Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Today: International Day of Action in Solidarity with Honduras

By Brooke Denmark, Christine Goffredo and Riahl O'Malley
International Team - Nicaragua
Witness for Peace

In Tegucigalpa teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens are protesting a proposed law that would pave the way for the privatization of education. Honduran military and police have responded to the peaceful protests with a brutal crackdown. Many protesters have been injured and one teacher has been killed.

On Sunday two teachers, María Auxiliadora Espinoza and Wendy Méndez, were detained at a gas station after the protest had concluded. And yesterday authorities arrested Miriam Miranda, the Garifuna leader of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras. Miranda was subsequently released, but in the meantime President Porfirio Lobo has threatened to suspend teachers continuing to protest for up to a year.

As concerns mount, Witness for Peace and other advocacy organizations have declared today an International Day of Action in Solidarity with Honduras. You can take action by writing to your congressional representatives to demand the U.S. stop funding the military and police violence against peaceful protesters.

Currently, the Honduras military receives funding from the United States through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which has a budget of more than $200 million. In February, the United States government granted $1.75 million to Honduras. Tell your congressional representatives that U.S. taxpayer money must not go to a military violently repressing its citizens and abusing human rights!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Inter-American Development Bank Meets in Canada: Development-Induced Displacement not on the Agenda

By Riahl O'Malley
International Team - Nicaragua
Witness for Peace

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean. Today bank ministers, bureaucrats, corporate executives and (some) civil society representatives are meeting in Calgary, Alberta for its annual meeting.

The Program of Activities displays a variety of development buzzwords such as investment, infrastructure, even climate change, but "development-induced displacement" didn’t make the itinerary. Following a free market development model, IDB policies encourage foreign corporations to pursue infrastructure projects in Latin America and the Caribbean under the pretext of increasing economic growth and reducing poverty. However, these projects often do more harm than good, creating or exacerbating problems in nearby communities. All too often, IDB projects displace massive amounts of people from their homes. For years, affected communities have mobilized to protect their rights. Their voices deserve a spot on the meeting agenda.

In the early 2000s, Plan Puebla Panama, a string of megaprojects partly funded by the IDB, faced mass opposition. Corporations were accused of violating people’s human rights, limiting access to natural resources through privatization and exploitation, breaking promises made to affected communities, and even of sending police and armed forces to remove people from their homes in the interest of foreign investors. (Witness for Peace's Mexico-based International Team recently reported on one such project - an IDB-funded hydroelectric dam proposed in coastal Oaxaca.) The effects have been felt most prominently by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

Grassroots opposition pressured the IDB to make “deep revisions” to the program, re-launching and eventually re-naming it the “Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project”. In addition, the IDB underwent an extensive reform agenda to make their projects “more accountable and transparent.” In February of 2010 they approved a new policy to “give better access to communities to express their concerns…” and initiated a policy designed to help minimize involuntary re-settlement.

These reforms, however, have not been effective. The open-ness of public consultations has been highly contested, challenged for having selective participation, distributing inadequate information to participants and for conducting insincere dialogue. And in spite of policy designed to prevent displacement, a report put out last year by the CIP Americas Policy Program found that IDB development projects in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Honduras are causing widespread forced migration.

Communities continue to voice their concern. On March 10 of this year an open letter to IDB president Luis Alberto Moreno was signed by presidents of the Tawahka Indigenous Federation of Honduras, Mosquitia Asla Takanka, and the Black-Honduran Fraternal Organization. The letter criticizes the IDB for funding a series of hydro-electric dams built on indigenous Tawahka land, cutting off methods of communication to the rest of the country and affecting their “physical security, nourishment, traditional economy, way of life and cultural integrity.”

In Honduras, this issue is part-in-parcel of a larger human rights crisis. While the post-coup administration remains contested by many Hondurans and unrecognized by a variety of Latin American leaders, the IDB seeks to legitimate President Lobo’s stance in global politics. Next May, IDB President Dr. Moreno will speak at an event called “Honduras is Open for Business,” a forum marketing Honduras as the “most attractive investment destination in Latin America.”

The IDB just announced that it will lend $171 million to Nicaragua over the course of 2011 for electricity, housing and transportation projects. Time will tell the consequences this loan carries.

The United States is the largest shareholder in the IDB and commands 30% of the vote, the largest of any member-nation. Considering widespread concerns over immigration in the U.S., it’s important to note the factors that set migration in motion, including foreign aid and development policy coming from our own government.

Adding consultation to the current free market model is not enough. To remedy problems of development-induced displacement and migration, current development strategies must be fundamentally re-examined to allow deeper revisions to take place.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Truth Commission vs. the True Commission: a report from Witness for Peace in Honduras

By Brooke Denmark
International Team - Nicaragua
Witness for Peace

The official Honduran Truth Commission has finished its investigations into the events leading up to and surrounding the coup on June 28, 2009. The Commission is set to release its report shortly before the next meeting of the Organization of the American States (OAS) in June. The U.S. State Department has been pushing for the reintegration of Honduras into the OAS since last year, and the Truth Commission’s report will likely be used to support the reintegration- giving a final stamp of approval on the coup and its aftermath.

However, many Honduran human rights organizations claim little faith in the official Commission. Chief among the complaints is the fact that the Truth Commission was unilaterally imposed by a government widely considered to be illegitimate.

