Tuesday, February 5, 2013

WNU #1162: At Least 37 Dead in Mexican Explosion

Weekly News Update on the Americas
Issue #1162, February 3, 2013

1. Mexico: At Least 37 Dead in Pemex Explosion
2. Mexico: Supreme Court Rules Against Electrical Workers
3. Argentina: Barrick Mines Are No Threat to Glaciers?
4. Honduras: Center-Left Candidate Edges Ahead in First Poll
5. Guatemala: Campaign Starts for Evicted Campesinos
6. Links to alternative sources on: Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, US/immigration

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 http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WeeklyNewsUpdat.

*1. Mexico: At Least 37 Dead in Pemex Explosion
As of Feb. 2 rescue workers had found the bodies of 34 people killed in an explosion the afternoon of Jan. 31 at the Mexico City headquarters of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the giant state-owned oil monopoly, according to government officials. At least 101 other people were injured in the massive blast, which damaged part of the B2 administrative building, next to the company’s main building, a 52-story tower that dominates the city’s skyline. Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto declared three days of national mourning, which coincided with a long holiday weekend; the Constitution Day holiday falls on the first Monday of February.

Mexican officials insisted that there would be a thorough investigation of the explosion’s causes, but two days after the disaster the government had still offered no explanation. Initial reports pointed to an electrical problem as the cause. At about the time of the blast, the company wrote on its Twitter account, @Pemex, that “[a]s a cautionary measure” it was “evacuating the Pemex tower in the DF [Federal District] because of a failure in the electric energy supply.” However, there seemed to be no evidence of an electrical fire. An electrical problem could cause an explosion if there was a gas leak, but Mario Galicia, an engineer in the petroleum industry, told the Mexican daily La Jornada that he knew of no gas ducts or substations in the area. Galicia suggested that there were signs of “something premeditated.” The National Energy Studies Committee (CNEE) and the National Union of Petroleum Technicians and Professionals ((UNTyPP) called for speed and transparency in the investigation, since delays would lead to “more suspicion and speculation.” (Terra.com (Mexico) 1/31/13; La Jornada 2/3/13, 2/3/13, 2/3/13)

The explosion comes in the midst of a debate over plans to open up Pemex to expanded contracting with foreign corporations through President Peña’s “Pact for Mexico” program, which was signed on to by the major right, center and center-left parties. Opponents say this will lead to privatizing the company, which was created when President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río nationalized the country’s oilfields in 1938. Manuel Bartlett of Puebla state, the leader of the small leftist Labor Party (PT) bench in the Mexican Senate, warned the Peña administration against trying to use the explosion in a campaign against Pemex, “in which they repeat that it’s inefficient, that it doesn’t work, and that we need for people to come in from outside to save it.” (LJ 2/3/13)

The Jan. 31 explosion is the latest in a long line of disasters for the company: a fire at a gas pipeline distribution center near Reynosa, Tamaulipas last September in which 26 people died; a July 2011 fire in a refinery in Miguel Hidalgo de Tula, Hidalgo, that killed three people; a December 2010 explosion at a pipeline in San Martín Texmelucan, Puebla, that killed 29 people; and an explosion of gasoline fumes in a sewer system that devastated an entire neighborhood in Guadalajara, Jalisco, on Apr. 22, 1992, with at least 210 deaths. Pemex has never adequately accounted for these events. (CNN (Mexico) 1/31/13) There have also been two attacks on Pemex gas pipelines by leftist rebels, both carried out in July 2007 by the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR); no injuries were reported [see Update #946].

Update, Feb. 4: The explosion was caused by an accumulation of gas in the Pemex administrative building’s basement, federal attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam told a press conference on Feb. 4. He said the blast occurred while four workers were doing maintenance in the area. As of Feb. 4 the number of dead had risen to 37. (CNN Expansión 2/4/13)

*2. Mexico: Supreme Court Rules Against Electrical Workers
Thousands of laid-off Mexico City electrical workers suffered a major setback on Jan. 30 when a panel of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) overturned a lower court decision supporting the workers’ claim to jobs at the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). Lawyers for the workers’ union, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), had argued that the workers were entitled to replacement jobs at the CFE because the decision by former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012) in October 2009 to close down their employer--the Central Light and Power Company (LFC), which serviced the Mexico City metropolitan area—was unjustified. The federal government owned LFC before its closing, and the government continues to own and operate the CFE.

The SCJN panel ruled that since LFC was losing money, Calderón’s decision was due to circumstances beyond his control (“por causa de fuerza mayor”), and that in any case the president didn’t have the power to transfer employees from one company to the other--even though both LFC and CFE were state enterprises, the justices ruled, they were independent entities with their own management. The decision appears to invalidate an agreement Calderón made with the SME in September 2011 to have the CFE hire its members [see Update #1097]. However, the panel ruled that the workers were entitled to a severance package.

Calderón’s abrupt closing of LFC in 2009 was widely seen as an effort to shut down a militant union by laying off its active 44,000 members [see Update #1007]. The SME responded with a dual strategy, pursuing legal arguments in the courts and mounting militant demonstrations in the streets. The majority of the laid-off workers accepted the government’s offer of a severance package, but about 17,000 held out for new jobs. A six-month sit-in by unionists in Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zócalo, resulted in Calderón’s September 2011 agreement to have the CFE rehire the workers. It is unclear what the union’s next move will be. (Miami Herald 1/30/13 from AP; La Jornada (Mexico) 1/31/13)

*3. Argentina: Barrick Mines Are No Threat to Glaciers?
The government of the western Argentine province of San Juan released a report the week of Jan. 28 finding that two controversial mines owned by the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation have no “potential or actual environmental impact on glaciers or peri-glaciers in the areas” surrounding them. The Argentine branch of the environmental group Greenpeace had charged in July 2011 that Barrick’s Pascua Lama and Veladero mines were damaging three small glaciers, in violation of a 2010 federal law meant to protect Andean glaciers. Barrick challenged the law, but the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice made a July 2012 ruling that left the law in effect for the time being [see Updates #1089, 1137].

