Tuesday, February 10, 2015

WNU #1254: US Pushes “Plan Colombia” for Central America

Issue #1254, February 8, 2015

1. Central America: US Pushes New “Plan Colombia”
2. Chile: Mapuche Continue Drive for Land
3. Mexico: Official Ayotzinapa Claims Disputed
4. Mexico: Authorities “Rescue” Maquila Workers
5. Haiti: Union and Maquilas Negotiate on Pay
6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, 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.

Note: The Update is ceasing publication on Feb. 15. In the remaining issues we are trying to include some updated information on stories we covered in the past.

*1. Central America: US Pushes New “Plan Colombia”
On Jan. 29 the administration of US president Barack Obama announced that its budget proposal to Congress for fiscal year 2016 (October 2015-September 2016) would include $1 billion in aid to Central America, with an emphasis on El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The goal is to help “implement systemic reforms that address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere,” according to a White House fact sheet. The New York Times published an op-ed the same day by Vice President Joseph Biden explaining the request as a way “to stem the dangerous surge in migration” last summer—a reference to an uptick in border crossings by unaccompanied Central American minors that peaked last June and quickly diminished in subsequent months [see Update #1237].

The $1 billion proposal appears to be a more detailed version of a plan presented by Vice President Biden and the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Washington on Nov. 14 [see Update #1244]. It provides “over $400 million” for “trade facilitation” and other forms of economic development; “over $300 million” to “advance regional security efforts”; and “nearly $250 million” to “strengthen institutions,” including “rule-of-law institutions” so that they can “better administer justice.” In his op-ed Biden indicated that the US proposals for Central America are modeled on Plan Colombia, a $9 billion program started in 1999 as a “war on drugs” effort. The vice president claimed that Colombia is now “a nation transformed.”

The economic reforms in the proposal are aimed at “creating business environments friendly to entrepreneurs.” “Central American economies can grow only by attracting international investment,” Biden wrote. The US is “ready to work” to help “ensure that local enterprises get the most out of existing free trade agreements,” such as the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). (White House Fact Sheet 1/29/15; New York Times 1/29/15)

Despite its neoliberal economic features, the proposal has the support of at least some center-left Latin American leaders, including Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a leader in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), once a leftist rebel group. With the US aid in the proposal “we have opportunities to go on working to guarantee you the right to education, to health, to live in families,” he told a group of Salvadoran school children on Jan. 31. (La Prensa Gráfica (El Salvador) 2/1/15) Center-left Chilean president Michelle Bachelet also backs the plan, which includes having Central American countries join the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc currently composed of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. Bachelet was in Guatemala on Jan. 30 for talks with Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina about his country’s request to be admitted to the alliance. (Télam (Argentina) 1/30/15)

The proposal emphasizes the need to reform Central American justice systems but doesn’t give specifics. On Feb. 2-3 the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CorteIDH), an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS), held hearings on a complaint by four Honduran judges over their dismissal from their posts after they publicly opposed the June 2009 military coup that removed former president José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) from office. Former judges Guillermo López, Luis Alonso Chévez, Ramón Enrique Barrios and Tirza Flores say the dismissals violated their free speech rights. The current Honduran government supports the removal of the judges. Government attorney Jorge Serrano argued that the action “doesn't violate…precedents set by the inter-American system.” (Tico Times (Costa Rica) 2/4/15 from AFP)

*2. Chile: Mapuche Continue Drive for Land
A group of about 70 indigenous Chilean Mapuche from the José Llancao community peacefully occupied a section of a government research farm in Vilcún commune in Cautín province, in the central Araucanía region, to further their demand for 60 hectares of land that they say belong to the community. The Carillanca Farming Research Center (INIA Carillanca) started as a private estate but has been operated as a research facility under the Agriculture Ministry for the past 50 years. According to the community’s werken (spokesperson), Juan Alguilera Esquivel, the residents have been trying to reclaim the 60 hectares, which they say were usurped illegally by the owner of the private estate, for more than 20 years. The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, have been using land occupations since the 1990s in a campaign to regain land they consider ancestral territory [see Update #1240]. Local estate owners are strongly opposed to the community’s claims on the research facility. “Not one meter should be sold,” said Marcelo Zirotti, president of the Agricultural Development Society (SOFO). If the government gives up any land, “they’ll be telling us, the farmers, that we should close up and go elsewhere.” (Radio Bío Bío (Chile) 2/6/15; El Ciudadano (Chile) 2/6/15)

