Latin America News Round-up
October 16, 2012
Colombia Rebels' Post-Conflict Role a Key Issue in Peace Talks
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Brazil and Southern Cone
What is killing sugar-cane workers across Central America?
Brazil's Manguinhos refinery halts trading on expropriation news. Reuters
NY Times to launch Portuguese-language website for Brazil. AFP
Argentina army officers jailed over 'Trelew massacre'. BBC
Argentine navy chief replaced amid Libertad row. BBC
President Sebastian Pinera: I want a First World Chile by 2020. CNN
Chile police clash with vandals in Mapuche march. AP
Minister confirms talks for re-incorporation of Paraguay to Unasur and Mercosur. Mercopress
Northern Andean Region
Colombia's chance of peace. The Guardian
Colombia rebels' post-conflict role a key issue in peace talks. Los Angeles Times
News Corp. Nominates Alvaro Uribe, Colombia President Involved In Wiretapping Scandal, To Board. Huffington Post
Western Andean Region
Microfinance: Bolivia pioneer starts to hit the mainstream. Financial Times
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Mexico’s Labor Law Reform Sparks Massive Protests. In These Times
Mexico police arrest student protesters in campus raids. BBC
Mexico takes textile dispute with China to the WTO. AFP
Guatemala Mining Plan Presented to Congress, Prensa Libre Says. Bloomberg
How Low Can Honduras Go? The Nation
Cuba scraps exit permits for citizens to travel. AFP
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
What is killing sugar-cane workers across Central America? The Observer
Obama, Romney 'Trade Pact' Malarkey vs. Reality: The Data Is In. Huffington Post
Prime Minister Harper’s free trade strategy endorses conflict-ridden mining industry. Toronto Star
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil's Manguinhos refinery halts trading on expropriation news
Reuters. October 15, 2012
RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Brazilian refiner Refinaria de Petroleos de Manguinhos asked the local stock exchange to halt trading of its stock after the government of Rio de Janeiro state said it plans to seize refinery land to build public housing, according to a company filing on Monday.
The company, the only refinery in Brazil not controlled by state-led oil company Petrobras, requested the trading halt on Sao Paulo's BM&FBovespa exchange to get more information on the government's plans, it said in the securities filing.
Manguinhos has refined about 3.5 million barrels of oil in the last 12 months, the filing said. That's less than two days of Brazilian oil output. Its refining activity has been limited for nearly a decade because of Petrobras' fuel price policies.
Because Petrobras does not raise domestic fuel prices in line with world prices, Manguinhos, which does not have oil production assets and must pay international prices for its crude, has found it hard to compete with Petrobras in the local fuels market.
In addition to refining, the company is also involved in distribution and owns port facilities.
It will cost between 170 million reais ($83.3 million) and 200 million reais to purchase Manginhos' assets and clean up toxic waste at the refinery site, the state government said.
The planned expropriation is part of the state's move to revitalize shanty towns that surround the refinery site north of Rio de Janeiro's downtown.
NY Times to launch Portuguese-language website for Brazil
AFP. October 15, 2012
SAO PAULO — The New York Times will launch a Portuguese-language website next year as part of plans to expand its global reach into Brazil, its publisher said here Monday.
Arthur Sulzberger outlined the planned launch, scheduled for the second half of 2013, while addressing an Inter-American Press Association lunch here.
"The mission of this site will be to offer Brazilian readers Times-quality coverage of the news that is most important to them," he said, noting that the site would be very similar to the one his paper launched in China this year.
He described the upcoming launch as a sign that Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics, "is one of the most important countries in the world."
"Now is the time to invest in Brazil," he noted, praising the emerging powerhouse's success in reducing poverty and expanding its middle class.
Sulzberger said the Brazil site will publish between 30 and 40 articles a day with photography, two thirds of which will be translations of stories appearing in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.
The other third will involve original reporting for Brazilian readers.
The publisher also painted an optimistic picture of journalism which he described as "increasingly digital and increasingly global".
"We are looking at ways to extend our reach," he noted, saying his newspaper was capitalizing on the digital technological revolution.
"We launched our digital subscription model about 15 months ago. Today we have more than two million paying subscribers when you combine print and digital," he said.
Sulzberger said the four top countries driving traffic to The Times website were the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia.
When it comes to mobile application traffic, the United States leads, followed by China, Canada, South Korea and Japan.
The surge in digital traffic at the influential newspaper comes amid falling print subscriptions, with Sulzberger noting that the industry was increasingly opting for the digital paying model.
Argentina army officers jailed over 'Trelew massacre'
BBC. October 15, 2012
Three ex-army officers in Argentina have been sentenced to life for crimes against humanity over the killing of 16 jailed rebel fighters in 1972.
The victims were shot at an air base near the city of Trelew after a failed jailbreak in what became known as the "Trelew massacre".
Two other officers charged in the case have been acquitted.
The massacre came amid escalating violence that led to the 1976 military coup and the subsequent "dirty war".
Last year, several high-profile army officials were tried over their role in the crackdown against activists and militants during 1976-82.
The officers convicted on Monday were named as Luis Sosa, Emilio Del Real and Carlos Marandino.
The prisoners killed in August 1972 were among 27 rebels who escaped from Rawson Penitentiary in the capital of Argentina's Chubut Province.
Soldiers recaptured 19 of the runaways and transferred them to an air base near Trelew.
Army officers executed 16 of the prisoners in retaliation for the successful escape of some of their comrades.
"The court sentenced to life in prison the three military officers for 16 aggravated homicides," court director Andrea Gualde told reporters in the southern town of Rawson.
"The circumstances were described as crimes against humanity."
Argentina was riven with violent unrest in the 1960s and 1970s.
During the seven-year rule of the military junta, an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and killed by the junta.
Following the return to civilian rule in 1983, some leading members of the military were tried but then granted amnesties.
More than 20 years on, the amnesties were ruled unconstitutional, clearing the way for trials to resume.
In May last year, a court in northern Argentina sentenced eight ex-army officers to life in jail for killing unarmed activists during military rule.
Argentine navy chief replaced amid Libertad row
BBC. October 15, 2012
The head of Argentina's navy has been replaced following the seizure in West Africa of a naval training ship and its 300 crew amid a debt dispute.
The Argentine government is holding an inquiry into who was responsible for allowing the Libertad to stop in Ghana two weeks ago.
Creditors say they will not release the ship until Argentina repays money owed to them from a default in 2001.
An Argentine delegation is in Ghana trying to resolve the stalemate.
Navy chief Carlos Alberto Paz has been replaced and two other senior naval officials suspended, Argentina's defence ministry said on Monday.
A statement said the navy's former organisational chief, Alfredo Mario Blanco, had changed the ship's itinerary and was now being investigated. It said Admiral Luis Gonzalez, the navy's secretary general, had also been suspended and was under investigation.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's government has demanded the ship's release, saying it cannot legally be held by creditors because of its military nature.
The Libertad - a three-masted tall ship - was detained in the Ghanaian port of Tema on 2 October under a court order obtained by NML Capital.
The firm says Argentina owes it more than $300m (£186m) and it will only release the ship if the country pays it at least $20m.
NML Capital is a subsidiary of US hedge fund Elliot Capital Management, one of Argentina's former creditors.
Argentina defaulted on more than $100bn (£62bn) of debt in 2001 and 2002, the biggest default in history.
Most of these loans were restructured in 2005 and 2010, giving creditors about 30% of their money back.
However, some creditors including Elliot chose to hold out, pursuing the Argentine government through the courts to recover the full amount.
President Sebastian Pinera: I want a First World Chile by 2020
Claire Brennan. CNN. October 15, 2012
(CNN) -- Sebastián Piñera is a man on a mission. The Chilean President wants to transform his homeland into a developed nation by 2020.
It's a big challenge to undertake during a decade that's already been marred by recession and global economic uncertainty. Yet Mr Piñera seems confident.
"We have invested so much that I hope that the next two years will be a time of harvest," he told CNN's Richard Quest.
"We will be able to show to the Chilean people that Chile's a country which is absolutely able to defeat poverty, to overcome underdevelopment, and to join the First World."
So how does the President intend to turn his plans into a reality?
Chile already has a very pro-business environment, but Piñera wants to open the doors of trade to his country even wider.
As one of Chile's richest men, he is no stranger to business and according to Forbes has amassed a fortune of $2.4 billion. He believes his entrepreneurial background leaves him ideally placed to send out a message to the world: Chile is open for business.
"We have realised that we have to be integrated to the world," he said.
We have to compete with the world. And that is why we have free-trade agreements
"We have to compete with the world. And that is why we have free-trade agreements, with the US, with Europe, with China, with India, with Japan, with Korea - you name it.
"I think that's the right path for Chile to become a developed country."
Pinera: U.S. 'printing money' will not solve economic problems
One of the key factors in Piñera's plan to invigorate the Chilean economy is a move towards digital and knowledge based industries.
The country's Start-Up Chile initiative began in 2010, and offers high potential global start-ups a $40,000 investment. No equity is ceded and the only requirement is that one member of the team live in Chile for six months. By the end of its first phase in 2014 it will have provided grants to 1,000 companies for a total of $40 million.
Its critics claim the project throws money away and doesn't produce any long-term benefits. However, Piñera claims most companies stay long after the initial six month period, creating jobs, mixing with local entrepreneurs and sharing ideas.
"We're importing and bringing to Chile people that have good ideas, entrepreneurship capacity and the ability to start a business here," said Piñera.
Chilean president focuses on education
"What they will teach to our people is very, very valuable. To have a stable economy, to have a stable democracy, and to have a modern government is not enough. We have to build new pillars of development. Education, science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, and more equality."
Of course, Chile's future isn't simply reliant on establishing a sustainable domestic economic policy. It's also dependent on exterior influences, and like all free-trade economies it has plenty to worry about.
The problems in the eurozone, the fiscal cliff in the United States, and the slowdown in China all loom in the air above the presidential headquarters of La Monda Palace.
Yet Piñera remains defiant. He said: "I am very convinced that in these next two years, we will be able - even though the world will be in the middle of a crisis - to keep moving forward. At good pace, and with very good direction."
