Tuesday, December 15, 2009

WNU #1016: New Campaign Against Honduran Sweatshops

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1016, December 13, 2009

1. Honduras: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns Advance
2. Colombia: Attorney and Labor Leader Threatened
3. Chile: Will Frei Murder Affect Runoff?
4. Haiti: US Indicts 5 in Téléco Bribe Case
5. Venezuela: Offer to Save Bronx Jobs Rebuffed
6. Trade: US Think Tank Admits NAFTA Failed Mexico
7. Links to alternative sources on: Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua Honduras, Mexico, NAFTA, Human Rights Day

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. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com . It is archived at http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com/

*1. Honduras: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns Advance
Students at North American campuses are demanding that their universities drop licensing agreements with the Oregon-based Nike, Inc sportswear manufacturer unless 1,800 workers for two Nike contractors in Honduras get legally mandated back pay and severance packages worth more than $2 million. Officials at Purdue University in Indiana announced on Dec. 2 that they were reviewing the situation, and on Dec. 7 University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin said she was giving Nike four months to clear up problems with alleged labor abuses.

The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington, DC-based monitoring group, reported in October that the Vision Tex and Hugger de Honduras maquiladoras—tax-exempt assembly plants producing for export—failed to pay their workers the compensation required by law when they closed in January [see Update #1005]. The contractors say they can’t pay, and Nike is questioning how much of its product came from the two plants. A similar student anti-sweatshop campaign forced Russell Athletic of Atlanta to agree on Nov. 17 to rehire 1,200 workers it laid off in January at its Jerzees de Honduras plant [see Update #1013]. (Purdue press release 12/3/09; The Capital Times (Madison, WI) 12/8/09)

Plant closings have become a major labor issue in Honduras. The country’s maquiladora sector lost 36,000 jobs from 2008 to 2009 because of the world economic crisis. At the same time, the situation for labor rights deteriorated after a June 28 military coup removed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales from office. "We don’t have concrete data, but we’ve received reports of women who have had to work weekends to make up days missed because of arriving late due to the protests,” Women’s Rights Center director Yadira Minero told the Inter Press Service (IPS) wire service. (La Jornada (Mexico) 11/24/09 from IPS)

On Dec. 10 Judge Ernesto Flores Bardales in El Progreso municipality, Yoro department (near San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras), ordered unconditional freedom for Bartolo Fuentes, a journalist and city council member that factory owners had charged with obstruction of justice and abuse of authority in another plant closing. On May 13 Fuentes and other reporters covered a sit-in at the Zip Porvenir free trade zone by some of the 400 workers laid off when the Star, SA maquiladora closed at the end of March. The workers were demanding their full severance pay and compensation for maternity leave and sick days.

The Chahin-Hawit family, which owns the free trade zone, charged that Fuentes was instigating the protest and that he abused his authority by agreeing to hold the workers’ severance checks in trust; the workers refused to endorse the checks because they felt they were entitled to more compensation. The company finally settled with the Star Workers Union (SITRASTAR) in July, paying a total of more than 1 million lempiras ($53,000) to some 134 former workers. The Star plant reportedly produced apparel for the Anvil, Nike and Adidas companies. (Honduras Laboral 12/10/09 from Comun-Noticias)

Fuentes was briefly detained on Sept. 15 when he tried to make a speech at El Progreso’s official Independence Day celebration. Mayor Alexander López had Fuentes’ mike shut off after he began to denounce the coup d’état. When the council member continued to speak to the cheering crowd, Police Commissioner Flores Mejia ordered police agents to arrest him. A video of the incident was widely circulated on the internet. (Honduras Laboral 9/15/09 from Comun-Noticias)

*2. Colombia: Attorney and Labor Leader Threatened
The US-based Colombia Support Network (CSN) reported on Dec. 10 that for the last several weeks Colombian human rights attorney Jorge Eliécer Molano-Rodríguez had “received worrisome visits to his apartment building by individuals who refused to give their names to the building watchman, and his companion has been stalked by strange men…. Molano’s legal work has involved him in some of Colombia’s most controversial cases, representing, among others, families of victims of the Palace of Justice murders; of the Feb. 21, 2005 massacre of members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó; and of the Army’s ‘false positives’ kidnapping and murder of civilian youths in San José de Guaviare, and in Bolivar and Cesar departments.”

