Tuesday, June 26, 2012

U.S. Threatens to Cut All Aid to Nicaragua

By: Christine Goffredo
     WFP Nicaragua Team Member
Small chile farmers like Don Orlando (left), Don Roger (center) and Don Roger's son (right) are those that have benefited from USAID funded programs in Nicaragua like Chiles de Nicaragua, S.A.

Many people in the U.S. know about Nicaragua from the Sandinista revolution in the 1980’s, or they may have heard about the Iran-Contra affair.  But there is a 150 year history of tension between the United States and Nicaragua, and this history has continued to the present day.

Currently at issue in U.S.-Nicaraguan relations is the renewal of two separate “waivers”, without which Nicaragua would not receive any foreign aid from the United States in the upcoming fiscal year.  Last week Washington announced that Nicaragua would not receive one of the waivers, and the prospects of receiving the second so-called “property waiver” are not looking positive either. The new U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Phyllis Powers’ comments at a May 11 American Chamber of Commerce luncheon signaled as much:

 “I must be honest with you, the persistent failure in fiscal transparency, the incapacity of the government of Nicaragua to make concrete decisions in resolving the property invasions of U.S. citizens, and especially the grave irregularities in the electoral process of last year; and the absence of means that indicate that the conditions are improving for this year, make the decision for the disbursement of funds very difficult.” 

The first waiver deals with transparency in budgeting, and its denial will cost the Nicaraguan people $3 million in aid for the next fiscal year.  The approval of the property waiver still remains uncertain and could mean a cut of over $13 million in education, health, and small business development funding.  

The property waiver comes from Section 527 of a U.S. law called the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that gives the Executive Branch authority to cancel all aid to a country if cases concerning land confiscated or appropriated from U.S. citizens by that country’s government are not resolved in a satisfactory manner.   In addition, the U.S. government would have to veto any decisions by international financial institution, such as the IMF where the U.S. holds veto power, to disburse funds.  

While such a law may seem logical on its face—a way to protect U.S. citizens’ property—such laws have almost exclusively been used to punish government’s that disagree with U.S. policymakers.  

And this legislation is particularly problematic for Nicaragua. In the first place, due to the Hickenlooper Amendment that dates back to 1962 but was resurrected by Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Henry Gonzalez when they authored Section 527, the definition of U.S. citizen can be applied retroactively.  This means that Nicaraguans whose land was confiscated before they became U.S. citizens are applicable under this law.  One of the main motivations for this amendment is the Nicaraguan Agrarian Land Reform, passed after the Revolution in1979 that put an end to a 40-year long dictatorship by the U.S.-supported Somoza family.  The Reform confiscated land primarily from  Somoza family members,  soldiers in Somoza’s army that had committed war crimes, and those that had taken out hefty mortgages for their properties and then left the country for the United States, taking all of their wealth with them, and leaving the burden of the unpaid-for properties with the Nicaraguan government.   Following the U.S.-funded Contra War in Nicaragua, the democratically elected president of 1990, Violeta Chamorro, formalized the land turnovers, an act lauded by many as a great aid in the war reconstruction effort of the country.  The Agrarian Reform benefited over 60% of Nicaragua’s rural population by providing them with land after over a decade of war and destruction.  

In 1994, however, the U.S. passed Section 527 and even advertised it in stateside newspapers, urging new U.S. citizens from Nicaragua to file claims.  According to César Zamora, the vice president of the American Association of the Chambers of Commerce of Latin American and the Caribbean (Aaccla), these property claims have cost Nicaragua over $1.4 billion in 15 years, and that the resources that the country has utilized to return and compensate these confiscated properties makes up around 45% of the internal debt of the country.  This is on top of a $4.12 billion external debt that represents 52.6% of the country’s GDP, thanks to U.S. supported neoliberal policies that pushed borrowing from the IMF and World Bank.  

Today the Attorney General of Nicaragua, Hernán Estrada, has reported that in this year alone, 50 cases have been resolved, leaving 193 claims, representing 366 properties, still unresolved.  This shows a real effort to escalate the pace of case resolution, as there were 48 in 2009, 61 in 2010, and 62 in 2011.  Of the 193 claimants still remaining, only 6 are U.S.-born citizens, the rest are Nicaraguan who became citizens during the 80’s and 90’s, according to the Attorney General’s Office.  Estrada has also noted that some of the difficulty in resolving the remaining cases has to do with poorly filed claims, or lack of documentation for claims.  

