Today, the World Court settled the issue of the maritime border of Chile and Peru, an issue going all the way back to the War of the Pacific in the late-19th century. Peru wanted the border extended, while Chile refused to recognize Peru’s claims. The issue was particularly relevant in terms of economics, as where the border rested could determine who had access to fishing grounds in the Pacific. As for “who won,” the answer appears to be….it depends who you are. The Court did extend the border for Peru, which could seem like a victory, but it didn’t extend it as far as Peru had claimed it should go, leaving the fisheries in Chilean territory and not providing any real material gains for the Peruvian economy and those tied to the fishing industry. It will be interesting to see how the two countries respond to the new borders in the longer-run, and how they go about patrolling/securing their own borders (and how lax or strict that patrolling will be). That said, the decision does have the potential to bring at least some resolution to an issue that’s well over 125 years old.
On the level of minutiae, my favorite part was this:
Outside the presidential palace, scores of people who had watched the verdict being read on two giant TV screens shouted “Long Live Peru” afterward, though there was some confusion as to whether their country had won or lost.
Who says nationalism is dead?
-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.
-Marking the first major protest of the year, over 100,000 Chilean students took to the streets to continue to push for educational reform, an issue that has garnered much support and been a consistent problem for conservative president Sebastian Pinera. (And for those wondering, this is what (part of) over 100,000 people in the streets looks like.)
-With the recent conviction of some of his former top aides for corruption, Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to examine what, if any, role in or knowledge of payoffs Lula might have had during his first term.
-Uruguay became the third country in the Americas to legalize gay marriage nationwide (joining Canada and Argentina) after the Chamber of Deputies approved the Senate’s changes to the bill (the Chamber of Deputies originally passed an earlier draft of the bill last December). Meanwhile, in Chile, Congress has begun debating the legal recognition of same-sex couples; though the recognition would fall short of allowing gay marriage, it would grant gay couples the same rights as married couples.
-Although the frontrunner in Paraguay’s upcoming elections, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes apparently has quite the history of shady dealings and possible corrupt practices, including international smuggling, practices that, if true, could further strain Paraguay’s relations with its neighbors, relations that were already damaged when Congress rapidly removed former president Fernando Lugo through a dubious “impeachment.”
-A study finds that an overwhelming amount of the money donated to aid Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake ultimately ended up in the hands of US companies, with only one percent aiding Haitian companies themselves.
-Speaking of Haitians, they are among the thousands of immigrants who have recently entered into Brazil, leaving the small state of Acre to ask for federal aid in supporting the influx. I don’t quite agree with Boz that their desire to move Brazil automatically means that the economy there is doing well, but it at least suggests that people in other countries perceive the Brazilian economy to be preferable to their own.
-In spite of his family’s claims late last year, Alberto Fujimori does not actually have cancer, which was the reason his family initially called for his release from prison, where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during his 1990-2000 presidency. Although the former president is not actually ailing, that has not stopped Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from calling for a pardon for Fujimori.
-As a hunger strike among prisoners at US facilities in Guantanamo continues, the US has begun force-feeding some of the striking prisoners.
-In the wake of the rape of a tourist from the US, Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of vans for public transit (rather than the larger buses) in the southern part of the city. Of course, that the ban is in effect only in the wealthier southern zone where tourism dominates provides yet another reminder of the social stratification evident throughout Rio, including in public transportation options.
-Hundreds of thousands of Colombians, including President Juan Manuel Santos, marched in support of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.
-Are Brazil and Russia close to a missile deal?
-Although scholarship and human rights activism have already torn much “the veil” off Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime, the recent exhumation of Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda could further shed light on the poet’s death and end years of speculation over whether he really died of cancer, as had long been maintained, or if the regime had him killed, a theory that has been bandied about as well.
-Outrage continues over the appointment of evangelical politician Marco Feliciano as the head of the Brazilian Congress’s Human Rights Committee in spite of a history of public homophobic and racist statements. As a result, in a blow against transparency or accountability in government, the Committee recently decided to close all hearings to outsiders in hopes of preventing protests from erupting in committee hearings.
-Speaking of human rights in Brazil, police are finally facing trial for their role in the executions of prisoners during the Carandiru massacre of 1992. The massacre, which occurred 21 years ago this October, left 102 prisoners dead from gunshots after police entered the prison to break up gang fighting between prisoners.
-A Guatemalan court upheld the not-guilty verdict of former president Alfonso Portillo on charges of theft of state funds. However, his legal problems are far from over, as the ruling now opens the path for his extradition to the United States, where he faces indictment for embezzlement and money laundering.
