Tuesday, January 18, 2011

WNU #1063: Honduran Right Offers Constitutional Reforms

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1063, January 16, 2011

1. Honduras: Right Wing Offers Constitutional Reforms
2. Honduras: Campesino Leader Kidnapped, Released
3. Puerto Rico: Student Strike Resumes
4. Haiti: Quake Anniversary Ceremonies Protested
5. Latin America: Four More Countries Recognize Palestine
6. US: SOA Protesters Get the Max, Again
7. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, 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. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com. It is archived at http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com/

*1. Honduras: Right Wing Offers Constitutional Reforms
On the evening of Jan. 12 Honduras’ National Congress passed reforms to Articles 5 and 213 of the 1982 Constitution that would open the way to changing key elements of the document--including the ban on presidential reelection--by popular referendum. The changes were proposed by the rightwing National Party (PN) of President Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa and were backed by other parties, including the Liberal Party (PL) of former president José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009); 103 of the 128 legislative deputies voted for the reforms.

Two different sessions of the National Congress need to approve an amendment, so the changes will not be official unless approved the next session, which begins on Jan. 25.

Commentators were quick to note that the military removed former president Zelaya from office in June 2009 on the pretext that a nonbinding referendum he was promoting could have resulted in similar changes to the Constitution. President Lobo and many of the current legislators supported the 2009 coup as a defense of the Constitution. “So something that was bad when Zelaya tried it is good now?” a reporter asked President Lobo on Jan. 12. “Let’s not mix water with oil,” Lobo answered, claiming that Zelaya had been trying to extend his term.

Grassroots organizations denounced the new reforms as an inadequate response to the popular pressure for more extensive changes to the current Constitution, which was created at the end of nearly two decades of military dictatorship. The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a coalition of many different groups opposing the 2009 coup, said it would continue to push for a constituent assembly with the power to rewrite the Constitution, the object of the June 2009 referendum. The FNRP says it gathered 1,342,876 signatures for such an assembly during a petition campaign in the spring and summer of 2010 [see Update #1051].

Tomás Andino, a former Congress member from the center-left Democratic Unification (UD) party, attributed the government’s reforms to international pressure. He said the US was following a policy of supporting “moderate coup supporters” and dissociating itself from the “recalcitrant coup supporters.” According to Andino, Washington pushed the Lobo government in December to return Zelaya to Honduras from exile and to punish the "visible faces of the coup." The government’s failure to follow the US plan lost Honduras $215 million of US aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Andino said, and could result in the loss of other aid. (Prensa Latina 1/12/11; La Nación (Costa Rica) 1/13/11, some from ACAN-EFE; Red Morazánica de Información 1/13/11 via FNRP website; Honduras Culture and Politics blog 1/13/11) The US announced the Millennium Challenge suspension on Jan. 6. (AP 1/6/11 via SFGate)

*2. Honduras: Campesino Leader Kidnapped, Released
Honduran campesino leader Juan Ramón Chinchilla was safe and was staying in an undisclosed location on Jan. 11 after two days in captivity, according to the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a coalition of labor and grassroots organizations. Chinchilla, a leader in the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), said a group of hooded men seized him on Jan. 8 on a road near La Concepción, Tocoa municipality, in the northern department of Colón. The kidnappers questioned him, beat him and burned his hair, Chinchilla said. Most of the men wore uniforms; some spoke English and one spoke a language Chinchilla couldn’t understand. He escaped while the kidnappers were moving him to another location on the night of Jan. 9.

The FNRP thanked political and social organizations and the international community for mobilizing in Chinchilla’s defense. The kidnappers “were concerned about the national and international pressure,” Chinchilla told an interviewer. “They were monitoring the news on the internet and radio. That is why they decided to move me to another location…. I believe that all of this pressure helped so that something worse did not happen.”

The Lower Aguán Valley in northern Honduras has been the site of repeated and often violent land struggles between campesino families, grouped together in the MUCA, and large landowners seeking to use the land for growing African oil palms [see Update #1059]. Chinchilla and the FNRP suggested that three of the largest landowners in the country, Miguel Facussé Barjum, Reinaldo Canales and René Morales, were behind Chinchilla’s kidnapping. (Prensa Latina 1/11/11, 1/12/11; FNRP website 1/12/11 from Rel-UITA (Argentina))

*3. Puerto Rico: Student Strike Resumes
Students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) renewed militant protests around economic issues as the school reopened on Jan. 11 following winter holidays. The actions had started in December in opposition to an $800 tuition surcharge for 2011 [see Update #1060]; protest leaders said the increase would keep as many as 10,000 of the system’s 65,000 students from attending the public university. The students called a 48-hour strike on Dec. 7-8, and an indefinite strike starting on Dec. 14, but the actions were only observed at six of the UPR’s 11 campuses, in contrast to the 10 campuses shut down last spring, when students beat back major budget cutbacks with a two-month strike. (People’s World 1/10/11)

