Tag: Organization of American States

Ortega Picks On Costa Rica to Rally Support At Home

For the past couple of years, Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega has been desperately seeking to subvert his country’s constitution and feeble democratic institutions in order to stand for re-election next year. Since the Nicaraguan constitution bars him from running for a third term (he was president in 1985-1990), Ortega tried unsuccessfully to have the constitution amended by the National Assembly, where his Sandinista party lacks a majority to do so. However, through judicial shenanigans facilitated by a Supreme Court and an Electoral Tribunal packed with Sandinista allies, Ortega is likely to run again next year. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal and The Economist have documented the case.

Despite seemingly getting away with it, Ortega faces strong challenges at home from the independent media, civil society groups, and the opposition parties, which have all bitterly denounced his illegal maneuvers. His candidacy might be assured; his re-election not so.

Enter my home country: Costa Rica.

Unfortunately throughout both countries’ histories, it has become a norm that the Nicaraguan political class picks conflicts with Costa Rica in order to distract attention from domestic problems and rally nationalist support at home. Ricardo Jiménez, a Costa Rican president in the early 20th century, once said that Costa Rica had three seasons during the year: the rainy season, the dry season, and the season of conflicts with Nicaragua.

This time around hasn’t been different. Approximately 20 days ago, a dredging project of the San Juan River, whose right bank serves as the border between both countries, led to an incursion of the Nicaraguan army into Costa Rican territory. The conflict area is an uninhabited island (approximately 60 square miles) at the mouth of the San Juan River. Aerial pictures show the destruction of tropical forest in the island—which is part of a protected area in Costa Rica—in what seems like an effort to detour the San Juan River at the expense of Costa Rican territory.

Costa Rica has had no army since 1949, so the government of president Laura Chinchilla has to rely on international pressure to get the Nicaraguan army out of the occupied territory. Costa Rica’s bitter complaints at the Organization of American States have been met with calls from other members, and from the ineffectual secretary general of the organization, José Miguel Insulza, for both countries to engage in endless dialogue and solve this “border dispute.” This is not a border dispute, though. Costa Rica has provided dozens of official documents and maps, including maps produced by Nicaragua’s own government, the official texts of the Cañas-Jeréz Treaty that defined the border and subsequent arbitration awards, and a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice. They all show that the occupied area is indeed Costa Rican territory. As the OAS shows its incompetence, Nicaragua continues its military presence and deforestation works on Costa Rican soil.

Unfortunately Ortega’s move has paid off. Nicaragua’s independent media is now full of headlines supporting their government against what they call “Costa Rica’s expansionist agenda.” The opposition parties have also rallied behind Ortega, providing their votes for the unanimous approval of an increase in the military’s budget (this is the first time Ortega has gotten a unanimous vote in Congress). Pro-government mass rallies have been staged in Managua. Facing no external pressure to withdraw, Ortega is likely to continue or even expand the occupation of Costa Rican territory well into next year when he heads to the polls for reelection.

In the meantime, impotency has taken hold in Costa Rica. Some murmur about the wisdom of giving up the army decades ago, although most Costa Ricans still pride themselves on being a pacifist country with a longstanding civilian tradition. However, calls are growing for the government to give up diplomacy and ask a third country to intervene with troops through the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. There is a realization that San José needs to draw a line in the sand with Managua. Appeasing Ortega will probably result in more conflicts in the near future.

It is still too early to tell what’s next. Costa Rica says it will bring the case to the UN Security Council in case the OAS fails to deliver. However, Russia’s veto is likely given Ortega’s close relationship with the Kremlin. Tellingly, the Obama administration has stayed mostly silent on the issue.



Violence and Institutional Chaos in Ecuador

Last Thursday I left home at 7:50am to do a radio interview. Little did I know that I would not be able to get back to work that day until 3:00pm because the national police would block the main avenues and bridges in my city, Guayaquil, Ecuador.

