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Around Latin America

May 23, 2012 Comments off

As I was absent from blogging the past several days, a lot of worthwhile news came out of Latin America, so today will have two posts on news from around the region (the second will come later today).

-Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who governed the country from 1981-1982 and who was already on trial for genocide for the murder of over 1700 indigenous people during his rule, is now facing a second genocide charge after a judge ruled he could be tried for his role in the Dos Erres massacre.

-In what is an ongoing crisis, journalists suffered another difficult week last week, as a Mexican journalist was kidnapped and killed.

-Although Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate from the Partido Revolucionário Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party; PRI), has extended his lead in the polls heading into July’s election, not all Mexicans are thrilled with his rhetoric, policies, and party. Thousands of Mexican students took to the streets to protest against the return of the PRI, which governed the country under one moniker or another from 1928 until 2000 in what has come to be known as the “institutional dictatorship.”

-Amnesty International has called on Jamaica to investigate the possible violations of human rights for the armed forces’ actions during May 2010, when the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency to arrest Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

-Last week, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Vice President Amado Boudou were out of the country, leaving the country with its first ever Jewish president for two days. Provisional president of the Senate Beatriz Rojkes assumed the office of president from Wednesday to Thursday.

-Activists in Guyana are mobilizing in order to pressure the government to repeal anti-sodomy and anti-cross-dressing laws in the Caribbean country.

-Back in 1997, while Alberto Fujimori was president, leftist guerrillas occupied the Japanese embassy and held hostages before Peruvian forces attacked and ended the situation. While the forces were lauded for their efforts at the time, new evidence suggests that the troops summarily executed some of the leftists, including a 17-year-old girl, after they had surrendered.

-As I’ve discussed before, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was a member of a leftist group that opposed the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, suffered torture under the regime. Now Rousseff, along with other victims of torture, has received an apology and will be provided with compensation for her suffering at the hands of the Brazilian military government in the 1970s, even while the recently-appointed Truth Commission begins its work on investigating the crimes of the past and the fates of victims.

-Former members of Haiti’s army and their supporters took to the streets last week to protest against the Haitian government’s orders that they disband. Forty-six people were arrested, including two US citizens who aided the military members.

-Is Argentina’s strengthening currency fueling the growth of the black market?

-The Brazilian Congress has passed a freedom of information act that may become an important step in governmental and bureaucratic transparency in a state that has often been opaque to legal activists, citizens, and scholars alike.

-Finally, Guatemala’s Volcán del Fuego began spewing ash and lava, leading to an increased alert level for those living near the 12,000+ foot tall volcano.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Example #219

Mexico’s first presidential debate took place on Sunday night, and what did the internet and news fixate on? It wasn’t the candidates’ inability and/or unwillingness to answer the questions they were asked. It wasn’t the lack of an actual debate between candidates. It wasn’t the domination of hollow platitudes with little meaning from all four of the candidates.

It apparently was the 30-second appearance of Julia Orayen in a dress.

There are many good things that the internet and Twitter can do for politics, and one does not need to look hard to find those positive benefits. But there are definitely problems with internet culture and politics, too, and the fact that people can so easily focus on and become distracted by a model in a dress in a forum where people are outlining their visions for Mexico’s future, visions that will directly impact the electorate, is a reminder of the weaknesses of the internet-news media-politics combination (to say nothing of human attention spans).

Also, I’d love to see the US public’s response if somebody who had posed in Playboy made an appearance at the presidential debates.

The 1st Mexican presidential “debate” of 2012

May 7, 2012 Comments off

The run-up to last night’s debate was overshadowed by two main issues: the controversy over which channels would air the debate, and that this is only one of two debates that will take place during the campaign.

Televisa and TV Azteca, the two major television channels, did not want to air the debate since they already had other programming scheduled. In the face of this refusal to air the debate, The IFE (Federal Electoral Institute) caved as they usually do and voted against forcing all the channels to air the debate. In the end, TV Azteca did not air the debate on their two channels, and Televisa only aired it on one of their 5 channels. The debate was also available on public television.

The IFE is responsible for organizing two debates during the campaign, in which the candidates are required to participate. However, other media outlets have attempted and failed to organize additional debates since the front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), has refused to participate in any other debates. EPN’s decision to avoid any unnecessary debating makes strategic sense, since he is already ahead in the polls by around 20 points, and gains little from additional public appearances. And, since he has already demonstrated that he can’t think on his feet, and will likely embarrass himself if he deviates from the campaign script, his campaign managers are doing everything they can to keep him away from the media.