We're importing and bringing to Chile people that have good ideas, entrepreneurship capacity and the ability to start a business here
Sebastián Piñera, president of Chile
As a nation Chile is viewed as one of the most stable and secure countries in South America. It's rich in mineral resources, has low fiscal debt and political stability, and in 2011 its exports grew by 17%.
Piñera attributes Chile's integration into global markets to its free trade agreements and believes continuing on that path will propel the country to economic stability in spite of negative global factors.
He said: "We decided to integrate our country with the world. That is why we are part of the APEC, we have a free-trade agreement with the European Community, we will be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, we are part of the Pacific Alliance. That's key aspects. If you try to only base your development in your local market, that's not enough.
However Piñera knows the hardwork also need to come from Chielans themselves. "You need to trust your people. And for that you need to improve the quality of education. The quality of training and motivate people to do their best," he said.
Chile police clash with vandals in Mapuche march
LUIS ANDRES HENAO. AP. October 16, 2012
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chilean police on Monday clashed with hooded vandals who infiltrated a protest by Mapuche Indians demanding land rights and autonomy.
Police shot tear gas and water cannons when the demonstration by 3,000 Mapuches in Chile's capital turned violent. Sixteen people were arrested.
The rally was timed to protest a national holiday for "Dia de La Raza," which celebrates the first encounter by Native Americans and Europeans during Christopher Columbus' arrival to America.
Protesters also demanded the release of four Mapuches who have been on a hunger strike for more than 50 days after they were accused of the attempted murder of Chilean police officers and carrying weapons illegally during a raid.
Military police Gen. Rodolfo Pacheco blamed anarchist groups for infiltrating Monday's demonstration and vandalizing several bank branches. Marches in Chile demanding improvements in education and land reforms are common and generally peaceful, but often end with clashes between police and a minority of hooded anarchist activists armed with rocks and molotov cocktails.
"Unfortunately, these social rejects of the CRA anarchist group who also caused damaged at last year's Dia de La Raza... infiltrated into the march wearing hoods and looted banks like Santander, BBVA and Itau, which was the worst damaged," Pacheco said.
Officials say the demonstration in Santiago is now under control and members of the tribe are showcasing cultural events in a downtown park. Many danced in traditional clothes and carried banners bashing the arrival of Columbus.
"Today is a day of protest, not of celebration because there's nothing to celebrate," Mapuche Leader Natividad Llanquileo told state TV. "We're going to insist on the freedom of the Mapuche people."
The Mapuches, which means "people of the land" in their native language, fiercely resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years and their desire for autonomy remains strong. It wasn't until the late 19th century that they were defeated militarily and forced into Araucania, south of the Bio Bio river, about 550 kilometers south of the capital. Most now live in poverty.
Mapuche demonstrations demanding land rights have flared up in recent months in Auracania. Logging trucks were burned by unidentified attackers earlier this year and small groups of tribesmen have periodically attacked police. But police officers have also been accused of violent abuses in the indigenous communities.
The Mapuches accused of violent acts against police - Daniel Levinao and Paulino Levipan - were sentenced to 12 years in prison, while cousins Eric and Rodrigo Montoya await trial.
The four members of the Wente Winkul Mapu community were taken from prison to a hospital for treatment after they lost between 8 and 13 kilograms during the hunger strike, which began on August 27.
The tribesmen remain conscious and their vital signs, pulse and temperature are normal, Sergio Opazo, director of the Concepcion hospital where they are held, told local radio Bio Bio.
Mapuche leaders say they will go to the Supreme Court to protest the planned force feeding. Amnesty International says the Mapuches have a right to demonstrate and to reject medical treatment including food.
President Sebastian Pinera will visit the areas where police and Mapuches have clashed on Tuesday.
Minister confirms talks for re-incorporation of Paraguay to Unasur and Mercosur
Mercopress. October 15, 2012
Foreign minister Jose Felix Fernandez Estigarribia confirmed the beginning of negotiations for the re-incorporation of Paraguay to Unasur and Mercosur which will take place through the mediation of a Latinamerican country he did not identify.
Fernandez Estigarribia confirmed that last week he flew to the US to meet with one of his peers from the Union of South American Nations, who had invited him to hold preliminary talks in the US, considered “neutral ground”.
“I met an only Foreign minister, whose name I can’t reveal for the moment” said the Paraguayan official. He added the meeting was part of the process to explain to Unasur “our point of view”.
The minister also confirmed that as had been advanced by the Asuncion press, at least two Latin American ambassadors would soon be returning to Paraguay, and the most probable candidates are Chile and Colombia.
“Paraguay is expecting in the short term for many more ambassadors to begin returning as is happening. But I prefer not to talk about dates or timetables because they might not coincide. Let’s talk about it once they are really back”, said Fernandez Estigarribia.
The minister admitted that one of the points in the agenda is referred to Unasur special observers, following on statements from the Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota who admitted the possibility of a return before the 2013 elections, if there is evidence of “full rule of democracy” in Paraguay.
“This is part of the negotiation. We have stated from the very beginning that we are willing to dialogue. But what we can’t admit is to be judged, sanctioned and later telling us they’re sending observers, a kind of guardians”.
“It’s the Paraguayan people, not a Foreign ministry that can come up and complain there is no democracy in Paraguay; but we have full freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of movement; there are no political prisoners, no one is politically persecuted”, underlined Fernandez Estigarribia.
Regarding the incorporation of Venezuela as full member of Mercosur, the minister said that it was “a decision, illegal decision, adopted by the other members in an illegal way. One of the future dialogues will be how to solve this problem”.
Finally diplomatic sources reiterated that current discussions are two-legged: on the one side closer relations with Unasur members to admit there is full rule of democracy in Paraguay and the second is more cumbersome and involves the Paraguayan Executive and Legislative.
This would mean reviewing the position on the incorporation of Venezuela to Mercosur: all sides admit the current situation of Venezuela is that of an ‘associate member’, until the Paraguayan Senate formally approves the adhesion protocol and thus Venezuela becomes full member.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Colombia's chance of peace
Sibylla Brodzinsky. The Guardian. October 15, 2012
Under the jagged Andean peaks of south-western Colombia, a group of villagers gathered on a recent cloudy morning at the rural school, where they mixed cement to rebuild a classroom destroyed in March by a mortar shell.
The mortar had been fired by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), aimed at an army outpost on the next hill. But, like many of the homemade explosives used by the rebels, it missed its mark.
This time, the villagers were lucky; there were no casualties. But after living under the shadow of leftist guerrilla groups for nearly 50 years, townspeople know that death can come from either side and at any time. "If you're home, you hide under the bed," says José Aurelio Medina, a community leader in Calandaima. "If you're in the fields, you take cover anywhere. You wait for the fighting to stop."
There is a chance now that the fighting could stop permanently, across Colombia. Peace talks between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos begin this week in Oslo, Norway, and will then continue in Havana, Cuba, in what analysts say is the most serious effort yet to end one of the world's longest-running civil wars.
Though the Farc is militarily weakened and government forces have the upper hand, each seems to have reached the conclusion that a battlefield victory is impossible.
Unlike previous peace talks, in which the two sides tried to address all that is wrong in Colombia, the talks are focused simply on ending the conflict. The agenda includes just five items: rural development, political participation, the end of armed conflict, drug trafficking, and the rights of the victims of the conflict.
"The fact that not all the problems of Colombia are being addressed at the table is positive," says Kristian Herbolzheimer, a conflict resolution expert with Conciliation Resources, a UK-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). If successful, the talks will end in the demobilisation of the Farc's 9,000 or so fighters and a period of peace-building will begin.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group, another NGO, said talks would "ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict".
Monica Villota, the sociologist who runs Esfera Azul, an NGO dedicated to community organising in Cauca, lives in that backdrop, agrees: "It's a complex conflict and the solution to the conflict will also need to be complex."
The conflict plays out not just in the exchange of gunfire but in the day-to-day lives of the population. In areas such as Cauca, where the Farc are strong, peasants either submit to the local commander's often arbitrary rule, offering up pigs, a day's labour or even their sons and daughters when required, or they leave the area.
Victor Salas, a municipal official in the town of Corinto who deals with complaints about rights abuses, says he very rarely gets a complaint about rebel abuses even though the Farc dominate the mountains above the town and often attack mount attacks in its streets. "Around here, you have to know how to live," he says. "If you want to stay, you keep your head down."
Like the other illegal factions in the war, the Farc are largely fuelled by drug money, Colombia being still the world's largest source of cocaine. But the war is rooted in centuries-old struggles for control over land and rich mineral resources, and in the fact that Colombia has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
Redistribution has been left off the current agenda, as has the thorny issue of whether rebels should be made to pay for abuses they have committed: a string of crimes against humanity including rape, kidnapping, massacres and forced displacement.
According to one recent survey, 77% of Colombians support the peace process, but 78% want to see the Farc made to pay for their crimes. That sends a complicated message to negotiators in Norway and Cuba.
The agenda mentions the victims of the conflict and the need for truth, but pointedly leaves unaddressed the issue of how justice will be delivered. A recent constitutional amendment establishes a system of transitional justice, which Colombia's attorney general has called a "conditional amnesty, even for serious violation of human rights".
Kidnapping has also been a hallmark of the Farc but, amid preliminary talks with the government last year, the group publicly renounced the practice and declared it had no more hostages.
On Sunday, however, hundreds of relatives of Farc kidnap victims gathered in Bogotá demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Sigifredo López, a politician who was held for seven years as a Farc hostage until 2009, said the victims had a right to be heard. "None of the government negotiators at the table has suffered from the war, and they are going to end up handing out pardons in our name," he said.
Guerrilla abuses helped fuel the rise of rightwing paramilitary groups seeking to counter the rebels. Civilians have been caught in the middle: tens of thousands have been killed or have disappeared in the past 25 years, and nearly 4 million people have been forced to flee from their homes. About 6m hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Sri Lanka, were stolen by powerful landlords or rebel chiefs, or simply abandoned amid the violence.
Since a peak in the late 1990s, when they fielded 20,000 fighters, the Farc's strength has waned after some of its leaders were killed or captured in a government military onslaught, which frightened hundreds of low- and mid-level fighters into deserting.
The group is now led by a less hawkish, more pragmatic generation of commanders; Colombia's government, under Santos, is also more moderate than that of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who vowed but failed to crush the rebels militarily.