The police went on a national strike burning tires and openly disobeying the government. Grocery stores, drugstores, banks and other shops were sacked for most of the day as a result.  Some disgruntled members of the air force, who sympathized with the police and are in charge of running airports, shut down a few airports including the one in Quito, the capital.

President Rafael Correa was quick to call this a coup d’état attempt. But it was not. All of the military high command expressly supported the President from the beginning. It was a police strike that got out of hand mostly because the authorities with the power to have toned down the situation did the opposite. The policemen were demanding the repeal or reform of a law that reduced their compensation. The President or his ministers could have offered to negotiate the controversial provisions within that law. But the President went to the police barracks and provoked the policemen yelling “If you want to kill the president…here he is … kill him now!”

The policemen physically assaulted the President, throwing a teargas bomb at him among other objects, and he went across the street to the police hospital. There he received treatment and visits from his ministers and top aides, gave cell phone interviews and was at all times protected by his security team. Mary O`Grady in today’s Wall Street Journal and others credibly point out that the president was never kidnapped as he claims.

The political crisis that led to the police strike did not begin on Thursday. Ecuador has lived in constant political tension since before the year 2000, a situation that only intensified with the arrival of Rafael Correa’s government in January 2007. That year, his government was behind the forcible and illegal removal of the democratically elected opposition in Congress in order to approve a constitutional referendum that would give Correa more power. The press then discovered Correa’s Minister of Government holding a secret meeting with alternate congressmen, who serve in place of elected congressmen in case these cannot serve. After this meeting, with the support of the alternate congressmen, Correa got a majority in Congress that he did not have before.

When the Constitutional Court reinstated the opposition in Congress, Correa encouraged his followers to make the Constitutional Court “understand” the popular will and he ordered the police not to provide security to the Constitutional Court. An angry mob then physically assaulted the members of the court. Nevermind, Correa’s new majority in Congress removed the members of the Constitutional Court as they were in the way of a referendum that was clearly unconstitutional. The referendum asked if Ecuadorians wanted to hold a Constitutional Assembly of “unlimited powers” to draft a new constitution. A sizeable majority voted ‘yes’ and Correa’s majority at the Constitutional Assembly began its use of unlimited power by dissolving Congress in 2008.

After regularly disregarding the Constitution and the law for almost 4 years, it should come as no surprise that the policemen woke up one day thinking that, they too, could disobey the law and demand changes by force.

The 30th of September was a sad day for Ecuadorian democracy. The government ordered all media to broadcast state TV programming. We Ecuadorians were forced to watch government officials and sympathizers most of the day until two TV stations disobeyed the order at 9:00pm to show our military opening fire against our policemen, and rescuing a supposedly “kidnapped” President from the hospital. That day there were almost 300 wounded persons and 8 deaths that, most likely, could have been avoided.

There is nothing to celebrate. There is still no rule of law in Ecuador. While the President was celebrating a “victory for democracy” from the government palace’s balcony, the shooting between the military and policemen continued for 20 more minutes and the order to broadcast state TV was still in force. Naturally, state TV was only showing Correa’s address.

The damage is great. We have lost respect of our policemen and our government authorities, who act as if their power has no limits. The Ecuadorians of my generation have never seen this level of violence. We have also never been subjected to such an extreme state control of information, as we were that day.

The Organization of American States was quick to denounce the police uprising and express its support of democracy. But where have the OAS and other supposed defenders of democracy been when Correa has systematically violated the rule of law and undermined democratic institutions?

The institutional vacuum created by Correa’s government has led our society to unacceptable levels of violence. We hoped that the violent toll of the events on Thursday would have made the government change its authoritarian ways. So far, all evidence points to a radicalization of the government, which was already stigmatizing the opposition and harassing the independent press, and now seems set to exploit the day’s events to further undermine democracy.

What will it take for the OAS to denounce violations of the rule of law under Correa’s government?