Nevertheless, the decision that the Executive Branch will make is still uncertain.  In the case of the negation of the first waiver, the major reason cited was lack of transparency in the Nicaraguan budget. The other issue mentioned was inconsistencies in the 2011 Nicaraguan Presidential election.  This, despite that fact that the first waiver is based on the Department of State’s Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act, which evaluates only fiscal spending (specifically, making the national budget public).  In regards to the elections, there have been several documented instances of issues with that election, while the Nicaraguan government and its supporters maintain that the election was free and fair.  

Clearly these waivers are powerful diplomatic tools that raise very serious questions not only about national sovereignty, in terms of producing a national budget or electing a leader, but also about what the goal of foreign aid really is. Should U.S. assistance be used to ensure that a country obeys the will of the United States? Or to aid the millions of Nicaraguans that could benefit from financial assistance in health, education, and environmental programs?  

Sociologist Cirilo Otero told Witness for Peace in a recent interview, “I think that the two waivers are necessary for Nicaragua, in relation to the country’s interests with multilateral institutions and the commitments of the country to multilateral lending institutions.”  But he left an important reminder concerning these international lending institutions, their programs, and the majority of Nicaraguans:

“With or without the waiver, poverty will continue to be a difficult and denigrating situation for a large percentage of Nicaraguans, for many Nicaraguan families - I am speaking about roughly 3.5 million people, principally young people.  Up until now, the projects that have been executed with these loans have not succeeded in benefiting the poor of Nicaragua.”

Nevertheless, loss of United States development aid would seriously damage and possibly eliminate programs currently operating in Nicaragua that assist Nicaraguans around the country.

The decision will be made by July 30, so there is still time to act. Call John Ballard at the State Department’s Nicaragua Desk (202-647-1510) and tell him that you support extending both of these waivers to Nicaragua this year. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Obama's New Immigration Directive a Positive Step, But Not Enough

By Carlin Christy, WFP Mexico and Tony Macias former WFP Mexico Team Member

A new policy move by President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could halt the deportation of over 800,000 undocumented youth without providing a pathway to citizenship.  In President Obama's carefully-delivered words, "this is not amnesty, this is not immunity... This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people."

This is a true victory for the thousands of youth that have come out as undocumented, unafraid and unwilling to continue living in the shadows, while waiting for comprehensive immigration reform.
Immigrant’s rights activists, including Dreamers, are applauding the move by Obama as a step in the right direction, but one that still falls far short of comprehensive immigration reform and a resolution for the other 11 million immigrants who do not meet the program’s requirements.

Despite the fact that the June 15 announcement by the Obama administration is most likely a political move to garner votes in the upcoming election, it is seen as positive given the harsh state laws and federal immigration policies that have dominated the political landscape for the last several years.  Dreamers and undocumented people who have told their stories and organized to demand their rights and recognition in society are the driving force behind putting young immigrants on the political radar.

The executive measure would allow youth that meet a series of stringent requirements to remain in the U.S. and apply for renewable work permits. Any of the over 11 million remaining undocumented immigrants that don't meet these rules are still fair game for detention and deportation.

The burden would be on undocumented youth to prove to Homeland Security (and any agencies collaborating with ICE) that they have met the following requirements: to qualify for this special status and a work permit you must be under 30 years old, have entered the US before you were 16, have lived in the U.S. for five years, be free of a criminal record, and have earned a high-school diploma, an honorable discharge from the military, or be currently enrolled in school. This status is "subject to renewal" every two years, provided the policy remains in effect under the next presidential administration beginning in 2013. It is uncertain what would happen to any immigrant youth that registers with DHS if renewal is denied or if the policy itself is repealed. One possibility is that he or she would receive an order for deportation.

Over 90% of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. under second-class status would not qualify for this program and will continue to face criminalization, exploitative working conditions, deportation, fear, and family separation.  Moreover, any young person convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or multiple misdemeanors would not be eligible. Anyone seen as posing a threat to national security or public safety would also not be eligible, although it is unclear how this would be determined. Any qualifying youth already in removal proceedings may be granted this status if they have already been offered prosecutorial discretion.

While it is mirrored after many provisions of the DREAM Act, this policy is not a law and has not been approved by Congress. According to DHS, only the U.S. Congress has the power to "confer substantive right, immigration status, or pathway to citizenship." Both President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the right of executive discretion in applying immigration law, particularly in the case of undocumented youth seen as “productive" and "patriotic." While preferable to rampant hate speech directed at immigrants by the right-wing, this civil rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the record number of deportations carried out under the Obama Administration.