In the mountains of Cauca, the Farc's Sixth Front and Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column still show their strength. Under the command of Sargento Pascuas, one of the last remaining founders of the Farc, the rebels rule the daily lives of peasants at gunpoint, oversee the planting of coca bushes, the raw material of cocaine, and carry out deadly attacks that are aimed at the military and police but which often claim civilian victims.
And the fighting won't stop during the negotiations. The government has insisted military operations against the Farc will carry on, and the Farc continues to attack while talking about peace.
As much as he would like to see the Farc lay down their weapons, Medina is sceptical about the prospects for peace. "The Farc may negotiate peace," he warns, "but if no one pays attention to the peasants, indigenous groups [and] social movements, other groups will come and take their place."
Armed groups in Colombia
The Farc make up just one – albeit the most powerful – of many armed groups that contribute to the violence in Colombia. If a deal is reached for the Farc members to demobilise, the country will still have to deal with other rebel, paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups, which thrive in a country where democratic institutions are weak.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia's second-largest leftist insurgency. The Cuban-inspired ELN is believed to have 1,000 to 1,500 fighters. Its leaders have made public overtures to the government about beginning a parallel peace process to the Farc negotiations, or joining in. It is unclear how or when the group may be included in the talks. A failure to negotiate simultaneously with the ELN would leave an opening for some Farc fighters who decide not to lay down their weapons to continue fighting the government.
The Anti-Restitution Army is a shadowy, paramilitary-style group that opposes the government's programme to return stolen land to displaced peasants. It targets leaders of victims' groups seeking restitution. At least 45 members of displaced communities seeking land have been murdered in Colombia since 2002.
Rastrojos, Urabeños, Paisas: labelled by the government as emerging criminal bands, or bacrim, these groups are successors of demobilised paramilitary groups of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which struck a deal to disarm with the Uribe government. While they are less ideologically driven than their predecessors, being dedicated mostly to drug trafficking, these neo-paramilitary groups continue to commit widespread abuses against civilians.
Colombia rebels' post-conflict role a key issue in peace talks
Chris Kraul. Los Angeles Times. October 15, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia — Among the many thorny issues to be hammered out in peace talks beginning Wednesday in Oslo between Colombia's government and the country's largest rebel group is what sort of post-conflict political role will be afforded to the insurgents.
Guaranteeing a political voice for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is one of the five main issues in the talks, which are to begin in the Norwegian capital and then move to Havana. The other points to be negotiated are agrarian reform, victims' rights, an end to the rebels' alleged drug trafficking and logistics for stopping the conflict.
No cease-fire has been declared and hostilities are likely to continue during the talks, at least initially. To avoid a repeat of the three-year Caguan peace discussions that collapsed in 2002, President Juan Manuel Santos has promised that these talks will last "months, not years."
The announcement last month that peace negotiations would begin after a 10-year lapse has sparked optimism that an end to the nearly 50-year conflict is possible. Colombians see the talks as a watershed process that could lead to a new era of peace and prosperity or, if unsuccessful, even more intense warfare.
Neither side has illusions that resolving the five main issues will be easy. Guaranteeing the FARC's future political participation will rank among the most difficult. The government would have to grant legitimacy to a leftist rebel group that it has described for years as terrorists, bandits and the nation's most powerful drug-trafficking cartel.
FARC's goal is to transition to an ostensibly peaceful political entity while avoiding the systematic annihilation experienced by a previous rebel-sanctioned party called the Patriotic Union. At least 1,163 members of the Patriotic Union died between the mid-1980s and early 1990s at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, sometimes with the help of the Colombian armed forces, according to Steven Dudley, author of a book on the slayings.
Dudley, a researcher with the think tank InSight Crime, voiced optimism that Colombia could avoid a new wave of killings if a peace accord is signed.
"Colombia is not what it was in the past," he said. "There is a stronger justice system, more accountability in the military and police, and a political and economic class that understands the long-term costs of fratricidal politics."
A member of the government negotiating team who spoke on condition of anonymity said he expects the fledgling agrarian reform movement Marcha Patriotica to be the vehicle with which the rebels enter political debate. "It's an open secret," the negotiator said.
The group has launched impressive demonstrations in Bogota and other cities, demanding that land be returned to those displaced by decades of war.
"The Marcha Patriotica has its roots in areas that have been deeply affected by the conflict, so eventually it's reasonable to think that they could play a role in attracting certain sectors," including rebels and their supporters, said Congressman Ivan Cepeda.
Cepeda's father, Manuel, was a Patriotic Union senator slain in 1994 by suspected paramilitary gunmen. Cepeda said in an interview he is unsure that the rebels will choose the Marcha Patriotica as their vehicle, possibly "looking for their own means of expression."
One of the leaders of Marcha Patriotica is former leftist Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who is believed to have close ties with the FARC and in recent years has helped negotiate the release of several hostages the rebels were holding. She declined to be interviewed.
Cordoba was stripped of her Senate seat in 2010 because of her alleged association with the FARC, which is still classified by the government as a terrorist organization.
Members of the FARC team were able to travel to Norway only because the Colombian government agreed to lift an arrest demand filed with Interpol that could have caused their detention at the airport.
In interviews this month, Marcha Patriotica officials denied that rebels are part of their leadership while acknowledging that many of the movement's members come from isolated rural areas long under FARC control.
"We are a convergence of 2,000 groups, a grass-roots movement of small farmers, environmental activists, the displaced and other victims of the armed conflict," said Nidia Quintero, a labor organizer who is also a Marcha Patriotica leader. "We will be making proposals for reform that so far the government has paid no attention to."
Kraul is a special correspondent.
News Corp. Nominates Alvaro Uribe, Colombia President Involved In Wiretapping Scandal, To Board
Roque Planas. Huffington Post. October 15, 2012
News Corp. plans to welcome the newest member to its board of directors on Tuesday: the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe.
For Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, still reeling from a phone hacking scandal, Uribe is an odd choice, many journalists and press advocates say. Under Uribe's command, Colombia's intelligence service became mired in an illegal wiretapping scandal. Several ex-intelligence agents and former aides to Uribe now face criminal charges or investigations from the public prosecutor’s office, which accuses them of illegally spying on Supreme Court justices, journalists and human rights activists. Uribe, a controversial conservative leader, himself lashed out at journalists he perceived as critical during his two-term presidency from 2002 to 2010.
“It’s ironic that someone who has such an adversarial relationship with the press would be elected to the board of a media company,” Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Huffington Post. “His accusations endangered the lives of local reporters.”
News Corp. declined to comment on Uribe's appointment or his relationship with the press. The company did share a written statement submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission in September, describing Uribe as a potential addition to the board with meaningful international political experience. News Corp. contacted a spokesperson for Uribe on behalf of The Huffington Post, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Uribe, a highly popular political figure, is credited with restoring security to Colombia by dealing a near-fatal blow to the FARC, Latin America’s longest-lasting insurgent group. Formed in 1964, the Marxist rebels aimed to overthrow the Colombian government. The tactics they adopted, such as kidnapping hostages for years at a time and using the drug trade to finance operations, have blackened the group's name. The United States classifies the FARC as a terrorist organization.
Uribe left office in 2010 with an approval rating of 80 percent, according to Gallup.
But Uribe also polarized the country. Approaching his goal of defeating the FARC with zeal that for some bordered on the messianic, Uribe publicly painted certain journalists, social activists and human rights defenders as collaborators with leftwing terrorism when they criticized his policies.
The environment Uribe created made covering the Colombian government's half-century-old conflict even more dangerous, says reporter Hollman Morris, an investigative journalist and 2011 Harvard Nieman Fellow. Morris and his brother Juan Pablo Morris took cameras into the Colombian countryside during the years under Uribe to document atrocities.
That work involved interviewing members of the FARC -- something that infuriated Uribe. In 2009, Uribe publicly accused Morris of using journalism to be a “permissive accomplice of terrorism." Morris had interviewed four hostages in FARC captivity.
Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists hammered Uribe in a statement, saying the baseless accusations endangered Morris’ life by opening him up to retaliatory violence.
“Every report we did, we knew we were going to be threatened,” Morris told The Huffington Post. “Uribe made us into enemies of the country.”
The former president repeatedly lobbed similar accusations at other journalists, activists and union leaders, according to Human Rights Watch. He has continued the pattern since leaving office.
In 2010, senior vice president and executive news director for Univision Daniel Coronell, then a columnist for Semana, a Colombian news magazine, sued Uribe for slander after being accused of ties to organized crime in a series of tweets. Coronell had penned a column implicating Uribe’s sons in shady business dealings (they denied wrongdoing).
In August, Uribe accused Washington Post correspondent Juan Forero of being a “great sympathizer of the FARC” who had “defamed” his administration with a report on the illegal actions of the Colombia’s intelligence service, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS).
The Committee to Project Journalists’ Lauria calls the intelligence service’s abuses one of the “worst threats to journalism” during the Uribe administration. The DAS was like the CIA, FBI and U.S. Secret Service rolled into one, answering directly to the president.
Semana reported in 2009 that the DAS had illegally wiretapped and spied upon Colombian Supreme Court justices, journalists and other government critics. Panicked DAS agents fearing for their jobs sold off classified material to guerrillas, drug traffickers and foreign governments when the incoming administration of President Juan Manuel Santos announced two years later that it would close the agency down, Semana reported.
But DAS didn’t just illegally tap journalists’ phones -- it also threatened them with death, according to Semana.
Semana obtained a DAS manual from the public prosecutor's office in 2009 reportedly outlining how to make a threatening phone call to Claudia Duque, an independent journalist who reported that the DAS had interfered with an investigation into the murder of Jaime Garzón -- a popular political humorist and television journalist comparable to Jon Stewart. Semana reported that Duque’s name, phone number and email appear on the top of the manual, which instructs the agent making the call not to stutter and to keep it under 49 seconds.
Duque received the call on Nov. 17, 2004, according to Semana.
“We tried to tell you in every way we could. Now not even armored cars or lousy police reports will help you. We have no choice but to go after what you most love," the DAS agent said, going on to say he would rape Duque’s 10-year-old girl, according to Semana. “Your daughter is going to suffer. We’re going to burn her alive. We’re going to scatter her fingers around the house.”