Meanwhile, rightwing politicians and business representatives are blaming Mapuche activists for many of the 150-160 forest fires reported in Chile’s Araucanía region in the past six months. In January Senator Alberto Espina of the center-right National Renewal (RN) party implied that the fires are being set by Mapuche activists protesting what they consider the theft of their land by forestry companies. Patricio Santibáñez, president of the Chilean Timber Corporation (CORMA), charged that 70% of the fires are “organized, planned.” A report by the carabineros militarized police put the total number of fires connected to the Mapuche conflict at 15 for the period, less than 10%, and said the number of arson cases had declined. Santibáñez repeated charges from 2012 that Mapuche activists were responsible for an outbreak of forest fires then, including one in which seven firefighters were killed [see Update #1113]. The 2012 fires came at a time of severe drought; Mapuche spokespeople said the situation was aggravated by the forestry companies’ planting of more flammable trees such as pine and eucalyptus. (PanAm Post 1/30/15; Rebelión 2/7/15)

*3. Mexico: Official Ayotzinapa Claims Disputed
The nonprofit Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) released a report on Feb. 7 citing a number of irregularities in the Mexican federal government’s investigation of the disappearance of 43 teachers’ college students in Iguala de la Independencia in the southwestern state of Guerrero the night of Sept. 26-27 [see Update #1251]. The Argentine experts have researched deaths and disappearances in about 30 countries, including those that occurred in their own country during the 1976-1983 “Dirty War” against suspected leftists and in Guatemala during that country’s 1960-1996 civil war. The Argentines were brought into the investigation by the parents of the missing students, who had attended the traditionally leftist Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in the Guerrero town of Ayotzinapa.

The Mexican government has concluded that all the students were killed and that their bodies were incinerated in a dump in the Guerrero municipality of Cocula and thrown into the San Juan river. The Argentines found several problems that they said made it impossible for them to confirm the official version. For example, the government had agreed to keep the independent experts involved in all phases of the investigation but didn’t in fact include them on some occasions—notably, at the time when the supposed remains of the students were found. The Argentines also said the Cocula dump wasn’t guarded during part of the period of the investigation, so that evidence could have been altered. Journalists and researchers have questioned other aspects of the official account, including the government’s contention that only municipal police and a local gang were involved in the violence and the claim that the bodies could be thoroughly incinerated in an open-air fire. (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/8/15)

Teachers in Guerrero have regularly joined with students in demonstrations over the Ayotzinapa disappearances, but on Feb. 6 they had an additional reason to protest. Members of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) and the Only Union of Guerrero State Public Servants (Suspeg) blocked the Miguel Alemán coastal highway in Acapulco for nearly three hours to protest the state’s failure to pay their salary. According to the national SNTE, some 12,000 Guerrero teachers didn’t get valid paychecks. The unions indicated that both the state and the federal governments were responsible for the shortfall in funds. (LJ 2/7/15)

Forced disappearances by the police are not limited to Guerrero. According to Denise García Bosque, an attorney for families in the northeastern state of Coahuila, the nonprofit Families United has documented 150 disappearance cases in the past 18 months in just one area, the small city of Piedras Negras and the region known as Cinco Manantiales. García said that in at least 60 of these cases there is evidence of participation by special police groups, principally a state unit created in 2009, the Special Arms and Tactics Group (GATE). A total of 51 of the victims have been found alive but are all in prison; they charge that they were tortured into making false confessions that they were members of criminal groups. Special police units are proliferating throughout Mexico, the national daily Excélsior wrote last November; they “sometimes receive special training by US, Colombian or Israeli elite groups,” the paper said. (LJ 2/7/15; TeleSUR English 2/7/15)

*4. Mexico: Authorities “Rescue” Maquila Workers
Federal and state authorities said they rescued 129 Mexican workers on Feb. 5 from sexual and labor exploitation at Yes Internacional SA de CV, a Korean-owned garment assembly plant in Zapopan in the western state of Jalisco. The factory was closed down, and four of the executives were detained, according to the National Migration Institute (INM). The workers--who were mostly women, including six minors--reported being subjected to blows and insults, and federal authorities indicated that they would investigate reports of interrupted pregnancies and serious injuries apparently resulting from sexual assaults. In 2013 Jalisco police said they rescued at least 275 people who had been held in inhumane conditions in a tomato-packing factory.

