Goes into Effect/The EZLN Emerges in Mexico

January 1, 2013 Comments off

Nineteen years ago today, the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and in response, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional  (Zapatista National Liberation Army; EZLN), a group of rural indigenous peoples and leftist intellectuals, rose up, using the internet and a global community of rights activists to object to the impact of neoliberalism on economically-marginalized peoples.

Members of the EZLN in Mexico.

Members of the EZLN in Mexico.

Though implemented during the Clinton administration, NAFTA had its roots in the first Bush administration. Changes in global banking networks, monetary policies, and the deregulation of financial institutions throughout the 1970s and 1980s had led to neoliberal policies becoming increasingly prevalent in the global economy by the end of the 1980s. Countries like the US and European nation-states increasingly turned to neoliberal policies, notably free trade agreements, while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (which the US and Europe effectively controlled) pressured other countries throughout the world to adopt similar neoliberal measures. In this context, the United States, Canada, and Mexico entered into negotiations in the early-1990s to establish a free-trade agreement between the three countries (extending 1988’s Canada-US Free Trade Agreement) that would eliminate tariffs between the three countries.

In January 1993, as George H.W. Bush was preparing to exit office, he, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney agreed on the terms of what came to be known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The three leaders had promoted the agreement,saying it would reduce illegal immigration, increase trade between the countries, create jobs, and lead to prosperity for all three countries. As it was a treaty, however, the agreement needed Congressional approval, something new president Bill Clinton pushed for and ultimately achieved in November 1993, though not without a fight: though the Senate approved the treaty 61-38, the vote in the House (234-200) was much closer. With Clinton signing the bill in December 1993, NAFTA went into effect on New Year’s Day, 1994.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, George H.W. Bush, and Brian Mulroney (standing, L-R) at the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, George H.W. Bush, and Brian Mulroney (standing, L-R) at the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

However, while the political elites of both Mexico and the US sang NAFTA’s praises, not all were eager to see the agreement go into effect. Coinciding with NAFTA’s official start, a group of indigenous peoples in the southern part of Mexico rose up in the last major Latin American guerrilla movement of the 20th century. Made up primarily of Maya indigenous peoples and drawing on the language of agrarian reform that they traced back to the struggles of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), a council of 24 Maya comandantes and one non-Maya known at the time only as Subcomandante Marcos demanded the repeal of NAFTA and greater rights for Mexico’s indigenous peoples and rural poor. Under this leadership, the EZLN effectively declared war on the Mexican government, hoping to spur revolution throughout the country. Hundreds of men, women, and children wearing masks launched attacks on army outposts in southern Mexico, capturing several towns, including the second-largest city in the state of Chiapas. Though they had early successes, Salinas de Gortari quickly sent troops, rocket-equipped aircraft, and helicopter gunships to the region to suppress the EZLN. By 12 January 1994, a tenuous cease-fire was agreed upon, though the EZLN did not disband, and fighting continued periodically throughout 1994, leaving at least 154 people dead, the majority of them Mayan peasants.

Subcomandante Marcos, one of the non-indigenous members of the EZLN, whose charisma and way with words made him a focal point of the Zapatista movement.

Subcomandante Marcos, one of the non-indigenous members of the EZLN, whose charisma and way with words made him a focal point of the Zapatista movement.

However, the ceasefire did not mark the end of the EZLN’s efforts to counter the neoliberal policies that NAFTA embodied. While NAFTA remains in effect, the Zapatistas have drawn considerable attention to the impacts of NAFTA in particular and of neoliberal policies more generally on many of Mexico’s economically marginalized social groups.  Indeed, shifting from a guerrilla movement to a broader social movement, the EZLN has had a not-insignificant role in shaping policy and bringing attention to the causes of Mexico’s rural poor and indigenous groups. In 2001, a group of Zapatistas marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, where, led by Comandanta Esther, they spoke out in favor of indigenous rights legislation before Mexico’s congress, providing what Maylei Blackwell recently argued was a powerful counterpoint to the state’s own (gendered) language of indigenous groups in Mexico. In a mildly-ironic twist, the global reach of the internet has played no small part in the EZLN’s own efforts to call attention to the detrimental impacts of neoliberal globalization. Though the EZLN was not able to force the elimination of NAFTA or to prompt an uprising throughout all of Mexico, it continues to provide a powerful voice in opposition to neoliberalism in Mexico both in Mexican politics and, through its website and its activism, through transnational networks.

