Friday, March 30, 2012

Ecuadoran Government's Two-Pronged Policy: To Convict and then Pardon

ISSN: 1060-4189
LADB Article ID: 78533
Category/Department: Ecuador
Date: 2012-03-16
By: Luis Ángel Saavedra

"To convict and pardon" seems to be the formula that Ecuadoran government officials have found to resolve conflicts with the media and social leaders who question their actions.  With the formula, the government simultaneously obtains a conviction that becomes a legal precedent with which it can intimidate detractors and also increases its popularity through its supposed magnanimity in granting a pardon to those convicted.

Disproportionate sentences
In the government's ongoing conflict with private media, which have historically been tied to the political right and the national financial system, several public officials have complained of having been libeled by the media or by social leaders who expressed their opinions in the media.

After the alleged libel, the public officials had ample opportunity to respond, using the same private media outlets as well as public media, which are now as extensive as the private networks (NotiSur, Aug. 12, 2011).  Additionally, to refute information that it considers erroneous, the government has routinely aired myriad compulsory national radio and television broadcasts and President Rafael Correa's nationally broadcast Saturday radio programs, which he uses to denigrate his supposed detractors.

Nevertheless, the government officials, with President Correa in the lead, believed it necessary to also prosecute journalists and opinion makers for their alleged slander, and they therefore brought various legal actions, which have run their course during the past year and resulted in sentences that were disproportionate to any harm caused.

Emilio Palacio, a former columnist for the Guayaquil daily El Universo, along with Carlos, César, and Nicolás Pérez, owners of the paper, were sentenced to three years in prison and payment of US$40 million in damages to President Correa for having said that he "ordered [the military] to fire at will on a hospital," referring to events during the Sept. 30, 2010, uprising during which sectors of the Policía Nacional (PN) took the president prisoner in the police hospital.  Correa was rescued in a military operation (NotiSur, Oct. 15, 2010).

Mónica Chuji, Amazonian indigenous leader and former delegate to the Asamblea Constituyente, was sentenced to a year in prison and payment of US$100,000 in damages for having said that Secretario de la Administración Vinicio Alvarado was among the government's "nouveau riche," in reference to government publicity contracts with businesses tied to him and his family, which had been denounced in various investigations by the national press (NotiSur, Jan. 27, 2012).

Juan Carlos Calderón and Cristian Zurita were each ordered to pay US$1 million for having affirmed that President Correa knew about state contracts with his brother Fabricio Correa through shell companies in Panama (NotiSur, Oct. 14, 2011).  The judge ruled that Correa suffered "moral damage akin to spiritual harm."

Jaime Mantilla, director of Diario Hoy, received the lightest sentence, just three months in prison and a US$25 fine, for supposedly libeling Carlos Bravo for his action while he headed the Agencia de Garantías de Depósitos (AGD), the agency responsible for recovering the money from the financial institutions that went bankrupt in 1999.

The judiciary decided these cases in record time.  It is unusual for cases to make their way through the system's three levels in less than a year.  Various social sectors saw the expediency as the result of government pressure and the control that it exerts on the judiciary. 

"We call upon all the judicial bodies that have worked with speed and efficiency in these cases, even handing down decisions in a matter of days, to act with the same agility in all cases brought before them," said the Consejo Directivo de la Fundación Regional de Derechos Humanos (INREDH), in a public communiqué analyzing the judiciary's role in these cases.

Pardon: international pressure or concerns about popularity
Once the courts handed down the decisions, the plaintiffs made public their decisions to "pardon" the defendants, using a legal maneuver called "remission."

Remission allows the plaintiff to determine that the accused does not have to pay the damages awarded or serve the jail sentence that a legal conviction brings; thus, in the aforementioned cases, those sentenced no longer have to go to prison or pay the multimillion-dollar damages awards.

Mónica Chuji rejected the pardon granted by Alvarado, saying that it does not annul the sentence, it annuls only the obligation to serve the sentence.  "To accept the pardon is to leave in place a sentence that can be used to intimidate other indigenous leaders; it is a legal precedent that can be invoked in other similar trials," said Chuji in notifying the court of her decision to continue her legal defense.

Despite Chuji's decision, the judges closed the case, an action that will be analyzed by the Corte Constitucional (CC), which in such cases has shown total identification with government criteria.  If the CC ratifies closing the case, Chuji expects to appeal to international tribunals, in particular, the UN Special Committee against Discrimination.

Those convicted in the Diario El Universo case appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to solicit precautionary measures in their favor.  The IACHR granted the measures and harshly challenged the government regarding the effects of the disproportionate sentences handed down by the courts on freedom of speech.  Correa rejected the IACHR decision and accused it of following US policies.

Evidence in the Diario El Universo case could support the accusation of serious libel, which Reporters Without Borders (RWB) acknowledged, saying, "This outcome will hopefully also encourage certain media to measure their words before publishing or broadcasting.  They were partly to blame and we have said so from the start.  Such charged words as ‘dictator’ and ‘crime against humanity’ cannot be uttered lightly."  However, the sentence is not aimed at repairing the damage but rather seems aimed at bankrupting and closing a media outlet.