Uribe's relationship with the press makes him a potentially eyebrow-raising addition to the News Corp. board. The company’s reputation was gravely damaged last year when it was reported that its London tabloid News of the World had culled its scoops for years by illegally hacking the voicemails of celebrities, an underage murder victim and the relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The revelation led to 50 arrests, torpedoed News Corp.’s $12 billion bid to take over British Sky Broadcasting and prompted criminal charges against eight of the defunct paper’s editors and journalists.
“It’s a funny thing for two people with illegal wiretaps in their recent past to be getting together,” Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said in a telephone interview, referring to Uribe and Murdoch, News Corp.'s CEO. The Washington Office on Latin America is an advocacy organization that promotes human rights.
News Corp.'s board is asking its shareholders to elect Uribe to the board of directors at the group's annual meeting in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The move could again cast light on a board that some News Corp. shareholders wanted to sue, alleging it had failed to provide the oversight needed to stop the U.K. phone hacking scandal from occurring.
A spokesman for News Corp. declined to comment on Uribe’s nomination to the board, but forwarded a proxy statement the company shared with investors and the SEC on Sept. 4, which says:
Mr. Uribe brings to the Board strong leadership skills gained from his distinguished political career and service as President of Colombia. He offers the Board a valuable international perspective on political and governmental matters.
Uribe’s defenders point out that the Colombian courts haven’t charged him with wrongdoing in the DAS scandal, and no evidence demonstrates that Uribe gave direct orders to follow journalists, tap their telephones or threaten them with death.
“No smoking gun has emerged,” said Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. The DAS’s flagrant illegality may owe to a few overzealous leaders who overstepped their bounds in pursuit of the FARC, he added.
But for political scientist Claudia Lopez, whose research helped uncover links between Colombian Congress members and rightwing paramilitary groups, there’s no need for direct evidence.
“To me it seems like inverted logic,” Lopez told The Huffington Post. “The DAS is an institution that answers directly to the presidency. It should be assumed that Uribe was giving the orders.”
Lopez viewed Uribe’s nomination to the board of News Corp. as ironic, but drew a distinction between the media company and the DAS.
“News Corp., as far as I know, never threatened anyone with death,” Lopez said. “Institutions that answered directly to Alvaro Uribe did.”
Western Andean Region [contents]
Microfinance: Bolivia pioneer starts to hit the mainstream
Andres Schipani. Financial Times. October 15, 2012
Inside her creaky self-styled kiosk at a non-descript corner of Bolivia’s capital, María is multitasking.
With one hand she is selling bottled juices, empanadas, and mobile phone top-up cards, while with the other she is signing a form to renew her microloan with local BancoSol, which requires her to pay Bs181 ($26) a month for the next year and a half.
Behind the quintessential Andean outfit of bowler hat, multi-layered skirt and shawl lies a true businesswoman, she says, thanks to microfinance.
Bolivia has been a pioneer in microcredit. With one of the highest penetration rates in the world, earlier this month it was listed as the runner-up top performer worldwide, just behind Peru, in the Global Microscope on the Microfinance Business Environment sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank.
The effect had satisfactorily, spilled over.
Elisabeth Rhyne, a microfinance guru, says: “The Bolivian model led to the transformation of dozens of microfinance institutions around the world, launching the expansion of microfinance from a few tiny, donor-driven programmes to a global industry that today brings access to financial services to 200m people.”
Back in the mid-1980s, Acción Internacional – today a leading non-profit organisation that ventured into microfinance in the early 1970s – backed the founding of BancoSol in Bolivia, first as a charity.
Those were harsh times of rampant hyperinflation, debt crises, and massive closure of pits in a country that was, inherently, a mining one. Thousands of jobs were lost and poor migrants from the mines and countryside started the long march to the outskirts of La Paz, settling in El Alto.
Today, it is a chaotic city of rutted streets and 1m inhabitants that has been the fastest growing in South America, having grown tenfold in less than 30 years. That is where, María lives.
In 1992 BancoSol established itself as a commercial bank dedicated solely to microfinance, with $3m of start-up capital from shareholders, including Bolivian banks, future presidents, private investors and foundations. Kurt Koenigsfest, BancoSol’s CEO, says: “This made us the first chartered microfinance bank in the world.”
It has been one of the most successful in Latin America with very few non-performing loans. “Since we started, we have disbursed over $2.5bn in microloans,” says Mr Koenigsfest. “The recipe is simple: people trust us, because they know we trust them.”
The strength of Andean community ties has been critical to the success of small loans to small and very small businesses, products that have been quite popular at high altitudes, thanks to a method in which the group’s members cross-guarantee each other’s loans as collateral.
Growth was not without pain, though. After a boom of unsecured credits, in 2000, impoverished, over-indebted, Bolivians ransacked the branches of microlending institutions, taking hostages and carrying dynamite belts.
But things have changed radically and, since then, the strategy has been to bet on microenterprises and, hence, microcredit, says Luis Arce, the finance minister.
Today, between portfolio and savings, BancoSol has more than 600,000 clients in a country of 10m people, having grown 20 per cent last year. The average group loan in the mid-1990s was $500. These days, the average loan is $3,000 at 18 per cent interest, one of the region’s lowest rates.
“If there was something valuable left behind by the nefarious neo-liberal period of the 1990s it was the capacity of microborrowers to finally understand microlenders,” says Mr Arce.
Previously the preserve of non-government organisations and development banks, microlending seems to be hitting the financial mainstream.
“Now, all of Bolivia’s commercial banks have a division focused on medium, small and very small enterprises, following the original model crafted by BancoSol and the Bank of Productive Development,” the finance minister says.
Commercial banks in Bolivia account for 59 per cent of all financial system lending, with a further 31 per cent accounted for by microfinance banks and institutions that, last year, offered almost $2.4bn in loans – about 10 per cent of the poor country’s GDP.
It is largely thanks to the development of microfinance that Bolivia’s financial system has undergone a sustained period of rapid growth, with deposits and lending more than doubling between 2007 and 2011.
According to Bolivia’s financial supervisory agency, the financial system’s loan portfolio – including microfinance– grew by 9 per cent, to $9.3bn, in the first half of 2012.
Over the years, the steady growth of microfinance institutions – such as Bolivia’s BancoSol – and, across the Titicaca Lake, Peru’s Banco del Trabajo has created particularly fertile ground.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Mexico’s Labor Law Reform Sparks Massive Protests
David Bacon. In These Times. October 16, 2012
The basic thrust of the reforma laboral is greater flexibility for employers. It would replace pay per day with pay by the hour. Employers would gain the legal right to hire workers indirectly through labor contractors.
MEXICO CITY—As the Mexican Senate tried to convene last week, unionists, youth protesters from the #YoSoy132 movement and social activists of every stripe blocked the chamber's doors, trying to prevent legislators from meeting to consider the reforma laboral. On October 2, tens of thousands marched from the Tlatelolco (Plaza of Three Cultures), where hundreds of students were shot down by Mexican Army troops on the same date in 1968, to the Zocalo at the city center. Reverberating chants signaled an equally massive rejection of this deeply unpopular proposal.
The Mexican Senate has begun its 30-day consideration of a proposed reform of the country's labor laws. Its provisions will have a profound effect on Mexico's workers, changing the way they are hired, their rights at work, and their wages. Benedicto Martinez Orozco, co-president of one of the country's most democratic unions, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), calls it “a monstrous law.”
The basic thrust of the reforma laboral is greater flexibility for employers. It would replace pay per day with pay by the hour. At Mexico's current minimum wage of about 60 pesos per day, this would produce an hourly wage of 7.5 pesos, less than 60 cents. Employers would gain the legal right to hire workers indirectly through labor contractors. If workers are fired for protesting or organizing against the new regime, or for any other illegitimate reason, employers' liability for back pay would end after a year.
In the ears of U.S. workers, the wages may sound low, but the kind of flexibility the reform envisions has been the norm in workplaces north of the border for decades. Not so in Mexico, however. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, and then in the radical upsurge that followed in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Mexican workers won a broad set of rights and protections. On paper, the rights of Mexican workers are far more extensive than those of their U.S. counterparts.
In the Federal Labor Law, which the reform would amend, the workday was officially set at 8 hours, and workers could only be hired by the day, not by the hour. Minimum wages were set as well. Employers had to give workers permanent employment status quickly, and hiring through contractors was prohibited. If workers were fired unjustly, they could collect back pay for the time they were out of work. If they were laid off, their employer had to pay severance based on their length of service. Companies had to declare their profits, and share them according to a set schedule.
Employers have never liked these laws, but the political offensive to change them grew much stronger as Mexico opened its economy to foreign investors. Over time those rights were eroded in fact, if not yet in law. As the maquiladora factories on the U.S./Mexico border grew to employ 2 million workers (before the current recession), the actual conditions of employment changed, despite what the law said. Workdays extended well past eight hours. Workers were routinely cheated out of profit sharing. When they tried to organize independent unions, their legal right to bargain and strike was violated with impunity by employers, the government and unions connected to Mexico's old ruling party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).
Using labor contractors was illegal in theory, but it became the employers' weapon of choice in the fierce labor battles of the past decade. The five-year strike by copper miners in Cananea, just south of the Arizona border, was declared illegal a year ago. Then Grupo, Mexico, the huge corporation that owns mines on both sides of the border, brought in strikebreakers using contractors.
Humberto Montes de Oca, international secretary of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), notes bitterly that Cananea was the birthplace in Mexico of the fight for the eight-hour day, in the famous uprising of 1906 that heralded the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. “Now if you go to Cananea,” he says, “you find subcontracted workers in the mine putting in 12-hour days with no overtime pay. In the heart of the town where the eight-hour-day struggle started, workers now have a 12-hour day.”
Montes de Oca's own union suffered a similar fate. In 2009 Mexican President Felipe Calderón dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company of central Mexico and declared that the union no longer existed. The SME, one of the country's oldest and most democratic unions, has been fighting ever since for the right of workers to return to their jobs, and to regain its legal status.
“Our members were also replaced by subcontracted workers with no union,” Montes de Oca says. “These new replacements had no training or experience, and as a result, there were countless accidents. Some of these workers died. This is the employment model promoted by the labor law reform. What happened to us anticipated the changes the reform will bring everywhere.”
