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South of The Border: The View from Latin America

The past few years have been interesting times in Latin America, and this week was no exception: from protests in Bolivia, to a Brazilian possible u-turn on the Iran question to the remarkable warming of relations between Chavez and his Colmbian neighbours. In this week's dispatch, our correspondent Tom Kavanagh reports on what's been going on south of the border...

Politics, South of The Border - Posted on Monday, August 16, 2010 1:54 - 1 Comment

By Tom Kavanagh

Colombia and Venezuela restore diplomatic ties

Colombia and Venezuela restored diplomatic ties on Tuesday 10th August, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez meeting with newly elected Colombian head of state Juan Manuel Santos in the coastal city of Santa Marta. Chávez’s government had severed relations with Colombia on July 22nd, following a deposition made to the Organization of American States (OAS) by outgoing Colombian premier Álvaro Uribe that Venezuela was providing a safe haven for FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, following more than a year of deteriorating relations between the two governments. FARC is a militant group which has waged an insurgency against the Colombian state since 1964, enjoying considerable support in some rural areas of the country.

Santos stated that Chávez had assured him Venezuela would not tolerate “the presence of armed groups operating outside of the law” in Colombia’s neighbour, announcing that despite “frequent differences” between the two governments in the past, a decision had been made to “turn the page and think about the future”. Chávez, who has in the past referred to Santos as a “warmonger”, stated that his government “neither supports, nor permits, nor will permit, the presence of guerrillas, drug traffickers or terrorists on Venezuelan soil”. The Venezuelan leader reiterated his opinion that militant groups in Colombia opting to use violence in order to redress their grievances with the Colombian state have “no future… I have said this a million times”. He called attention to the fact that Venezuelan state forces had had numerous confrontations with Colombian guerrillas who have crossed the border over the years, adding that “there have been deaths on our side as well”. Both parties confirmed they would be sending additional troop deployments to patrol the border, much of which is situated in dense jungle.

Chávez also presented his Colombian counterpart with a gift, “The Life of Simon Bólivar” by nineteenth century Venezuelan author Felipe Larrazábal. Bólivar, a strong advocate of Latin American integration, was instrumental in liberating both countries from Spanish rule and Chávez cites him as the inspiration behind Venezuela’s present “Bolivarian revolution”. Since taking office, Chávez has officially renamed Venezuela the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The two heads of state met in the house in Santa Marta in which the famous liberator took his last breath on December 17th 1830.

Mexico considering drug legalisation

Mexican president Felipe Calderón publically acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that his country must reconsider its policy towards illegal substances, days after his predecessor Vicente Fox called for total drug legalisation, stating that prohibition “has never worked”. The rethink comes as drug-related violence in Mexico continues to take an increasingly heavy toll: last week the head of the country’s Centre for Investigation and National Security, Guillermo Váldes, confirmed that over 28,000 people have been murdered in drug-related incidents since December 2006. “We have to accept that the violence keeps increasing”, said Váldes, who noted that in the same period there have been 973 violent confrontations between drug cartels and Mexican state forces on public highways, with an average of one incident per day attributed to organised criminal gangs. Estimates as to the value of the illicit drug trade to Mexican cartels range from US$10 billion to US$40 billion annually.

The most dangerous area of the country is the United States border region, with regular instances of extreme violence on either side of the frontier as rival gangs compete for control over trade routes into the U.S. – the world’s largest market for illegal drugs. “The strategy should be questioned”, said Calderón, “I am willing to receive and analyse proposals of how to change and improve it.” Since taking office in 2006, Calderón has sought to take a hard line against organised crime, with many blaming this strategy for the escalating violence that continues to plague the country. Samuel González, a former high-level anti-organised crime official, welcomed the president’s change of stance, saying that the government “cannot claim any kind of victory” in the ongoing war on drugs. Last Thursday 12 suspected members of a drug gang were killed and 3 state troops injured in an armed confrontation in the northern state of Durango.

Brazilian (semi) u-turn on Iran

On Tuesday, Brazil signed a UN Security Council resolution which imposes severe economic sanctions on Iran, demonstrating an apparent shift in Brasilia’s position on the question of the Persian state’s nuclear program. Foreign Minister Celso Amorim explained the decision by referring to a “tradition of carrying out Security Council resolutions, including those we don’t agree with”. The Brazilian government had hitherto vocally opposed the imposition of sanctions on Iran, and in May negotiated a deal, rejected by the United States and European Union, with the governments of Iran and Turkey whereby Iran would consign low-enriched uranium to Turkey and receive nuclear fuel in return. Brazilian president Lula da Silva, whose country started enriching uranium for use in power plants in 2006, has consistently defended Iran’s right to nuclear power, stating that to condemn Tehran for harbouring similar aspirations would amount to hypocrisy.

