Friday, December 16, 2011

Venezuela and Colombia Mend Diplomatic, Trade Fences

ISSN: 1060-4189
LADB Article ID: 78449
Category/Department: Region
Date: 2011-12-16
By: Andrés Gaudín

With the signing of a panoply of economic and strategic accords, and without any reference to the serious problems that have plagued bilateral relations in the last three years, Colombia and Venezuela put an end to the last flashpoint of tension in the region.

In late November, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and, after just 10 hours of a dialogue prepared discretely by diplomats from both countries, they reached a series of understandings that returned relations to their level in the best moments in the two South American countries' history.  More than merely closing the harmful chapter, the presidents made it clear that no real reasons existed for the estrangement, and they cleared the way for embarking on major undertakings together.  The two presidents also sent strong signals to their people and, in particular, limited the offensive of their respective political opposition, both domestic and foreign. 

Perhaps as important was the message sent to the region, showing that two presidents with conflicting ideological roots can not only dialogue and make good business deals but also take far-reaching steps in favor of integration and peaceful co-existence.

Santos and Chávez proposed resuming the common history that their two countries had built through two centuries of independence and that Colombia's ultraright ex-President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2008) destroyed in only eight years in office, especially after September 2008.

FTA will boost trade ties

The presidents signed various cooperation agreements, including a type of free-trade agreement (FTA) that sets preferential import tariffs on nearly 3,500 products.  The goal is to resume the level of trade in which Colombia always had a trade surplus—in excess of US$7 billion in 2007, only to drop to just over US$500 million after three years of strained relations.

The tariff-preferences agreement replaced the regimen in effect until 2008 for both countries as signatories of the Comunidad Andina de Naciones (CAN) protocols.  Venezuela had withdrawn from CAN in April 2006, although it maintained its rights and obligations until last April.  At that time, the Chávez administration justified its decision saying that it was a form of protest for the FTA that Uribe was negotiating with the US (NotiSur, May 5, 2006, and June 23, 2006).  It is worth noting that, paradoxically, the presidents are re-establishing relations little more than a month after the US Congress, after a four-year delay, gave the green light to the FTA with Bogotá (NotiSur, Dec. 2, 2011).

Those are, essentially, the trade agreements reached.  But other aspects of the meeting were substantially more important.  First, Santos got Venezuela to agree to finance much of the construction of a new power plant some of whose energy will go to Venezuela.  Second, Santos agreed to the sale, within six months, of 50,000 head of cattle that Venezuela will use to improve its stock, as it is doing with cattle imported from Argentina and Uruguay.  Third, the energy agreements will also affect the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol, which will be assigned two areas for exploitation in the "mature fields" of the Venezuelan border departments of Apure and Zulia.

Pipeline from Venezuela to Colombia's coast worries US

However, of the 11 protocols signed by the presidents, the most far-reaching was the one creating a mixed agency to carry out feasibility studies prior to construction of an oil pipeline of more than 2,000 km that will join Venezuela's Franja del Orinoco—one of the world's major oil reserves—with Colombia's Pacific port of Tumaco. 

The initiative is vital for Venezuela, and Santos knows it.  It would allow Caracas to double its oil exports to China by 2014, from the current 500,000 barrels per day to 1 million bpd.  It has already silenced Chávez's internal opposition and the US government, both of whom see a great danger in the strong trade relations being developed between Venezuela and China.

Both presidents referred to the issue, which so frightens Chávez's domestic and foreign enemies, giving it the importance it deserves.  "A pipeline with these characteristics awakens the interest of the entire world," said Santos.  "How much will we save when we have the pipeline from here, crossing Colombia?" asked Chávez, noting that ships carrying Venezuelan crude to China or Japan now have to travel thousands of kilometers farther, rounding Africa to get to Asia.