The debate itself was not really what most people would consider a “debate.” The IFE publicly released the questions on Saturday ensuring the candidates wouldn’t be stumped by any question read by the moderator. The format largely precluded any real debate between candidates, although there were a number of attempts by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (PRD) and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN) to criticize Peña Nieto. For each question, one candidate was given 2 minutes to answer, then the other three candidates were given 90 seconds to give their answers to the question, followed by a reply from the original candidate. The candidate who was allowed to answer first rotated throughout the evening. This format provided for a fairly unintelligible “debate” as JVM and AMLO used much of their time to attack EPN and either ignore the question or provide a short ambiguous response, while EPN responded to attacks against himself and launched his own attacks against AMLO and JVM, while providing little in the way of concrete responses to the questions. Instead, the debate functioned more like a series of unconnected short speeches from each candidate, with responses to attacks coming several minutes after the criticism was launched and other candidates speaking in-between. The three major candidates largely ignored Gabriel Quadri de la Torre (Nueva Alianza) throughout the debate, while Qaudri tried to project himself as the “citizen” candidate, different from the other three politicos.

So how did the candidates perform? Overall, the mediocrity of all four candidates, their lack of innovative ideas and lack of charisma was the big takeaway from the debate. All candidates used props of pictures, newspaper articles, and graphs that were impossible to see on television, did not keep their comments within the established time limits and were thus cut off mid-sentence many times, and largely failed to answer the moderator’s questions. In terms of ideas, viewers heard a lot about increasing economic competition, ending corruption, and reducing poverty in very generic terms. Since I can’t imagine any politician being against competition, or pro-corruption and pro-poverty, all the blustering from the candidates on these issues communicated no information to viewers and voters, and was largely a waste of time.

Regarding security, all four candidates support the creation of a national police force. Since Calderón also has advocated this for several years, it wasn’t clear from the debate how any of these candidates differed on security policy from the sitting president, and why a national police force hasn’t already been created if no one disagrees with it. For the paltry two questions on security and justice, López Obrador largely ignored the questions. Quadri and Peña Nieto both advocated for more private investment in the prison system. How this will solve some of the major security issues in Mexico today is anyone’s guess. In general, on one the major issues facing Mexico today, it was largely impossible to distinguish differences among the four candidates.

Peña Nieto probably had the most to lose in this debate since he is a poor speaker, his campaign is largely devoid of ideas, and faced the brunt of the attacks during the debate. While he came off as a little unsure, and spoke in vague generalities, he seemed to perform well enough (and better than expected) to avoid damaging his commanding lead in the polls. The one highlight from the debate was his proposal for universal social security for all Mexicans. It would have been nice if he had elaborated how this would actually work or be implemented.

López Obrador was the biggest disappointment during the debate. His 2012 campaign has been much more positive and less combative than his 2006 campaign, so I was expecting a more positive AMLO during the debate with some more focus on ideas and policies. However, most of his comments were restricted to the supposed mafia that controls Mexico (although he didn’t actually use the word “mafia,” the discourse was the same), and the elusive “they” that prevented him from winning in 2006 and is now backing Peña Nieto. Ignoring the questions and talking in vague generalities about the powers-that-be that supposedly control everything in Mexico made him come off like some crackpot conspiracy theorist. Even on a question regarding how he would combat poverty, an issue on which the left and AMLO should have fairly strong and coherent positions, López Obrador ignored the question.

Vázquez Mota came off as monotone, robotic, and way too scripted, and spent much of her time attacking Peña Nieto. Despite her seemingly impressive record on paper as PAN party leader in the Chamber of Deputies, former Minister of Social Development and former Minister of Education, she had little to say about her accomplishments. On a question about education, she didn’t even mention education in her response, although did attempt to correct her mistake several minutes later after the topic had turned to the environment and sustainable development.

Gabriel Quadri was the biggest surprise of the debate. He was well prepared, answered the questions, and was the most focused on policy throughout the debate. His proposal for a neoliberal “revolution” in Mexico is unlikely to inspire much in the way of support, nevermind the fact that his party, Nueva Alianza, has no chance of winning, but I at least admire his ability to stick to the issues. The fact that he looks like he is wearing these all the time probably doesn’t help.

Probably the only memorable instance during the debate that viewers will remember was the use of a Playboy model to hand out cards to each candidate at the beginning of the debate to determine the order of response. Way to go IFE, very classy.

Around Latin America

-In a process that continues to go through fits and starts, Brazil’s Congress has begun investigating human rights abuses that the military committed during its 1964-1985 dictatorship. Though President Dilma Rousseff authorized the creation of a Truth Commission late last year, it has yet to get off the ground, and earlier this year, a judge declared that torturers could not face prosecution after federal prosecutors tried to treat the  “disappearances” of dozens of people as “ongoing” crimes in order to try to get around the amnesty law of 1979.