Martinez adds, “For workers who don't accept this, and are fired when they try to protest or organize, the employer isn't liable for more than a year of back pay. No one will bring a case against his or her boss because the employer will have such a strong motivation to delay endlessly. Given the Mexican legal system, that will be very easy.”
When the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, proposals for changing labor law were made by the incoming National Action Party. Some, promoted by the World Bank, were so extreme in restricting the rights of workers and unions that even more liberal-minded employers objected. Independent and progressive unions mobilized opposition, defeated them, and then proposed their own alternatives.
One centered on guaranteeing the right of workers to elect union officials by secret ballot. PRI-affiliated unions have a long history of violence and corruption in the election of their leaders. Another would have ended “protection contracts,” the secret agreements signed by corrupt unions to protect employers when workers organize independently. Those proposals had support from Mexico's left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), but not from the PRI.
In last July's national election, however, the PRI regained the presidency. Then in September a reforma laboral proposal passed through the Chamber of Deputies at breakneck speed, pushed by an alliance between the PAN and the PRI. The Senate, which must ratify it, has yet to take a vote. But it’s likely that the PAN/PRI alliance will pass it there too. Calderón would presumably sign it before he leaves office.
Using the same arguments heard from employers and Republicans in the U.S. presidential campaign, reform supporters argue that removing restrictions on employers will encourage them to hire more workers, producing more jobs. Rosalinda Vélez Juárez, Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare, asserted that the reforms constituted “a watershed” that would generate an additional 400,000 jobs per year. “Even the opposition will eventually see the benefit,” she declared.
Critics point out, however, that 900,000 young people enter the Mexican job market every year. Since the Calderón administration took office in 2006, however, only 1.54 million people have gained formal employment, according to the Social Security Institute—about 250,000 per year, or less than a third of those needing work. That is just one element of the economic pressure producing waves of migration to the United States. Evaluating the reforma laboral, the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found that it would not create any new jobs, but merely encourage contractors to hire workers already in the informal sector. “We may see an increase in jobs, but they will be very precarious ones at very low pay,” Montes de Oca argues.
What the reform will also do, however, according to unions and other critics, is increase the productivity of the workforce by making workers more vulnerable to pressure by employers. A rise in productivity actually diminishes the need for new workers.
“The ultimate effect will be to impoverish workers even further,” says Martinez. “On the one hand, it makes it much easier to fire workers. On the other, the ability to subcontract workers paid by the hour gives employers a reason to fire permanent employees. This opens the doors of paradise for them.” Unions will certainly find it more difficult to organize workers who increasingly need better wages and conditions, but are even more frightened of losing the precarious jobs they have.
In response to the unions' earlier proposals, one provision added to the reform as it was debated would have given workers the right to elect the officers of their unions in direct, secret-ballot elections. That provision, however, was removed by those deputies who are also leaders of unions affiliated to the PRI or to minor parties backing the reform. One deputy, Lucila Garfias Gutiérrez, speaking for the conservative leadership of the Mexican Teachers Union, asserted, “We say yes to union democracy, but also to respecting the principle of autonomy … only the workers should have the right to decide how to organize [the internal election process in their own unions.]”
She was challenged, however, by the progressive Coordinadora movement in her own union. Francisco Bravo Herrerra, leader of Mexico City's Seccion Local 9, told the Mexican daily La Jornada that support for the reform was a criminal act—“the biggest blow against workers of the past hundred years.”
Once the provision was removed, the PRI deputies who are union leaders voted for the reforma laboral. “The supposed worker representatives in the Chamber of Deputies who approved this law betrayed their principles and their own members, and the whole Mexican people,” Martinez fumed. “They handed workers over to the bosses on a silver platter.”
Both Martinez and Montes de Oca predict that the fight against the reform won't end even if the Senate approves it. In just one indication of the depth of that resistance, workers from the huge Nissan auto plant in Morelos stopped work and blocked the main highway from Mexico City to the coast, to demand rejection of the reforma laboral. Orozco and others believe that the reform is unconstitutional, and plan to challenge it legally.
On October 11 a huge rally of unions outside the Senate brought together both independent unions like the FAT and the SME, and even sections of the PRI unions, to protest the reforms. Fissures are appearing inside the PRI itself, and one PRI senator, Armando Neyra Chavez, who also heads the old-guard union, the Confederation of Mexican Workers in Mexico state, called on the newly elected PRI administration to restore the jobs and legal status of the fired electrical workers, instead of passing the reform bill.
The cost of the reforma laboral will be felt, however, not just in Mexico, but also in the United States. The purpose of increased flexibility is to encourage investment, including from U.S. corporations like Ford, Walmart, Kimberly Clark and others, who already play a central role in the Mexican economy. More U.S. investment also means, though, that more jobs move south. The movement of production facilitated by the North American Free Trade Agreement has already cost at least 800,000 U.S. jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Further job outsourcing to Mexico, spurred by lowered wages, subcontracted work and diminished rights for workers, will create more unemployment and displacement of workers north of the border. But the cost of low wages and increasingly precarious work is displacement in Mexico too. Workers who can't live on 7.5 pesos an hour, or find permanent work in a new world of labor contractors, will have little alternative to migration across that border.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.
Mexico police arrest student protesters in campus raids
BBC. October 16, 2012
Police in Mexico have raided three teachers' colleges in the western state of Michoacan after more than a week of protests against curriculum changes.
Officers arrested at least 120 people as they stormed the schools, where students were holding buses and delivery trucks that they had seized.
Ten officers were injured, three of them seriously, in clashes with demonstrators, state officials said.
Several vehicles including patrol cars were set on fire in Monday's violence.
The standoff at the colleges began earlier this month, when students took control of the campuses in protest at plans to require them to take courses in English and computer science.
They say basic skills are more of a priority in the rural areas they will be working in.
Police put out a fire after a clash with students involved in campus takeovers in Tiripetío, Michoacan state, Mexico. Protesters set fire to vehicles as they battled police officers trying to break up their demonstrations
The protesters have seized dozens of passing vehicles and held many of the drivers.
The government says the hijackings lose the country huge sums of money.
Monday's early morning raids came a day before a visit by Mexico's outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, to towns in Michoacan - including Cheran, the site of one of the schools involved in the protest.
Mexican police reportedly received back-up from US-supplied Black Hawk helicopters, fire engines and ambulances.
State interior minister Jesus Reyna Garcia said 120 students were taken into custody - but unofficial accounts put the figure at more than 300.
Michoacan state spokesperson Elina Ambriz said one campus - in the city of Arteaga - had been recovered without resistance.
The raids were the latest in a round of crackdowns against college occupations.
Last month, students who had been rejected from the University of Michoacan took over the campus, demanding admission.
And a long-running dispute about low grades at Mexico City's Autonomous University has seen tensions grow between protesters and other students locked out of classrooms.
Mexico takes textile dispute with China to the WTO
AFP. October 15, 2012
GENEVA — Mexico has called for discussions at the World Trade Organisation on Chinese support for its textile companies, a statement said on Monday.
Mexico said it sought the talks "because China appears to maintain a wide variety of measures that support producers and exporters of apparel and textile products, both directly and indirectly."
The measures mentioned by Mexico included alleged subsidies like tax exemptions or reductions, and import duty refunds that would be inconsistent with China's commitments to the WTO, the statement said.
Also on the long list of potential issues were "extended loan repayment periods, and debt forgiveness provided by state-owned banks" and "cash payments from Chinese government agencies at all levels to enterprises active in designated industries."
Requests for consultations represent the initial stage of formal WTO dispute procedures.
If a solution is not found within 60 days, the country that initiates the action can ask that the issue be taken up by an internal WTO body for further consideration.
Guatemala Mining Plan Presented to Congress, Prensa Libre Says
Adam Williams. Bloomberg. October 15, 2012
A proposal to allow state participation in Guatemala’s mining sector and alter 35 articles of existing legislation was presented to Congress on Oct. 12, La Prensa Libre said.
The proposed changes would create a state-controlled mining fund that distributes 55 percent of the royalties earned from mineral extraction to municipalities at or near the mining sites, the Guatemala City-based newspaper reported. An additional 40 percent of the royalties would be placed into a mining fund while 5 percent would be distributed to the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources ministries, Prensa Libre said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Williams in San Jose, Costa Rica at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Faries at email@example.com
How Low Can Honduras Go?
Dana Frank. The Nation. October 12, 2012
Two recent atrocities against leading voices of the opposition signal an escalation of the government’s lethal crackdown. One occurred on Saturday night, September 22, as Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer for the land-rights group MARCA (Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador de Campesinos del Aguán) stepped outside of a church in the capital, Tegucigalpa, where he'd just finished officiating at a wedding, to answer an urgent phone call from a stranger. Two shots hit him in the head, two in the torso, and one in the leg, and he died soon after in the hospital. Two days later, in Choluteca, unknown assailants shot eleven bullets into Eduardo Manuel Díaz Mazariegos, a prosecutor in the government's human rights division, killing him immediately.
On June 29 Trejo had won an unprecedented legal case against Miguel Facussé Barjum, the biofuels magnate and powerful political figure whose security guards have been accused of killing dozens of campesinos (small farmers) struggling for land rights in the Aguán Valley. Trejo's case restored to the campesinos land that Facussé had claimed. In the months afterward Trejo received multiple death threats; campesinos on the land reported that they were shot at, tortured, and menaced by Facussé's guards. In late August Trejo was illegally detained by Honduran authorities along with over two dozen campesinos and their allies after they tried to pursue legal redress at the Supreme Court. The other dead man, Díaz Mazariegos, was one of seven famous government prosecutors who staged a 38-day hunger strike in 2008 in front of the Honduran Congress in protest against the corruption of the prosecutors' office by politicians and elites.
Trejo and Díaz are the most prominent political assassinations of the opposition since Alfredo Landaverde, the former police commissioner who denounced police corruption, was gunned down on December 7, 2011. But they are just two among hundreds of Hondurans killed for speaking up since the June 28, 2009 military coup that deposed democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Hundreds among the living have received threatening messages or are followed home by strangers in dark cars, and count their futures in days, not years.