Comandanta Esther, one of the key spokespersons and leaders of the EZLN, whose address before Congress in 2001 was a key moment in the history of the EZLN's efforts to claim indigenous rights and to shape policy and politics in Mexico.

Comandanta Esther, one of the key spokespersons and leaders of the EZLN, whose address before Congress in 2001 was a key moment in the history of the EZLN’s efforts to claim indigenous rights and to shape policy and politics in Mexico.

Meanwhile, the actual impact of NAFTA on North American economies in many ways has been the exact opposite of what was pledged. As has been the case so often in the past, the liberalization of the economy ultimately helped society’s wealthiest members, both in Mexico and the US. North of the Rio Grande, industrialists and capitalists were able to ship jobs to Mexico, where labor was cheaper, even while Mexican economic and political elites profited the most. In the US, industrial jobs disappeared as they were relocated first to Mexico, and then later overseas. In Mexico itself, over 2 million farmers who owned small plots of land ultimately found themselves dispossessed of their land, as they lost out to the cheaper and more mechanized agricultural production of larger agribusinesses. This shift led to a growing number of farmers moving to cities in Mexico, where jobs were unavailable, leading to many migrating to the United States. Thus, while NAFTA’s proponents swore free trade would lead to a reduction in immigration to the US, it actually dramatically increased in the 1990s.

Nor did NAFTA fundamentally improve the long-term industrial output in Mexico; as multinational corporations ran up against relatively progressive labor laws in Mexico, many companies that had originally established factories south of the Rio Grande ultimately relocated their businesses to countries with far less stringent labor codes, including China and Bangladesh. The economic impact of NAFTA on Mexico was immediate and devastating: between December 1994 and 1995, the Peso lost 46% of its value, inflation rose, and interest rates were above 100% in some parts of the country, even while the Mexican stock market collapsed and banks foreclosed on urban and rural properties. Mexico was learning, albeit belatedly, that the promises of economic prosperity and stability via neoliberalism was a chimera. In response, the Mexican government launched austerity measures that only reinforce the fact that, nineteen years later, the alleged rewards of NAFTA still have not actually extended to most of Mexican society, even while it has also taken its toll on millions in both the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada.

Around Latin America

November 24, 2012 Comments off

-In a potential step towards addressing human rights, Mexico has announced it will move to prosecute military officials accused of human rights violations in civil courts, rather than in secretive military tribunals. Traditionally, military officials who are involved in the drug violence and repression have faced a state of virtual impunity through military courts; while it’s too soon to say this is indeed transformative, it could mark a turning point in prosecuting state agents’ human rights violations in Mexico.

-A Venezuelan judge who spent three years in prison in a case that garnered international criticism has published a new book in which she claims she was raped and had to have an abortion while in prison. Her case echoes other allegations of sexual abuse and increasing violence in Venezuela’s prison system.

-While the US and much of Europe continue to struggle with employment, Brazil announced its unemployment levels have dropped to 5.3%, its lowest level in ten years.

-For one day, all of Bolivia completely shut down as the country conducted its census this week. In addition to being the first census for Bolivia in eleven years, with the expected redrawing of municipal boundaries, it also marks the first time “mestizo” (of Spanish and indigenous descent) is not included as a racial category in the census. Instead, Bolivians will be able to pick from 40 categories, including a variety of indigenous groups, as well as “Afro-Bolivian” or simply “Bolivian.”

-In the wake of this year’s presidential election, in which Venezuela’s opposition had its strongest showing in years (albeit in a losing effort), opposition politicians have begun efforts to seek an amnesty for over 100 exiles and political prisoners in a request that could be seen as a test of Chávez’s and opponents’ willingness to engage in more direct dialogue.

-In another example of the ongoing persecution and assault on land rights that Brazil’s indigenous peoples regularly face, a community of Guarani-Kaiowa people say a massive ranch has poisoned their water supply in an attempt to drive them out, and Brazilian police have begun investigating the case. The ranch occupies land of cultural importance to the peoples, and the government has begun mapping out their territory, with growing opposition from ranch-owner Firmino Escobar.