-A Chilean court has suspended development on the Pascua Lama mine, originally set to be one of the world’s largest gold mines, ruling that the pollution and environmental destruction already caused by the Canadian mining company Barrick violates the original terms of the agreement. The shutdown marks a victory for indigenous groups, who had argued that the mine threatened their daily lives and resources, and is part of broader challenges to Barrick’s environmental toll and presence throughout Latin America.
-Finally, scientists have recently encountered a new species of porcupine in Brazil, but the future of the species is already uncertain, as the tree-dwelling Coendou speratus lives in an endangered forest.
One hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) began, pitting Chile against Peru and Bolivia in a war that would see Peru lose its southern-most provinces, Bolivia lose its access to the Pacific Ocean (thus becoming the second land-locked country in South America), and Chile gain control over the nitrate-rich region of the Atacama desert.
The war had its roots in the growing value of nitrates on the global market and nationalist tensions between the three countries. The Atacama was a region rich in nitrates that could be converted into fertilizer. As Europe enjoyed a “green revolution” that saw intensified agricultural output thanks to technological innovations, the nitrates became an increasingly valuable commodity, useful in producing fertilizer. As Peru’s guano deposits dried up, the nitrates of the Atacama became increasingly appealing. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867 only added to the profitability of nitrates. Although the deposits rested largely on Peruvian and Bolivian soil, it had been Chilean private enterprise that had invested heavily in the region. Needing to find an alternate source of income to replace guano (which had provided the Peruvian government with 80% of its revenues at its peak), Peru nationalized the nitrate mines, while Bolivia decided to levy a 10-cent tax on the railways that transported nitrates to the Pacific ports. Feeling its economic interests threatened, and still bearing some suspicions of Peru and Bolivia dating back to the Peruvian-Bolivian Federation of 1836-1839, Chile decided to occupy Antofagosta, Bolivia’s largest port, on February 14, 1879. Peru tried to mediate, but Chile refused such offers, declaring itself to be at war with Bolivia; the latter country asked Peru to respect treaties and join Bolivia. Though Peru was hesitant to go to war, it was also hesitant to declare neutrality, leading Chile to declare war on Peru as well.
The war began with naval battles between the Chilean and Peruvian navies. While Peru’s navy had initial successes against the Chilean navy, by October of 1879, Chile controlled the ocean along the borders of all three countries, allowing it to begin land operations to occupy Bolivia and Peru. Although Peru ultimately built the first functioning submarine in South American military history, the Toro, it never saw battle, and was scuttled by the end of the war.
Controlling the seas, Chile began to occupy the three southern-most provinces of Peru – Tarapacá, Tacna, and Arica – where the nitrate holdings were. Although Peru again initially defeated Chilean forces, the Peruvian army nonetheless was unable to maintain its territorial control and retreated from the field, leaving Tarapacá, with its 200,000 citizens (roughly 10% of Peru’s total population) and 28 million English pounds worth of nitrates, to the Chileans. Chile continued to advance, even while riots broke out in the capital of Lima and the Peruvian government tried to negotiate deals for more weapons and warships. By January of 1881, the Chilean army had entered Lima. However, Peruvian forces managed to escape, laying the groundwork for widespread resistance and guerrilla warfare that would continue for another two years.
Meanwhile, in Bolivia, troops fell quickly. Although they outnumbered the Chileans, those forces stationed in Iquique had retreated by the end of 1879. While the outcome was far from inevitable, the fact remained that Chile had better, German-made weapons and better training at its disposal. Additionally, Bolivia had contended with nearly 40 years of political instability and economic weakness after Chile defeated the Bolivian-Peruvian confederation, even while the Chilean state and its institutions had enjoyed relative stability. By 1880, Chilean troops maneuvered with general ease in Bolivian territories.
In spite of Chile’s quick successes, the war dragged on through guerrilla struggles and grassroots opposition in both Peru and Bolivia for several years. There were several efforts to resolve the issue in the international community. In October 1880, the US gathered Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean officials on the USS Lackawanna off the coast of Peru to hold negotiations after Chile had refused Ecuadoran attempts to negotiate the situation earlier in the year. However, Peru and Bolivia understandably demanded the withdrawal of Chilean troops from what they rightly viewed as their lands, and the negotiations broke down.
Peace finally arrived in 1883. Although Peru and Chile agreed to peace in October of that year, the terms of the treaty remained contentious for decades, and only in 1929, with Herbert Hoover’s administration mediating, did the two countries agree upon not only the cession of not only Tarapacá (originally agreed upon in 1883) but also Arica. Meanwhile, Bolivia signed a truce, but not a treaty, in 1884, ceding its entire Pacific coast to Chile (who needed the territory if it were to maintain continuity between its historical border and the newly-acquired territories in Peru). The terms of the 1884 truce became official in a 1904 treaty signing.
