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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

November 30, 2013 Comments off

-Dozens of Haitians are dead after the boat they were traveling on capsized as they sought to seek refuge and a new start in the wake of recent tensions and violence in the Dominican Republic.

-For those who missed it, earlier this week a crane collapsed on a stadium being built for the World Cup in São Paulo, killing two workers. Now, workers for the union on the construction of the stadium are saying their warnings that the soil on which the crane sat could not support its weight went ignored, unnecessarily putting workers’ lives at risk.

-Though more tragic, the stadium accident was not the only architectural bad news to emerge from São Paulo this week. Yesterday, a fire broke out at the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Latin America Memorial, which houses a large auditorium and a number of cultural artifacts caught on fire, and pictures from the interior of the building reveal that the damage was extensive.

-In an effort to protect the rights of LGBTI individuals in the Americas, this past week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) created a Unit on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Persons. While the IACHR has long been an important instrument in bringing awareness to and investigating human rights violations in Latin America, it has not directly addressed violent acts and other forms of persecution against the LGBTI community. The potential importance of this new institution should not be understated, as it  will actively investigate reports of human rights violations against LGBTI persons throughout the Americas, even while also providing an arena for activists to make the issues facing the LGBTI community more visible.

-In a reminder both of the unequal treatment of politicians and the power of popular mobilizations in Latin America, after thousands of Paraguayans gathered outside of the Congress to protest against the Senate’s decision to uphold the parliamentary immunity to a colleague under investigation for fraud and corruption, the Congress retreated, stripping senator Victor Bogado of his parliamentary immunity and opening him to prosecution for fraud and corruption.

-Brazil has reached a tragic milestone, as the number of femicides in the country reached 40,000 in the last 10 years.

-Cuba has suspended consular operations in the United States, citing its inability to get any banks to work with it as the main reason.

-Finally, Brazil has sent in its national police to try to settle a land dispute between indigenous peoples who were awarded exclusive land rights in 2010 on the one hand, and landowners in the region who continue to challenge the ruling on the other hand.

On the Farmers’ Strike in Colombia (Guest Post)

September 13, 2013 Comments off

The following is a guest-post from John Garrison Marks. John is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Rice University, studying race and freedom in the urban black Atlantic World. He is currently living in Bogotá, Colombia, conducting dissertation research. You can access more of his writing at his blog, and you can also find him on Twitter.

Over the past three weeks, the signs of the protest have been unmistakable in Colombia. What began as a strike among agricultural workers (campesinos) has expanded in recent weeks to include a number of other sectors, particularly teachers, health workers, miners, and students, in what is now being termed the Paro Nacional or Paro Popular. I’ve been living in Bogotá since June, so I’ve seen some of these demonstrations first hand.

The Paro Agrario Nacional began on August 19th, as farm workers in various industries expressed complaints about the government’s economic policies. Among other grievances, Colombia’s farmers allege that the government’s importation of cheap foodstuffs—milk, rice, onions, potatoes—is driving them into bankruptcy, among other complaints. To express their displeasure, the campesinos went on strike, staging protests on major highways throughout the country, often blocking the roads. In some areas of Colombia, like Boyacá, these demonstrations were accompanied by violence, as the protestors punctured tires and smashed windows of vehicles trying to pass the roadblocks. I was in the town of Villa de Leyva when the demonstrations began, and ended up stuck there for an extra night as busses were unable or unwilling to make the trip from Bogotá. It was estimated that as many as one million people took part in broad anti-government protests on the 19th.

The following week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos exacerbated the situation in his response to the protests, by claiming that “The national agrarian strike does not exist,” denying that the claims of the striking sectors were legitimate. This response seemingly set off a new wave of anti-government protests in Bogotá, as the strikes and demonstrations continued in other parts of the country.

On August 29th, a few days after President Santos’s statement, major protests took place throughout the city, with as many as 30,000 people—many of them students—taking part to show their support for the campesinos and to express a host of other grievances against the government. Marches took place throughout Bogotá, with a major crowd ultimately descending on the Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main square. Some of these marches went right past my window on La Septima, one of the city’s main thoroughfares (though they also prevented me from going to the archive near most of the government buildings.) As you can see below, the protesters were followed closely by no small number of riot police.