The Obama Administration, in the face of growing and serious pressure from Congress and those concerned with human rights, is just beginning to acknowledge that Honduras might have serious problems. In early August, the U.S. announced that it had suspended funds to Honduras' new National Chief of Police Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla and anyone under his jurisdiction, until allegations that he was a death squad leader in the late 1990s and early 2000s are investigated. After the Honduran Air Force shot down two drug planes in July in violation of worldwide protocols, the U.S. suspended radar cooperation tracking drug flights and ensured that the head of the Honduran Air Force was fired.
When Trejo was killed, the State Department issued a statement saying it was "saddened and outraged" and called for investigation. That's new.
Even so, where it really counts, the State Department is clinging to its relationship with the corrupt post-coup regime of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa. U.S. military and police funding, with the exception of the tiny portion diverted from Bonilla, continues to flow at higher levels annually since 2010, much of it under the rubric of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Obama's proposed budget for 2013 doubles a key part of U.S. policy and military funding to Honduras. Contractors are busily expending $24 million in US funds to construct newly permanent barracks for U.S. troops at Soto Cano Air Force base.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meanwhile, still maintains an office in Honduras, despite the May 11 incident in the Moskitia in which DEA agents allegedly participated in the killings of four civilians. The incident remains to be investigated by the U.S. (even though a report by Rights Action and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, along with other evidence, has revealed serious contradictions between the State Department's version of the incident and the testimony of survivors).
On September 13, Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, visited Honduras and signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries that speaks to "pressing threats to citizen security" in Honduras. It reaffirms the "close existing security and prevention relationship" between the U.S. and the Lobo administration. We are treated once again to photographs of U.S. officials smiling and shaking hands with President Lobo.
Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the leading Honduran human rights group, COFADEH (Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras), was quick to point out the pact's contradictions: "You don't fight impunity with lies, nor with more militarization or involvement in a supposed solution with those who promote and are complicit in impunity."
Under Secretary Otero, in a speech during her visit, did speak of attacks on "vulnerable groups" including journalists, LGBT people, human rights defenders and trade unionists. But the State Department still utters nary a peep about the ongoing repression of the post-coup opposition as such—including most of the prominent cases of murdered LGBT individuals and journalists, who were part of the resistance. The pact itself barely mentions human rights, choosing instead to emphasize the drug war first and foremost, along with investigative capacity, youth programs, and financial crimes--once again asserting that the U.S. will not back down from its militarized approach to the drug question.
The United Nations, by sharp contrast, on September 26 in its own response to Trejo's assassination, explicitly condemned the larger pattern of attacks on human rights defenders. "When the perpetrators know they are very likely to get off scot-free, there is nothing to deter them from killing off more of country's finest human rights defenders," declared Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on September 26. The State Department regularly denounces such repression by regimes it doesn't support all over the world, such as Burma, Iran, and North Korea. Why is it so obviously, and shamefully, silent about Honduras?
The Obama administration may soon be called to account for its ongoing support for the Honduran coup regime. On October 2, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticizing the administration for its policy in Honduras, including a weak commitment to human rights and silence about the coup and its role in the repression, and calling for the investigation of Miguel Facussé.
The next day, the Honduran civil society Truth Commission issued its long-anticipated report documenting human rights violations from the coup onwards. It calls for the removal of coup perpetrators from office, their prosecution, closure of all the U.S. bases, and an end to U.S. intervention in Honduran affairs.
The day that Antonio Trejo, the campesinos' lawyer, was killed, he had gone on national television to denounce the so-called "Model Cities" project, which establishes special zones in which the entire Honduran legal structure and constitution do not apply and where transnational corporations are free to invent their own societies from scratch. The Honduran government announced three actual sites in in mid-September--one of which sits on traditional Afro-Indigenous land--and at least one contract has been awarded for these ultra-neoliberal fantasylands, which have been profiled sympathetically in The Economist, The New York Times, and the business press worldwide. As some of the most powerful economic forces in the world descend on Honduras, the price of dissent for the Honduran people continues to rise.
Cuba scraps exit permits for citizens to travel
Jean-Herve Deiller. AFP. October 15, 2012
HAVANA — Cubans will no longer require exit permits for foreign travel from January 14, the government said Tuesday, the latest in a trickle of reforms enacted on the communist-ruled island.
The government has also extended the period citizens are allowed to remain abroad from 11 to 24 months, with the new law set to enter into force 90 days from now, the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Cuba has imposed stringent travel restrictions for a half-century but has failed to prevent thousands of its citizens from emigrating illegally each year, sometimes in dangerous sea voyages using rickety boats.
Havana had said the restrictions were necessary to prevent "brain drain," the loss of doctors, engineers and other trained professionals to the United States and other countries offering higher salaries.
The foreign ministry said the latest changes "take into account the right of the revolutionary state to defend itself against interference and subversion by the US government and its allies."
"For this reason, measures will be maintained which are aimed at preserving the human capital created by the revolution from the plunder of talent by the more powerful (countries)," it said, hinting at lingering restrictions.
Since 1966, Washington has granted Cubans automatic residence if they can reach US shores.
To travel abroad legally, Cubans have had to provide letters of invitation and get permits valid for 30 days. The permits can be extended 10 times, after which the traveller must return to Cuba or lose the right to reside there.
The complicated bureaucratic process for getting the required visas and permits includes fees that add up to around $500, making travel abroad unaffordable for many Cubans, whose average monthly salary is less than $20.
Nevertheless, more than 30,000 Cubans immigrate legally each year.
Cuban President Raul Castro announced last year that the government was planning immigration reforms that would be introduced gradually.
The president has pressed for economic reforms over the past two years aimed at modernizing Cuba's state-dominated economy while maintaining one-party rule.
Raul Castro assumed power in 2006 when his aging brother Fidel stepped down after ruling the island nation for nearly five decades.
The regime has been in crisis since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, once its biggest patron. The nation of 11.2 million today relies heavily on the leftist government of oil-rich Venezuela for support.
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
Will Storr. The Observer. October 13, 2012
It is stage five they fear the most. Stage five is the mysterious sickness in its deadliest form. "I'm entering stage five," Edilberto Mendez tells me as his wife looks on fretfully. I'm in their small home on the floodplains of Lempa River, in the dank sugar-lands of rural El Salvador, where they live in a community with about 150 other families. "How many others in the village have died of this?" I ask.
"Three close friends, just last year," says Edilberto. His wife interrupts, counting out on her fingers. "And my nephew, my brother, and Ramon, Carlos, Pablo…" She pauses. "I know three Pablos who have died of this."
Edilberto's kidneys are beginning to fail. It means dialysis. "This is what they've told me," he says with a defensive shrug. "But I'm still walking around. I've seen many people have dialysis. As soon as they try it, they die. I don't want it." Edilberto has his wife to support, his deaf-mute 27-year-old son, and his six-year-old granddaughter.
"If you don't have dialysis you'll die," I say. "And then what will happen to your family?"
"They will be homeless."
Behind him, Edilberto's wife has started to cry. Holding a tissue to her face, she weeps: "He's the only one I have."
"Of those you know who have already died of the disease," I ask, "how many have worked in the sugar fields?"
"All of them."
It goes by many names, but around here they call it "the malady of the sugar cane". It's a quiet epidemic that has been preying on Central America for at least 20 years, killing impoverished landworkers in their tens of thousands across Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala. And it is becoming ever more deadly. Between 2005 and 2009, incidents in El Salvador rose by 26%. By 2011 the chronic kidney disease (CKD) that is killing Edilberto had become the country's second-biggest killer of men.
That year the health minister, María Isabel Rodríguez, made a dramatic appeal to the international community for help, telling them: "It is wasting away our populations." But nobody knows what to do about it, because nobody knows what exactly it is. In the wealthier west, CKD is largely caused by hypertension or diabetes, but most of the victims here have neither. And it attacks the kidneys in an unusual way. Rather than damaging the filtering system, as in ordinary CKD, this disease seems to have an impact on the tubules – the part of the kidney where the composition of the urine is determined. At the moment, the only scientific consensus is that it's real, and unexplained. I have travelled to El Salvador to investigate the mystery of the malady.
Since its discovery, a near-silence has cocooned the disease – a situation that has benefited the industry that so many victims work for. Profitable and vast, Central America's sugar-cane industry supplies 23% of the US's raw sugar imports. In 2011 the EU imported El Salvadorian sugar worth more than €4.7m: it is the country's second-biggest export. The companies themselves say they are not to blame. Nicaragua Sugar Estates, one of Central America's largest plantations, has conducted internal studies, and one in 2001 pointed to "strenuous labour with exposure to high environmental temperatures without an adequate hydration programme" as an important factor. Still, in December spokesman Ariel Granera told the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity: "We're convinced that we have nothing to do with kidney disease. Our productive practices do not generate and are not causal factors for CKD."
But an increasing number of researchers in the US now believe the CKD is being caused by heat stress and dehydration – that the labourers are, in effect, working themselves to death. A standard day for an El Salvadorian sugar worker lasts between four and five hours, with double shifts during the summer planting season, when temperatures top out at 40C.
"It's suffocating," Edilberto says. "In the five hours there's no break. Many of my workmates have fainted in the fields. Sometimes they vomit, too." Water, he says, is not supplied. "I bring my own. Perhaps two to three litres."
As I toured the villages I heard many accounts of barbaric suffering beneath the equatorial heat. Héctor García, 33, a stage-two patient, told me: "It's very hot; we suffer. People sometimes collapse. More often they vomit, especially when the heat is worse. They do two shifts to earn more money." Ismael Ramos, 40, who is at stage five, said: "In those cane fields, I can't stand it. I'm dizzy and sweating like crazy. I've vomited. I've fainted. I drown in sweat. When I come home, I feel surrendered. Sick. Headache. I can't shower because the water [from the roof-mounted tank] is too hot."
Has he ever seen anyone die?
"Once. A 50-year-old. The big heat can cause a heart to give in."
Scientists first became aware that there was a problem in the early 2000s, and yet this is thought to have been going on as long ago as the 1970s. It remained unknown partly because in the deep countryside there are no kidney specialists to identify such an unusual condition. Out there, the poor simply die. And the majority of sufferers do not even know they are ill: CKD is asymptomatic until its latest, most deadly stages. Even when they feel unwell, many don't want to know they have it – they can't afford the medication or the recommended diet of fresh vegetables and chicken breast. Everyone I speak to fears dialysis. They have seen a correlation, in their communities, between the start of treatment and painful death and have wrongly concluded that the one causes the other. The sugar companies certainly don't appear to be encouraging diagnosis: reports from Nicaragua suggest that workers who test positive are simply fired.