The students’ first action when school reopened was a march on Jan. 11, but acts of vandalism by masked youths during the march put the student movement on the defensive. On Jan. 12 police agents arrested nine students at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan as they distributed fliers; they were released later in the day for lack of evidence to support charges. An assembly of student strikers that evening condemned the arrests as a demonstration that “the university administration and the executive [of the Puerto Rican government] continue to restrict, without right or reason, freedom of expression, reflecting in the process the totalitarian character of [Gov.] Luis Fortuño’s government.” The assembly also condemned vandalism and the “irresponsible use” of masks for “acts…which go against the spirit of struggle of this student movement,” but the students defended the “use of masks as a way to protect the compañeros and compañeras from being arrested or penalized for participating in demonstrations and public activities.” (Primera Hora (Guaynabo) 1/13/11, ___)

On Jan. 13 some 75 strikers attempted to disrupt the first day of registration with a sit-in at the Río Piedras campus’ administrative buildings. The protesters occupied a stairway and hung a giant banner reading: “No fees” in various languages and quoting the German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Only through education can man be a man; man is no more than what education makes of him.” Police agents eventually used pepper spray and their shields to push the protesters outside, where a larger number of students continued to demonstrate. Seven arrests were reported. (Primera Hora 1/13/11; Puerto Rico Indymedia 1/14/11)

*4. Haiti: Quake Anniversary Ceremonies Protested
Thousands of Haitians turned out for religious ceremonies in Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country on Jan. 12 to mark the one-year anniversary of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled much of the capital and the surrounding area. Cardinal Robert Sarah, sent by Pope Benedict XVI, joined the papal nuncio and Haitian bishops and priests in a special mass at the ruins of the city’s Catholic cathedral. Protestants held a service at the Champ-de-Mars park, across from the shattered National Palace, while Vodou followers participated in a ceremony of remembrance at the National Bureau of Ethnology.

The death toll from the earthquake has generally been estimated at 220,000 to 250,000, but on the anniversary Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive announced that the official estimate had risen to 316,000. Some 206,000 victims were reportedly buried just in the mass graves at Saint-Christophe (Titanyen) north of the capital. (Agence Haïtienne de Presse (Haiti) 1/12/11)

Not all the anniversary ceremonies went smoothly. The government planned an event to mark the start of an ambitious housing project supposed to provide some 3,000-4,000 apartments in the impoverished Fort National neighborhood near the center of Port-au-Prince. The event was called off after a group of unidentified persons threw stones and an apparently unrelated group of about 20 local residents carrying signs occupied the site. Police and members of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), an international police and military operation, intervened, but there were no reports of injuries. The protesters said they didn’t oppose reconstruction but were demanding greater transparency. “We want explanations, we want to know how the state expects to help people who well before Jan. 12 [2010] lived in subhuman conditions,” a protester explained to a MINUSTAH agent, who took notes. “This is unacceptable now in the 21st century.” (AlterPresse (Haiti) 1/12/11)

A memorial at the Applied Linguistics Faculty of the State University of Haiti (UEH) for more than 150 students and faculty lost in the quake was disrupted by dozens of protesters, mostly from the UEH Human Sciences Faculty (FASCH), demanding justice for sociology professor Jean Anil Louis-Juste. A well-known radical, Louis-Juste was shot dead in broad daylight in downtown Port-au-Prince just a few hours before the earthquake [see Update #1026]. The FASCH students were protesting the lack of progress in the murder investigation and what they said was UEH rector Jean Vernet Henry’s failure to honor Louis-Juste on the Jan. 12 anniversary. (Radio Kiskeya (Haiti) 1/12/11)

In other news, on Jan. 13 Organization of American States (OAS) representatives in Haiti sent President René Préval a report by OAS technical experts on the Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections. The report recommended that presidential candidates Myrlande Manigat and Michel Martelly (the popular singer known as “Sweet Mickey”) should be the two candidates in a runoff election originally scheduled for Jan. 16. Martelly would replace Préval’s designated candidate (and future son-in-law), Jude Célestin, who was originally assigned second place. One person was killed on Jan. 14 during street demonstrations against the OAS recommendations, and 14 people were arrested; they were released without explanation the same day. The detainees had been carrying a large amount of money in their vehicles, along with old tires and pamphlets proclaiming Célestin the victor; witnesses said they had been shooting guns and building barricades. (AlterPresse 1/14/11; Radio Kiskeya 1/15/11)

Adding to the tensions, former “president for life” Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier (1971-1986) arrived in Port-au-Prince on an Air France flight at about 5 pm on Jan. 16, apparently without warning, after nearly 25 years of exile in France. Several hundred supporters and opponents gathered at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport as the news spread. The ex-dictator stayed at the airport for about three hours and then was driven away in a vehicle under heavy escort by Haitian police and MINUSTAH agents. (AlterPresse 1/17/11)