New relationship benefits both Santos and Chávez

It could be said that, starting in 2002, relations between Colombia and Venezuela became relations between two people:  Uribe and Chávez, one on the extreme right and the other who calls himself socialist, two personalities as strong as they are unpredictable.  In April 2002, when the electoral campaign that brought Uribe to power ended, an attempted coup took place in Venezuela.  Chávez was thrown out of office and detained for just over a day at a military base.  Uribe celebrated that event (NotiSur, April 19, 2002).  Since then, Chávez has accused him of being a "servant of imperialism," alluding to the US.  In 2006, Chávez withdrew Venezuela from CAN and blamed Uribe, for the same reason.

The verbal confrontation continued escalating and, in March 2008, when Colombian troops entered Ecuadoran territory to pursue and kill Raúl Reyes (NotiSur, March 7, 2008), a leader of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Chávez (Venezuela) broke off diplomatic relations with Uribe (Colombia). 

From then until the end of his second term in August 2010, Uribe was increasingly critical of Chávez, accusing him of turning Venezuela into a sanctuary for guerrillas and drug traffickers.  Uribe threatened to ask the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Venezuela, although he never presented any proof or formalized a petition for expulsion (NotiSur, Nov. 20, 2009, and Aug. 6, 2010).  The alleged Colombian-guerrilla camps in Venezuela were never found.  As for drug traffickers, Venezuela has detained them at an average rate of one every two months and has always summarily extradited them to Colombia or the US.  The latest was the great "gift" with which Chávez received Santos on Nov. 28: the announcement of the detention and imminent extradition of Maximiliano "El Valenciano" Bonilla, the most important Colombian drug lord still at large.

With all that background, the crowning of this first meeting with the signing of such important agreements is a political achievement for Chávez and for Santos.  For Chávez, because, by consolidating relations with someone who only 18 months ago appeared on the horizon almost as an enemy, he has sent a strong message to the US and silenced the internal opposition that, for now, reaps more foreign than domestic support.  For Santos, because it allows him to bolster his image as a statesman in a region that looked on him with distrust—when he was defense minister, he was seen as a hawk among hawks—and because it gives him the opportunity to put distance, perhaps definitively, between himself and Uribe and to mend fences with his largest trade partner on the continent.

Santos and Chávez took on an agenda that both defined with the same word: decisive.  "Today security, drug trafficking, trade, territorial sovereignty, culture, and everything that unites us will be discussed, although some want it to separate us, our two peoples," said Santos upon arriving in Caracas. 

The two presidents both said that the meeting was occurring at a "very important" moment—another linguistic similarity, but not just that—for the process of regional integration.  It came four days after the III Cumbre de Américas Latina y el Caribe (CALC) gave way to the birth of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC), an OAS without the US and Canada.

After the exchange of greetings, Chávez announced the detention of Maximiliano Bonilla, and each word, carefully chosen, seemed to be directed to both the visitor and to the internal opposition—presidential elections take place in October 2012 and politics is the burning issue in Venezuela—and to the US government, which repeats that Venezuela is a sanctuary for Colombian drug traffickers and guerrillas. 

"From no perspective have we allowed nor will we allow the violation of our sovereignty by any group, by any personality, whether from drug trafficking, the guerrillas, or whatever," he said, adding as the punch line, "We will do everything to prevent our territory from being used to conspire against or target Colombia." 

The protocol of diplomatic speeches reserved the last word for Santos, who thanked Venezuela and also responded to Uribe, saying, "My friend Chávez, today we show the world that through collaboration we are going to obtain the best results." 

Four days before Santos' trip to Caracas, Uribe, in receiving in Bogotá a delegation of the Venezuelan opposition Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), continued trying to interfere in bilateral relations, advising his guests to receive Santos with a statement of repudiation.  He even told them that the Colombian president is "a useful fool for Venezuelan Marxism."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

El Salvador Swamped By Billion-Dollar Deluge

SSN: 1089-1560
LADB Article ID: 78403
Category/Department: El Salvador
Date: 2011-11-03
By: Benjamin Witte-Lebhar

The devastating tropical depression that pounded Central America for 10 days last month will not go down as the deadliest act of Mother Nature to strike disaster-prone El Salvador. But, when all is said and done, tropical storm 12-E, as it was officially called, is likely to be one of the costliest.

