Under Specter of War, Chavez Buys Russian Weapons to Defend from American Bases in Colombia

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez announced a new purchase of weapons from Russia arguing that the use of seven Colombian military bases by the United States is forcing his hand. Chávez said he would like to spend “not one cent in weapons,” but he must under the circumstances.

Chávez announced that the transaction would be in September but did not disclose the weapons involved or the amount he is spending.

“It’s going to be a series of agreements not just on weapons, although weaponry will be a significant component in order to enhance our operational capacity, our defense system and antiaircraft defenses,” Chávez said during an international press conference.

The announcement comes as the President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, just completed a lightning visit to seven Latin American nations to explain Colombia’s decision to allow the United States to use the bases and address some of the concerns in the region. Uribe’s trip did not include Ecuador and Venezuela.

Although Uribe’s tour generated some understanding, it did not quell the uneasiness of neighboring states. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay expressed reservations over the Colombia-United States agreement. Bolivia remains its harshest critic while Peru supports it, and Chile and Paraguay said Colombia has the right to make sovereign decisions, such as who it allows on its territory.

Chávez’s weapons purchase announcement also comes on the backdrop of Colombian accusations that the Venezuelan administration has been supporting the terrorist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian guerrilla group financed mostly by proceeds from the drug trade.

Evidence has surfaced in the last two weeks that ties Venezuela to weapons seized from the rebels and to collaboration between the guerrillas and high-ranking military and intelligence officials in Chávez’s government.

Chávez reacted to the accusations by freezing bilateral relations. This week, he accepted to meet with former Colombian president Ernesto Samper to discuss the quickly deteriorating situation between the two nations.

At the end of the meeting, Chávez said that “there are no mediators here, no possible mediation. The only way for calm to return is for Colombia to back away from its decision to hand over its territory to the United States so that it [the United States] can continue its aggression against us. There’s no other way.”

The Venezuelan leader warned that the use of military bases in Colombia by the United States, whom he calls “the Yankees, the most aggressive nation in the history of humanity,” can lead to war in the region.

For more information, please see:

El Pais – Chávez alerta del riesgo de guerra en Suramérica por el acuerdo militar entre Colombia y EE UU – 06 August 2009

RCN Radio – Chávez subraya al recibir a Samper: “No hay mediación posible” con Uribe – 06 August 2009

El Pais  – Chávez anuncia otro pacto de rearme con Rusia – 07 August 2009

Chávez Deescalates Spat with Colombia in Apparent Move to Preserve Oil Production

By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a surprising about-face, the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, ordered the return of his ambassador to Colombia just a few days after recalling him from Bogotá.

Chávez had retaliated against Colombia by suspending diplomatic relations and ordering a freeze of bilateral relations with the neighboring nation after Bogotá said weapons found in the possession of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were originally sold by a Swedish company to the Venezuelan armed forces and reacting to Colombia’s announcement that it would allow American troops to use its military bases.

Chávez had also threatened sanctions against the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol saying the company would not be allowed to participate in the tender of its Carabobo heavy crude blocks in the Orinoco oil-rich belt because of the diplomatic dispute. This is the first tender since the government nationalized several projects in the Orinoco belt.

But on Saturday, the Venezuelan leader said, “[Our] ambassador Gustavo has given [the Foreign Minister] all the reports he was going to, let him go back to Bogotá. Return to Bogotá Gustavo.”

The shift comes after discrete reminders that Venezuela depends on natural gas from Colombia to keep its oil wells running.

During a recent interview, Colombia’s Energy and Mines Ministry said that the natural gas supply to Venezuela would continue, “for now.”

The Colombian gas is essential for keeping the oil flowing from many of Venezuela’s aging oil wells. Without the gas injections, many of the wells in the oil-producing state of Zulia would cease to work and Venezuela’s oil output, exports and dollars would rapidly collapse at a time when the government is grappling with a sharp decline in oil revenue and mounting debts

An Ecopetrol spokesperson chimed in with the Colombian Ministry saying that, “We have complied with our contract since the beginning of 2008 without regard to the political situation between Colombia and Venezuela,” referring to the natural gas exports. “We expect to maintain those sales to that market,” the official added.