A Disappointing Start in Piñera’s Chile

The presidential election in Chile that brought Sebastián Piñera to power last month was good news for Chile and the region. It confirmed once again that Chile is Latin America’s most modern country, one in which Chileans chose a center-right candidate to lead the country after 20 years of center-left governments that by and large stuck to the free-market model set in place in the 1970s and 1980s and that has made the country one of the most economically free in the world. In Chile, what’s at stake in presidential contests is not a radical change of the rules of the game, but rather policies that build on or depend on high growth. Chile’s mature democracy and economy serve as a model for Latin America.

But in just over a month of being in office, Piñera has made two decisions that disappointed his supporters both inside and outside of Chile who believed that he would reinvigorate the Chilean economy and stand firmly against the populist-authoritarian model that Hugo Chávez has exported to the region. Piñera backed the re-election of José Miguel Insulza to head the Organization of American States and has proposed a tax increase on large companies. Insulza and the OAS are widely and correctly viewed as having been silent, incompetent or complicit in the face of repeated violations of basic democratic and civil rights by populist governments in the region. Whatever the domestic political reasons for Piñera’s decision, countless Latin Americans who cherish their rights—not the least of whom are Venezuelans, Hondurans, Bolivians and Ecuadoreans—were disillusioned by the endorsement of Insulza.

On Friday, Piñera proposed to “temporarily” raise taxes on large companies from 17% to 20% (and to increase mining royalties and to permanently increase tobacco taxes) to finance Chile’s post-earthquake reconstruction needs. But a number of Chile’s leading economists are criticizing the tax increase and point to other sources of revenue that would be less damaging to growth. Hernán Büchi, a finance minister in the 1980s, and Luis Larraín, head of Chile’s free-market think tank, Libertad y Desarrollo, have both written op-eds in recent weeks pointing out that one of the country’s main problems has been the steady drop in productivity in recent years. Piñera was elected on a platform to increase productivity. A tax increase would aggravate the problem. According to Büchi, 20 years of center-left governments reduced Chile’s ability to eliminate poverty and followed a path that was politically easy and consistent with their ideology: “It would be a bad omen if the first measures of a government that should represent change in this regard, went down the same path.” Larraín adds that the tax decision will reveal Piñera’s governing approach, in which there is a real danger of avoiding necessary reforms and a president content with simply being a better administrator. We shall see.

The Violation of Human Rights in Venezuela and Cuba

A report (PDF) released today by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemns in well documented form the growing violation of human rights under the regime of Hugo Chavez. The 302-page study is yet another confirmation of the multitude of ways in which individuals, NGOs, union leaders, politicians, activists, businessmen, students, judges, the media and others who disagree with Venezuelan government policies are targeted by the government and its supporters through intimidation, arbitrary use of administrative and criminal law, and sometimes violence and homicide.

Among the many cases it documents, the report describes how the government last year shut down a publicity campaign in defense of private property run by our colleagues at the free-market think tank CEDICE. The government claimed that it did so to safeguard public order and the mental health of the population.

Particularly interesting is that the commission issuing this report (produced in December but for some reason only made public today) is part of the Organization of American States, which has proven itself useless at best and counterproductive at worst, in the face of blatant rights violations by the Venezuelan and other populist Latin American governments in the last decade. Will the same OAS that invited Cuba to rejoin the organization last year now debate the new report or will it and its head, Mr. Insulza, remain silent as they have for so many years?

Meanwhile in Cuba, the country Chavez holds as a model, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died yesterday after going on a hunger strike, suffering beatings and having been denied water by prison authorities for 18 days. The mistreatment led to kidney failure. According to Cuba Archive, an NGO that documents deaths attributable to the Cuban regime, Zapata “was then held naked over a powerful air conditioner and developed pneumonia.” What will the Permanent Council of the OAS have to say about that?

Political Prisoners in Venezuela: Where Is the Organization of American States?

