Monday, February 27, 2012

WNU #1119: Is Privatization Behind the Argentine Train Disaster?

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1119, February 26, 2012

1. Argentina: Critics Blame Train Crash on 1990s Privatization
2. Chile: Residents Block Roads in Aysén Region
3. Honduras: Campesinos Sign Aguán Land Accord
4. Mexico: Chiapas Indigenous Protest Dams, Electric Rates
5. Haiti: PM Forced Out After Four Months in Office
6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti

ISSN#: 1084 922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. It is archived at For a subscription, write to Follow us on Twitter at

*1. Argentina: Critics Blame Train Crash on 1990s Privatization
An Argentine commuter train smashed into a barrier at Station 11 in the center of Buenos Aires on the morning of Feb. 22, killing 51 passengers and injuring 706. Failing brakes caused the crash, the train’s operator told a judge. According to a source in the judicial system, Marcos Córdoba testified that the brakes had failed twice before the crowded train crashed, and that he had warned his supervisors. “In each station I advised the traffic controller by radio that I had problems with the brakes,” Córdoba said. “From the other side they answered: ‘Go on, go on, go on.’”

National Transportation Secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi said that tapes of conversations between the operator and the controller would be turned over to the judge. (El Informador (Guadalajara, Mexico) 2/26/12 from EFE and Notimex)

A spokesperson for Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA), the company that runs the commuter line, initially suggested that the disaster resulted from “human error,” and rumors circulated that Córdoba, who was rescued from his cab and hospitalized, had been drinking. Tests showed later that he had not consumed any alcohol. Labor unions blamed TBA management, charging that it and the companies holding Argentina’s railroad concessions have been pocketing subsidies from the government instead of investing in maintenance and new equipment. A mechanic working for TBA reported that the trains are using brake compressors that are 60 years old. (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/24/12 from correspondent)

Argentina’s extensive state-owned rail system was privatized under former president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999) as part of a radical program of neoliberal “reforms.” Privatization proponents said privatization would improve service and reduce operating deficits. But after the economic collapse of late 2001, Argentine’s federal government had to start providing subsidies to keep the system running. The subsidies continued and actually increased later as the economy improved, rising from $4.9 million a month in 2003 to $60 million in 2008.

The Feb. 22 crash has led to calls for the federal government to renationalize the railroads, but this comes at a time when the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is struggling with growing deficits. (Notimex 2/25/12 via El Financiero (Mexico); Télam (Argentina) 2/24/12) [Earlier this year Fernández’s government cut federal subsidies for the “Subte,” the Buenos Aires subway system, in half and turned over its operation to the municipal government in a cost reduction move that resulted in large fare increases and militant protests by riders and subway workers; see Update #1114.]

In other news, about 5,000 people marched from the Congress to the presidential residence in Buenos Aires on Feb. 23 in support of communities in the northwestern provinces which have been protesting since the beginning of the year against open-pit mining in their region [see Updates #1116, 1117, 1118]. The march was called by the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC), a coalition of some 100 local assemblies in the northwest; the demonstration was backed by 1980 Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, student organizations and leftist parties. Speakers from the assemblies called on President Fernández, who supports open-pit mining, to put aside “ignorance and arrogance” and “listen to the affected communities.”

The organizers had considered postponing the demonstration because of the train crash the day before, but they decided instead to honor the victims with a black flag at the head of the march. (La Nación (Buenos Aires) 2/24/12; Los Andes (Mendoza) 2/24/12)

Update, Feb. 27: According to a tape released by TBA on Feb. 25, the operator of the commuter train that crashed in Buenos Aires on Feb. 22 never told the traffic controller that there was a problem with the brakes. Operator Marcos Córdoba’s voice is only heard on the 18-minute tape at the beginning of the trip. (La Gaceta (Tucumán) 2/27/12 from La Nación)

*2. Chile: Residents Block Roads in Aysén Region
After blocking roads for 13 days to demand more resources for Chile’s isolated southern Aysén region, local citizens’ groups opened up the Presidente Ibáñez Bridge in Puerto Aysén on Feb. 25. The move came one day after the Social Movement for the Aysén Region, the coalition of fishing people, unionists, cab drivers and students that has led the protests, presented the national government with a new list of demands, asking for a response over the weekend. Iván Fuentes, one of the movement’s leaders, told Radio Cooperativa that the protesters opened the bridge “first of all [to provide] free access to the community, and most importantly, to give a signal to the government that just as we are vigorous in our mobilization, we’re also rational people who can carry on a conversation.” (AFP 2/25/12 via La Nación (Paraguay))