Colombia began natural gas exports to Venezuela in January 2008 through a new pipeline.

But Chávez challenged Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to show up to the regional summit of Unasur (Union of South American Nations) being held this week in Ecuador to explain Colombia’s decision to allow the United States to use seven of its military bases.

“Uribe should show up, come and face the music and let’s sit down and talk,” Chavez told local Colombian television RCN.

Uribe just completed a whirlwind South American tour to defend his plans to expand the U.S. military’s presence in Colombia, a prospect that worries even friendly nations in the region.

The purpose of Uribe’s trip was to allay fears that the U.S. military could become too powerful on the continent if given long-term leases on Colombian bases. Colombia maintains that the American presence is necessary to combat drug-trafficking operations.

The overall success or failure of Uribe’s trip will be evident in Quito when most of the continent’s leaders will attend the summit. Colombia is an important member of Unasur but announced it will not attend the meeting, in a clear sign of the tense diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador

Quito and Bogotá have been embroiled in a smoldering feud that dates back to last year when the Colombian army raided a terrorist camp in Ecuadorian territory that killed a guerrilla chief and twenty-five other people. Ecuador reacted by breaking off diplomatic relations.

Colombia has also leveled allegations that documents found on computers at the rebel camp showed the guerrilla had at least tried to help finance Rafael Correa’s first presidential campaign. Correa, now president of Ecuador, has vehemently denied the charges.

For more information, please see:

El Comercio – Venezuela bajó el tono de la crisis – 09 August 2009

Latin American Herald Tribune – Latin American Realpolitik: Chavez Returns Ambassador to Bogotá As Colombia Focuses on the Natural Gas Sent to Keep Venezuela Oil Wells Pumping – 09 August 2009

RCN Television – Chávez ordena retorno de su embajador a Colombia – 09 August 2009

Reuters – Chávez pide a Uribe que “dé la cara” en reunión de Unasur – 08 August 2009

Colombia Reports – Chavez returns envoy to Colombia – 08 August 2009

The Union of South American Nations – UNASUR

Indigenous Families in Paraguay Continue to Organize


By Don Anque
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

Asunción, Paraguay – Indigenous families living in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital of Asunción have organized themselves. Now, they have a community soup kitchen and are producing handicrafts to sell. Many of the families say they do not want to return to panhandling on the streets of Asunción, far away from their home villages.

Cerro Poty soup kitchen located on the outskirts of Asunción pictured here.  Photo by Reuters.

“We used to go out on the street and ask for money, with our children, at the stoplights,” Petrona Ruiz, one of the women running the Cerro Poty soup kitchen. “But we haven’t gone out to beg on the streets in three months.”

Earlier this year, Amnesty International claimed that the government of Paraguay is failing to adequately protect the rights of its indigenous peoples. Amnesty International’s March 2009 report on Paraguay stated that many of its indigenous peoples were forced to live in misery and effectively condemning some to death.

Many years ago, the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous communities were displaced from their traditional lands and were promised by the Paraguayan government that their lands would be returned to them.  For more than 10 years of living at the side of the Pozo Colorado-Concepción highway, these communities lived without access to their land they live in precarious conditions, unable to source water and food for themselves and with inadequate provision of health and education.

After a breakthrough court decision, the Paraguayan government was ordered to a return the ancestral lands to the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous People in a span of three years as well as to undertake a series of measures to ensure their survival in the interim.

For more information, please see:

Amnesty International  – PARAGUAY’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLES IN PERIL – 31 March 2009

IPS News  – Indigenous Squatter Communities Organise Self-Help – 02 August 2009

Amnesty International- Indigenous Peoples’ Rights – Solidarity across borders – 16 July 2009

Venezuela halts economic deals with Colombia

By Don Anque
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – Today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared policy measures that would effectively halt trade between Colombia and Venezuela.  He also announced that he would halt the import of 10,000 cars from Colombia and ban a Colombian energy firm, Ecopetrol, from taking part in an auction to develop the heavy crude in Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco region.

The move comes after last week’s incident when President Chavez recalled his envoy from the Colombian capital of Bogota when President Chavez was accused that Venezuela had sold arms to the Colombian rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

“We absolutely deny that our government or our institutions are providing assistance to criminal and terrorist organizations,” Venezuelan Minister of the Interior and Justice Tareck El Aissami told reporters after Venezuela was accused of weapons trafficking. “It’s laughable, it sounds like a cheap film made by the American government.”

Currently, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is visiting Chile and Argentina to talk with South American leaders about the possible deployment of US troops in South America.  According to Washington DC analysts, the United States of America wants to increase its military capabilities in Colombia to counter drug traffickers and left-wing rebels.  Colombia has already agreed to open at least seven of its bases to US troops.

President Chavez called Colombia’s plan to host more US troops a “hostile act” and a “true threat” to Venezuela and its leftist allies.  Chavez also warned that a possible US military buildup could lead to the “start of a war in South America.”  Despite the lack of an official government declaration of military counter measures, President Chavez has announced that Venezuela will buy “several battalions” of tanks during his trip to Russia in September.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Chavez turns up heat on Colombia – 6 August 2009

Associated Press – Chavez: Venezuela to buy more tanks over US threat – 5 August 2009

CNN – Colombia: FARC arms traced to Venezuela – 27 July 2009

MSNBC – Chavez freezes diplomacy with Colombia – 28 July 2009

Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands face danger

The Galapagos Islands might become listed as “in danger” by Unesco at their World Heritage Committee occurring this week in New Zealand.  Ecuador, the territory’s ruler, submitted an application to Unesco to further protect the Galapagos because of their fragile ecosystem.  Unesco protects 830 sites all over the world, called World Heritage Sites, that are considered to have “outstanding universal values.”  The islands gained World Heritage Site statues in 1978.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared in April that since the islands were home to many endangered species and unique plant and animal life that are at risk, the islands were a priority for national action.  Species on the islands include tiny penguins, marine iguanas, and venerable giant tortoises.  The islands are Ecuador’s top tourist draw.  However, because of the drastic increase in tourists the islands are suffering an environmental and social crisis and are in dire need of restrictions.  Tourism has increased by 12% annually with over a 150% increase on passengers from cruise ships in the past 15 years alone.  This drastic increase is leading to the decline of the islands.  The islands face invasive species that are brought with tourists and migrants that compete and destroy the native species.

The increased rate of tourism has brought workers from the mainland to work in construction, restaurants and cruise ships which brings the total residents of the islands to 20,000.  There is a large need for cheap labor on the islands because of the industries that come along with tourism such as restaurants, hotels, and cleaners.  Thousands of migrants coming into the country has been a large source of the problem with the islands ecosystem.

In May 2007, rangers in an ecological reserve were in dispute with the Ecuadorian Armed Forces about illegal fishing in protected waters.  This dispute showed how many practices are damaging the site.  Ecologists say that the problem in the Galapagos is deeper then the government has publicly acknowledged.  The increase in people and of non-native species is threatening the ecosystem throughout the islands.

Ecuador may soon need to place restrictions on outsiders coming into the islands in order to protect them.  There is a need to redo the tourism model for the islands by reducing the amount of tourists while maintaining high revenues.  In the past year, the tourism in the islands brought in $486 million for Ecuador which is the fourth largest source behind oil, bananas, and fishing.  Fernando Ortiz, head of Conservation International, states that action needs to be taken to stop tourism as “this place could turn into another Disneyland.”  However, some argue that the tourism is not the reason for the decline as most visitors stay on cruise ships.  Rocio Martinez, who is president the islands Chamber of Commerce, argues that the islands are based on tourism and they should take advantage of the environment and benefit from the tourism.

For more information, see:

http://environment.independent.co.uk/article2697805.ece

http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-06-22-galapagos_N.htm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6241416.stm http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19281278/

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N26367053.htm

Police Raid Brazil Slum

Police in Rio De Janeiro raided the city slum, Alemao, arresting drug traffickers and confiscating drugs and weapons. Armed cars and over 1,300 policeman entered the slum on June 27 in an effort to show their force before the Pan American Games next month.

Gangsters placed barricades and oil slicks in alleys to prevent the armed cars and police from getting into the slum. The raid lasted for five hours as police battled gang members. According to state security, 13 suspects were killed and one policeman and 10 others were wounded. Police arrest four more suspects. Since May 2, 40 people have been killed and 80 injured since conflict in the Alemao started with the killing of two police officers.

The tactics of Brazil’s police force has been opposed by many human rights groups saying that police shoot indiscriminately and target people who are “suspected traffickers.” Human rights groups also criticize the police of victimizing the poor who live in the slums. Rio De Janeiro is home to one of the highest murder rates in the world, comparable to war zones in some places. In the first quarter of 2007 over 1,800 people were killed.

Officials announced that 2,000 more police officers will be sent to Rio De Janerio in order to increase security of the Pan American Games.

For more information, see:

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N27321895.htm

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/06/27/america/LA-GEN-Brazil-Violence.php

Fujimori agrees to run in Japan race despite allegations of human rights abuses

Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, has decided to run for a seat in Japan’s upper parliament in July, according to the country’s NTV network’s website.  Fujimori, 68, is quoted as saying that he wants “to make use of [his] 10-year experience as president to work for Japan and the world.”

The People’s New Party, a minor party, asked Fujimori to run.  According to Fujimori, his top policy objectives would be to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and the campaign to resolve the country’s abductions of Japanese citizens.   “I think I can do it,” Fujimori told NTV.

It is not clear whether Fujimori would be eligible to register as a candidate. In 2000, the Japanese government came to the conclusion that Fujimori was a Japanese citizen because his birth was registered with a Japanese consulate in Peru, and he had never renounced his citizenship.  Japan’s Kyodo News reported that no regulations under Japan’s Public Offices Election Law prohibit a candidate under house arrest overseas from running in an election in Japan, according to the Associated Press.

Peru wants to try Fujimori for bribery, wire tapping, the sanctioning of 25 killings and other charges accrued during his ten-year administration, which ended in 2000 following a corruption scandal.  Fujimori spent the following five years in Japan in exile, and has renounced any wrongdoing.  After returning to South America in an apparent bid to run for Peruvian office, he was arrested by Chilean authorities and put under house arrest.  Fujimori was freed for a time, on the condition he not leave the country, but recently a Chilean prosecutor recommended that he be extradited to Peru to face charges of human rights abuses and corruption.  He is currently under house arrest in Chile.

Jose Garcia Belaunde, Peru’s Foreign Minister, dismissed the proposal as “a maneuver by that party and by ex-President Fujimori to try to avoid extradition,” reported BBC News.  Chilean legal experts claim that Fujimori’s candidacy will not affect a final deportation ruling.

For more information, please see:

“Fujimori mulls Japan party offer” BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6220694.stm 20 June 2007

“Report: Ex-Peruvian Leader to run in Japan Race” CNN http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/06/27/fujimori.japan.ap/index.html 27 June 2007

“Japanese Party says Fujimori to run in Japanese Parliamentary Race” International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/06/28/asia/AS-GEN-Japan-Fujimori.php 27 June 2007

“Peruvian Ex-President Fujimori Under House Arrest in Chile” Impunity Watch; 14 June 2007

Construction on a River Project brings Debate

Brazil’s President Lula is attempting to make the history books by beginning a project to shift the course of the San Francisco River, the fourth largest in Brazil, to the poor and semi arid region of northeast Brazil.  The project has been met with feverish debate and has become controversial over the past few years.

The project’s aim is to bring water to the north through the construction of two canals.  As a result of the difference in altitude of the two regions, the water must be pumped to the north which adds to the project the construction of nine pumping stations, 27 aqueducts, eight tunnels, 35 water reservoirs and two hydroelectric plants.  The water is said to be used for irrigation purposes, urban use and rural population but it will end up benefiting the agro-industrial sector the most putting control in the hands of an elite class.

Debate around the project is present from all kinds of interest groups organizing protests.  In 2005 work on the project was stopped briefly when Roman Catholic Bishop Luiz Flavio Cappio went on an 11 day hunger strike to stop the construction.  His strike ended when he was given assurances that the government and the civil society would enter into a dialogue.  Yet, the dialogue was limited to one seminar that took place in May of 2006.  In early 2007 thousands of landless workers attempted to stop the project by invading government property in protest.  The work on the River forced rural workers to leave their land and they face working unproductive lands as agribusiness companies will get the best land.  Many social movements, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Pastoral Fishers Commission, have formed a unified alliance to stop the construction by radical means if necessary.  Those who depend on the river for the livelihood, such as indigenous people, fisherman and small farmers, are constantly ignored.

Opponents of the project argue that the semiarid region’s problem is not the lack of water but the lack of distribution of water resources that already exist.  The area needs an efficient management, not a new system some argue.  In addition, experts have shown that the project ignores the climate change scenarios.  One possible consequence would be a decrease in the runoff of the river by 20% from global warming. International donors have even shown opposition as the World Bank released a study that argued against funding the project since the effects on poverty reduction cannot be proven.  Many argue that there are much cheaper and effective ways to meet the project’s aims. Even the Supreme Court of Brazil has questioned the legality of the project as they are currently analyzing the authorization from the National Congress for water resources to be used in the lands.

Since the beginning of 2007, construction has moved forward despite concerns or opposition.  The $2 billion project was approved by Brazil’s environmental protection agency in March and in June military battalions prepared for construction work.  The project is supposed to be funded through transferring costs to water users which is expected to raise the costs five fold.  Hence, the Brazil’s citizens would be paying the cost of agricultural goods that are exported.  Construction is set to begin at the end of June while more protests are being organized from social movements, indigenous and environmental groups to bring public attention to the disaster.

For more information, see:

http://www.brazzil.com/content/view/9911/80/

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/04/15/america/LA-GEN-Brazil-River-Protest.php

http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6560887,00.html

http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=105&sid=1041752

Emergency Contraception Debated in South America

In Ushuaia, Argentina a judge recently restricted access of poor women and adolescents to emergency contraceptive pills. The ruling suspended the free distribution of these pills through the public health sector. Opponents of the ruling argue it was made on scientific ignorance and will greatly affect the well being of poor women in Argentina.

The debate centers on the question of whether or not the emergency contraceptive pills induce abortion. Those supporting the ruling argue that the pill does induce abortion and therefore violates the constitution’s right to protect life from the moment of conception. However, opponents of the ruling, and the scientific community, argue that the pill does not induce abortion but rather it delays and inhibits ovulation and does not violate the constitution. Many other South American countries with strict abortion laws, such as Brazil, still allow the distribution of the pill to the public. Opponents continue that the restriction of emergency conception discriminates against poor women and adolescents because it discourages them from seeking medical care thus increasing the risk of pregnancy.

The poor and young women, as well as rape survivors, are vulnerable as many might seek illegal abortions as an alternative to the pill. Abortions are illegal in every case in Argentina and they are the leading cause of maternal mortality in Argentina. About 500,000 abortions occur annually throughout the country. Legislatures have consistently stated their opposition to modern birth control methods such as the emergency contraceptive pill and this position was reinforced with the recent ruling in Ushuaia.

In addition to Argentina, Chile has seen similar debates with regards to the distribution of emergency contraceptive pills.  Chile’s medical protocols, under the Ministry of Health guidelines, currently allow health services to provide emergency contraceptive pills. However, some members of the parliament are attempting to change this by asking the Constitutional Court to issue an injunction against these guidelines. They argue that the pills induce abortion and that access to the pill interferes with the rights of parents to educate their own children. Others argue that the injunction should be deny because it would result in the pills not being available to anyone, not matter what her age or circumstances are.

Access to these pills is vital for the poor, rape survivors and adolescents because 90% of women in Chile rely on public health for pregnancy prevention. Without such prevention available to them through public health programs, many women have unwanted pregnancies or seek other illegal and unsafe prevention measures. In Chile, 15% of births are to girls between 10 and 19 years of age. Other countries, such as France and Great Britain, have lowered their pregnancy rates because adolescents have access to healthcare services and information.

For more information, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_Argentina

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/16/chile15949.htm

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/24/argent15999.htm

http://hrw.org/women/abortion/argentina.html

Paramilitary groups a dangerous, influential force in Colombia

In early May, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to Colombian President álvaro Uribe, explaining that “Colombian paramilitaries pose a grave threat to Colombia’s democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.”

This week, there is proof that some of Colombia’s most influential leaders in politics, business, and the military assisted with the creation of an anti-guerrilla movement “that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities,” according to the Washington Post.

Although human rights groups have long alleged that Colombian leaders have supported paramilitaries, it was recently confirmed by several top paramilitary commanders in recent days, one even remarking to the Washington Post that “paramilitarism was state policy.” These commanders named army generals, entrepreneurs, foreign companies and politicians who worked hand in hand with fighters and bankrolled their operations.  Salvatore Mancuso, now incarcerated, testified before special tribunal that Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole paid paramilitary forces over the last several years.  Chiquita has agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

Ivan Duque, a strategist for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization, stated that the AUC had alliances with influential people in every region they were located. He estimates that the AUC alone had 17,000 armed fighters and over 10,000 other associates.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), another paramilitary group, kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betacourt in 2002.  An escaped prisoner told the Associated Press she is chained by the neck in a cell earlier this month. FARC is also responsible for kidnapping a Swedish citizen, Erin Larson, who was working on a hydroelectric damn in Cordoba province.  This also occurred this month.

Colombia’s paramilitary movement began in the mid 1900’s to counter a growing Marxist guerilla force. It became an irregular army that funded its operations with cocaine trafficking. These groups have since been responsible for massacres and assassinations. The attorney general’s office estimates that 10,000 people were killed by paramilitary fighters from the mid-1990s until present. The AUC and FARC are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.

More on the activities of these organizations as stories develop. For more information, please see:

Colombia: Companies Paid Paramilitaries” United Press International: http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/Top_News/2007/05/18/colombia_companies_paid_paramilitaries/9942/. 18 May 2007

“Colombia: Paramilitaries’ Power Threatens Democracy” Human Rights Watch: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/02/colomb15834.htm. 2 May 2007

“Paramilitary Ties to Elite in Colombia are Detailed” Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/21/AR2007052101672.html. 22 May 2007

“Betancourt held ‘chained by neck’” CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/19/Colombia.betancourt.ap/index.html.
19 May 2007

“Colombia Rebels Kidnap Swedish Citizen” CNN:
http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/18/colombia.kidnapping.reut/index.html 18 May 2007

Birth Control Subsidized in Brazil

Just weeks after Pope Benedict spoke against government sponsored birth control measures; Brazil announced on Monday that they will subsidize birth control to reduce cost for the poor.  The announcement laid out a plan to discount birth control up to 90% at 3,500 government authorized pharmacies across the country as a means to decrease unwanted pregnancies.

Brazil has programs in place to hand out free condoms and birth control at pharmacies.  However, the poor of the country do not have access to these pharmacies.  By subsidizing the pills, the government is offering them at significantly reduced prices, about 20 cents in US dollars.  Current retail price for the birth control ranges from $2.56 to $25.60.  The number of stores offering the pills is intended to reach 10,000 by the end of the year.  The government hopes to distribute 50 million supplies of pill each year, an increase from the current 20 million distributed.

The program could decrease the amount of illegal abortions performed in Brazil as a result of unwanted pregnancies.  About 4,000 women die each year from the illegal procedures making illegal abortions the fourth leading cause of maternal death in the country.  Other methods to reduce unwanted pregnancies include increasing the amount of free vasectomies performed.

Some women’s advocates worry that the government will not follow through with this new program as there is a lack of political will.  However, Brazilian president Lula da Silva favors a national debate on the issue of abortion laws and on birth control.  Congress is also expected to take up the issue in the family planning policy finding ways for women to be given the ability to decide.

The debate on birth control is also present in Argentina where recently a judge in Ushuaia prevented poor women and adolescents to have access to emergency contraceptive pills.  Opponents of the judge’s actions argue that preventing free access to the pills, while pharmacies sell the products, discriminates against poor women and adolescents.  This decision reinforced the economic constraints women face in making choices regarding their own health.

For more information, see:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/28/brazil.birth.control.ap/index.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/28/AR2007052800637.html

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/24/argent15999.htm

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N28276199.htm

Chavez closes “threatening” TV station

By Christopher Gehrke

Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, South America

Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest television station, was taken off the air May 27th after 53 years of broadcasting. The decision not to renew RCTV’s lease was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said that RCTV “became a threat to the country” and that he had a “responsibility” to shut it down.  RCTV’s news programs regularly disparage President Chavez’s socialist-leaning transformation of Venezuelan government. Chavez defended his decision by claiming that the station supported a coup against him in 2002. The station will be replaced by the state-sponsored Venezuelan Social TV (TVES). The other two national stations, Venevision and Televen, have already removed all content critical of the government from their programming.

Reactions

RCTV supporters say that Chavez is stomping on freedom of expression by silencing a channel that is often critical. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch agrees, and stated that Chavez is “misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government.” Gonzalo Marroquín, the president of the Inter-American Press Association said in a statement that Chavez’s decision was intended to “standardize the right to information, and results in a very bleak outlook for the whole hemisphere.” The U.S. Senate and E.U. Parliament also criticized RCTV’s closure.

The government argues that the station violated broadcast laws and transmitted violent and morally degrading programs. The government’s “White Book on RCTV”, which details the allegations made against the station, accuses RCTV of “inciting rebellion,” showing a “lack of respect for authorities and institutions,” as well. Human Rights Watch points out that the White Book does not present any final judicial or administrative rulings that establish that RCTV had committed any of these offenses, nor was the criteria on which this decision was based available beforehand.

Demonstrations

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday, some celebrating the decision, some protesting it. Police claimed that shots were fired in their direction and that 11 officers were injured by protesters hurling rocks. A protest rally made their way to the headquarters of the broadcasting regulator to voice their disapproval. The crowd was dispersed by police wielding tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

For more information, see:

“Venezuela police repel protests over TV network’s closing” NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/world/americas/28venez.html (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela Shuts Down TV Network” NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/world/international-venezuela-rctv.html (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela: TV Shutdown Harms Freedom of Expression” Human Rights Watch: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/22/venezu15986.htm. 28 May 2007.

“Rallies as Venezuelan TV closes” BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6696699.stm. 28 May 2007.

“TV row widens Venezuela’s rift” BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6697575.stm. 28 May 2007.

Pope makes first visit to Brazil, angers Indians

Pope Benedict made his first visit to Brazil convening a 19 day conference of Latin American Bishops. Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world and is also a country where there is a clear challenge to the church. In his speeches, Pope Benedict warned against moving away from Catholic values and suggested that those values are the answer to present social and economic issues.  He blamed the gap between the rich and the poor on Marxism and capitalism in the region as well as the growth of Protestantism. The Pope drew a lower turnout then expected, reflecting the decreasing influence of the Catholic Church as well as the weaker appeal of this Pope in comparison to Pope John Paul II.

In response to the Pope’s visit and statements, Indian leaders stated they were outraged and offended by the Pope’s “arrogant and disrespectful” comments regarding the imposition of the Church on the indigenous people. Pope Benedict said that the indigenous people welcomed the arrival of European Priests and were “silently longing” for Christianity. However, millions of Indians died from slaughter, disease or enslavement as a result of the European colonization supported by the Catholic Church. Today, Indians still struggle for survival as they have been deprived of their traditional ways of life.

Brazil is home to over 450,000 Indians who mostly inhabit small reserves with few opportunities to make a living.  Many Indian groups sent an open letter to the Pope asking for support in defending their ancestral lands against the government as they have suffered a “process of genocide” since the first colonization began. The letter stated that the assassination of Indian leaders was still occurring from people who invaded their lands. Jecinald Satere Mawe, of the Amazon Indian group Coiab, stated that it was arrogant and disrespectful of the Pope to “consider our cultural heritage secondary to theirs.” In addition to Indian groups being outraged, the Pope also angered Catholic priests who have joined the struggle of the Indians. Sandro Tuxa, who heads northeastern tribal movement, stated that the Pope had been poorly advised and that his statements were offensive and frightening. Cimi, Catholic Churches own Indian advocacy group in Brazil distanced itself from the Pope after his comments.

For more information see:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/13/AR2007051300316.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6651890.stm

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSN1428799220070514?feedType=RSS

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6643581.stm

http://www.alertnet.org.thenews/newsdesk/N10185934.htm

Ecuador’s Removal of Lawmakers

Provincial Judge, Juan Ramirez, was fired after he blocked the Electoral Tribunal from unseating 57 legislators in Ecuador. The tribunal fired Ramirez, saying the removal was justified because Ramirez acted illegally when blocking the Tribunal’s actions. The 57 fired lawmakers were opposing a referendum on a constitutional change that was supported by President Rafael Correa. The change would send a referendum to the people seeking approval for a national assembly to look at constitutional reform and potentially rewrite the Constitution. The Supreme Electoral Court announced that the referendum would proceed. The legislature then replaced the president of the court. The court came back and fired 57 lawmakers out of the 100 member assembly.

Following the removal of the lawmakers, the Constitutional Court found that the firings were unconstitutional and ordered them to be reinstated.  On the following day all nine judges of the Constitutional Court were removed by Congress who stated that the judges terms had meant to expire in January 2007. However, the judges have a four year term under the constitution and were appointed in February of 2006. President Correa insisted that the lawmakers did not deserve their jobs back and condemned the Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the lawmakers as a violation of legal procedures.

Human Rights Watch said that these actions have undermined the country’s democratic institutions and that disagreement between factions cannot justify the removal of judges. Such actions are a gross interference with the autonomy of another branch of government continued Human Rights Watch. There is a trend of Ecuadorian officials resolving political differences by removing their opponents rather then through other, more democratic, means. The democratic institutions in Ecuador have been in crisis for years as presidents have been removed before completing their terms and Congress has fired and replaced Supreme Court judges.

For more information:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6505485.stm

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/HRW/a912a7f83d7a74051cd413b70e5e3376.htm

http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/11/ecuado15909.htm

http://news.bbc.uk/2/hi/americans/6590245.stm

http://www.iht.com/article

Colombian port city is home to corruption, death, and the impoverished

Buenaventura, a Colombian port city with a population of about 300,000, has emerged as one of the poorest and most dangerous urban centers in South America.

Buenaventura is an important port for both legitimate business and the cocaine trade. In 2005, one-third of all cocaine captured along the Pacific coast was captured in and around Buenaventura. Corruption plagues Buenaventura, even prompting President Alvaro Uribe to demand the arrest of the city’s top security official for taking bribes in 2006.

Cocaine dealers and traffickers combine forces with rebel groups and demobilized paramilitary veterans to fight the overwhelmed 2,000 soldiers and police officers that patrol the area. Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) knocked out the city’s power with a grenade attack a year ago last Friday. These groups control the slums, where young people are recruited to be foot soldiers, informers, or hit men. Killings in this city rose by 30 percent in 2006, giving Buenaventura Colombia’s highest homicide rate (144 per 100,000). This is seven times the rate in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, and twenty-four times the rate of New York City. Two-hundred and forty-four people have been killed so far this year.

Homes here are made of cinderblocks and discarded wood. Fresh water is obtained from rusty barrels that collect drops from metal roofs. The unemployment rate is 28 percent, forcing many to turn to the cocaine trade. The city has a large refugee population: over 42,000 people, mostly Afro-Colombians, have arrived since 1998. Some nongovernmental groups say that Afro-Colombians make up a quarter of the Colombian population. Over 80 percent of Buenaventura’s residents are black, and live on less than three dollars a day. Critics say that authorities have neglected Buenaventura’s problems because Afro-Colombians do not receive sufficient federal attention.

For more info, see:

“Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City” New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/world/americas/22colombia.html 22 May 2007

“Colombia Port City Is Battleground” Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/28/AR2006122800636.html 28 December 2006

“Colombia City Power Grid Attacked” BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5001442.stm 20 May 2006.