Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 in Review

The following is a short overview of some of the more significant events of the past year that set the political landscape for the region going into 2013.

Colombia peace talks
One of the biggest and most hopeful happenings in 2012 was the August announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that began on November 19 in Havana, Cuba. Conversations between government and FARC negotiators began in Norway in mid-October, where they gave a joint press conference. (See here for a timeline of the talks)

President Santos has said that if “firm advances” are not made by April-July 2013, “the process will not continue.” As Colombian political analysis website La Silla Vacia has posited, if the talks fail, the country can expect a political swing to the right, as was seen following in the 2002 failed peace talks, however if they are successful, a more leftist agenda that includes guerrilla participation in politics and increased rural development will be implemented. A December Gallup poll last month showed that while 71% of Colombians supported the peace process, only 43% believed they would end in a peace deal. The second round of talks covering land and rural development came to conclusion December 20 before the discussions broke for the holidays. Talks are set to restart January 14.

Paraguay’s golpeachment
Former President Fernando Lugo’s 2008 election marked the end of the Colorado Party’s long-term control of Paraguay politics. However, in June 2012, Paraguay’s Congress (the Colorado party and their allies) hastily voted to impeach Lugo and install Vice President Federico Franco, a move that was triggered by the mishandling of a still un-resolved violent land conflict between police and landless peasants that left 11 campesinos and six police dead. While the impeachment was technically legal, many countries considered Lugo’s rapid removal a coup, resulting in the country’s suspension from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc and the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR). The Mercosur suspension allowed Venezuela to finally enter the bloc, comprised of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, after Paraguay’s long opposition to its inclusion.

El Salvador’s gang truce
In March 2012 a government-mediated truce was brokered between El Salvador’s two most violent gangs -- Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13, the first street gang operating in the U.S. to be labeled a transnational criminal organization) and Barrio 18. The deal lead to a 40% drop in the country's homicide rate, making 2012 the least violent year since 2003 for El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent and insecure countries. In 2011, the county’s National Civil Police (PNC) registered 4,371 homicides, putting it right behind Honduras, which holds the world’s highest murder rate. In 2012, the PNC registered 2,576 murders. Despite skeptics’ fears that the deal would be fleeting, nine months later the truce is still holding and the groups are now conducting talks about how to proceed. In December, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, along with other street gangs, agreed to end gang activity in designated “peace zones” throughout the country, however these zones have yet to be identified and the level of government involvement has also yet to be determined. It is still a very much evolving process, but one to watch in 2013. In November, the Congressional Research Service released a report about the country's political and economic conditions and its relations with the U.S.

Fuero militar in Colombia
In mid-December, the Colombian Congress passed a justice reform bill, known as ‘Fuero Militar’ (Military Jurisdiction), that would likely result in human rights violations by military members -- including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape -- being investigated and tried by the military justice system. Human rights activists say that limiting the civilian court system’s ability to try and convict members of the armed forces will lead to further impunity and worry that the more than 1,700 cases of extrajudicial execution currently in civilian courts will be moved under military jurisdiction. Most recently the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement voicing its “deep concern over the serious setback in human rights” that the reform would represent.

Mexico’s new president
On December 1st, Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as Mexico’s new leader, marking the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), after a 12-year hiatus following its 71-year stronghold of the Mexican political system. Mexican police struggled to manage the thousands of protesters that took to the streets during the inauguration to denounce the PRI's return to power. Security forces arrested several people unjustly and contributed to the outbreak of violence, which led to Amnesty International setting up a support page for victims of police brutality. Peña Nieto’s security proposal for Mexico continues with a militarized approach, but he has vowed to fight violence and other crimes as opposed to targeting drug traffickers. The new Mexican leader has also reiterated his plans to increase economic ties with the U.S. However, it remains to be seen whether or not a PRI-presidential term with Peña Nieto will mark a significant change for Mexico.

