Monday, February 21, 2011

WNU #1068: Indigenous Panamanians Protest Open-Pit Mining

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1068, February 20, 2011

1. Panama: Indigenous Groups Protest Open-Pit Mining
2. Puerto Rico: Bar Association Head Jailed in “Rights Crisis”
3. Honduras: US Cable Blasts Coup Leaders’ “Backroom Deals”
4. Mexico: Rebels Reemerge to Denounce “Drug War”
5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Guatemala, Mexico, 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 . It is archived at

*1. Panama: Indigenous Groups Protest Open-Pit Mining
On Feb. 15 some 5,000 members of Panama’s Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group held a day of national protests against changes to the Mining Resources Code that they said would encourage open-pit mining for metals by foreign companies. The protests, organized by the People’s Total Struggle (ULIP), started at 10 am in San Félix, in the Ngöbe-Buglé territory in the western province of Chiriquí. Demonstrators interrupted traffic on the highway leading to Costa Rica and reportedly attacked Deputy Labor Minister Luis Ernesto Carles, who had been sent to talk with them. At noon there were demonstrations in front of the Banco General in Santiago, Veraguas province, and the Aquilino Tejera Hospital in Penonomé, Coclé province. Actions continued in the afternoon with protests at the Central Avenue in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro province, and at Vía España in Panama City.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by the coalition supporting conservative President Ricardo Martinelli, voted 42-15 on Feb. 10 to pass the mining law changes, which supporters say will ease the way for foreign investment in the country. They also insist that the law increases controls over the mining companies by stepping up incentives, regulations and fines, and that mining will not be allowed in indigenous territories. But more than 70 Panamanian and international environmental organizations charge that open-pit mining will have serious effects in a rainy tropical climate like Panama’s. They have asked the government to carry out a dialogue on the changes.

Ngöbe-Buglé leaders called on Martinelli to revoke the new law by Feb. 17. He refused, and on Feb. 18 protesters blocked a bridge over the Pacora River east of the capital, interrupting the flow of traffic. The demonstrators fought back with clubs and stones when some 200 anti-riot agents were sent in to remove them. There were seven arrests and several police agents were injured, according to José Castillo, police chief for the metropolitan area.

Indigenous leaders set a new deadline of Feb. 23 for revoking the changes to the law and called for protests to continue. There was a demonstration in David, the capital of Chiriquí province, on Feb. 19, and a delegation of Ngöbe-Buglé were holding a vigil over the weekend of Feb. 19 at the National Assembly building in Panama City. On Feb. 20 an indigenous delegation interrupted a convention of the Panameñista Party in Chiriquí, forcing Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, the party’s leader, to hold a meeting with them.

The social democratic opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) has announced that it supports the indigenous demands “publicly and unconditionally” and will revoke the law if its candidates win the 2014 elections. (Adital (Brazil) 2/15/11; Radio Temblor (Panama) 2/16/11 via Adital; AFP 2/18/11 via Terra (Peru); Telemetro (Panama) 2/20/11; EFE 2/20/11 via Qué.es (Spain))

*2. Puerto Rico: Bar Association Head Jailed in “Rights Crisis”
Chief US federal district judge José Fusté sent Puerto Rican Bar Association (CAPR) president Osvaldo Toledo Martínez to prison on Feb. 10 for refusing to pay a $10,000 fine for contempt of court. This was the latest incident arising from a federal class action suit that challenges the bar’s use of compulsory dues to buy life insurance policies for all its members. CAPR supporters say the association has discontinued the practice and the suit is politically motivated.

Last year the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upheld an injunction that barred the use of dues for the insurance program, but the court overturned a $4 million damages judgment and said lawyers can opt out of the class action suit. A lower court could then reduce the damages, the appeals court ruled. In defiance of a gag order barring discussion of the case, Toledo held a press conference on Feb. 8 to tell lawyers about their option to get out of the suit; he warned that the CAPR headquarters might have to be sold to pay the judgment. Judge Fusté then found Toledo in contempt and imposed the fine. Toledo surrendered on Feb. 10 at the federal courthouse in Hato Rey rather than pay. “I am here to turn myself in because I don’t want officials to break the doors to my house at 3 am,” he said, “or shoot pepper spray at my family, or bring federal patrol cars. I want my family to sleep peacefully.”