CSN is asking for people in the US to write to members of Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (secretary@state.gov and http://www.state.gov/), US ambassador Mr. William Brownfield (AmbassadorB@state.gov) and other officials to express concern and to urge them to communicate to Colombian officials the need to protect Molano. (CSN urgent action 12/10/09)

According to the National Directorate of Colombia's National Union of Food Industry Workers (SINALTRAINAL), on Nov. 24 union president Luis Javier Correa Suárez received a threatening call on a mobile phone assigned to him by the Interior Ministry’s protection program. A man who identified himself as Arnold Jiménez told Correa: “You have until the 22nd to renounce, and there won’t be another phone call.” When Correa asked why, the man replied: “You know why, don’t play games, you know what I mean” and hung up. This came during a contract dispute with the Industria Nacional de Gaseosas S.A., a bottling company owned by Coca-Cola’s Colombia branch.

The union has called for international solidarity. The British-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign recommends sending protests to Colombia’s London embassy (elondres@cancilleria.gov.co and mail@colombianembassy.co.uk) and messages of support to the union (areainternacional@sinaltrainal.org), with copies to the Colombia Solidarity Campaign (info@colombiasolidarity.org.uk ). (LabourNet 12/11/09)

*3. Chile: Will Frei Murder Affect Runoff?
Rightwing billionaire Sebastián Piñera led the presidential race in Chile’s general elections on Dec. 13 with about 44% of the vote, followed by the candidate of the ruling center-left Concertation coalition, the Christian Democratic former president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), with about 30%. The two candidates will face each other in a runoff on Jan. 17, with both seeking votes from supporters of former Socialist deputy Marco Enríquez Ominami, who came in third with 20%; he has refused to endorse either of the frontrunners. Jorge Arrate of the Communist Party of Chile (PCCh), in fourth place with 5% of the vote, threw his support to Frei after the voting on Dec. 13. (Agence France Presse 12/14/09)

Parties on the right won 16 of the 38 seats in the Senate and 58 of 120 seats in the Chamber of Deputies; this was the right’s strongest showing in the lower house since the end of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship headed by the late Gen. August Pinochet. Concertation candidates won 19 seats in the Senate and 54 in the Chamber of Deputies. Three PCCh candidates won seats in the Chamber; they will be the first Communist legislators since the military coup of 1973. (Milenio (Mexico) 12/14/09 from DPA; Prensa Latina 12/14/09)

On Dec. 7, less than a week before the elections, Appeals Court judge Alejandro Madrid charged three people with murder in the 1982 death of former president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), the father of the Concertation candidate. The Frei family had long suspected that Frei Montalva, who had moved from supporting Pinochet to opposing the dictatorship, died from gradual poisoning rather than the natural causes cited in the official autopsy report. After a seven-year investigation, Judge Madrid concluded that low doses of mustard gas and thallium ultimately led to Frei Montalva’s death. The accused are a doctor with military connections, a former intelligence agent and Frei Montalva’s driver. Judge Madrid also accused three doctors of complicity in the murder or of helping in the coverup. If the judge’s conclusion is correct, this was the first murder of a president in Chile’s history.

“There is no doubt that Pinochet ordered this murder," Álvaro Varela, a lawyer for the Frei family, told the New York Times. The dictatorship was suspected of killing several opponents using special poisons developed by the chemist Eugenio Berríos, who was murdered in Uruguay in the 1990s; his body was found there in 1995 [see Update #664].

Asked if the timing of the charges was connected to the elections and Frei Ruiz-Tagle’s poor showing in the polls, Justice Minister Carlos Maldonado said that instead of questioning the charges, people “should be ashamed that 27 years have had to pass so that truth and justice could start to be done in this case.” (NYT 12/8/09; impre.com 12/9/09 from AP)

*4. Haiti: US Indicts 5 in Téléco Bribe Case
On Dec. 7 the US Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging two former Haitian officials, two former executives of an unnamed Florida telecommunications company and the president of Florida-based Telecom Consulting Services Corp with foreign bribery, wire fraud and money laundering. According to the indictment, the telecommunications company paid more than $800,000 to shell companies to be used for bribes to officials of Haiti's state-owned telecommunications company, Télécommunications d'Haiti (Haiti Téléco). Two other Florida executives pleaded guilty to related charges last spring. The rightwing Haitian daily Le Matin reported that the unnamed Florida company was Terra Telecommunications Corporation.

The US says the alleged bribery went on from November 2001 through March 2005—in other words, during much of the second term of left-populist president Jean Bertrand Aristide (1991-1996 and 2001-2004), and during the first year of the conservative interim government installed after Aristide was forced from power in late February 2004. (Justice Department press release 12/7/09; Miami Herald 12/9/09; Le Matin 12/11/09)

There have been repeated accusations of corruption in Téléco. In July 2008, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined IDT, a New Jersey telecommunications company closed linked to the US Republican party, some $1.3 million for failing to file a contract for telephone service to Haiti in 2004; a former IDT manager charged that the company had negotiated an illegal deal with Téléco [see Update #956].

