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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.

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

September 13, 2012 Comments off

-In Chile, protests erupted as the country commemorated the 39th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. The protests turned violent, however, leaving one officer dead and at least 255 people under arrest.

-After conflicting reports of an alleged massacre of Yanomani people in Venezuela and subsequent government findings that encountered no evidence of such a massacre, right group Survival International has backtracked, withdrawing a report on the massacre and concluding no such massacre took place.

-This week has brought mixed news for embattled Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. Congress passed a tax reform that will close loopholes for businesses and increase tax revenues for the state, money which can theoretically be used for education. Of course, increased public spending on education has been one of the main demands of the Chilean student movement, so the bill is a small victory for Piñera. However, his government also faces allegations that he has distorted numbers in claims that poverty rates have declined under his watch, adding to the already-substantial criticisms of his government. Thus, Pinera’s poll numbers remain very low, with only a 29% approval rating and with 30% of people who voted for him expressing regret for their decision. [h/t to Greg Weeks for the poll numbers]

-In Brazil, military police have occupied a favela after suspected drug lords murdered seven people, including six youth and a police cadet. While the occupation does not undo Rio’s efforts at more peaceful pacification programs in the favelas, it does raise questions about the limits or long-term potential of these pacification projetcs.

-Miners in Bolivia have blocked one of the main roads into the capital of La Paz as part of a protest that reflects increasing tension and competition among different miners’ organizations.

-Meanwhile, in a different story, after months of protests, Peru’s government announced it will work with indigenous groups on future mining projects. The move could be significant, providing indigenous peoples with an opportunity to finally have the government listen to their concerns and issues and perhaps shaping mining projects and environmental preservation in Peru.

-Margaret Myers has another update on recent Chinese headlines & stories on Latin America, including China’s takes on the middle classes in Latin America, comparisons & contrasts between the Chinese Communist Party and political parties in Latin America, and other stories.

-Bolivia is set to apply to become a full member of Mercosur, the trading bloc made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and, as of this summer, Venezuela (with Paraguay being suspended in the wake of the removal of President Fernando Lugo. The move makes sense for geographic and economic reasons, and Bolivia is already an associate member, so it will be interesting to see if its application faces the same resistance among some politicians of member countries that Venezuela’s application did. Meanwhile, Paraguay plans to appeal its suspension to the International Tribunal in the Hague

-The body of a mutilated and tortured corpse that washed up on Argentina’s shores in 1976 has finally been identified as that of a Chilean Luis Guillermo Vega Ceballos, a leftist who had fled his own country after the September 11, 1973 coup and who became an early victim of the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983.

-In a country that already faces regular allegations of police abuse, Jamaica is again in the international eye after a policeman shot and murdered a pregnant woman, sparking protests on the Caribbean island.

-Finally, a Colombian woman was murdered and publicly burned after community members accused her of practicing witchcraft in the state of Antioquia.

 

Around Latin America

August 23, 2012 Comments off

-The fallout of Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur continues to create political ripples. This week, Paraguayan Defense Minister Maria Liz Garcia said the country “need[s] to prepare for war to live in peace.” In clear reference to Paraguay’s position in the War of the Triple Alliance, Garcia also blamed foreign leaders for starting wars that Paraguayans do not want and for creating “completely unequal conditions.” Meanwhile, the country has chosen April 21 of next year as the date of general elections to pick the successor to current serving president Federico Franco, who took over after Congress removed democratically-elected president Fernando Lugo from office earlier this year.

-Earlier this week, I commented on the test Ecuador was facing regarding the sanctity of political asylum. Yesterday, in a move that at reaffirms its sincerity on the issue, the Ecuadoran government said it will respect Belarussian Alexander Barankov’s request for asylum. Barankov had fled to Ecuador after providing details on the inner workings of dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s government, requesting asylum with the argument that his life would be in danger if he were returned to Belarus.

-A judge has ordered the arrest of 8 Chilean ex-officers for their role in the disappearance and presumed murder of U.S. citizen Boris Weisfeilerin 1985.

-In a move that is not surprising but depressing nonetheless, the Brazilian Supreme Court has ordered the release of Brazilian rancher Regivaldo Galvão, convicted for the murder of American nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang, while he goes through the appeals process. The move allows the man found guilty of  ordering Stang’s murder to remain free while the course winds its way through the appeals process, a tortuous process that often lasts years. The move is unsurprising, as wealthy ranchers rarely face any real jail time (or even trials) for ordering the murders of land and environmental activists in the Northern part of Brazil.

-A battle between local religious figures and the government is brewing in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, where members of the New Jerusalem sect are refusing to let public employee teachers enter the community to teach children, leaving the state government threatening to send in the police to enforce mandatory elementary school attendance for all Mexican children.

-Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison this week for crimes against humanity for his role in the kidnapping and murder of student Edgar Saenz in 1981. As the BBC article points out, Arredondo’s conviction makes him the highest-ranking police official to be convicted for crimes against humanity in Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.

-Haiti is set to tear down the country’s National Palace, the seat of governance that was irreversibly damaged in the 2010 earthquake, although the move is not without its opponents.

-Yesterday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s entire cabinet resigned as his administration reached its midway point even while Santos’s poll ratings continue to drop.

-A new report says Dirce Navarro de Camargo, who owns an industrial empire in Brazil, is the country’s richest woman, with an estimated wealth of $13 billion.

On the Benefits (or “Benefits”) of Mercosur

August 8, 2012 Comments off

An Argentine study suggests Brazil is the only country to have generated a surplus via Mercosur. However, the report does not necessarily paint the picture of Brazil-as-bully. Rather, Orlando Ferres argues,

The Brazilian [sic] are far better organized that the other members and have obtained very good results from Mercosur both in surplus terms as in attracting direct investments that preferred the huge market, the continuous reliable economic policy, greater orthodoxy and long term coherence with no defaults or sovereign debt ‘shavings’ compared to the other three members, particularly Argentina.

The study goes on to outline other arguments against Mercosur membership. It’s not the first study of its kind to criticize the trade bloc, and it does paint a dour picture that I wonder if others would share and why/why not. Nonetheless, while the final or authoritative voice on the matter, it does make some compelling arguments for the need to abandon Mercosur. While I’d like to see other studies that provide alternative views, the fact that Mercosur was created in 1991 when Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and especially Brazil were all in a far different position both in terms of domestic economies and global trade relations, it’s hard not to think that perhaps the original intentions, purposes, or functions of Mercosur need some significant reforms.

Today in Patronizing and Insulting Characterizations of Latin America

July 26, 2012 Comments off

I’ve often been mystified by the respect The Economist gets, exactly for reasons like this:

 To revive economic growth, Brazil needs to put more stress on competitiveness and market-opening trade diplomacy. Mercosur once aspired to do precisely that. A group that now consists of little more than bear-hugs and kisses among compañeros serves little purpose in a harsher world. [Emphasis added.]

There are serious criticisms of Mercosur that one can make. But it’s more than a little odd that the magazine feels Mercosur is questionable because of a lack of “due process” in the suspension of Paraguay, even while failing to consider the fact that Fernando Lugo himself did not exactly get due process in an extremely hasty and dubious impeachment process. Additionally, in describing the trade bloc in simplistic terms that treats the leaders of the respective members as nothing but emotional chums who prioritize friendships among fellow leaders, the magazine betrays the most patronizing and denigrating style of critique, as  if it is some imperial power scolding little children for not “behaving” the way the editors feel is appropriate. If The Economist is concerned about institutions lacking in serious substance, perhaps it should begin by looking in the mirror.

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