Although a positive step in reforming domestic immigration enforcement, this policy is not paired with any other measures to address the root economic issues that push migration to the U.S. in the first place. With the promotion of free trade agreements throughout the Americas, U.S. trade policy has led to increased economic instability in immigrants’ countries of origin. Also left unaddressed are the dangerous conditions faced by migrants. Many die trying to reach the U.S. Central Americans who travel on trains headed north face considerable risks including kidnappings, injuries, assaults, robberies and rape- all before even reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Once in the border region, migrants face harsh environmental conditions, possible kidnapping and murder by criminal organizations, or even abuse from border officials.

The U.S. government’s militarized strategy to fighting the “war on drugs” in the Americas negatively affects public security in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This approach has created nearly 250,000 internally displaced people in Mexico and has provoked conditions of violence and instability that lead many to migrate from other countries as well.

Dreamers and undocumented people who have stepped out of the shadows to demand their rights and recognition in society are the driving force behind this policy move. Until there is recognition of U.S. policies’ role in pushing migration from sending countries and mobilization to change these policies, conditions that create migration will continue.  A victory was achieved for young undocumented immigrants this past Friday, but the larger struggle for global economic justice and full recognition of all immigrants in the U.S. will continue to strengthen and grow across borders.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Workers of the Americas at Risk: The Cases of Wisconsin, Colombia, and Guatemala

by Carlos Cruz, Colombia Team

The workers of the Americas are facing an all-out attack on their rights and their lives. The recent effort to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker failed and Colombia and Guatemala were ranked numbers one and two on the list of the deadliest countries in the world to exercise labor rights in a recent International Trade Union Confederation annual survey of labor rights. Colombian, Guatemalan and U.S workers all face diminishing unionization rates, an anti-union climate and government policies that systematically chip away at workers’ rights.
Scott Walker, a corporate-backed politician, has been launching an all-out assault on labor in the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin. His policies drew over a million signatures for his recall principally from the labor movement, but grassroots efforts couldn’t stand up to the $30 million from special interests and campaign supporters.
Walker is part of the faction in the U.S. political landscape that portrays labor unions as infringing on corporate profits and driving jobs to countries where labor is cheap and flexible like Colombia and Guatemala, instead of recognizing their role in having brought the American middle class to a prosperous wellbeing. The rate of unionized workers in the U.S. has dropped from 20% of the workforce in 1983 to 11.8% in 2011.
The economic downturn in the U.S. has been used by politicians like Scott Walker to justify efforts to cut public sector workers’ wages and benefits, and to eliminate or restrict their collective bargaining rights. “Working America, firefighters, teachers and nurses - are not responsible for the reckless actions of Wall Street, which led to this crisis in the first place,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings.
The same economic downturn saw the Obama administration pass the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in efforts to boost the U.S economy.  As we have already seen in recent history, free trade agreements make labor conditions more precarious for workers throughout the Americas and only serve to truly benefit multinationals that profit off of cheap labor abroad, thus weakening unionized, organized workers in the U.S. What is concerning is that Colombia and Guatemala—both free trade partners with the U.S.— hold the worst record for labor violence. U.S. companies are taking advantage of a hostile labor climate for workers to increase their profits.

Colombia Guatemala and Free Trade

Several serious and repeated failures by the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala to properly address levels of violence and labor rights violations have been brought up to the United States before and after the ratification of their bilateral free trade agreements. It’s been cited that both countries have weak and corrupt institutions and are not able to effectively enforce their own labor laws and international norms nor protect their workforce from violence. The case of Colombia is demonstrative as some 3,000 labor union members have been killed since the 1980’s.
Labor conditions in Colombia and Guatemala have remained unchanged or have worsened since the free trade agreements were ratified. Violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, along with increases in the number of murders and death threats against union members, are rampant in Colombia and Guatemala. Seven members of Guatemala’s largest agricultural union whose products are sold to California-based Del Monte were murdered in 2011.  So far in this year alone, seven Colombian trade unionists have been killed despite the Santos and Obama administrations signing a Labor Action Plan that was intended to reduce violence and labor rights abuses.