Located some 1,300 km from Santiago, the Aysén region is difficult to reach from the rest of the country, and the 100,000 residents pay some of the highest rates for fuel in the country; they say they spend about $220 a month just for heating. The protesters’ 11 demands on the government of rightwing president Sebastián Piñera include a new hospital, the creation of a regional university, and subsidies for transportation, fuel and basic food supplies. (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/21/12, 2/22/12 from correspondent)

Violence broke out between protesters and the carabineros militarized police the night of Feb. 21-22 over control of the Ibáñez Bridge. At least 10 people were injured and nine were arrested. Three people were transported to a hospital in Santiago after being shot in the face with pellets; one lost an eye, and all three were reportedly in danger of losing their vision. National Human Rights Institute (INDH) president Lorena Fries acknowledged that the carabineros had acted in an “indiscriminate and disproportionate” manner, using tear gas in enclosed spaces. Fries could not confirm the protesters’ charge that police agents had fired metal pellets at them, but she said that even if the bullets were rubber, the way they were fired violated police regulations. The protesters responded to police violence by peacefully occupying a police station, an act supported by officials in Coyhaique, the regional capital. (LJ 2/23/12 from correspondent; Prensa Latina 2/25/12)

Other Chileans have been sympathetic to the Aysén protests, with support appearing even at the famous international song festival held each February in the coastal city of Viña del Mar. Police have managed to keep ticket holders from carrying in signs supporting the Aysén movement, but at one point local actor and musician Daniel Muñoz shouted “¡Viva Aysén!” from the stage, to applause from the audience. Outside the events, some protesters have displayed signs about Aysén, while student activists--whose strike tied up Chile’s secondary and university system for much of last year—have denounced the lavish expenditures at the red-carpet festival. (PL 2/25/12)

The Aysén region has also been the subject of protests over the HidroAysén project, a plan to build a complex of five dams that environmentalists say would threaten fjords and valleys in the Patagonia region [see Update #1101]. Chilean health minister Jaime Mañalich has charged that the current protests are led by opponents of the dam project: the journalist Patricio Segura and the organization Patagonia Without Dams. “[T]here is an agenda by Patagonia Without Dams forces, financed by national and international forces, to radicalize this movement,” Mañalich said. Protest leaders dismissed the claim. Local labor leader Jovel Chodil noted that Patagonia Without Dams is only one of the many groups in the regional protest movement. (El Diario de Aysén 2/24/12)

*3. Honduras: Campesinos Sign Aguán Land Accord
In a ceremony broadcast on national television from the presidential residence in Tegucigalpa on Feb. 17, Honduran president Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa and National Agrarian Reform Institute director (INA) César Ham signed an accord with two campesino organizations to finance the purchase of land for campesino cooperatives in the Lower Aguán Valley in the north of the country. The government has presented the land deal as at least a partial solution to long-running disputes in the Aguán that have left more than 50 people dead over the past two years.

President Lobo and the two organizations, the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA) and the Authentic Claimant Movement of Aguán Campesinos (MARCA), agreed in April 2010 on a plan for campesino cooperatives to acquire thousands of hectares of land currently held by large landowners, principally agribusiness and food processing magnate Miguel Facussé Barjum. But the deal has stalled repeatedly over the terms of the financing and over campesino charges of harassment by the government, which has militarized the region [see Update #1116]. The Feb. 17 agreement establishes that the land purchase will be financed by a 15-year loan from the Honduran Bank for Production and Housing (Banhprovi) at an annual rate of 6% with a three-year grace period. (Proceso Digital (Honduras) 2/17/12)

The campesino struggles in the Aguán Valley have received strong backing from other social movements in Honduras, and activists chose Tocoa, a city in the region, as the site for a Feb. 16-20 International Meeting for Human Rights in Solidarity With Honduras. More than 1,000 people attended, including supporters from Latin America, Europe, Australia and the US. Attendees announced their support for the struggles of Honduran organizations, denounced the rise in human rights violations following a 2009 rightwing military coup, and called for an international day of solidarity with Honduras to be held on June 28, the anniversary of the coup. The conference also addressed other issues in the hemisphere; the demands included the release of five Cubans imprisoned in the US for alleged espionage and the withdrawal of United Nations troops from Haiti, where another meeting is to be held in July. (Adital (Brazil) 2/22/12)

*4. Mexico: Chiapas Indigenous Protest Dams, Electric Rates
About 1,000 indigenous people and campesinos held a march in Huixtán in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas on Feb. 25 to protest the high rates the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) charges, to oppose the construction of more dams in the region and to demand that electric power generation not be privatized. The march was organized by the Feb. 29 Popular Struggle Front, which was also marking the eighth anniversary of its founding.