Toledo was released from jail on Feb. 14 after a motion was filed saying that he would pay the fine, but under protest and at the urging of his wife. Once he was released, Toledo treated by a urologist for a possible urinary infection and then taken to a hospital emergency room due to high blood pressure. (Caribbean Business (Puerto Rico) 2/10/11; ABA Journal 2/14/11, 2/15/11)

Coming amidst charges of repression by the administration of conservative governor Luis Fortuño against student protesters at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) [see Update #1067], Judge Fusté’s jailing of Toledo triggered strong support for the bar association president. Some 250 CAPR members and others held a vigil in front of the federal prison in Hato Rey the night of Feb. 11. Environmental activist Alberto de Jesús Mercado (“Tito Kayak”) climbed an electric power pole and unfurled a banner reading: “Osvaldo, all of Puerto Rico is with you.” The Ibero-Americana Union of Bar Associations denounced Fusté’s actions as an abuse of power and a throwback to “the ancestral debtors’ prison.” (NotiCel (Puerto Rico) 2/11/11)

The case came up in the US House of Representatives on Feb. 16, when Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) called the situation in Puerto Rico a “human rights and civil rights crisis” and compared it to Egypt during the repression of protests there in late January and early February.

Standing next to photograph of Judge Fusté, Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, described the island as “[a] part of the world where a student strike led the university to ban student protests on campus and where students protesting the crackdown on free speech were violently attacked by heavily armed police….a part of the world where the bar association has been dismantled by the legislature because it takes stands in opposition to the government, and its leader has been jailed for fighting a politically motivated lawsuit.” Charging that Fusté has “close political ties to the ruling party and a personal history of opposing the Puerto Rico bar association,” Gutierrez entered into the Congressional Record Toledo’s instructions on how CAPR members could opt out of the suit. (El Nuevo Día (Guaynabo) 2/16/11)

Meanwhile, student protesters were planning to continue their fight against an $800 tuition surcharge at the UPR. Having won their demand for the police to be withdrawn from UPR campuses, members of the Student Representative Committee (CRE) said they would ask a Feb. 22 General Assembly of students at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan to endorse their call for a strike like the successful strike against budget cuts in the spring of 2010.

Some students who support the protesters’ demands oppose the use of the strike on strategic grounds. Even if the assembly backs the plan, the vote may not become official. Last August Gov. Fortuño signed a law requiring all student assembly decisions to be ratified by an electronic vote open to all the students. Some students say that if the assembly backs a strike plan, the administration could refuse to put it up for the electronic vote, claiming that university strikes are illegal. (END 2/20/11; Primera Hora (Guaynabo) 2/20/11)

*3. Honduras: US Cable Blasts Coup Leaders’ “Backroom Deals”
A US diplomatic cable released by the WikiLeaks group on Jan. 29 has raised new questions about possible corruption in the de facto regime that ruled Honduras between the June 28, 2009 coup against then-president José Manuel (“Mel’) Zelaya Rosales and the Jan. 27, 2010 inauguration of current president Porifirio Lobo Sosa.

The confidential Feb. 20, 2010 cable by US ambassador Hugo Llorens deals with a concession for the José Cecilio del Valle dam and hydroelectric plant near Nacaome, in Valle department in southern Honduras. The Honduran Congress passed a law on Jan. 16, 2010 granting the concession to a consortium including the Italian companies Italian Industrial Agency S.R.L. and B&P Altolumie SNS, and the Honduran firms Hidrocontrol S.A. and Desarrollo y Construcciones y Equipos S.A. De facto president Roberto Micheletti Bain signed the bill on Jan. 20, and it was published in a special edition of the government gazette with only about 20 copies, apparently to keep the law from attracting attention. This maneuver with the gazette and the hurried way the law was passed did in fact draw attention, and the new Lobo administration put the project on hold.

Ambassador Llorens wrote in the cable that “[a]ccording to [US] Embassy sources, Micheletti was one of the Honduran partners in the consortium granted the concession. The chief actors included [then-Congress president José Alfredo] Saavedra, Micheletti Minister of Public Works Saro Bonanno, and Micheletti intimates Johnny Kafati and Roberto Turcios. It is inconceivable that this deal could have been put together without Micheletti's knowledge.” Llorens then commented: “While Micheletti and his colleagues portrayed themselves as practitioners of efficient and honest government in contrast to President Manuel Zelaya's chaotic administration, they appear to have cut a significant number of backroom deals, which were egregious even by local standards. The approval of a huge hydroelectric deal, with such little benefit to the state, just a week before the regime left office is the prime example.”