-In another reminder of the Jewish population in Latin America and the challenges it continues to face, Venezuela has posted police at a synagogue in the wake of an anti-Israeli protest that led to demonstrators hurling anti-Semitic remarks and fireworks at the building

-Murder rates in São Paulo have skyrocketed this year, as the Primeiro Comando Capital (First Capital Command; PCC) gang has ordered attacks on police, including many who have been murdered while off duty. The violence marks a return to antagonisms between one of São Paulo’s largest gangs and police in a conflict that had been relatively quiet in recent months after a truce was declared.

-In the wake of Venezuela’s admission to (and Paraguay’s suspension from) Mercosur, Bolivia appears to be the next country set to join the South American trading bloc as a full member. Currently, Bolivia is associate member of the organization, but full membership will give it a more direct voice in negotiations in the bloc.

-As peace talks continue, Columbia’s FARC released three Chinese hostages and their translator after 17 months of captivity in what the organization called a “goodwill gesture.”

Around Latin America

November 19, 2012 Comments off

-Colombia’s FARC has announced a cease-fire as peace talks to end a nearly-50 year civil war take place between one of the largest guerrilla forces and the Colombian government.

-In an ironic twist of history, Spain has asked Latin American countries to invest in it in order to help it through its economic crises. And where in colonial times Spain tried to dictate the economic ties between itself and its colonies in the Americas, the shoe is now on the other foot, as Latin America has said it will support Spain even while telling it it needed to avoid austerity measures.

-Chile’s influential student group, the  Federación de los Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (Federation of Students of University of Chile; FECH) elected Andrés Fielbaum its new president, an office previously held by student leader Camila Vallejo. Meanwhile, Vallejo herself has announced she will run as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in Chile’s elections in November 2013.

-José Dirceu, former chief of staff to ex-president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to ten years and ten months in prison for his role in the mensalão scandal, in which legislators were paid cash for supporting legislation in Congress. The sentence marks a remarkable fall from power for Dirceu, who was one of the key student leaders against the military regime in 1968 and a major player in the formation and operation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Current PT president Dilma Rousseff has said she will uphold and will not discuss the sentencing. Lula himself has never been directly connected to the scheme.

-Adela Hernandez became Cuba’s first elected transgender political figure after winning a municipal election. The fact that Hernandez spent time in prison for “dangerousness” over her sexual identity in the 1980s and is now an elected official is a powerful reminder of the social transformations that have taken place in the last 20 years.

-Meanwhile, in gay rights in Rio de Janeiro, more than a million people are estimated to have attended the city’s Gay Pride Parade yesterday. While many Brazilians attend the parade as much for the party atmosphere as for any other reason, the fact that so many are exposed to anti-homophobia messages and willing to engage in a spirit of camaraderie with Brazil’s LGBT community is not-insignificant in improving the acceptance of gay peoples and cultures in Brazil.

-Police in Honduras have gone on protest after the government announced new measures designed to crack down on corruption. The efforts hinge upon a series of tests (including drug tests and psychometric tests), which have raised the ire of officers who insist they are not opposed to cleanup itself, but to the new methods involved.

-Although Alberto Fujimori is attempting to seek a pardon (even while living in some of the best conditions for any prisoner in Peru), a court has ruled that Alberto Fujimori should again stand trial, this time for corruption. Fujimori is currently serving 25 years in prison for his role in human rights violations during his presidency (1990-2000).

-In a unique and potentially-dubious attempt to combat extinction, Brazil has announced that it will attempt to clone endangered species, a move that conservationists fear will distract from the broader need to defend and protect ecosystems in which endangered species live.

-Argentines have taken to the streets to demonstrate against President Cristina Kirchner and to protest inflation, corruption, and what many believe will be her attempt to run for a third term as president (though she has made no move to suggest this will happen).

-Jamaica has finally abolished a slavery-era law that allowed flogging as a punishment for criminals. Though slavery was abolished in 1834, whipping inexplicably remained on the books into the twenty-first century.

-In a twist on the milk-carton ads, Mexico’s state of Chihuahua is putting on tortilla wrappers ads for missing persons in the state in an attempt to raise awareness of the problem and perhaps find some of those who have gone missing.

-Former mayor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf, was convicted in a US court of diverting public funds from Brazil to an offshore account in the US, and ordered him to pay back more than $10.5 million. Maluf was mayor of São Paulo several times, and ended up being the pro-military party’s candidate for president when Brazil returned to a democracy in 1985; he ultimately lost the election to opposition candidate Tancredo Neves.

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