The massive storm rolled in off the Pacific on Oct. 9 and, in the next week and a half, caused massive flooding and killed more than 100 along the isthmus. Hardest hit was El Salvador, where 34 people died—mostly from mudslides. Flooding also destroyed crops, washed out bridges and roads, and damaged thousands of homes, directly affecting some 300,000 people, according to the UN.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes estimates that total losses from the deadly storm could reach US$1.5 billion, or 5% of GDP. "The damages and losses from this phenomenon vary from country to country, but, in the case of El Salvador, this is the worst disaster in recent years," Funes told his Central American counterparts during a "minisummit" held Oct. 25 in San Salvador. Also in attendance were Presidents Álvaro Colom of Guatemala, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and Porfirio Lobo from Honduras.

El Salvador has seen its share of deadly storms before. In 1998 the monstrous Hurricane Mitch tore its way through Central America, killing more than 10,000 people (NotiCen, Nov. 12, 1998). Compared with some of its neighbors, El Salvador fared relatively well in that storm. Still, Mitch killed more than 200 Salvadorans and, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), caused an estimated US$262 million in damages in the tiny country (NotiCen, Jan. 8, 1999).

Six years ago more than 1,600 Central Americans were killed by another major hurricane, Hurricane Stan, which caused nearly US$4 billion in damages across the isthmus (NotiCen, Oct. 6, 2005). Hardest hit was Guatemala. In El Salvador, the storm killed roughly 70 people and caused approximately US$112 million in damages.

If President Funes’ damages estimate is accurate, 12-E could end up costing the country far more than Mitch and Stan combined. That is because, while the tropical depression may not have delivered hurricane-force winds, it lingered longer—and dumped even more rain—than did Mitch or Stan. Mitch, the previous record holder, delivered an accumulated 34 inches (nearly three feet) of rainwater. 12-E nearly doubled that, dropping 60 inches during the course of a week and a half, according to Environment Minister Hernán Rosa Chávez.

"As of now, we’ve estimated at US$650 million the total losses in direct damages suffered. This corresponds more or less to about 3% of GDP," said President Funes. "However, it’s still premature to offer an exact figure. Once we’ve counted all the indirect damage—in infrastructure and production—this amount could rise to between 4% and 5% of GDP, which would put it in line with the first damage estimates put forth by the United Nations."

Food supply and health risks

Of particular concern is the effect the flooding had on crops. By some estimates, the rains destroyed 40% of El Salvador’s harvest. That includes valuable export crops like coffee as well as vital domestic crops like corn and beans. Already the losses have caused prices for those basic items to rise significantly. In the coming months, that will mean extra costs for those who can afford it and hunger for those who cannot.

"Before it started raining the prices were lower," Francisco Orti, a market vendor in San Salvador, told the BBC. "I would buy corn for US$14 per 100 kg. Now it costs US$25. Yes, prices have gone up."

"Before it started raining the prices were lower," Francisco Orti, a market vendor in San Salvador, told the BBC. "I would buy corn for US$14 per 100 kg. Now it costs US$25. Yes, prices have gone up."

Authorities are also apprehensive about public hygiene. More than 50,000 Salvadorans are still packed in emergency shelters. And, as ironic as it may sound considering the more than five feet of rain the country just received, some areas are lacking fresh water. El Salvador’s Ministerio de Salud (MINSAL) reports that flooding destroyed more than 1,800 wells and damaged and/or polluted 8,300 others. The rains also destroyed nearly 7,000 outdoor toilets and flooded some 22,000 others, mostly in rural areas.

"This is a complicated situation that ought to be a priority in order to prevent the outbreak of diseases in the areas that lost wells and where people don’t have anywhere to deposit their human waste," said Eduardo Espinoza, MINSAL’s vice minister.