U.S. efforts have not been enough to resolve the flagrant human rights’ abuses of its trade partners. Even after Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO filed the first Central American Free Trade Agreement labor compliant for threats, illegal firings, abuse and murder, nothing has come about as a result four years after the fact. In Colombia, the now disbanded government security agency that received U.S. funding—DAS—was found to be involved in sending information about a trade union leader to a paramilitary group that ultimately ended in his death in 2009. The governments of Colombia and Guatemala have failed to adequately investigate death threats and murders in almost all cases. There have been mechanisms to address these issues, like labor complaints in the case of Guatemala and the Labor Action Plan in Colombia, but neither have changed the climate of impunity and repression towards workers.
Although workers in the United States do not face death threats and murder like their Colombian and Guatemalan counterparts, there is an array of anti-union tactics used by employers. Union busting consulting firms and an encroaching legal framework, that bans public employees from striking, for example, are limiting labor unions’ capacity to protect workers’ rights. In Colombia and Guatemala, in addition to the physical dangers encountered by labor leaders, a common threat is the subcontracting of workers to circumvent contracts, benefits and—most of all—the formation of labor unions.
Even though labor unions face setbacks and encroaching policies that limit their rights, the bulk of the grassroots efforts to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the staunch opposition to the U.S.-Colombia FTA came from the labor movement in both the U.S and Colombia. The labor movement in Guatemala with support from the U.S. labor movement has been able to highlight and bring international attention to the situation in Guatemala.  In both these international cases, much attention has been brought forward to the international arena, where organisms like the International 
Labor Organization have handed down critical recommendations that have not been accorded the political will by either government to actually bring about the change needed to alter the critical reality of workers’ rights. However the rank and file of these countries along with the U.S. grassroots labor movement will continue to bring these abuses forward to place pressure on governments to meaningfully comply with and fulfill the rule of law that is being denied to many workers throughout the Americas.
Witness for Peace delegation acompanying Port Workers Union during a strike that led to 80 direct contracts.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Systematic Threats Force Mexican Labor Rights Organization CAT to Close its Office

by Carlin Christy, WfP Mexico

Repeated attacks including kidnapping and death threats have forced the members of The Center of Support for Workers (CAT) to close their office after twelve years of labor rights defense work in the state of Puebla.

In a statement shared at a press conference on May 31 in Mexico City, The Center of Support for Workers (el Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador-CAT) stated:

“The lack of investigation into the violence and harrassment against the members of CAT since 2010 constitutes a pattern of impunity that perpetuates the situation of insecurity and the lack of guarantees that the Mexican state has the obligation to ensure for labor (and) human rights defenders in the state of Puebla and in the country.

For this reason, today, CAT is forced to close its offices in the state of Puebla since both the state, as well as the federal governments, have failed to provide adequate conditions of protection for (CAT) to continue carrying out their work as human rights defenders.”

For safety concerns, members of CAT were not in attendance at the press conference, however their statement was read by an allied organization, the Project on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Mexico (Prodesc).

Members of CAT have been the targets of a systematic pattern of death threats and harassment for their work promoting labor rights and organizing independent labor unions in the state of Puebla since 2008. Their efforts have raised awareness of the precarious working conditions in the state’s manufacturing sector. In particular, CAT has focused on improving conditions and organizing workers at various U.S.-owned plants, including those owned and operated by the Wisconsin-based company Johnson Controls.

In the most recent acts of aggression, CAT member José Enrique Morales Montaño, was kidnapped and kept incomunicado for approximately 17 hours on May 15th.

At the time of the kidnapping, Enrique was going to the Local Labor Board in Puebla to provide support for the case of local workers who are fighting against a factory in the region.

Once kidnapped, Enrique was physically and psychologically tortured when his attackers held a gun to his head on several occasions. He eventually was dropped off on an abandoned highway with severe injuries. The following day, Blanca Velazquez, director of CAT, received death threats from Enrique’s stolen cell phone.

Blanca Velazquez is a close partner of Witness for Peace and has traveled on Witness for Peace sponsored speakers tours in the fall of 2002 and spring of 2004. The attacks and threats against Mr.Morales Montaño and Ms.Velazquez illustrate the risks that all human and labor rights defenders face in Mexico in the current context of the U.S.-backed drug war.

The atmosphere of impunity in Mexico only serves to heighten the attacks carried out against human rights defenders in the country. Previously in 2010, the offices of CAT were robbed and a threatening message was written on the wall. In 2011, Blanca Velazquez and other CAT members continued to receive death threats. Investigations into these crimes have gone nowhere. While members of CAT were granted precautionary measures by the National and Puebla State Human Rights Commissions, these measures were suspended one month prior to the May attack.