Various national and international agencies pressured President Correa to withdraw the complaints; however, the legal proceedings continued until the sentences were handed down, after which the president said he was only looking for the truth to shine forth and expose the real face of the press.  "I sought the truth, I never wanted even one cent," said Correa in announcing his decision to pardon those involved in the Diario El Universo case and the Big Brother case, as the Calderón and Zurita case became known.

The president's decision resulted in a rise in popularity, and his action would seem to be a strategy calculated to strengthen his image.  However, pardoned defendant Calderón insists that the decision was made "because of international pressure and the cracks that were becoming evident within the president's own movement."

Street fights and trolls
Regardless of the intentions of the president, or the other officials, in granting a pardon in every case where lengthy sentences were handed down, this pardon tactic has not reduced the  confrontation that the plaintiffs experience in the streets or in the media.

The trials not only took place inside the courts but also involved clashes between sympathizers from opposing sides outside the courtroom, with Alianza País groups confronting sympathizers of the defendants, for whom these confrontations have become daily occurrences.

"Every day I have to deal with people in the street who call me a traitor," said Mónica Chuji.  And the newspapers to which the convicted journalists belong receive constant insults and denigrating messages on their Web sites, messages that could be coming from a "troll center," directed by the Secretaría de Comunicación.

In the virtual world, a troll is a person whose aim is to intentionally provoke readers or Internet users, by posting insulting or incendiary comments or creating controversy.  Fernando Balda, an activist who was linked to the government, denounced the existence of such a group, financed by the Secretaría de Comunicación, which could be dedicated to uploading insults on the media's Web sites.  This would explain the proliferation of these messages in the comment spaces on news sites, especially when the news reports criticize government actions.  It is clear that the pardon tactic has not eliminated the confrontation and that it will continue.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Articles for March 28-30

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SourceMex, March 28, 2012

  • Investigations all conclude that assassin acted alone
  • Alleged killer Aburto insists he was set up
  • PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto invokes Colosio’s name
  • Peña Nieto far ahead in public-opinion polls
  • Cooperation among all levels of government
  • Critics question whether new law will be enforced
NotiCen, March 29, 2012

  • Many medicinal uses for local plants
  • Panama’s wealth of natural resources
  • UN troops and police increased
  • President promises to promote sustainable development
NotiSur, March 30, 2012

  • Former detainees call for end to repression
  • Activists call on president to fulfill campaign promises
  • Past and present US presence in Paraguay
  • President Santos still believes in military solution
  • Guerrillas push for talks
  • Civil society weighs in

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Articles for March 21-23

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SourceMex, March 21, 2012 

  • More muscle for federal agencies
  • Drought in Texas last year a major factor
  • Deforestation reduced in butterfly habitat in Mexico
  • Limits preferable to tariffs
NotiCen, March 22, 2012

  • Eyes on the big prize
  • Accepting defeat
  • Voting for "faces"
  • "No sugar, no country"
  • Ancient cane fields, idle land, and food
NotiSur, March 23, 2012

  • Free education, teacher evaluation, and university assessment
  • Entrance exams and professional placement
  • Campesinos, indigenous, and Afro Ecuadorans discriminated against
  • The new Senderismo

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Articles for March 14-16

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SourceMex, March 14, 2012

  • Arrest violated suspect’s rights
  • Divided opinions
  • Political ramifications in France and Mexico

  • Mayor reaches out to international companies
  • Federal complaint against landfill
NotiCen, March 15, 2012

  • Presence of drug traffickers adds to problems
  • Guatemala calls for investigation

  • Chinchilla administration builds road along border
  • Tensions continue between neighboring countries
NotiSur, March 16, 2012

  • Disproportionate sentences
  • Pardon: international pressure or concerns about popularity
  • Street fights and trolls
  • Three weeks of "unacceptable repression"
  • More trouble on the horizon

Monday, March 12, 2012

Articles for March 7-9

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SourceMex, March 7, 2009
  • Large expansion of nuclear power proposed
  • Exploitation of shale-gas reserves also envisioned
  • Oil a big part of the plan
Spike in Cases of AH1N1 Virus Not Yet Affecting Tourism
  • Violence prompts US to issue travel advisories
  • AH1N1 infections vary across the country
NotiCen, March 8, 2009

  • Embracing ALBA from the start
  • What Ortega wants, Ortega gets
  • A call for changes "now, rather than later"
NotiSur, March 9, 2009
  • Costly police strikes hit several cities
  • Bahia police want extra pay for "risky" work
  • Privatization of airports another cost of the games
Argentina's Mining Sector Hit by Protests
  • Administration supports mining activities
  • Mining benefits Argentine treasury

Friday, March 2, 2012

Guatemala's New President Otto Pérez Molina Promises to End Violence and Hunger

ISSN: 1089-1560
LADB Article ID: 78487
Category/Department: Guatemala
Date: 2012-02-02
By: Louisa Reynolds

As retired Gen. Otto Pérez Molina was sworn in for a four-year period (2012-2016) on Jan. 14, he delivered a 47-minute speech in which he promised to rid Guatemala of violence and hunger and proposed "a fiscal pact to bring about economic development."