President Hugo Chávez’s cancer
The biggest question mark in the region at the moment is who will be ruling Venezuela in the months to come, as there is the ever-growing possibility of a power vacuum. In October, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez publicly stated he had beaten cancer, only to announce in early December that it had returned and he would be undergoing treatment in Cuba. President Chávez, who won re-election in early October despite a strong opposition and debilitating illness, is currently in Cuba recovering from his fourth round of surgery. He was set to be inaugurated on January 10, however due to the increasing likelihood that he will be too ill to be back from Cuba in time, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Friday that President Chávez will retain power and be sworn in after the date. President Chávez called on Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Maduro to be his successor should he step down or die before being sworn in. The constitution requires that power be handed over to Diosdado Cabello, the recently re-elected speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly, until another election is held within 30 days. While there is growing uncertainty around the county’s future leadership, some analysts say Chávez’s Socialist Party (PSUV) would most likely be re-elected given the presidential election victory and recent wins in 20 out of 23 states in mid-December’s gubernatorial elections.

Obama’s re-election, Immigration and the Latino vote
In addition to changes in U.S. drug policy, many hope immigration reform will top President Obama’s agenda in his second term, given his victory was largely helped by winning just over 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. In his election speech, Obama mentioned immigration reform as a priority just behind reducing the deficit and tax reform. The hope for 2013 is for the administration to make good on this promise for the eleven million immigrants living in the U.S., and that it scales back on increasingly harsh deportation practices.

Honduras and the DEA
The Drug Enforcement Administration's involvement in several killings in Honduras this year highlighted growing U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. In April, the DEA sent special teams to some of the more rural, drug-ridden areas of Honduras as part of a joint counternarcotics operation known as Operation Anvil. Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included the shootings of Hondurans by either DEA agents, or by Honduran officers trained, equipped and vetted by the U.S., causing the operation to end days ahead of schedule.

About $50 million due to be assigned to antidrug and security efforts -- amounting to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 and including $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative -- is being withheld by Democrats in Congress over concerns about American involvement in the killings and over accusations that the director of Honduras' national police had ties to death squads. The aid is still being withheld, but the U.S. has begun to share radar information with the Honduran air force again.

Honduras currently has the highest murder rate in the world with 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since the 2009 coup, drug trafficking, violence and human rights violations have rapidly increased, while impunity for killings, particularly of journalists and human rights defenders, is high and corruption pervades all government institutions. The country is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis, with the executive and congress attempting to overhaul the Supreme Court. Presidential elections are set to take place this year.

Marijuana legalization and regulation
As the death toll in Mexico continues to climb over the 60,000 deaths recorded during previous Mexican President Felipe Calderón's drug war, and drugs continue to flow into the United States from below the border, as well as throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, experts and Latin American presidents are increasingly calling for alternatives to the "War on Drugs." Earlier in 2012, there was a lot of discussion surrounding drug legalization, particularly following Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s advocacy for the international legalization of drugs in March. There was more discussion about the issue before the fairly uneventful Summit of the Americas held in Colombia in April, after which it seemed to die down a bit. In September at a UN General Assembly meeting, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala submitted a proposal for drug reform, which Honduras and Costa Rica later backed. The UN then agreed to hold a special session on on drug prohibition by 2015.

Several former leaders, including Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, had already called for changes in global and U.S. drug policies in 2011, but Latin American presidents and former leaders from all political sides continued to call for reform in 2012. In June, Uruguay’s President José Mujica proposed legislation to legalize marijuana that was moving through the country’s congress until a poll in mid-December indicated that 65% of Uruguayans opposed legalization, while only 26% supported it, causing President Mujica to slow down the initiative.

Drug legalization throughout the region will continue to be widely debated, particularly following Colorado and Washington’s passage of referendums in November for legalizing recreational marijuana use. Now that there are legal markets for marijuana in the U.S., many Latin American leaders are questioning why they should continue to invest financial and human resources into enforcing drug laws. As one Mexican official responded, "we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status." Mexico is currently exploring its own legalization measures, modeled on Washington State law.