Friday, January 11, 2013

Week in Review

The following is a round-up of news highlights from around the region this week.

  • President Obama named the nominees for the his national security team, with John Kerry at Department of State, Chuck Hagel at the Department of Defense and John Brennan at the CIA. The Washington Office on Latin America's Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Adam Isacson, examined what these appointments could mean for Latin America and looked at four likely outcomes: more Special Forces deployments to the region; a greater intelligence community presence; greater use of drones and robotics; and more emphasis on cyber-security.
  • United States Southern Command leader General John F. Kelly visited Honduras and El Salvador this week to discuss continued military cooperation with both nation's heads of state and ministers of defense.
  • Mexico

  • The Mexican Congress confirmed Eduardo Medina Mora to replace Arturo Sarukhan as the country's ambassador to the U.S. Medina Mora was President Calderón's former attorney general from 2006-2009 and the Secretary of Public Safety under President Fox from 2005-2006. Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Mexico City- based Center for Economic Research and Teaching, told BusinessWeek that Medina Mora will "prevent the U.S. perspective from dominating on this issue." The new ambassador cited security as one his top priorities. He has weighed in on U.S. policy, suggesting the United States make drug, arms and immigration reforms, as Animal Politico notes. Medina Mora also called for the United States to reform guns laws in the wake of the Newtown shooting, calling it a "window of opportunity" to make changes.
  • On Wednesday, new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a bill designed to track drug war victims and compensate their families up to $70,000 per innocent victim. The fund will compensate surviving victims of drug violence as well. According to Reuters and the Los Angeles Times, the measure requires authorities to pay for victims' medical care and establish a national registry of victims. Mexico's government has yet to announce how much money is allocated for the initiative or how many victims it considers innocent.

    Former President Felipe Calderón vetoed the bill last summer over apparent technical flaws, drawing much criticism from human rights groups. The removal of the veto, "is a positive sign that this government will begin to take seriously the rights of the victims of the violence," according to Amnesty International. “But for it to make a real difference, the Mexican authorities at all levels must ensure the law is complied with effectively."

  • As of Thursday, Mexico will be divided into five national security regions, effective immediately. News website Animal Politico published the twelve security initiatives that the Mexican government agreed to implement within the next 45 days, including the creation of a national crime prevention program, a police education program along with new operation protocols, and the creation of specialized units focused on kidnapping within the federal police force, among others.
  • Last Friday, a cash-for-weapons voluntary disarmament program was extended in Mexico City. Since the program began on December 24th, authorities have confiscated nearly 1,500 weapons.
  • A few good reports were put out on Mexican security this week:

  • The Inter-American Dialogue published a working paper by Alejandro Hope "Peace now? Mexican security policy after Felipe Calderón," that offers an analysis of the security challenges facing the Peña Nieto administration. He looks at former President Calderón's institutional legacy and changes in Mexico's security climate. For Hope, Peña Nieto will likely offer adjustments to Calderón's strategy, the biggest difference between the two possibly involving "more tone than substance."
  • In a report for the Woodrow Wilson Center titled,"In the Lurch Between Government and Chaos: Unconsolidated Democracy in Mexico," Luis Rubio of the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC) looks at how organized crime took advantage of Mexico's weak institutions and what reforms the government must implement to build "competent democratic institutions" and "restore economic growth."
  • "Mexico Drug Policy and Security Review 2012," by Nathan P. Jones for Small Wars Journal examines Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's new security policy and concludes that the initiative shares "more similarities than differences" with the much-criticized security agenda of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. It offers a good overview of the policy's components.
  • Bolivia

  • Bolivia re-entered the United Nation's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs on January 10 with an exception that allows for chewing coca leaves within the country's border. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, "this represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony." The new reservation was opposed by at least 15 countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, Mexico, and Japan. However, for Bolivia's proposal to have been blocked, 63 countries would have needed to object.

    The vote comes with recent media attention to the country's controversial coca-leaf regulating program, which a recent report from WOLA suggests is working. According to both the White House and the UN, the total acreage of coca cultivation in Bolivia dropped in 2011 between 12-13 percent. Bolivian President and former coca farmer Evo Morales has planned two celebrations for Monday.