A tough stance on crime was Pérez Molina's number-one campaign promise, and he strove to portray his predecessor former President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) as weak and ineffective in tackling urban gangs and organized crime.

When the national anthem was played, Pérez Molina clenched his fist as he placed his outstretched arm across his chest rather than placing an open hand on his heart in line with tradition. The clenched fist is the symbol of his rightist Partido Patriota (PP), and the gesture was meant to symbolize the new times of firm action against crime that his government is supposed to usher in.

The day before the ceremony, Congressman Óscar Valentín Leal Caal was gunned down along with his brother and bodyguard within blocks of the Legislative Assembly where the new parliament took office, a stark reminder of the huge challenges that lie ahead for Pérez Molina in reducing the country’s spiraling crime rate, which will require a lot more than hardline rhetoric.

Days before he was murdered, Leal had defected from the opposition Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER) party to Pérez Molina’s PP and had reported death threats. The PP won 58 seats in the 158-member unicameral Congress, enough to form the largest bloc but insufficient to gain the two-thirds majority needed to ensure the swift approval of the new government’s policies.

Under the Colom administration, the PP (then the main opposition party) used its muscle in Congress to block practically every single proposal put forward by the social-democrat Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), including a much needed fiscal-reform package.

Now Pérez Molina has put forward his own fiscal-reform proposal, which is almost identical to his predecessor's, and the opposition—which comprises UNE, LIDER, and an array of minor political forces—are now bent on revenge and have already started to block the PP’s proposals. Well aware of the dangers that lie ahead, Pérez Molina has tried to lure opposition congressmen to his party.

The new Cabinet
Political parties in Guatemala tend to lack a coherent ideology and are usually a vehicle designed to take a leader or caudillo to power. The PP, the party created with the purpose of bringing Pérez Molina to power, is no exception. It is therefore hardly surprising that the new government contains a heterogeneous mix of retired army commanders, business people, and former presidential candidates who competed against Pérez Molina during the first round of elections but joined his "national crusade" when he ran against Manuel Baldizón, a populist businessman from the LIDER party, during the second round (NotiCen, Sept. 22, 2011, and Dec. 1, 2011).

Former Lt. Col. Mauricio López Bonilla, the PP’s campaign strategist and one of the president’s closest collaborators, has been appointed interior minister, and retired Gen. Ricardo Bustamante, who worked side by side with Pérez Molina during the early 1990s when the now president served as director of the G2 intelligence service, has been appointed director of the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad (CNS).

The CNS is supposedly in charge of setting out security policies and strategies and includes the president, vice president, interior, defense, and foreign ministers as well as the attorney general and director of intelligence. It was created in 2008 with the approval of the Ley Marco del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad as a means of improving coordination between the different government bureaus that deal with security and defense issues.

However, in practice, it has never delivered any results because the new structures created by the law were never given the financial resources needed. One of the PP’s campaign pledges was to rescue the CNS from oblivion and use effective intelligence to fight organized crime.

Another military figure in the new Cabinet is Ulises Noé Anzueto Girón, former director of the Adolfo V. Hall army school in Chiquimula, who has been appointed defense minister.

Former opposition candidates appointed to the new Cabinet include Harold Caballeros, former leader of the El Shaddai neopentecostal church and founder of the Visión con Valores (VIVA) party (NotiCen, Sept. 1, 2011), who now serves as foreign minister, Efraín Medina, former director of the government funded Universidad de San Carlos, VIVA’s vice presidential candidate, who now serves as minister of agriculture, and Adela de Torrebiarte, former leader of the minuscule Acción de Desarrollo Nacional (ADN) party, who now serves as commissioner for police reform.

Although the poorly funded ADN party, a newcomer during the 2011 elections (NotiCen, Aug. 18, 2011), carried little or no political weight, De Torrebiarte played an instrumental role in thwarting the presidential aspirations of former first lady Sandra Torres, Colom’s successor as leader of the UNE party, by lodging a string of appeals against her candidacy. With Torres out of the race, Pérez Molina sailed to victory.

De Torrebiarte also served briefly as interior minister in the administration of former President Óscar Berger (2004-2008), after Carlos Vielmann was forced to resign after he was accused of ordering the extrajudicial execution of suspected criminals.

The Police Reform Commission was set up under the Colom administration for the purpose of purging the police of corrupt officers and improving training and standards. Under the previous government, it was led by renowned human rights activist Helen Mack, who stated that for Guatemala to have an effective police force, the new administration must double its budget from Q2.5 billion to Q5 billion (US$322 million to US$644 million).

Pérez Molina’s Cabinet includes several women, which is unusual in a male-dominated society, rife with misogynist prejudice, where women have to overcome huge obstacles to follow a career in politics.

Roxana Baldetti, a former congresswoman and one of the founders of the PP, has become Guatemala’s first female vice president. One of Pérez Molina’s closest aides, she is one of the most influential figures in the new government.

Other female appointments include Minister of Education Cynthia del Águila, Minister for the Environment Roxana Sobenes, and Luz Lainfiesta, who will continue the social welfare programs created by Sandra Torres under a newly created Ministry for Social Development.