With the official closure of CAT, hundreds of workers are left without legal support in the face of workplace violations and exploitation by foreign corporations. Other civil society organizations in Puebla are also concerned with conditions of increased vulnerability, given the lack of state protection in guaranteeing the safety of human and labor rights defenders.

Witness for Peace laments the closure of CAT after twelve years of labor rights defense work in Puebla. We thank them for their many years of collaboration with our program in Mexico and for their help in educating U.S. audiences about the negative impacts of U.S. policy in Mexico. We ask our members to continue to stand in solidarity with the labor, human rights defenders, and other social movement leaders of Mexico who are facing ongoing threats, harassment, and attacks.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"The bullets fell from above like rain:" accounts from the Ahuas tragedy

“The bullets fell from above like rain.”

Recently, Witness for Peace partnered with PROAH, which provides International Human Rights Accompaniment in Honduras, to accompany a group of Honduran human rights defenders from COFADEH (Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras), on an investigative mission to La Moskitia. One of the nights that I spent in there, I dreamt that I was being shot at by machine guns. It was dark and all I could see were bright lights showering down like fireworks. For a passenger boat in the Patuca River a few weeks ago this nightmare was their reality. Early in the morning on May 11th helicopters from a DEA supported drug raid opened fire onto the canoe. Among the victims who lost their lives were two pregnant women and a 14 year old boy.

Hilda, a survivor who I met in the local hospital earlier that day, said that she had fallen asleep on the boat and woke to bullets falling like rain. One of those bullets left her with a grave wound in both of her legs.  She recounted from her hospital bed that she went into the water to try to escape the overheard attack, but her injury and the continued gunfire prevented her from getting out of the river for almost two hours. Hilda’s family had gone out to search for her as soon as they heard the news of the attack, but they too were stalled for hours by the violent raid. Hilda’s wounds became seriously infected, likely due to the amount of time she was stuck in the water before being rescued. As she lay bandaged in the hospital she recalled no warning from the DEA helicopter; no lights shone down from above. She lamented that if they had, they would have seen that the small boat was filled with innocent women, children and men. Rather all she remembers was waking up to a barrage of bullets.

The next day I shared my dream with one of the members of the group of human rights defenders and journalists that I was accompanying on their mission to investigate the deadly attack. He responded that he’d had a similar nightmare. I wondered if we were so affected by these events, how the victims and survivors manage to cope with this trauma.

After that conversation I met a two year old girl who had been another passenger on that boat while she was sitting on the wooden steps of her home with her 11 year old sister who also survived the botched raid. The toddler watched us curiously as her sister shyly described how they managed to reach land that morning. The youngest sister rode on her mother’s back to shore; the oldest fended for herself even though she doesn’t know how to swim. They appeared physically unscathed but looking into the young girls’ eyes I asked myself what kind of dreams they have at night and what kind of memories they will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives.

Other nights since Ahuas when I close my eyes I see the face of the 14 year old boy who was killed. Sadly I don’t see a smiling young teenager. I see the image of his recovered body that his older sister showed me when we visited their home. His body was missing for almost two days before it was found.

For me the pain of the survivors and families of the victims is tangible and visceral, because I saw the tears, the wounds, the canoe with 20 bullet holes, the grief and indignation. But it should not just be the international accompaniers, the Honduran human rights defenders, and journalists who see this first hand in order to piece together who was responsible for that fatal morning. Where is the official investigation?

The official U.S. government line is that the Honduran authorities are investigating the events. Due to the level of U.S. involvement in this incident and the State Department’s own human rights reports documenting the rampant impunity in Honduras, why is the U.S. not conducting its own investigation or at the very least providing more direct support to the Honduran investigation?  It would only be fitting since the U.S. DEA was “supporting” the operation.

Over a week after the attack the investigation that the U.S. government is putting all its faith into was sitting in Puerto Lempira with the Direccion Nacional de Investigacion Criminal (DNIC). COFADEH found that no official autopsies had been done and important pieces of evidence had not been collected. While some witnesses and families of the victims that COFADEH and the journalists spoke with had been interviewed by the DNIC commission, others had not.

The truth is that it is much more convenient for the U.S. to allow the memories to fade, the evidence to disappear, and the investigation to drag out indefinitely like thousands of others. That way they can more easily evade answers to questions about what type of support and advice the DEA gave, what role they actually played in the operation, and why the U.S. are supporting Honduran security forces that have been implicated in human rights abuses.

It is time for the U.S. government to look into the eyes of the survivors and families of victims themselves.

*WFP partnered with PROAH which provides International Human Rights Accompaniment in Honduras