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 01

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 02That night, according to some reports, the protests turned violent as protestors allegedly hurled rocks at riot police. Two people were killed by gunfire. The following day, against the backdrop of a host of new graffiti (“A cerrar las vías para abrir el debate” being my personal favorite), President Santos ordered troops to patrol the city’s streets. Even in my neighborhood, far from the site of the alleged violence though home to a number of banks and media outlets, upwards of fifteen well-armed soldiers stood guard on my corner alone. Walking past twenty soldiers with machine guns to get to the National Archives was also quite an experience.

Since the major demonstrations of the 29th, the government has entered into discussions with many of the striking sectors, though no broad agreements have yet been reached. President Santos’s entire cabinet also resigned, allowing him to appoint a new “peace and unity” cabinet. Even while the Santos government negotiates with the campesinos, new strikes are yet emerging throughout Colombia. On September 10th, Colombia’s teachers went on strike over an alleged $40 billion in unpaid wages.

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 03

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 04Thousands of students staged a torch-bearing protest on Wednesday as well, in support of the national teacher’s strike, again pictured here with their riot police escorts.

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 05

Columbian 2013 Farmers' Strike 06It is an extremely challenging time for the Santos government, as a whole host of sectors feel increasingly empowered to express their displeasure with a wide variety of policies. To date, Santos has yet to announce any major policy changes, meaning the demonstrations will likely continue in one form or another.

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.

Today in Frightful Protest Tactics

August 28, 2013 Comments off

Yikes:

 A woman in Paraguay has climbed onto a wooden cross and had nails pounded through her hands, joining five men in a crucifixion protest that has already lasted 20 days.

Bus driver Juan Villalba is leading the demonstration to protest a series of layoffs of union organizers at the Vanguardia bus company serving the nation’s capital.

Villalba said his wife, Maria Concepcion Candia, joined the five others on Wednesday out of solidarity. He says eight drivers were fired after asking that for overtime pay, medical insurance and state pension contributions.

This isn’t the first time crucifixion has been used in protests in Paraguay. Landless citizens used the tactic in 2009 to bring attention to the lack of social programs for Paraguay’s landless poor, while another protest in 2004 included a man crucifying himself in protest against a government crackdown on public transit companies. The symbolism seems obvious,and it’s certainly effective at gaining attention, but sadly, the articles and stories rarely include the protesters’ own explanations of why that tactic over others, and its relative success or failure is likewise unclear. Still, given the physical disfigurement and what I can only assume must be rather severe pain, it’s a tactic I personally don’t understand, even while I don’t begrudge or belittle those who use it; only they can know if it was successful or/and worth it at the end.

On Protests, Maps, and the Limits of Quantitative Data

August 27, 2013 Comments off

Erik Loomis points to this fascinating map allegedly marking “every protest on the planet since 1979.” The piece explaining the map itself, however, acknowledges the limits of taking such data too far:

The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn’t reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).

Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. “In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall,” he explained. “So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media,” especially news.

However, there seem to be some other very real issues, perhaps most notably in exactly what constitutes a “protest.” In looking at this map, one might think that South America has historically been remarkably “inactive,” especially through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Certainly, the presence of repressive dictatorships in Chile (until 1990) or Argentina (until 1983) helps explain some of this “inactivity.” However, no state is so strong as to completely quell or silence protest; notably, in the case of Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo gathered regularly to protest the disappearance of their children as early as 1977, and with increasing frequency (and increasing participation from other sectors of Argentine society) throughout the early-1980s. Yet the map seems to ignore all of these protests, with just the occasional “blip” in Argentina in the 1980s; thus, while the map marks an occasional protest in Argentina, it appears to disregard and exclude the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo regularly. This cannot be attributed just to press silence – international news sources were increasingly covering the Madres as the dictatorship wound down. It is not clear what a “protest” is in the map-data, but apparently, the Madres de la Plaza and their supporters are not included.

Nor are they alone. Brazil is inexplicably “invisible” both in 1984 and in 1991-1992, yet these two moments marked two of the most massive and profound series of protests and rallies in Brazilian history. In 1984, as the Brazilian dictatorship was winding down, millions of people throughout Brazil took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement, demanding direct elections and protesting the regime’s exit through the indirect selection of a president. Ultimately, the movement culminated in over one million people gathering in São Paulo alone. Yet on the map, there is not a single “blip” in Brazil in all of 1984, in spite of the numbers of rallies and protests. It is possible that the Diretas Já movement was excluded, given that it was as much in favor of legislation that would create direct elections (a bill that Congress ultimately rejected); such exclusion seems a bit silly, given that those who rallied in favor of the bill were from opposition parties and organizations that opposed the dictatorship, but perhaps the definitions of “protest” used excluded Diretas Já.