*5. Venezuela: Offer to Save Bronx Jobs Rebuffed
According to former employees of the Stella D’oro Biscuit Co. in New York City, CITGO, the US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) oil monopoly, attempted to buy the company’s Bronx plant in early October to save the jobs of 136 unionized workers but the Connecticut-based private equity firm that owned the company ignored the offer. The facility was closed on Oct. 8.

The plant closing followed a bitter labor dispute that started in August 2008 over demands for cuts in wages and benefits by the private equity firm, Brynwood Partners. The workers went on strike, holding out for 11 months. The job action ended in July when the National Labor Relations Board ordered the company to take back the strikers under the terms of their old contract and with back pay. Brynwood responded by selling Stella D’oro to snack food giant Lance, Inc., which quickly moved production to a non-union shop in Ohio.

Several of the workers and their supporters spoke with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on Sept. 23 when he was in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. A week later, CITGO executive Andreas Rangel came to New York to talk to the workers. According to Bronx community activist René Rojas, CITGO wanted to buy or rent the plant and reorganize it as a worker-run cooperative, possibly selling the cooperative’s cookies at CITGO’s 7,000 gas stations. But Brynwood failed to respond to CITGO’s phone calls and emails, the workers said.

While the government of Venezuela seemed interested in saving the plant, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg “didn’t even try to find a solution,” said local labor activist Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez. “It’s such a travesty.” (The Indypendent (New York) 11/20/09)

*6. Trade: US Think Tank Admits NAFTA Failed Mexico
On Dec. 9 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an influential Washington, DC-based think tank, released “Rethinking Trade Policy for Development: Lessons From Mexico Under NAFTA,” a study on the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and related neoliberal economic policies on Mexico’s economy.

The study found that in the period since the agreement went into effect in 1994, Mexico’s annual per capital growth rate has been slow (1.6% in 1992-2007, compared to 3.5% in 1960-1979) and job growth has been weak, with net losses in agriculture and manufacturing (except for the export-oriented maquiladora sector). Contrary to the projections of neoliberal economists, NAFTA did not increase investment—foreign investment increases were more than offset by decreases in domestic investment. And less restricted trade with the US has made Mexico “excessively dependent on the United States as an export market, with more than 85% of Mexican exports going to the United States, up from 70% in 1990… For this reason, the current recession is hitting Mexico harder than any other country in Latin America.”

The study’s findings are not new—a joint statement by Canadian, Mexican and US labor federations made many of the same points in August [see Update #1001]. What is new is the fact that a prestigious US think tank discussed these issues, specifically challenging what the report notes is a widespread assumption in the US “that Mexico was the undeniable winner from NAFTA.” (Carnegie Endowment 12/7/09; New York Times blog 12/10/09)

*7. Links to alternative sources on: Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua Honduras, Mexico, NAFTA, Human Rights Day

"Blonde Angel of Death" goes on trial in Argentina

With Victory, Morales and Social Movements Confront New Challenges in Bolivia

The Speed of Change: Bolivian President Morales Empowered by Re-Election

Peru: Violence Targets Anti-mining Activists

Peru: peasants march for justice after slaying of mine opponents

Ecuador Uses WTO Rules to Make Medicines More Accessible

US denies role in Colombian raid on Ecuador

Where Does US Military ‘Aid’ to Colombia Go?

Colombia investigates Chiquita officials

A Scandal Brews as Colombia Subsidizes Millionaire Farmers

DEA: Venezuelan cocaine ops aided FARC

Report From a Fact-Finding Trip to Nicaragua: Anti-Poverty Programs Make a Difference

"Honduran Elections": A Parody on Democracy

Honduras and a Divided Latin America

For Some Hondurans, Elections Change Little

Honduran Youth Under Attack

Democracy in Honduras: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

On Presidents and Precedents: Implications of the Honduran Coup

Honduran Coup Regime Erects Superficial Reality Around Elections

Amnesty International cites Mexico on Lomas de Poleo land conflict

Inter-American Human Rights Court rebukes Mexico in Juárez femicide case

Mexican Electrical Workers Union Changes Strategy in Face of Calderon
Government's Intransigence

Reforming North American Trade Policy: Lessons from NAFTA

Human Rights Day celebrations met with repression around the globe

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