*5. Latin America: Four More Countries Recognize Palestine
On Jan. 14 Guyana’s Foreign Ministry announced that his country was recognizing Palestine as an independent nation in the hope that “that the increasing recognition of the state of Palestine will contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of lasting peace and stability in the region.” Guyana is the sixth South American country to recognize Palestine in a little more than a month. (Haaretz (Israel) 1/14/11)

Brazil started the wave of recognitions on Dec. 3, and Argentina followed on Dec. 6 [see Update #1060]. Bolivian president Evo Morales announced his country’s decision to recognize Palestine on Dec. 22; Bolivia had broken relations with Israel in January 2009 in response to an Israeli offensive in Gaza. (Reuters 12/22/10 via Europa Press) On Dec. 24 Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry announced that President Rafael Correa had approved that day “official recognition by the government of Ecuador for the Palestinian State as free and independent, with the borders from 1967.” (EFE 12/24/10 via La Hora (Quito))

The government of rightwing Chilean president Sebastián Piñera announced its recognition of Palestine on Jan. 7. A statement read by Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno stressed that Chile has also “fully supported the right of the state of Israel to exist inside secure and internationally recognized borders.” Like Bolivia, Chile didn’t define the borders of the Palestinian state; Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador all specified the borders from 1967, which would include Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Moreno noted the presence in Chile of large communities of people of Arabic and Jewish descent; there are about 300,000 Arab Chileans and 30,000 Jewish Chileans. Moreno also announced a visit by Piñera to Israel and Palestine and Mar. 4 and 5. (AFP 1/7/11 via El Comercio (Quito))

Venezuela had recognized Palestine earlier, as had three other Latin American countries: Costa Rica, Cuba and Nicaragua. Uruguay indicated that it would make a similar move sometime in 2011 [see Update #1060].

*6. US: SOA Protesters Get the Max, Again
For the second year in a row, a federal court in Columbus, Georgia, has sentenced activists to six-month prison terms for trespassing on the US Army's Fort Benning base during protests against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). This is the maximum sentence for the offense, and US federal magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth surprised observers when he imposed the penalty on three activists in January 2010 [see Update #1020].

Four of the activists arrested during the most recent protest—the 20th annual demonstration, held last Nov. 20—have received six-month sentences. Father Louis Vitale and Michael Omondi were sentenced after making a no-contest plea in November, and Nancy H. Smith and Christopher Spicer were sentenced by US Magistrate Stephen Hyles on Jan. 5. This is the third time Father Vitale has served time in jail for participating in the protests against SOA, which trains Latin American soldiers. SOA Watch, which sponsors the protests, says SOA graduates are among the region's most notorious human rights violators.

Information on sending letters of support to the jailed activists is available at http://www.soaw.org/about-us/pocs . (SOA Watch 1/5/11; Bryan County (GA) News 1/6/11 from AP)

Correction: In Update #1058 we reported that the 2010 SOA Watch demonstration was about the same size as in 2009, based on police and media reports indicating that about 5,000 people participated in both. An experienced activist who was present for both protests reports that the 2009 demonstration was larger, with significantly more than 5,000 participants.

*7. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti

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Chile: Flood of Indigenous Demands a Challenge for Government

Easter Island: Chilean forces suppress indigenous protests

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The Rio de Janeiro War: Farce and the Geopolitics of Crime

Flash Flooding In Brazil Claims More Than 470 Lives And Shines Spotlight On Brazilian Housing Policy

Inter-American rights commission to rule on Bazilian Amazon land claim

Bolivia: New Pension Law Lowers Retirement Age, Raises Expectations

Open Letter to Evo Morales and Álvaro García Against the Gasolinazo

WikiLeaks Peru: cable alleges military ties to narco-traffic

Peru: army rewrites history of "dirty war"

Peru: evidence mounts of "uncontacted peoples" in Amazon oil zones

The Battle Next Door: An Insider’s Experience with Colombian Military Discourse

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Colombia: new charges in "false positives" scandal

Venezuelan link seen in supposed FARC-ETA connection

Hugo Chávez: "I am not a dictator"

New U.S. Ship Deployment to Costa Rica Heightens Tensions

US: Wrong on Honduras

Guatemala declares emergency as Zetas threaten state

Mexico: Zapatistas deny link to Fernández de Cevallos kidnapping

Mexico: leader of "Santa Muerte" cult detained on kidnapping charges

Mexico: 2010 narco-violence again breaks record

Mexico: Guerrero campesinos reinstate blockade against Parota hydro-dam

The Other Arizona Shooting (Mexico)

Where the People Order and the Law Obeys: The Policía Comunitaria in Guerrero, Mexico

Mexican Army attacks human rights defenders in Oaxaca

Former CIA Asset Luis Posada Goes to Trial (Cuba)

Haiti One Year Later: Light at the End of the Tunnel or Oncoming Train?

Haiti: January 12, 2011 - Frustration, Anger, Exclusion

Beyond the Blue Helmets: Stability in Haiti Requires New Elections

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