That does note explain the absence of regular and significant “blips” in Brazil in 1991-1992, however. In those two years, the issue of rampant corruption in President Fernando Collor’s administration (ironically, the first directly-elected president after the military dictatorship of 1964-1985) led to growing outrage in Brazil. Led by university students who painted their faces (thus leading to their being labeled the Caras Pintadas, or “Painted Faces”), Brazilians took to the streets, demanding Collor’s impeachment and frequently protesting in front of Congress in Brasília, as well as in major urban centers throughout the country. These were unquestionably protests by any definition, and they were not small-scale; as the depth and sheer scale of corruption in the Collor administration became increasingly apparent, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were in the streets, demanding Collor’s removal. He ultimately resigned in 1992, due in no small part to the visible moments of anger and public protest against his administration. Yet on the map, Brazil is completely inactive, lacking even one single “blip” to mark any of these protest in this period. And it’s not like press censorship or a lack of awareness can explain away this gap – this was the top story in Brazilian media for months, and international media outlets also likewise paid it significant attention, especially as the protests continued and Collor’s corruption was further revealed. There is simply no explanation as to why the map completely fails to register these protests other than the fact that, in spite of its claims otherwise, it does not cover “every protest on the planet since 1979.” And if the gaps are that obvious in Argentina and Brazil, what other parts of Latin America, or of the world, are completely and erroneously neglected in the data-gathering that led to the map in the first place?

To be clear, this is not to toss out the map altogether – it does indeed provide a fascinating glimpse into mobilization on a global scale. But the absence of any marker of protests in Latin America at times where protests were common and massive indicates that the map has some very real limits as well, not only in terms of quantitative limits, but in the very qualitative nature of what constitutes a “protest” and why some groups that were clearly leading large protest movements are not included in the data.

Around Latin America

August 25, 2013 Comments off

-In spite of a recent attack that left 13 Colombian soldiers dead, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC continue, in an attempt to end civil war and conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years and left tens (if not hundreds) of thousands dead and millions displaced.

-Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to remove powerful union leader Elba Ester Gordillo earlier this year, her absence has not prevented broader teacher mobilization against unpopular education reforms that Peña NIeto has pushed through. Thousands of teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City, protesting against an evaluation system they say is designed to fire teachers.

-Speaking of protests, in Colombia, thousands of farmers have mobilized, protesting against the government’s economic policies and issuing a wide number of demands, including access to potable water and lower taxes on agricultural goods.

-In Brazil, plans for a highway through the Iguaçu Falls National Park have prompted protests and intensified struggles between environmentalists and government officials.

-And in yet one more example of popular demonstrations in Latin America in the last few weeks, in Ecuador, protesters expressed anger at President Rafael Correa’s decision to open parts of the Yasuni National Park to oil exploration. Anger is understandable, given the ongoing effects of decades of toxic spills, pollution, environmental degradation, and health crises that resulted from oil production in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin.

-Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre has stepped down from his post as the head of Chile’s national electoral service after revelations that he was involved in the Chilean military regime’s practice of taking children of arrested and murdered activists.

-Meanwhile, in other episodes involving the legacies of the PInochet regime and the ongoing quest for justice, a judge has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s family members for embezzlement and corruption, while another judge rejected a legal request to try former General Fernando Matthei for the murder of General Alberto Bachelet, an officer who opposed the 1973 coup. Bachelet was the father of former president (and current candidate) Michelle Bachelet.

-Twenty-two soccer players in El Salvador have been suspended amidst allegations of match-fixing.

-I previously commented on the non-military ways in which drones could be deployed in Latin America. Peru is adding to that list, now using drones to protect and further learn about archaeological ruins, simultaneously combating the effects of illegal mining, squatting, and scavenging at sites even while learning more about what these sites hold.

-A battle between rival gangs at a Bolivian prison has left at least 31 people dead, including an 18-month old child who was living with a parent in the prison, a practice allowed in Bolivia if children six years old or younger have no other living relative with whom they can live.

-Finally, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law new provisions designed to protect and aid rape victims, including guaranteeing medical treatment and providing emergency contraception to those who have been raped. The new provisions are part of a broader effort to combat rape in Brazil, where recent data suggest it is a broad and, for far too long, unaddressed problem.

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