-After escape attempts, gun battles, and irreparable structural decline, Venezuela has begun relocating prisoners from the La Planta prison in Caracas. However, the Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom), which focuses on prisoners’ rights, has expressed concerns about transfers from the prison (where a fire killed 25 prisoners in 1996), claiming it will only add to the already-overcrowded prisons in other parts of the country.

-Fourteen people have died in a fire at a rehab center in Peru after they were unable to escape from behind locked doors. The fire is the second of its kind to take place in the last four and a half months. In late-January, a similar fire took the lives of 29 people seeking treatment. The fires are  yet another reminder of the very real challenges and limitations facing private drug treatment centers, which make up an overwhelming majority of the country’s rehabilitation centers.

-Brazil’s Supreme Court has approved the use of racial quotas in university admissions. The decision is designed to address the gross inequalities between Afro-Brazilian descendants and “white” Brazilians, inequalities that Henry Louis Gates explored in a PBS series and that I discussed (including the issue of affirmative action and the tensions over it) here.

-A new report claims IKEA relied on the labor of Cuban prisoners to produce its furniture in the 1980s.

-Another four Mexican journalists were killed last week in what is part of a broader growing wave of violence against journalists throughout the Americas.

-After announcing Venezuela may leave the IACHR, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Madura called on Latin American countries to create their own human rights organization that would operate independently of the United States’ influence.

-Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is staying true to his campaign pledge to be tough on crime, but the new strongarm tactics have some wondering about the fate of human rights in Guatemala.

-Let the “Hugo Chávez’s successor” speculation begin again in the wake of his recent appointment of 10 members to the Council of State

-Massive floods in the Brazilian state of Amazônas are threatening the homes of thousands, even while the Northeastern part of the country continues to suffer from major drought.

-Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has named Miguel Galuccio as the new head of YPF, finalizing the reappropriation of the oil-producing company.

-Peruvian authorities are cautioning people to stay away from beaches after hundreds of pelicans have washed up dead. The pelicans only add to the mystery of dead animals on beaches; in the last few months, 877 dolphins and porpoises have also been found dead on Peru’s beaches.

Around Latin America

January 20, 2012 Comments off

-In another example of the simple fact that outlawing abortion does not make it go away and increases the threats to women, a recent study has found that 95% of all abortions in Latin America are “unsafe” in a region where most countries have outlawed abortion in most (if not all) cases.

-When you are responsible for the torture, murder, and even dismemberment of thousands of your citizens the way Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is, I don’t think a “scolding” over violating house arrest is really going to leave much an impression.

-The right-wing government of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has backed down from its attempts to require news media to surrender photographs and images to police forces without a court order, a move that would have extremely restricted freedom of speech and access to information while effectively turning journalists into agents of the various arms of the state security apparatus.

-A second Cuban prisoner has died after a hunger strike that lasted 50 days. Thirty-one year old Wilmar Villar had gone on strike to protest his four-year prison sentence for participating in a demonstration. Villar joins Rene Cobas, who died earlier this month while on a hunger strike protesting his exclusion from a list of 3000 prisoners who received pardon.

-In the face of a Brazilian law that bans the sale of alcoholic drinks in stadiums, FIFA has insisted that beer be sold at all venues hosting the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a move that would gain the support of millions of fans but has met the opposition of some Brazilian politicians and health officials. While FIFA’s position is understandable, waves of football violence both in Brazil and the international arena also provide strong arguments against the sales of alcohol in stadiums in what will already be a tense environment.

-In yet another of the ever-growing (and already-significant) evidence of the impact of human behavior on climate change and ecosystems, a new report links carbon dioxide emissions on the brain and nervous system of fish, which could significant impact the ability of fish to survive at a time where the production of fish as food is already having very real negative environmental impacts.

-In Peru, the executive secretary of the Peruvian National Human Rights Coordinator has called on the government to include memory issues in the classrooms, including the Shining Path movement and its impacts/legacies.

-80 peasant families in Uruguay have overtaken a farm in the northern part of the country in an attempt to combat social inequalities in Uruguay and to make more public the plight facing many in the country, employing tactics similar to those employed by the MST (Movimento Sem Terra) in Brazil.

-A contestant on Big Brother Brasil is being investigated for rape after footage from the program showed him crawling into bed with a female contestant who had passed out, though the woman insists nothing had happened and has not pressed charges.

-A TV clown with a children’s program on Mexican television has apologized after joking about a fire that killed more nearly 50 children in 2009. Sergio Verduzco, who plays Platanito the Clown, had commented, ““Do you know why Michael Jackson died? Out of desperation because they torched a nursery up in Sonora…Besides, now there is no nursery. They opened a joint called ‘Kentucky Fried Children’” regarding the day-care fire that ultimately claimed the lives of 49 children.

-Ecuador has destroyed 11 World War II era bombs in the Galapagos Islands. Fishermen in the region found the bombs, which had been left over from a training base in the area, in 2010.

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