Mexican media described Yes International as a maquiladora, a tax-exempt assembly plant producing for export. Its products were largely socks, but press accounts didn’t indicate what retailers contracted with the factory. The day after the initial raid, the federal Labor and Social Welfare Secretariat (STPS) said the factory was closed for irregularities in its operation, such as a failure to certify the plant’s boilers, not for alleged mistreatment of workers. Some plant employees told reporters that they hadn’t experienced abuses and that they objected to the closing of the plant. Although the workers said the pay was low—600 to 700 pesos a week (about US$40.50 to US$ 47.24)—they were upset about losing jobs in an area with limited employment opportunities. (La Jornada (Mexico) 2/6/15, 2/7/15; International Business Times 2/6/15)

*5. Haiti: Union and Maquilas Negotiate on Pay
Haiti’s Textile and Garment Workers Union (SOTA), which represents a number of workers in the Port-au-Prince garment assembly sector, has worked out an agreement under which the owners of three factories are to honor the legal minimum wage of 300 gourdes (currently about US$6.38) a day for piece workers in the industry. The 300-gourde minimum went into effect in October 2012 but has generally been ignored by management. According to a Jan. 6 SOTA press release and a Feb. 6 radio interview with Yannick Etienne of the labor organizing group Batay Ouvriye (BO, “Workers’ Struggle”), under the agreement workers who were receiving 225 gourdes a day now receive 300 gourdes and those who received 300 gourdes receive 375 gourdes. In addition, the three companies agreed to provide back pay to cover the difference between the old and the new wages for two months during which SOTA and the companies negotiated; this would come to about $4,255 collectively for the workers in one of the companies, Multiwear SA. Although the agreement falls far short of the 500-gourde minimum garment workers had demonstrated for in December 2013 [see Update #1203], BO organizer Etienne considers management’s agreement to the raise and also to the principle of back pay a significant step forward.

Etienne and representatives of two other unions, the Confederation of Haitian Workers’ Forces (CFOH) and National Confederation of Haitian Workers (CNOHA), traveled to the US in January 2014 for talks with three North American firms that contract with Haitian T-shirt manufacturers [see Update #1204]. According to BO the three firms--Montreal-based Gildan Activewear Inc., Kentucky-based Fruit of the Loom and North Carolina-based Hanesbrands Inc.—said the unions would have to negotiate directly with the Haitian factory owners. SOTA then entered into talks with the factories but the other two unions refused to do this. Later, however, CNOHA denounced SOTA’s agreement with the factories on back pay, saying the workers really should receive $114 million collectively.

According to SOTA, workers affiliated with CNOHA and a group called “ROHAM” assaulted Etienne with rocks and tools on Jan. 30 while she was in Port-au-Prince’s main industrial park to talk to the management of the Multiwear SA plant about the company’s failure to deliver the back pay it had agreed to. Although Elienne was unharmed, BO took the attack very seriously, and a number of supporters in Haiti and internationally have signed on to a statement protesting CNOHA’s actions. (SOTA press releases 1/6/15, 1/30/15; Etienne interview 2/6/15)

In other labor news, transit in Port-au-Prince was paralyzed on Feb. 2-3 when transportation operators in 25 unions and collectives went on strike to demand that the government reduce fuel prices. Buses, minibuses, tap-taps (small vans used as minibuses) and moto-taxis (motorcyclists offering rides for a fee) were almost all absent from the streets as strikers enforced the job action with rocks and barricades of flaming tires. The government of President Michel Martelly responded by announcing that as of Feb. 6 the price of gasoline would fall from 215 gourdes to 195 gourdes (about US$4.58 to US$4.15), with corresponding reductions for diesel fuel and kerosene. But students from the State University of Haiti (UEH), who rely on public transit to get to classes, said they would continue to protest until the government lowers the gasoline price to 100 gourdes. (AlterPresse (Haiti) 2/2/15, 2/3/15, 2/7/15)

*6. Links to alternative sources on: Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, US/immigration

Making Palm Oil Sustainable Will Take More Than a New Label (Latin America)

Latin America: People’s Tribunal Hopes Verdict on Mining Abuses Gains Traction

Argentine President Courts Controversy With Tweet From China

Chile’s LGBT Movement Wins Historic Victory with Approval of Civil Unions

Peru: Achuar protesters seize Amazon oil-field

#LeyPulpín: Peruvian Youth Fight for their Future

Rosa Palomino: “On the Radio We Care About Our Rights and Aymara Culture” (Peru)

In Peru, Scientist Documents the Impacts of Continent’s Largest Gold Mine

More than 60 Bodies Found in Colombian Mass Grave

Colombia: peasants detain soldiers... again

Colombia: whither FARC's future?

The Economic War: Not just business as usual (Venezuela)

The Justice Brigades of Ayotzinapa (Mexico)

Tourist Development Behind State Repression of Non-Violent Indigenous Movement (Mexico)

150 People Reported Disappeared in Piedras Negras, Mexico

A Look at the New Provisional Electoral Council (Haiti)

In the Dominican Republic, Many of Haitian Descent Left Effectively Stateless

The Battle over Immigrant Driver’s Licenses Flares Anew in New Mexico (US/immigration)

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

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