Some money has come in from international donors. The UN promised to come up with US$15.7 million to help fund immediate relief efforts. The US government donated US$50,000 to help El Salvador’s emergency services cover fuel costs. And Taiwan and Spain have each sent aid as well, US$300,000 and US$500,000, respectively.

The Salvadoran government was no doubt hoping first lady Vanda Pignato’s trip to New York City last week would attract additional aid. The Brazilian-born Pignato, who also serves as El Salvador’s secretary for social inclusion, met personally with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and with former US President Bill Clinton, who heads the William J. Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization.

But even a hefty donation by the former US president is unlikely to meet all of El Salvador’s post-storm needs. Nor will it do much to mitigate the country’s permanent vulnerability to natural disasters of this kind. 12-E, after all, may be the costliest recent disaster in El Salvador, but it is by no means an isolated case. Nor will it be the last act of Mother Nature compelling Salvadoran authorities, hat-in-hand, to once again turn to the international community for help.

"The mayor of San Julián said something very revealing this week: 'The world stopped noticing how screwed we are.' What’s certain about this situation is that it’s very recurrent. The countries that tend to help us are sick of doing so," columnist Marvin Aguilar wrote in a recent issue of La Página.

A question of vulnerability

ECLAC estimates that, between 1998 and 2008, nearly a quarter of Latin America’s natural-disaster-related deaths occurred in Central America, home to just 7% of the region’s population. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are among the world’s 10-most-vulnerable countries, according to ECLAC.

Part of the problem is geography. An isthmus that delicately divides two of the world’s great oceans, the area is prone to large tropical storms—from both sides. El Salvador and its neighbors are also highly seismic countries. Dotted with volcanoes, they experience frequent—and sometimes deadly—earthquakes.

Part of the problem is geography. An isthmus that delicately divides two of the world’s great oceans, the area is prone to large tropical storms—from both sides. El Salvador and its neighbors are also highly seismic countries. Dotted with volcanoes, they experience frequent—and sometimes deadly—earthquakes.

Climate-change scientists predict that rising global temperatures will make Central America more vulnerable still. For many observers, last month’s 12-E is evidence that global weather patterns are already shifting. Calling the deluge "unprecedented," Environment Minister Rosa Chávez said El Salvador "marks a point where climate change is erupting."

But El Salvador’s vulnerability is not purely a matter of being in the wrong place or, as climate scientists would suggest, the wrong time. When it comes to natural disasters, a country’s relative level of development matters too—a lot. Last year’s earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are a case in point. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, killed some 200,000 people. Only 500 people died in Chile, which suffered a much stronger quake (magnitude 8.8 on the Richter scale) but whose homes and buildings were better able to resist the seismic waves. Chile is Latin America’s second-wealthiest country in per capita GDP, according to the World Bank.

"In the pictures from the flooding in El Salvador and the rest of Central America, you do not see any photos of the homes of the middle and upper classes—you see champasof scrap wood and corrugated tin," noted Tim Muth, an El Salvador-based blogger. "You do not see manicured lawns under water—you see the tiny milpas of the campesino farmer. You do not see a submerged Lexus—you see the water flowing over an ox cart."

As Muth pointed out, 12-E delivered its biggest blow to the country’s poorest, both in immediate impacts, such as mudslides and flash floods, and in longer-term effects, such as rising food prices and disease outbreaks. The flooded outhouses and contaminated wells are problems that disproportionally affect the rural poor. The homes swallowed up by killer mudslides tend not to be the mansions of the rich but rather the preciously constructed shacks of the poor who had nowhere else to build.