The front’s leader, Pedro Álvarez Vázquez, charged that the CFE “has installed towers with high-tension lines on the land of communities and ejidos [campesino cooperatives] to carry power to other municipalities, and it doesn’t pay anything to the owners…who can’t work on the land because of the danger.” In addition to charging high rates, the commission doesn’t maintain the lines and transformers properly, causing power outages, especially during rainstorms, according to the activist. “[I]t isn’t possible that they give us the power at such a cost when Chiapas has various hydroelectric dams that generate electricity for other parts of the country,” he added.

Álvarez Vázquez said the march included indigenous people from some 20 Huixtán communities that have been resisting payment for electricity for more than a decade, along with organizations in solidarity from Las Roas, Altamirano and Socoltenango municipalities. (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/26/12)

In related news, federal authorities arrested schoolteacher and environmental activist Lucila Bettina Cruz Velázquez in Juchitán de Zaragoza in the neighboring state of Oaxaca as she was leaving a meeting with the CFE’s regional director on Feb. 22. She was released on bail 24 hours later, charged with the illegal deprivation of freedom of CFE workers and with opposition “to the exploitation of national riches.” [In Mexico activists are sometimes charged with “illegal deprivation of freedom” when they block access to buildings or roads.]

Cruz Velázquez is a member of the Assembly of the Indigenous Peoples of the Tehuantepec Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory and has been a leader in struggles against high electric rates and against a project for building wind turbines in the Tehuantepec Isthmus. The human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern over her arrest. (Proceso (Mexico) 2/23/12)

*5. Haiti: PM Forced Out After Four Months in Office
Haitian prime minister Garry Conille submitted a letter of resignation the morning of Feb. 24 as rumors grew of tension between him and President Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”). The prime minister was said to have become more and more isolated in the government; according to several sources no other government ministers appeared at a cabinet meeting he called the day before. Conille only served four months. After rejecting two previous choices, Parliament approved Conille’s appointment in October [see Update #1100], and he took office on Oct. 18. At the time Martelly said that he and his prime minister were “a winning pair of dice.”

Conille is a longtime associate of former US president Bill Clinton (1993-2001), now the United Nations special envoy for Haiti and an influential figure in the country. The US embassy issued a statement on Oct. 24 praising Conille and calling for political stability and the rapid confirmation of a new prime minister who could organize the parliamentary and local elections scheduled for the spring. (AlterPresse (Haiti) 2/24/12; Haïti Libre (Haiti) 2/24/12)

Martelly can point to few accomplishments after nine months in office, and resentment may be growing. On Feb. 17 rocks were reportedly thrown at him when he and a group of supporters attempted to enter the Ethnology Faculty of the State University of Haiti (UEH), near the Champ de Mars park and the president’s official residence, the National Palace. According to a witness, “people who were not police” in the president’s group then forced their way into the Ethnology Faculty’s grounds, throwing rocks and beating students with clubs. Gunfire was also reported, possibly from police agents accompanying the president. According to an official communiqué, the president “was able to return safe and sound to the grounds of the National Palace.” (AlterPresse 2/17/12)

*6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti

Anti-Systemic Movements on Planet Earth: The People's Struggle For the Good Life (Latin America)

Buenos Aires Train Crash Kills 50; Argentina Declares Period of Mourning

The Bitter Taste of Brazil’s World Cup

Bolivia’s García Linera: ‘Moving beyond capitalism is a universal task’

Bolivia: police clash with disabled

Bolivia’s TIPNIS Conflict: Letting the People Decide?

Peru: indigenous movement calls for new regulations on Law of Prior Consultation

Action Alert! Two Weeks to Stop the Diverting of the Yuma-Guacahayo-Magdalena River (Colombia)

Venezuela’s Chavez News of Second Operation Provokes Opposition and Press Rumours

Honduras: growing unrest in wake of prison fire

Hundreds Killed in Honduras Jail Fire Shows Post-Coup Impunity

Help End U.S. Funding to Honduran Police and Military

US immigration judge rules former Salvador defense minister may be deported

Guadalajara, Guadalajara (Mexico)

Mexico busts more Sinaloa kingpins —but still not El Chapo

US, Mexico open transboundary waters to oil and gas exploitation

Gulf of Mexico Agreement: Increased Oil Cooperation in a Time of War

Havana, Cuba: Med Students Taken out of School to Check City for Dengue

The non-reconstruction of the State University – Putting the nation in peril (Haiti)

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