The Washington Post has a great story today on the swelling number of political prisoners in Venezuela. As the story points out, the government of Hugo Chávez is increasingly targeting university students who have been active in the opposition movement. They are jailed under bogus charges of “destabilizing the government,” or “inciting civil war.”

Unfortunately, despite stories and numerous reports from international media outlets and human rights groups, the Organization of American States—which has been very active in trying to reinstall Manuel Zelaya to the Honduran presidency—has remained silent on this issue. Last week, dozens of students went on a hunger strike in front of the OAS headquarters in Caracas, but no official from that organization came out to meet them. After several days some students were allowed to talk with the OAS ambassador in Caracas, who put them in touch with the director of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Jose Manuel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, then asked the Venezuelan government to authorize the visit of a delegation of the IACHR, a request that hasn’t been granted. Judging by the lack of follow up efforts, the OAS, made up of a majority of countries that receive Venezuelan largesse of some form, seems mostly uninterested in pressing this issue.

The OAS seems ready to help deposed would-be autocrats in Latin America. Where is it when it comes to defending the rights of political prisoners in Venezuela?

Institutional Crisis Unfolds in Honduras

A serious institutional crisis is taking place in Honduras as a result of President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a new constitution that would allow for his reelection. Zelaya, a close ally of Hugo Chávez, is barred from pursuing a second term in the general elections in November.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, he doesn’t have the backing of his own party, much less any other major political group. So he has moved unilaterally to call for a referendum on the need for a new constitution. The vote, which is scheduled for this Sunday, has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general (whose office is not part of the cabinet in Honduras).

Despite the widespread institutional opposition to his plans, Zelaya is pushing for the vote. On Wednesday he ordered the Honduran armed forces to start distributing the ballots and other electoral materials throughout the country. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him, which prompted the resignation of all other leading army officers and the defense minister.

The attorney general is asking Congress to impeach Zelaya for violating the institutional order and abusing his powers. Last night, the Congress discussed removing Zelaya from his office. The president is defiant and has accused the Congress of attempting a coup.

In the meantime, thousands of Zelaya’s supporters are taking to the streets. Yesterday, a mob personally led by Zelaya stormed a Honduran air force base in order to retrieve the electoral materials that the generals refused to distribute. The army is reportedly deploying troops in the capital Tegucigalpa to prevent possible riots.

Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, is not staying out of the row. Last night he warned that Venezuela and its allies won’t sit idle while the Honduran “elites” launch a coup d’etat against Zeleya. He threatened to do “whatever it takes” to defend him. It might be more hot air coming from Venezuela’s strongman, but it certainly raises the spectrum of foreign involvement in what constitutes a domestic Honduran crisis.

In an interesting twist, Zelaya has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and defend Honduras’ democratic institutions. Most countries in the OAS are client-states of Chávez’s oil largesse. This is why the organization has repeatedly failed to condemn the abuses that Chávez and his Bolivarian friends in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have committed against democratic institutions, independent media, the opposition, and so on. More recently, the general assembly of the OAS has lifted the membership suspension imposed on Cuba, despite the country’s blatant violation of the democratic charter of the organization.

So it wouldn’t be surprising for the OAS to come to Zelaya’s rescue with a statement in his favor, despite his efforts to subvert Honduras’ democratic institutions. Mimicking Chávez’s words, the OAS envoy to Honduras has already said that the organization won’t recognize any government that comes out of “a coup.” José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary general, gave a confusing and ambiguous statement regarding the sacking of the army chief, saying that “the Armed Forces should obey the constitutional mandate and the constituted authority.” It sounds more like an endorsement of Zelaya’s position. The OAS general assembly is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

It’s clear that Zelaya is deliberately generating an institutional crisis. He can rely on the support of Chávez and his regional allies in the OAS. And he knows that if the armed forces try to remove him, it would look like a “coup d’etat” that would probably be widely condemned all throughout Latin America.

This is a real test for the OAS and its supposed (and tarnished) commitment to democratic republican principles.