El Salvador "hasn’t paid close enough attention to the issue of vulnerability," Ricardo Navarro, director of the environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) Centro Salvadoreño de Tecnología Apropiada (CESTA), told the AFP. "We get heavy rains, hurricanes, sometimes earthquakes. They cause damage, and, when that happens, we go back to talking about vulnerability. But this needs to be a government policy, to figure out what we can do to make sure these events don’t cause us such misery."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Controversy over Separation of Church and State Resurfaces after Cardinal Claims Vatican Influenced Supreme Court Vote on Abortion

ISSN: 1054-8890
LADB Article ID: 078313
Category/Department: Church-State Conflicts
Date: 2011-10-07
By: Carlos Navarro

Seven of the court’s justices deemed the provisions incompatible with the federal Constitution, but the SJCN fell short of the eight votes needed to force changes to the two states' laws. Justices José Ramón Cossío, Sergio Valls, Arturo Zaldívar, Olga Sánchez Cordero, Luis María Aguilar, Fernando Franco, and Juan Silva Meza voted to consider both states’ measures unconstitutional. But they were unable to convince one of the four other SCJN members—Justices Jorge Pardo Rebolledo, Salvador Aguirre Anguiano, Margarita Luna Ramos, and Guillermo Ortiz Mayagoitia--to cross over to gain the eight-vote total needed to overturn the state constitutional provisions.

In the aftermath of the SCJN decision regarding Baja California, which the court considered first, Bishop Isidro Guerrero Macías of Mexicali boasted that a call from the Vatican was able to sway one of the judges who was thinking of voting the other way. "Yesterday, we almost lost," said Guerrero Macías. "But a call from the pope to one of the justices, I don’t know which one, changed everything."

Bishops, Vatican deny there was interference

The very suggestion that the Vatican would interfere in Mexican judicial decisions unleashed a storm of controversy in Mexico, forcing both the Vatican and Mexico’s Catholic bishops conference (Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano, CEM) to issue strong statements denying any direct influence from Rome on this vote. Jorge Camargo, a SCJN spokesperson, also denied that any call was made from Rome to a member of the high court.

"There is no truth to that statement," said Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi. "We have to ask the bishop where he obtained that information."

"We concur with the statements of the Vatican spokesperson when he said that the comments from Mexicali Bishop Isidro Guerrero Macías are inaccurate," said a communiqué signed by CEM secretary general Víctor René Rodríguez Gómez. "We are very cognizant that the Holy Father is always respectful of the internal affairs of countries…and did not intervene in the decision of the SCJN ministers."

All three were appointees of President Felipe Calderón, whose conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) is often in step with Catholic Church positions. The two cases, which were considered separately, served as a measuring stick on the state of Mexico’s policies regarding abortion rights. More than half of Mexico’s states have enacted laws similar to those in Baja California and San Luis Potosí. Those states are Tamaulipas, Chiapas, Veracruz, Querétaro, Chihuahua, Campeche, Colima, Puebla, Durango, Jalisco, Nayarit, Quintana Roo, Guanajuato, Yucatán, Sonora, Morelos, and Oaxaca.

There was ample debate among the justices, who discussed the issue during three days of deliberation. "Criminalizing the interruption of a pregnancy in all cases…is disproportionate and unreasonable, while at the same time violating women's dignity and autonomy," said Justice Fernando Franco, who led the effort to overturn the state laws.

Justice Zaldívar took a similar stance, suggesting that forcing women, especially those who are poor, to seek clandestine abortions or to face imprisonment for having the procedure was "profoundly unfair, profoundly immoral, and profoundly unconstitutional."

Other justices countered with the argument that state legislatures are empowered to include language in their constitutions that stipulates when life begins. "There is no human being who was not conceived. An embryo dies without the mother dying, evidence of an independent life to which Mexican law has recognized the right of protection since the 19th century," said Justice Aguirre Anguiano.