  • Brazil

  • In Brazil, ex-President Lula has been implicated in a vote-buying scandal that has rocked the country. Brazil's top prosecutor said Wednesday that he will look into allegations that former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was involved in the embezzlement and vote-buying scheme, known as the "mensalão" case. Brazilian businessman Marcos Valério de Souza, who received a 40-year sentence for his role in the scandal, testified that he deposited funds for Lula da Silva's "personal spending." So far the case has brought down several top officials in the Lula administration, including his chief of staff, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
  • Colombia

  • Colombia's prosecutor general re-opened an investigation into former President Álvaro Uribe over his alleged involvement with paramilitary groups while he was governor of the Antioquia department in the 1990s. On his well-maintained Twitter account, he denied the charges, amounting them to "Slander from imprisoned criminals," and starting the hashtag "Criminal Revenge," (#VenganzaCriminal) for the case.
  • On Wednesday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced that the two-month unilateral ceasefire they declared at the beginning of peace talks on November 20th will end on January 20th. The FARC's lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, said in a news conference in Havana that "only the signing of a bilateral ceasefire would be possible," which the Santos administration has repeatedly refused. According to news website Colombia Reports, violence attributed to the FARC decreased by 80 percent during the first week of January, compared to the same period in January 2012, which NGO Nuevo Arco Iris said was the most violent month in the past eight years. Also of note in the peace talks is that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will be traveling to Colombia this Saturday to meet with President Santos and negotiators from both sides of the table.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America released a report today titled "Consolidating 'Consolidation,'" The new report examines Colombia's U.S.-backed counterinsurgency program, the National Territorial Consolidation Plan. According to the report, the U.S. has invested a least half a billion dollars of U.S. assistance into the five-year-old program, which "seeks to bring the government into several areas of the country with histories of illegal armed groups, violence, drug trafficking, and statelessness." The report notes that while “Consolidation” has "brought security improvements and more soldiers and police to a few territories, the governance vacuum remains far from filled."
  • Venezuela

    On Tuesday the Venezuelan National Assembly passed a measure giving President Chávez, who is recovering from his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba, "as long as he needs," saying that he could be sworn in in front of the Supreme Court after the January 10th inauguration date set forth in the constitution. On Wednesday, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) upheld the decision. On Thursday, the would-be inauguration date, thousands of Chávez supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Caracas in solidarity. Several Latin American leaders also traveled to Caracas to show their support for Chávez and the Venezuelan government's decision to keep him in power.

    An interesting twist to the ruling was Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales' reference to an obscure 19th century U.S. vice president, William R. King, who took his oath of office 20 days after the new government came to power -- while in Cuba being treated for tuberculosis.

    The news this week has been filled with debate about the constitutionality of the Venezuelan government's decision to allow Chávez to stay in power.

    The opposition has argued that since the president-elect was unable to be sworn in by Jan. 10, power should be transferred to the next-in-line in succession, who would be the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello with an election to follow. Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado told CNN, "This is a decision that was clearly taken in Cuba by the Cubans."

    U.S. congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who previously led the House's Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed, saying,"The delay of his swearing-in is yet another example of the trampling of the constitution by this despot. The Venezuelan constitution states that the leader of Venezuela needs to take the oath of office on January 10 in front of the National Assembly or the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice."

    Some analysis examining the Venezuelan constitution contend the ruling to allow Chávez to stay in power and extend his swear-in date was constitutional. Others say it is a matter of legal interpretation, as there is no precedent for the situation and the constitution does not provide a concrete solution.

  • On the Washington Office on Latin America's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, David Smilde gives a clear analysis of the case. According to Smilde, the government's decision is based on an article in the constitution that allows an extension of power in the case of extended trips abroad, essentially allowing Chávez to be "indefinite leave with no mechanisms for reviewing that leave or verifying his condition." Technically the Supreme Court has the power to determine if Chávez is permanently mentally or physically unfit to rule, in which case he could be removed from power and elections would ensue. This is unlikely to happen however, as the court said he had justified his "extended trip abroad." As Smilde posits, with the National Assembly and Supreme Court's support, "Chávez could conceivably be on life-support for weeks or months, but still hold the office of president whether or not that would have been his wish."

    An earlier post from Smilde provides an excellent overview and analysis of the complexity of the situation and looks at a discussion from UCV law professor José Ignacio Hernández.

  • Dan Beeton at the Center for Economic and Policy Research examines the Venezuelan constitution and argues that the government's decision to keep Chávez in power is in line with the constitution. According to Beeton, an article in the document says a leader can be sworn in after the inauguration date and offers no deadline for when it can take place. The only instance in which elections would be held would be if he was removed as a result of “death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.” This is the chief argument that Venezuelan officials have been making.
  • An editorial in the Los Angeles Times commented on the lack of information about President Chávez's health, saying, "Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies need to stop treating his health like a national secret."
  • According to the AP, Vice President Maduro, along with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchener and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, is traveling to Cuba this weekend to visit President Chavez.
  • Amid the debate about Venezuela's leadership and as the possibility of a power vacuum grows, crime analysis website Insight Crime reports that crime and violence have been on the upswing in the midst of the political upheaval, with more than 75 murders being registered in Caracas in the first six days of 2013.
  • Univision offers a useful timeline of Chávez's political career, which can be found here.
  • An English version of the Venezuelan constitution can be found here

    The text for the Supreme Court's decision can be found here