Micheletti reacted to the leaked cable during a Feb. 15 conference organized by the rightwing Civic Democratic Union (UCD)—entitled “Antidote to 21st Century Socialism”—by announcing that that he would sue Llorens in US courts as soon as the ambassador left office and no longer enjoyed diplomatic immunity. The Honduras Culture and Politics blog noted that a private communication between Llorens and his employer, the US government, could hardly be considered either slander or defamation in the US: “This is a lot of bluster and bravado with no legal basis under US law.” (Honduras Culture and Politics blog 2/16/11; El Heraldo (Tegucigalpa) 2/17/11)

*4. Mexico: Rebels Reemerge to Denounce “Drug War”
Mexican president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa’s militarization of the struggle against drug trafficking is “a war from above” largely for the benefit of US interests, according to a letter published on Feb. 14 and written by “Sub-Commander Marcos,” the spokesperson of the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which is based in the southeastern state of Chiapas.

The war, which Calderón launched when he assumed the presidency in December 2006, “grants [the US] profits, territory, and political and military control without the uncomfortable body bags and the crippled people that arrived, before, from Vietnam and now from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Marcos wrote in the letter, which is addressed to the Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro Toranzo. “The results of this war won't only be thousands of dead… and juicy economic winnings. Also, and above all, it will result in a nation destroyed, depopulated, and irreversibly broken.”

Except for a communiqué after the death on Jan. 24 of former Chiapas bishop Samuel Ruiz García, this letter was said to be the first public statement since 2009 by the once-prolific Marcos. The EZLN, which hasn’t used arms since a brief insurrection in January 1994, has focused recently on developing the 20 communities in its own autonomous region. Gerardo González, a professor at the College of the Southern Border who studies the Zapatista movement, told the French wire service AFP that Marcos’ reappearance “can be explained by his reading of a favorable conjuncture with social movements like what is happening in Egypt, in the Arab countries, in Italy, and in other countries.” (AFP 2/15/11 via Terra (Peru); English translation of Marcos’ letter from My Word Is My Weapon blog 2/14/11)

The US House of Representatives voted 277 to 149 on Feb. 18 for an amendment that blocks a proposal by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to require some 8,500 gun dealers near the US-Mexico border to report sales within five consecutive business days of two or more semi-automatic rifles greater than .22 caliber with detachable magazines. The proposal was intended to help the ATF catch people running semi-automatic rifles to Mexico, where they are used by drug gangs.

The amendment, which was added to a spending bill funding the US government through September, had strong bipartisan support; it was introduced by Rep. Dan Boren (D-Ok) and was backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). However, it needs to pass the Senate and be signed by US president Barack Obama to become official. Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarukhán, called the vote “unfortunate.” Andrew Selee, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said the amendment was “very bad news for everyone who is worried about arms trafficking to Mexico.” (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/20/11 from Notimex; Washington Post 2/20/11)

The vote follows the WikiLeaks group’s recent release of US diplomatic cables indicating that some of the heavy weapons used by Mexican drug gangs were originally supplied to armies in the region by the US military [see Update #1067]

*5. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti

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Rio de Janeiro’s Former Police Chief Accused of Leaking Information About Corruption Bust

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Ecuadorian Court Rules Against Chevron in Historic Case

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Colombian navy seizes another narco-submarine

Obama Requests Funding for Venezuelan Opposition in 2012 Budget

Accused JFK bomb plot conspirator gets life (Guyana)

Martial Law, Repression, and Remilitarization in Guatemala

Action Alert! Q’eqchi’ Leaders Massacred in Guatemala

Mexican agriculture in crisis

Mexico: US ICE agent killed amid growing violence

Mexico Arrests Two Police Officers In Killing Of Nuevo Leon State Senior Officer

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Mexico’s Federal Police Open Fire on Protesters, Throwing Merida Initiative Accountability Into Question

Tourism Is Poisoning the Mexican Caribbean

Haiti: Resettlement Plan Excludes Almost 200,000 Families

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