Justice Luna Ramos, who voted with the minority, said she supports the right of states to allow abortions but also their right to determine when life begins. Supporters of abortion rights said there was a silver lining in the SCJN vote, even though the high court did not overturn the constitutional provision in the two states. "Years ago no one would have thought seven justices would have ruled this way," said Regina Tamés, director of the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE). "I think these are slow but sure steps."
Even though the issue is ripe for debate, some analysts said politicians would avoid the controversy during the upcoming presidential campaign. "Both the decriminalization of abortion and the legalization of drugs are themes that the political class wants to avoid during the federal elections in 2012," said Ruth Zavaleta Salgado, an expert on constitutional law at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
Zavaleta praised Mexico City residents for their willingness to discuss the issue so openly before the Mexico City legislature (Asamblea Legislativa del Distrito Federal, ALDF) voted in 2007 to allow abortion rights. The SCJN later ratified the Mexico City decision.

But Zavaleta also pointed out that the inconsistency in the Mexico City law versus that of other states reflects the views of the citizens of those entities. "While it’s true that the majority of citizens in the Federal District opposed the criminalization of abortion, the opposite is true in many states in our country," said the UNAM expert.

The semi-independent Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Distrito Federal (CDHDF) also raised concerns about the discrepancies across state borders on abortion. "It is a very serious matter that a supposedly constitutional and democratic government like Mexico's establishes different levels of human rights protection for women, depending on which state they live in," said the CDHDF.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard--who helped push through the measure to decriminalize abortion in Mexico City—weighed in with the seven justices who voted to oppose the measures in Baja California and San Luis Potosí. The mayor said the prohibition of abortion would send the procedures underground, "and this does not resolve any problems."

"I will not change my point of view or my convictions about abortion and gay rights if elected president," the mayor said.

Guadalajara cardinal involved in new controversy

In an earlier controversy, a previously confidential diplomatic dispatch leaked through Wikileaks Web site in July of this year suggested that Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez of Guadalajara, in a meeting with Francis Rooney, then US ambassador to the Vatican, had raised concerns in 2006 about the rise of leftist leaders in Latin America, including then candidate López Obrador.

"Sandoval, after mentioning his personal dream of building a sanctuary in Guadalajara to commemorate Mexican martyrs, echoed some of our Vatican interlocutors in raising concern about the increasing presence of leftist leaders in Latin America—[Fidel] Castro, [Hugo] Chavez, [Evo] Morales, [Nestor] Kirchner, [Michelle] Bachelet, and perhaps Lopez Obrador--and called it a dangerous trend," said the dispatch, dated April 6, 2006. "He asked whether President [George W.] Bush could help. Sandoval said that under Lopez Obrador's governance, crime and violence had risen in Mexico City."

The Wikileaks dispatch created indignation in Mexico and brought a swift reaction from the Archdiocese of Guadalajara denying that Sandoval had been involved in a conspiracy against López Obrador, who narrowly lost the presidential race to Felipe Calderón in a disputed election (SourceMex, July 12, 2006 ).

In an editorial, the center-left Mexico City daily newspaper La Jornada suggested that the matter deserved closer investigation by the Mexican government. "In a country of laws, the behavior of Sandoval Íñiguez would merit further clarification, an investigation, and a sanction according to the law," said the newspaper. "But the cardinal from Jalisco is supported by a history of impunity that has freed him from charges of illegal political campaigning, violations of our principles of separation of church and state, money laundering, misuse of donations, and protection of pedophile priests."

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s administration might have been behind the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara in May 1993.

The Archdiocese of Guadalajara issued a strong statement denying that Sandoval had in any way sought to influence the 2006 election. "[The cardinal] is not interested in becoming involved in the political affairs of our country," said a statement from the archdiocese.

The statement went on to say that Sandoval and López Obrador had met on several occasions at the request of the PRD politician. "There has always been a relationship of mutual respect between them," said the archdiocese. "The cardinal values the work of the left, which is necessary for a true political discourse in our country, even though there are some points of disagreement."

The archdiocese did not deny that a meeting took place between Sandoval and Rooney. "The only theme that was addressed was the request for US support for the construction of the Santuario de los Mártires," said the archdiocese. "This assistance was never received."