In the rutted streets and chicken-pecked yards of rural El Salvador, I hear many theories. Something in the air or something in the water. Something in tyres, in painkillers or in Chinese herbal medicine. Leftover DDT from the prewar years, when the land in the region was all cotton fields. There is a common belief that modern agrochemicals, as used by the sugar companies, are responsible. The health minister believes this – she has told a press agency so – as does Edilberto. Now 46, he worked the sugar fields for 15 years, where his job was to plant seeds and to spray pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser. "I took the risk, always the risk," he tells me, shaking his head.
But academics in the US who have been trying to solve the mystery believe these El Salvadorians to be mistaken. Professor Daniel Brooks, of Boston University's School of Public Health, tells me: "It's natural to think that, on the one hand, workers have been exposed to pesticides and on the other they have this disease, therefore pesticides must have caused the disease. It's very human to make that connection. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are causing CKD. While I'm aware that the group in El Salvador has this hypothesis, and I'm always open to being convinced, our data just don't seem consistent with it."
Brooks's team began studying the disease in 2009. In the Nicaraguan sugar fields they found rates of CKD in cane cutters and seed cutters – the most strenuous jobs – to be higher than in pesticide applicators, who have greater exposure to agrochemicals. In short, it's more heat that seems to correlate with more disease, and not more chemicals. "We also tested construction workers, stevedores and miners, excluding people who had ever worked at a cane company," he says. "They had elevated levels, too. And what do they all seem to have in common? They're high manual-labour jobs." A further study, published in the American Journal of Kidney Disease, found increased levels of kidney damage in El Salvador's hot, low-lying areas but not in its cooler high-altitude sugar plantations, despite similarities in agrochemical use. But is it really heat that's killing the thousands?
We are speeding along the storm-wet roads of Bajo Lempa, on El Salvador's low-lying western coast, past roadside pineapple sellers and one-storey dwellings of brick and wood when I see them, a fleet of them, disappearing into a field. The immature sugar cane grows up past their shoulders, rows and rows of it, the narrow leaves forming spiny corridors whose ends are so distant they are impossible to see. The workers have blue containers strapped to their backs. They are spraying.
I ask the driver to stop, and we climb our way delicately over the barbed-wire fence. To my surprise the boss, the jefe, nods permission for me to photograph the process. A tractor is pulling a flatbed trailer along the plantation's edge. On it, two workers mix a livid-yellow potion in huge plastic barrels. They wear no protection. One of the men stirs the mixture with a tree branch. He has a wounded finger tied in a rudimentary bandage. Soon the sprayers emerge from cane, sodden from the rain-drenched foliage. They refill their packs, pouring the thick, acrid-smelling liquid from buckets. There's no drinking water in evidence, nor any for washing skin. They have yellow stains on their clothes and on their bare fingers.
Even being close to the barrels gives me a spinny, achey pressure in my temples, of the kind you might experience when sniffing too much amyl nitrate. They wear trainers, cotton shirts and tracksuit trousers, old football tops tied around their faces. One has a baseball cap with a big black dollar sign.
I learn that the mixture is of five chemicals: amine, terbutryn, pendimethalin, 2,4-D and atrazine. I don't know what they are, but can Professor Brooks's theory really be correct? That they have nothing to do with the disease in all these sugar workers?
In a nearby village I knock on the gate of 37-year-old Omar Rojas, a jefe who I've heard is responsible for paying the wages of the sugar sprayers. "We pay them $5 a day," he tells me. It's raining, lightly, and his pig is causing a commotion behind me, pushing its snout over the wall of its small pen and blowing bubbles of muddy snot. "And whose responsibility is supplying the safety gear?" I ask.
"It's up to everybody individually," he tells me. "There are recommendations on all the chemicals, but nobody regulates it. Nobody pays any attention." What does the protective gear cost? "Boots are $10. I don't know how much anything else costs because I never bought it." How many of your men have got sick from doing this work? "A lot," he says. "Many people don't get checked. They don't know they have it. People say: 'Don't examine me – it's better not to know.'"
Have you been checked?
"I'm in the third stage."
I'm momentarily confused. "But I thought you didn't do any spraying," I say. "I thought you just paid the men. Do you work in the sugar fields, too?"
"No, but I spray my own property," he says. "I use the same chemicals."
Later that day I meet Wilfredo Ordoñes, 48, a stage-five sufferer who has been on dialysis. "I had lower back spasms and I would vomit often," he tells me. He seems a classic case of CKD by heat stress due to overwork in the sun, until I ask about his work. "I grow rice, cassava. I farm my own land. About a hectare."
These men, I realise, could hardly be working themselves to death. And neither, for that matter, can all the dying women who haven't worked the cane. In the villages, many believe the sickness in females and teenagers is a result of the annual crop sprayings that "burn everything – the people, not just the crops", as Edilberto told me. "Your nose itches, your eyes tear, headache, vomiting. Animals die. You see them on the street."
His wife interjects: "You can't hide from it. Even if you close your window, it penetrates. You cover your mouth but it enters anyway."
These low-lying areas are also susceptible to flooding. The floods could wash toxins into other areas and the water supply. One sufferer, Victor Rivas, 55, a sprayer for 25 years, is convinced this caused his illness. The water from the well, he says, tasted strange, "salty".
Back in the city I arrange a meeting with Dr Carlos Orantes, of El Salvador's ministry of health. Orantes is a kidney specialist who began a formal study of the problem in 2009. His team tested and surveyed six communities in Bajo Lempa – 775 individuals in 375 families. After analysing blood and urine samples, they found that 25.7% of the region's men and 11.8% of its women had the disease.
Dr Orantes sits back in his chair, loosens his tie, takes a sip of cappuccino and announces grandly: "There are three factors: prohibited pesticides, combinations of pesticides, and no protection from pesticides." I am bewildered by how sure he seems of himself. Everybody else speaks of this disease as a mystery. I show him a cutting from the US research pointing towards heat exhaustion as a cause.
"I respect their opinion," says Dr Orantes. "But these scientists have not put on their boots and gone into the countryside like I have. Until they do, they don't know. My opinion is: to have kidney damage you have to be exposed to a nephrotoxic agent. I agree that dehydration is a factor, but you would have to be very, very dehydrated for it to damage your kidneys."
"But the farmers spoke of horrific conditions in the summer," I tell him. "They've seen people vomit and faint from the heat. One even saw someone die! This paints a picture of acute dehydration of exactly the kind that you say is necessary to cause kidney damage."
Dr Orantes is unmoved. "There are agrochemicals that make you vomit and dizzy," he says. "It's not the heat – it's the chemicals." Did his survey include any questions about dehydration? "We didn't ask about that," he admits. "But we will. You know, I'm not obsessed by agrochemicals. I'm obsessed to find out the causes. If we could show that it's dehydration, I'd be happy. It would be really easy to solve."
I phone Professor Brooks. He says that this dizziness and vomiting in the fields would signify CKD in its late stages which, if you're well enough to be out working, you're unlikely to have. "We know heat can do that to you, and we know it's hot," he says. "So I think it's more likely to be heat. But things are messy. One possibility is that heat is not the starting factor, but that it takes some initial damage and progresses it to kidney disease."
I wonder if this "initial damage" of the kidneys could be agrochemical poisoning. I send the recipe for the yellow potion I saw being sprayed in Bajo Lempa to Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling – an authority on agrochemicals and health. They were herbicides, he says. Atrazine can cause kidney damage at high levels; acute exposure to 2.4-D can cause chronic kidney damage; pendimethalin, says Watterson, is "harmful through skin contact and inhalation"; in lab tests, long-term feeding of terbutryn to rats caused kidney damage. None of them was acutely toxic, but this combination, plus the tropical climate, could worsen their effects. Moreover, sprayers are required to avoid contact with skin; to wear face shields, respiratory protection, rubber boots and specialist coveralls. Viewing the photographs, Watterson says the use in Bajo Lempa represents "a terrible system of work" and is "a potentially serious threat to public health".
And then, a twist. A new professor with a new idea. Richard J Johnson, of the University of Colorado's Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension, thinks the problem might have its genesis in a strange mechanism that his team discovered in rats. When they were fed vast amounts of sugar, an enzyme in their kidneys reacted with the fructose in a way that was "like a little bomb". It caused tubular damage, just like that found in Central American CKD. But how could humans ingest enough sugar to trigger these quasi-explosions? "We discovered that the [human] body can make its own fructose," he explains. "And this process gets turned on when you get dehydrated. So suddenly we have a mechanism of how dehydration might cause [tubular] kidney damage."
Johnson wonders if dehydrated workers with already sugary kidneys are rehydrating with soft drinks or fruit juice, thus piling on a potentially explosive fructose load. "It's not proven, so we don't want to get ahead of the gun here," he says, of the as-yet unpublished work. "But the experimental data is quite compelling, and it could explain what's going on."
Whether the final explanation turns out to be fruit, heat or chemicals, or none of them, the answer could not come sooner for the family of Ismael Ramos. "For 10 years I worked with the pump," Ismael tells me. "We used seven chemicals. There was no choice, no other jobs. When I found out I had the disease, I went crazy. I wanted to kill myself."
I ask how parents like Ramos feel, sending their youngsters to work the cane. "We have no choice; it's the only work there is. But we're very scared for our son." He glances towards 18-year-old Carlos, who has been watching from the background. "Sometimes, down here, he has pain," Ismael says. He rubs the sides of his lower back, in the region of his kidneys.
Will Storr travelled to El Salvador with the help of Christian Aid (christianaid.org.uk)
Obama, Romney 'Trade Pact' Malarkey vs. Reality: The Data Is In
Lori Wallach. Huffington Post. October 15, 2012
One year after passage of the "free trade" agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama, the latest trade data show U.S. exports to Korea have declined and imports from Korea and Colombia have surged -- adding to the job-killing U.S. trade deficit. And, already this year 35 Colombian unionists have been assassinated -- more than last year's horrifying total of 29.