The Veladero mine is in San Juan province, and the massive Pascua Lama mine, not yet opened, extends from San Juan province into Chile’s Huasco province. The provincial government has joined Barrick’s challenge to the law, claiming that provinces have jurisdiction over environmental issues. “We are going to continue complying with the law, but always defending our rights,” San Juan Gov. José Luis Gioja said when the report was released.

Argentine environmentalists dismissed the report. “[W]hat’s happening in San Juan is surreal,” said Enrique Viale, president of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers (AAdeAA). “The person in charge of the ‘auditing,’ the current director of the provincial department of hydraulics, Jorge Millón, was a Barrick employee when he produced the environmental impact report that he later approved from the other side of the counter as a public official. Now, once again as an official, he’s the one directing an ‘audit’ of his former employers.” (Dow Jones 1/30/13 via Fox Business; Palermonline Noticias (Buenos Aires) 1/30/13)

*4. Honduras: Center-Left Candidate Edges Ahead in First Poll
The first opinion poll relating to this year’s Nov. 10 general elections in Honduras, released on Jan. 29, showed Xiomara Castro, the presidential candidate of the newly formed center-left Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), slightly ahead with 25% of voter preferences. She was followed by National Congress president Juan Orlando Hernández, the candidate of the rightwing governing National Party (PN), with 23% and Mauricio Villeda of the center-right Liberal Party (PL) with 16%. The sampling was carried out by the Cid Gallup firm Jan. 14-18 based on responses from 1,256 likely voters; it was published by the San Pedro Sula daily La Prensa.

The poll shows a striking change in the country’s political scene, which was dominated by the PN and the LP until June 2009, when a military coup overthrew then-president José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009). LIBRE was formed by the grassroots National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) coalition in late June 2011 and has never fielded candidates before, while Castro is relatively new to politics and is best known as the wife of former president Zelaya. “LIBRE has given a real surprise to the country” in the 19 months since it was formed, Zelaya, who heads the party, told La Prensa after the poll results were released. “I see great possibilities for it to assume power in the coming elections.”

Other political analysts feel the PN remains the strongest party. The margin of error in the poll, given as two percentage points, means that Castro and Hernández are in a statistical tie, and the PN’s level of support in the poll is 33%, well ahead of LIBRE’s 21%. These analysts also feel that controlling Congress is more important than holding the presidency; last month the legislators gave themselves the power to impeach the president. But the traditional parties are clearly weakened. The LP was hurt by its poor performance in the chaotic months after the coup, while the PN is suffering from internal fights and the widespread dissatisfaction with current president Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa, a PN leader. Hondurans now rank him as the worst president in the country’s history, according to the poll. (Reuters 1/29/13; La Prensa 1/30/13; Honduras Culture and Politics 1/31/13)

*5. Guatemala: Campaign Starts for Evicted Campesinos
Guatemalan civil organizations held a protest in Guatemala City on Jan. 29 as the opening of an international campaign to demand that the government of President Otto Pérez Molina provide land for 769 indigenous campesino families that were expelled from their fields in the Polochic Valley in the northeastern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz in March 2011 [see Update #1093]. The campaign—led by Intermón Oxfam, a Spanish group affiliated with the relief organization Oxfam International—is being carried out in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Spain.

The organizers say Pérez Molina has made a promise to give land to the families, members of the Q’eqchi’ Maya group, but has failed to fulfill it. Guatemalan activist and 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum is one of the campaign’s supporters. “The land problem goes on being the main cause of poverty, of hunger and of injustices in Guatemala,” she said on Jan. 29. (Adital (Brazil) 1/28/13; Prensa Libre (Guatemala) 1/29/13)

*6. Links to alternative sources on: Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, US/immigration

In Chile, Plunder and Perverse Laws against the Indigenous Population
Exorcising the Ghosts of Brazil’s Dictatorship

A “Sufficient Consensus” is Emerging in the Peace Talks in Colombia

World Bank and IMF Forecasts Follow Predictable Pattern for Haiti, Venezuela

Massacre in Venezuelan Prison Reignites Criticism of Prison System

Miners Win Ruling over Indigenous Groups in Guyana

Honduras: Failed State Auctions Off Lands and Subsoils

Fifty-eight Members of Congress ask for investigation of Honduras killings and policy review – will Kerry and Holder act?

Cyanide Lakes and Hurricanes: An Interview with Dr. Juan Almendares on the High Costs of Mining in Honduras

The Man Who Ousted the President is Now Running for President (Honduras)

Guatemala: ex-dictator to stand trial for genocide

Guatemala: Ríos Montt Trial a Milestone for Justice; Former Dictator Charged With Genocide

Martin Luther King’s Reasons for Opposing the Viet Nam War Apply to Today’s Drug War (Mexico)

Puerto Vallarta: After the Storms (Mexico)

Gentrification in Cuba? The Contradictions of Old Havana

Jamaica Betting Big on Panama Canal Expansion

Sovereignty vs. Intervention: A Review of Haiti’s New Dictatorship

Brooks County, Texas, and the Geography of Migrant Deaths (US/immigration)

Migration Now: Art that Moves (US/immigration)

For more Latin America news stories from mainstream and alternative sources:

For immigration updates and events:

NOTE: Update co-editor Jane Guskin is leading a dialogue on immigration at the James Connolly Forum in Troy, NY, on Friday, Feb. 15. The event starts at 7 pm at the Oakwood Community Center on 313 Tenth Street; for more information, call 518-505-0948.


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