The War of the Pacific marked the last of the nineteenth-century international wars in South America (though Colombia and Chile both would still endure civil wars before the century was out). In total, over 13,000 people died in the war, with an overwhelming majority of them coming from Bolivia and Peru. The loss of life alone would have been damaging enough, but the territorial transformations only deepened the sense of loss. Peru, still seeking a source of revenue for its export-dependent state, lost out on the territories with some of the richer nitrate deposits, denying it revenue either from exports or from taxes that could have helped, even while Chile was able to generate money on taxes related to nitrate production. Most damaging, though, was Bolivia’s loss of a path to the sea. Indeed, the territorial loss is still a point of contention today. Bolivia and Chile still only retain consular ties, rather than full diplomatic ties, and social groups still periodically (and not unfairly) blame the lack of access to a port for economic crises in Bolivia (such as the 2003 “gas wars” in Bolivia). Indeed, the memorialization of the loss of land and life is visible in public spaces in both Bolivia and Peru even today, and while relations between them and Chile have thawed somewhat over years, the nationalistic tensions still run high, as a recent video of Chilean sailors’ chants reminded us. The War of the Pacific may have ended 130 years ago, but the social and political wounds from the war still run deep.
This is part of a periodic series on major dates in Latin American history. Other entries are available here, and include the launch of NAFTA and the Zapatista movement, and the beginning of the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Other entries are available here.
-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.
-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.
-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.
-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.
-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.
-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.
-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.
-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.
-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.
-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.
-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.
While the notion of “the disappeared” in Latin America has existed since at least the 1960s and 1970s, when military regimes kidnapped, murdered, and hid or destroyed the bodies of alleged “subversives,” victims of authoritarian regimes are not the only “disappeared” in the region, and the problem is not limited to the past (to say nothing of the long-term social effects that are still felt in places like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil today). Indeed, the problem continues to appear in the second decade in the 21st century, albeit in a new guise: that of missing migrants.
Even before the tour bus comes to a stop, the women rise from their seats and wait in the aisle to exit. In their arms rest rolled-up flags of the Central American countries they come from. Large laminated photographs of missing loved ones hang by lanyards from their necks.
They descend the stairs to a gaggle of waiting press photographers. This is their moment of hope, stirring once again the possibility of putting to rest years of uncertainty and desperation.
Maybe someone has seen a missing son or father making his way to the United States in search of work. Maybe someone knows a daughter is OK.
“The goal is to come to look for them,” said Virginia Olcot, 42, of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who last heard from her husband in September 2009 when he arrived at the U.S. border in Sonora. “This is our intention: to not get tired, to persevere and get the government to help us.”
The group sponsoring the trip estimates that some 70,000 Central American migrants have disappeared in the past six years based on reports from nonprofit groups. Some of them have been found in the most brutal of circumstances: Hundreds of would-be migrants were discovered murdered in the community of San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas: first 72, most of them Central Americans, massacred on a farm in 2010, and nearly 200 people, some Mexicans, discovered in clandestine graves about six months later.
The US understanding of immigration and its regional and global processes is certainly limited (and not aided by the fact that, in a presidential debate ostensibly on foreign policy, neither the issue of immigration nor the region of continental Latin America ever came up). Based on US media metanarratives, migration all too often is an issue that begins once people have entered the US. Even the discussion of drug-related violence in Mexico rarely touches on the ways in which said violence affects the lives of migrants. And while there are certainly some differences between the “disappeared” of military regimes in the latter part of the 20th century, in many ways the impacts are all too familiar: uncertainty, the suffering of loved ones, the unknown fate of the victims. And in another familiar theme, it is the mothers who are at the forefront of the struggle to find these new “disappeared,” giving up their past livelihoods and devote themselves to finding their loved ones:
“We know your pain. We speak the same language,” said Irma Leticia Hidalgo, a mother from a Monterrey suburb whose son was kidnapped last year. “Your missing are our missing.”
Hidalgo said her 18-year-old son was taken from their home in the middle of the night by about 10 men, half of them wearing police vests from a nearby town, who went on to steal everything of value in the house. Although she paid a ransom and was told she’d have her son back in a few hours, he never returned.
She ultimately retired from her teaching job to look for him.
Again, the context of the 2010s and migration might superficially be different from that of the 1960s-1980s and military regimes, but the human suffering is painfully familiar and similar. It’s a powerful reminder that the issue of “the Disappeared” never goes away and takes a number of forms even today.