Bolivia: Protests put Morales under pressure

Community leaders in the Bolivian department of Potosí have demanded face to face talks with president Evo Morales over an ongoing dispute with the national government regarding a perceived lack of investment in the region.  The leader of the Civic Committee of Potosí, Celestino Condori, has said that strikes and road blocks which have paralysed the department for over two weeks will not be lifted until Morales agrees to personally visit the region in order to discuss the protesters demands. The committee has threatened to begin hunger strikes if a solution is not reached, and dismissed as derisory an offer from the government to send a representative to the region in order to restart negotiations. Chief among protesters’ complaints are a border dispute between Potosí and the neighbouring department of Oruro regarding vast mineral deposits at the contested Pahua site, and demands that the government construct a new airport in Potosí.

Bolivian Autonomy Minister Carlos Romero called on protesters to “stop punishing the people of Potosí” and to resume dialogue with the government, estimating that the strikes, which took effect on July 30th, are costing Bolivia around US$200,000 a day due to lost income from tourism and disruption to mining in the area. President Morales has accused right-wing groups in the country of fomenting unrest in the region in order to destabilise the process of social and political transformation his government is instituting. “What is happening is that the neoliberals and those that wish to sell off the homeland want to confuse the social and civic movements, with the intention of returning to the positions of power which they used for many years exclusively for their own benefit”, Morales affirmed at a meeting in the city of Cochabamba.

The government has ruled out using either the police or the army to break up strikes and road blocks by force. “In the past the military was used by the neoliberals and the landowners to confront the people as they fought for their rights, today [the military has] taken on the cause of patriotism and supports change and social development”, Morales added.

Colombia: Car bombing in Bogota

A car bomb exploded in the financial district of the Colombian capital Bogotá at approximately 5.30 on Thursday morning in front of the offices of local radio station Caracol Radio. There were no fatalities but the attack left nine people injured and caused considerable damage to buildings in the surrounding area. One man has since come forward claiming that he was paid 400,000 pesos (around £140) to change the number plates of the vehicle used in the bombing. He denies having had any prior knowledge of the attack.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos condemned the bombing, which many have attributed to FARC guerrillas. Santos, however acknowledged that “we have to tell the truth, we still don’t know who was responsible”. Jairo Ramírez, president of the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia, says evidence points to the involvement of right-wing militant groups opposed to the reestablishment of bilateral relations with Venezuela. President Santos has offered a reward of 500 million pesos (around £174,760) for any information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. Several regional governments, including those of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, strongly condemned the attack, describing it as an act of terrorism.

In brief:

Chile: 33 miners remain trapped underground at a site in the city of Copiapó, Chile following a landslide on August 5th. Chile’s president Sebastian Piñera said it was hoped contact would be made by Monday as rescue operations continue, although it is unknown if any of those trapped in the mine are still alive.

Paraguay: President Fernando Lugo has been discharged from hospital in Sao Paulo, saying he feels “renewed” having begun chemotherapy in order to treat lymphatic cancer. The remainder of the 59-year-old head of state’s treatment will be carried out in Paraguay and he is expected to make a full recovery.

Argentina: A Human Rights Watch report released this week revealed that 40% of pregnancies in Argentina are terminated by illegal abortion – roughly double the average for Latin America. Around 460,000 illegal abortions are carried out in the country each year, a figure that represents over 1% of the country’s population. Abortion is illegal in Argentina except under special circumstances, and HRW warned that the practice is increasingly being used “as a form of contraception”.

El Salvador: The World Bank’s investment dispute resolution panel declared that a lawsuit filed against the government of El Salvador by Canadian mining multinational Pacific Rim under the terms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) may proceed, despite fierce protests from the Salvadorian government. The company is seeking compensation after the government halted mining at the El Dorado site, citing environmental concerns. The government maintains the lawsuit is invalid, and that CAFTA legislation is not applicable as the company was not registered in a signatory state at the time the deal between the two parties was agreed.

Brazil: Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Worker’s Party (PT) currently leads principal rival José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democrat Party (PSDB) in opinion polls ahead of October’s elections. Rousseff, who leads Serra by 8 points, has the backing of current Brazilian president Lula da Silva who will step down after completing two terms in office. Green Party (PV) candidate Marina Silva sits on 10%, 23 points behind Serra.

Cuba: Cuban revolutionary leader and former president Fidel Castro celebrated his 84th birthday in Havana on Friday. Castro’s health has significantly improved in recent months and he has made several public appearances, notably warning that an attack on Iran by the United States and Israel seems imminent.

Tom Kavanagh, a writer and activist based in Argentina, is Latin America correspondent for Ceasefire. His column on Latin American affairs appears every Monday.

1 Comment

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Tony Starks
Aug 20, 2010 5:28

Great round-up, with the exception of the Columbia, Venezuela and Bolivia stories I hadn’t heard about any of this from the Mainstream or Alternative Media and even with those exceptions I hadn’t come across the same level background and analysis. I eagerly look forward to next Monday’s Column

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