In an election dominated by the urgent agenda of U.S. job creation, it is a sorry statement about the domination of corporate money in American elections that both presidential candidates tout these NAFTA-style "free trade" deals. Repeated polls show that opposition to these NAFTA-style deals is one of the only issues that unites Democratic, Republican and Independent voters.
The candidates' discussion of these pacts provided a uniquely bipartisan barf-bucket moment. President Obama boasted that the three trade deals "are helping us to double our exports and sell more American products around the world." Mitt Romney, meanwhile, named further expansion of such trade pacts as the second pillar of his U.S. jobs creation plan.
Yet another month of Department of Commerce trade data, released yesterday, supports the views of a majority of Americans who see these deals as destroying -- rather than creating -- U.S. jobs.
Obama's claim that the three trade deals are boosting exports does not survive a basic fact check. To start with, the Panama deal has not even taken effect. And, since implementation of the Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA), U.S. goods exports to Korea have declined by nine percent (a decrease of over $1.2 billion) in comparison to 2011 levels for the same months, while exports to Colombia since implementation of the Colombia FTA have barely increased (by $358 million). Under the FTAs, the United States has suffered a six percent fall in combined exports to the two new U.S. FTA partners.
Meanwhile, imports from both countries have risen substantially since implementation of the pacts. Neither candidate ever talks about the net effect of these deals, which is the measure that effects jobs and wage levels. But the bottom line is that the combined U.S. trade deficit with Korea and Colombia under the deals has jumped 29 percent above the 2011 levels for the same months.
Using the same ratio employed by the Obama administration, this trade deficit expansion implies the net loss of more than 15,000 U.S. jobs in just the first few months of the new trade deals. As if the loss during the NAFTA-WTO era of more than five million manufacturing jobs (one out of every four this nation had pre-NAFTA and WTO) were not sufficiently devastating for the American Middle Class...
And, yes, in the debate Romney did attack Obama for not doing more of such job-killing pacts quickly enough.
What neither candidate mentioned was that they both support a massive "free trade" agreement now under negotiation called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It would contain a broader version of the the NAFTA-style investor rights that promote job offshoring, ban Buy American procurement preferences and roll back financial regulation. TPP talks now include 11 countries, but the deal would be open for China, Russia and other countries to also join. Think NAFTA-on-steroids with the world.
Meanwhile, a year ago today, two-thirds of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives opposed the Korea FTA and 82 percent opposed the Colombia FTA -- the largest percentages to ever vote against a Democratic president on trade pacts. The Obama administration promised a concrete benefit for each of the pacts on the date of their passage: "greater U.S. access to the Korean auto market, significantly increased labor rights and worker protections in Colombia, and enhanced tax transparency and labor rights in Panama."
U.S. Auto Exports to Korea Down: According to data released today, U.S. automotive exports to Korea have dropped by $26 million, a seven percent decline, since implementation of the pact, as compared to 2011 levels for the same months. Meanwhile, in the months that the Korea FTA has been in effect, imports of cars and auto parts from Korea have soared $1.8 billion above 2011 levels for the same time period -- a 25 percent increase. The U.S. trade deficit with Korea in autos and auto parts has already climbed to $7.9 billion in five months under the Korea FTA -- a $1.9 billion, or 28 percent, increase over 2011 levels for the same period.
Unionist Assassinations in Colombia Up: A year after passage of the Colombia FTA and 18 months after the Obama administration announced a Labor Action Plan with Colombia to improve Colombia's labor protections, Colombia remains the world's deadliest place to be a union member. In 2011, four of every 10 unionist murders in the world occurred in Colombia, with 29 slain. This year, a reported 35 Colombian unionists already have been assassinated, more than in all of 2011, the year the Labor Action Plan was announced. Sadly, Colombian unions and human rights organizations predicted on-the-ground realities would not change, denouncing the action plan as a series of cosmetic changes. Since implementation of the FTA, imports from Colombia have increased by nine percent relative to the same period in 2011.
Panama Tax Haven Status Continues: To counter criticism that the Panama FTA would assist corporations seeking to dodge U.S. taxes via secretive Panama-based subsidiaries and bank accounts, the Obama administration announced implementation of a Tax Information Exchange Agreement with Panama. However, a large loophole in that agreement allows Panama to sidestep new tax transparency provisions if they are "contrary to the public policy" of Panama, a country that earns much of its revenue by providing strict banking secrecy and tax-free status for foreign firms incorporated there. In June 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks countries' tax haven statuses, reported that Panama remains one of a handful of countries in the world that has not passed a first-stage review of its tax transparency measures, due to nearly unparalleled nonconformity on six of nine regulatory checks against tax evasion. Even the Cayman Islands did not earn that dubious distinction. Despite the lack of progress, the Obama administration has indicated its desire to implement the Panama FTA "very soon."
Corporate donors to both political parties love these deals because they provide new investor protections to offshore jobs and rights to import products that do not meet our safety standards. But, as the government trade data again show, the actual outcomes prove that the majorities of Independents, Democrats and Republicans who think that these deals hurt their families -- and the country -- have it right.
Prime Minister Harper’s free trade strategy endorses conflict-ridden mining industry
Jen Moore. Toronto Star. October 15, 2012
The Harper government’s trade agenda is front and centre this parliamentary term as the Conservatives seek to open new markets.
While coverage of Asia-Pacific and EU agreements dominate public debate, other bilateral agreements have been quietly making their way through Parliament. The House of Commons trade committee recently passed legislation to implement the Canada-Panama free trade agreement that could come before the House for third reading as early as this week.
As in other parts of Latin America, Canada has considerable interests in Panama’s mining sector, and as MiningWatch told the trade committee during recent hearings, the free trade deal is stacked in favour of mining firms at the expense of indigenous rights and environmental protection.
Ensuring greater legal stability for the Canadian mining industry in Panama means locking in a regulatory regime that has proved ineffective at preventing harm to the well-being of people and their living environment. It gives Canadian companies access to a costly international dispute settlement process to challenge pretty much any government decision they don’t like.
In other parts of the region, where Canadian mining companies have access to similar trade and investment agreements, they have not hesitated to threaten or launch such lawsuits. Such is the case in El Salvador, where Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining is suing the government for tens of millions of dollars after failing to obtain an environmental permit, a case which is before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington. The case has cost El Salvador $5 million (U.S.) to date, enough to provide one year of adult literacy classes for 140,000 people. Regionwide, a third of the 137 pending cases before ICSID relate to natural resources, and half are against Latin American states, up from three cases pending before the same tribunal 12 years ago.
Meanwhile, mining-affected communities are not afforded such guarantees. The environmental side chapter of the Canada-Panama FTA is a non-binding declaration, which relies on political will for its implementation. This political will is as questionable in Panama as it is in Canada, with the Canadian government’s open antipathy to environmental concerns and environmental groups. Recently, we have seen Canadian mining companies undermine legal environmental protections — with the support of Panamanian government institutions — and the Panamanian state violently cracking down on recent indigenous protests over mining activities.
For example, a group of Canadian and Chilean consultants working in the name of Vancouver-based Corriente Resources — now a Canadian subsidiary of a Chinese consortium — has been operating in western Panama without the consent of representative indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé organizations that administer the region, and without any licence from Panamanian authorities. Traditional Ngäbe-Buglé authorities have accused the consultants of fomenting divisions, spreading malicious rumours, and supporting particular local electoral candidates — and have declared them personas non grata.
The Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama’s largest indigenous population, has also recently staged massive protests in opposition to changes to state-led mining reforms. In January 2012, one protester and one bystander were killed when police initiated a brutal crackdown on a Ngäbe-Buglé blockade.
The lack of effective channels for peaceful dispute resolution in Panama and the government’s lack of compliance with promises and agreements it has made with the Ngäbe-Buglé have resulted in a loss of credibility of the governing regime and loss of confidence in the political will to genuinely solve existing problems. Nonetheless, a representative of Corriente Resources testifying to Parliament about the Canada-Panama FTA claimed, “Canadian industry, in our experience, is generally well received by people in Panama and particularly in the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca.”
Toronto-based Inmet Mining has a large copper project in northern Panama and has also claimed before the House of Commons committee to be a good corporate citizen. But its efforts to obstruct environmental protection measures, taking advantage of weaknesses in the Panamanian regulatory and justice system, put the company’s claims in question. In particular, the company sought a constitutional injunction against the creation of a protected area in the district of Donoso where it’s operating, within the highly biodiverse Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and with an average rainfall of five metres per year.
The Panamanian Supreme Court overturned this injunction in July 2011, but only announced its decision a day after the Panamanian Environmental Authority approved the company’s environmental licence in late December 2011. Later, in April of this year, an administrative tribunal, under a magistrate who was named by, and is a former adviser to the current Panamanian president, suspended the protected area status.
This project would also entail the displacement of a number of Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous communities and, according to a recent CBC report, lacks the prior consent of indigenous peoples. In early 2012, Martín Rodríguez, a local community leader, told CBC reporter Mellissa Fung that: “People who are working for the mine turned up in our community and explained that at some point everyone would have to be evicted, because they say the lands here are part of the mining concession.” When community members refused to leave, Rodríguez said Inmet tried to gain their favour through other means: “They (Inmet) say they are going to give us a health centre and a school, but I don’t want that from them. As a leader, I can see through that. How much destruction and pollution is there going to be? Schools and health centres, that’s the government’s responsibility.”
In the context of such conflicts, proposals to consider banning open-pit mining or suspending mining development have gained high-level attention in Panama. In early 2011, the national ombudsman was among those calling for a moratorium on mining until the country could strengthen its institutions. A national survey carried out around the same time found that 67.7 per cent of Panamanians were opposed to mining in the country, and 68.8% of Panamanians disagreed with pro-mining legal reforms. In 2012, the Ngäbé Buglé declared a prohibition on mining within their administrative area, or Comarca.
Implementing the Panama-Canada Free Trade Agreement under these conditions, therefore, is tantamount to giving Canada’s seal of approval to a discredited political and regulatory regime that is failing to protect democratic expression or protect the lives and living environment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Panamanians. At the same time, it shores up already favourable conditions for a conflict-ridden industry — so much so that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that protecting and promoting investment, and not opening markets, is the main objective, with no consideration for the well-being of affected communities and the environment.
Jen Moore is Latin America program co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada.