Top stories this week are likely to include: Barack Obama will speak about closing Guantánamo Bay; Venezuela says it is open to normalizing relations with the United States; the FARC says that more time is necessary for peace negotiations; an OAS report calls for a discussion on marijuana legalization; and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos will likely seek a second term as president.
Obama to Deliver Speech on Guántanamo: U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to discuss the Guántanamo Bay detention center when he delivers a speech on counterterrorism practices this Thursday. As of Sunday, 103 prisoners at Guántanamo were on a hunger strike protesting prison searches that the inmates say involved rough treatment of the Quran. Thirty of the striking inmates are reportedly being force-fed through feeding tubes. Meanwhile, Obama has renewed his commitment to closing the controversial prison, where many inmates have been held for over a decade without being charged.
Venezuela Open to Normalizing Relations with United States: Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said during a TV interview on Sunday that Venezuela would "remain open to normalizing relations" with the United States. Recently-elected president, Nicolás Maduro, has selected Calixto Ortega as a potential Venezuelan envoy to the United States. Jaua said that the appointment of Ortega was motivated by the fact that the U.S. remains Venezuela’s top trade partner. U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to congratulate Maduro for his narrow victory in the country’s April 14 election.
FARC Leader Says Rebels Need More Time for Negotiation: As the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) and the Colombian government marked six months of peace negotiations on Sunday, lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez said the FARC needs more time to negotiate a "solid basis to build stable and long-lasting peace." The negotiators are struggling to reach an agreement on agrarian reform, one of the FARC’s major requirements for peace. The Colombian government has promised to redistribute land to displaced peasants, but insists that the rebels must cease hostilities before this can happen.
OAS Calls for Discussion to Legalize Marijuana: A drug policy report by the Organization of American States (OAS) released in Bogotá on Friday called for "greater flexibility" in dealing with illegal drugs in the hemisphere and said that decisions regarding the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana will need to be taken "sooner or later." The 400-page study emphasizes drug abuse as a public health issue and argues that criminal prosecution is inappropriate for dealing with drug addicts. Though the study considered the possibility of legalizing marijuana, it also noted that there was “no significant support” among member countries for legalizing cocaine.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Suggests he will seek a Second Term: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suggested on Friday that he will seek a second term as president in 2014, though he must wait until November to make the announcement official. “I would like many of our policies to continue beyond August 7, 2014,” Santos said, referring to the last day of his current term. Colombia's elections will be held on May 25, 2014, but presidential candidates cannot announce their candidacy until six months before that date.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Maduro narrowly wins Venezuela elections; U.S. Senators to release immigration legislation; Guantánamo prison standoff escalates; Mexican teachers plan more protests this week; Chile’s Michelle Bachelet begins her campaign.
Venezuela elections: Venezuelan voters narrowly elected Nicolás Maduro as president on Sunday in a highly contested election in which the results are currently being challenged by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Venezuela’s Consejo Electoral Nacional (National Electoral Council—CNE) reported that Maduro won 50.7 percent of the vote and Capriles won 49.1 percent. As the polls closed on Sunday amid violence, supporters of both Maduro and Capriles claimed electoral fraud. Maduro's lead in opinion polls before the elections suggested that he would win, but Capriles rapidly gained ground with Venezuelan voters in the last two weeks. Capriles has demanded a recount, but it is unclear whether this will take place.
Gang of Eight to release immigration plan: The bipartisan "gang of eight" group of U.S. Senators will unveil a proposal to overhaul the U.S. immigration system on Tuesday, according to Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). The proposal is expected to step up enforcement and border security, create a new guest worker program and provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the authors of the proposal, strongly endorsed the bill on Sunday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the bill on Wednesday.
Guantánamo prison protest escalates: Prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay prison clashed with prison guards on Saturday. At least 43 of 166 prisoners have continued a hunger strike to protest prison conditions that include separating inmates in communal housing and putting them in individual cells. The Pentagon reported that 11 inmates are now being force-fed after going on strike as a response to invasive searches and other controversial security measures. Some of the inmates have been imprisoned at Guantánamo for over a decade without being charged with a crime.
Mexican teacher protests continue: The Mexican government sent federal police to Guerrero state last week to confront teachers that have been protesting Enrique Peña Nieto's recently-introduced education reforms by creating roadblocks on the highway between Mexico City and Acapulco. The reforms include the implementation of a requirement that teachers pass a standardized test to teach, which many protesters fear will cause them to lose their jobs. The protesters have teamed up with local militias, such as the 1,200-member Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities, and say that they are planning more protests on Monday.
Michelle Bachelet hits campaign trail: Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet officially launched her presidential campaign on Saturday, promising education and tax reforms if she is re-elected president. Bachelet’s possible opponents in the upcoming election include Andrés Allemand, a former defense minister, and Laurence Golborne, a former public works minister who led the rescue of 33 trapped miners in 2010. Though Bachelet left office with an 84 percent approval rating, she faces challenges. Tens of thousands of students took to the streets on Thursday, demonstrating that education will likely play a major role in the country's November 17 elections.
More prisoners have joined a hunger strike that began on February 6 at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Striking prisoners say they are protesting more intrusive searches of their cells and open-ended confinement without charge.
According to Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the prison, 28 out of 166 prisoners are on strike, marking one of the most sustained protests the base has had in several years. The prison’s medical staff is closely monitoring the health of all prisoners, and ten of the strikers are being force-fed to prevent dangerous weight loss.
Differences in the notion of what constitutes a “hunger strike” have provoked sharp disagreement between the military and the detainees’ lawyers about how many prisoners are participating. Under the U.S. military’s formal definition, developed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, being on strike includes missing nine consecutive meals—in other words, abstaining from eating three days in a row. Lawyers for detainees claim that the military is significantly undercounting the number of strikers and say that the majority of the detainees in Camps Five and Six have been refusing to eat for weeks.
In response to these claims, Durand said that some prisoners who are refusing their meals have been observed eating food provided by other sources, and that others have covered up the security cameras in their cells to make it more difficult to track their eating.
The reasons for the strike are also in dispute. Lawyers say their clients’ complaints are motivated by an intrusive cell search in early February in which guards touched and inspected their Korans for contraband—an act that is considered a religious desecration. Detainees are also protesting the uncertain legal status of the majority of the prisoners, as well as restrictions on transfers, which have nearly halted any departures from the base. Military officials say there has been no change in the way searches are conducted at Guantánamo and that the hunger strike is an attempt to attract media coverage.
Hunger strikes have occurred at Guantánamo since shortly after it opened in January 2002. The largest one began in the summer of 2005 and reached a peak of 131 prisoners, when the facility held about 500 detainees. A delegation from the International Committee for the Red Cross made an urgent visit to Guantánamo this week to meet with hunger strikers and determine the gravity of the situation on the ground.
After eight long years of internment at the United States’ Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, the so-called Gitmo prison, Omar Khadr’s military trial is scheduled to resume on October 18, 2010. This comes nearly two months after his trial was suspended on August 13—the first day of arguments.
There is no more room for delays. Since being interned at Guantánamo, Khadr has faced delays after delays, he has fired his lawyers and has seen his trial postponed while the Obama Administration reviewed the functioning of military commissions. Then, on the first day of Khadr’s trial, his freshly-appointed military lawyer, Army Lt.-Col. Jon Jackson collapsed in the courtroom, and was air-lifted from the base to the United States for medical treatment. It is thought his malaise might be linked to a previous gallbladder surgery.
On top of that, Khadr has turned down a plea bargain, which would have limited his prison term to five years instead of the 30 years he faces.
Either way, the trial is off to a bad start
The military judge presiding over the 23-year-old Canadian citizen’s trial, Army Col. Pat Parrish, ruled that evidence obtained through interrogations while Khadr was 15 years old was admissible. His lawyers maintained those confessions were extracted under duress and torture. The Supreme Court of Canada, Canada’s highest court, had reached the same conclusion in its January ruling but stopped short of ordering Canada to ask for Khadr’s repatriation to Canada.
“The whole thing was a disgrace in terms of the rule of law,” says Allan Hutchinson from the University of Toronto’s prestigious Osgoode Hall.
In Singapore recently for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting, I was reminded again of the global influence, for good or ill, of American politics and culture. Given the 13 hour time difference, one wakes up in the morning just as U.S. television is in prime time. That means that if you turn on the hotel television to CNN, Fox, or in my case, in Singapore to CNBC, one is treated to the daily shout-fests that now pass for political dialogue in the United States.
In this case the topic happened to be the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, or KSM for those who want to portray themselves as insiders, in a U.S. court in New York. Turning on the television to Lawrence Kudlow (host of CNBC's The Kudlow Report) prior to my first cup of tea (this was Singapore not Lima), I was verbally and visually assaulted by Ann Coulter screeching at some deer-in-the-headlights type about the decision by the Attorney General. Honestly, I didn’t even listen to what she said other than to note that she was against it. And loudly against it.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know whom Ann Coulter speaks for other than herself, although she must have a following if she keeps getting invited to express her views on cable shows. But is this really the face of America that we want to show to the world, especially so early in the morning? I don’t know what she said and I don’t really care that much, but it’s not even the substance it’s the tone: mocking, irreverent and dismissive of alternative views.
If we want to abuse ourselves domestically by watching these programs in the United States, so be it. But why do we need to export the loudest, most aggressive aspects of American politics and culture to the rest of the world? Why not, for example, run a short camera shot for international transmissions of a burning fireplace or waves gently lapping at the seashore whenever these sorts of programs come on, like some people do on Christmas morning as the children tear open presents. Or even a test pattern. Goodness knows, that could do more for our standing overseas than even the closing of Guantánamo. For one, it would ensure that those who live in or travel to Asia would be able to wake up in peace.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.
From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Peru's PM to Resign, Push for End of Decrees that Sparked Amazon Conflict
Peruvian Prime Minister of Peru Yehude Simon announced that the government will ask congress to eliminate decrees 1090 and 1064, which are among the laws at the core of the violent clashes between protesters and police on June 5. Those clashes claimed dozens of lives. Simon also said that he would resign from office as soon after the stand-off with indigenous people in Peru’s Amazon was resolved. The government also granted permission for indigenous leader Alberto Pizango to leave the country after he was granted political asylum by the Nicaraguan government.
An Americas Quarterly web exclusive goes into detail about the set of controversial decrees and how they fueled popular discontent that led to the clashes. Furthermore, AQ offers ongoing coverage of the conflict in a dedicated “Issues In-Depth” section.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.