“Usually when you have a reconciliation, you wait until both sides are ready to sit down,” says Bertha Oliva, head of the Committee of Relatives of Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH, Honduras’ largest human rights organization). “But the Truth Commission was imposed and came pre-designed.”

To find justice, Honduran human rights organizations like COFADEH and international supporters formed the True Commission. The True Commission is in the midst of collecting testimony regarding human rights violations around the country. Throughout this period I am providing protective accompaniment to one of the mobile investigative teams.

Almost two years after the coup, the human rights situation remains grave. Just this past week various sectors took to the street in protest, including the teachers’ movement. The repression of protesters was both public and violent. Cameras caught people running from tear gas, police making arbitrary detentions, and even the death of a demonstrating teacher. But the cameras have not been able to capture all the repression – which makes the True Commission all the more important.

“This is the precise moment to remind the authorities and the international community that for a very long time the Honduran people have been marginalized,” says Honduran lawyer David Shaw, a member of the True Commission’s investigative team.

The True Commission accepts testimonies related to all types of human rights violations. For example, in rural areas the team has spoken with communities being denied water rights. Following the coup, a government decree allowing the river privatization paved the way for the construction of massive hydroelectric dams. Nearby towns now struggle for access to a natural resource essential to life. Furthermore, the True Commission has found that people organizing to defend water rights face grave persecution.

The team recently visited an indigenous community center where murals of Honduran artist Javier Espinal cover the walls. In Espinal’s words, “impunity ends when there are more eyes watching.”

The True Commission aims to do just that - uncover the depth of this human rights crisis to lay the foundations for justice and peace. Day by day more stories come to the surface – and soon more and more eyes will be watching.

Monday, March 21, 2011

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Resigns; Human Rights Activists Say, “Fire the Merida Initiative!”

By Moravia de la O
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

On Saturday evening, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual. Responding to negative statements from President Felipe Calderon and tension generated by cables published by Wikileaks, Carlos Pascual decided to step down in order “to ensure the strong relationship between our two countries.” But the ambassador wasn’t the only reason for tense relations between the U.S. and Mexico. Beyond a personnel change, what’s needed is for the U.S. to also rethink its failed drug war strategy in Mexico.

Ambassador Pascual’s fall from grace is largely due to the publishing of diplomatic cables critical of the handling of the drug war by Mexican officials and agencies. In one particularly damaging cable, he describes the army as “risk averse.” However, candid as his cables may have been, they largely gloss over the negative effects of the drug war in Mexico.

For example, very little attention is paid to the escalating number of human rights complaints levied against the Mexican army since 2006. In the last four years, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission has received over 5,000 reports of human rights abuses by the army.

Another source of the Mexican political elite’s dissatisfaction with Ambassador Pascual is the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)’s Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed 1,700 guns to cross the border into Mexico. After news spread about the failure of the operation to effectively track these thousands of guns, the Mexican public was outraged. And it certainly didn’t help that one of those guns was used to kill U.S. customs agent Jaime Zapata on a Mexican highway.

However, weapons flow from the U.S. to Mexico is not a new phenomenon. Almost 90% of weapons used in Mexico can be traced to the U.S. For example, in recent weeks, the mayor and police chief of Colombus, NM were arrested in connection with a gun smuggling ring.

The U.S. would do well to not just appoint a new ambassador to Mexico, but also to dramatically alter the militarized model of anti-drug cooperation between the two countries.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Honduran Teacher Killed During Military Repression of Peaceful Protest

By Christine Goffredo
International Team - Nicaragua
Witness for Peace

Yesterday in Honduras’ capital city of Tegucigalpa, members of teachers’ unions, parents students, and members of the National Popular Resistance Front staged a peaceful protest. When military and police forces turned against the protesters, schoolteacher and human rights activist Ilsy Ivania Velázquez Rodriquez was killed after allegedly being struck by a tear gas canister and hit by a tank.

The shocking news raises questions about the role of United States funding to the Honduran military.

Through the U.S.-funded Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), $13 million has already been promised to the Honduran military with the intention of combating narcotrafficking and gang-related violence. And just this past month, the United States agreed to give another $1.75 million to Honduras.

Since the June 2009 coup, the Honduran military has been used more heavily in civilian issues—an area constitutionally relegated to the Honduran police force.

Given that human rights violations by the military continue to occur, impunity for these abuses is rampant and the recent use of force against civilians by military and police took place during peaceful protests, it is clearly time to ask if funding the Honduran military is how United States taxpayers’ money should be spent.

Yesterday Honduran civil society lost a prominent member of its community—a teacher, a human rights defender and a woman whose own family history was marked by human rights violations. Today we must denounce the use of taxpayer money to fund a military that ignores democratic practices and turns on its own citizens. And tomorrow, we'll continue working toward a more just future.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Free Trade's Winners and Losers in Latin America

Scrapping tariffs can hurt poor farmers, and a deal with Colombia might boost coca production.

By Jess Hunter-Bowman

President Barack Obama is traveling to Latin America, seeking refuge from budget battles at home by promoting increased trade with countries across the region. During his trip to Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador, he's expected to highlight the benefits of so-called "free trade" to U.S. and Latin American businesses.

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many conservatives in Congress will cheer him on, the truth is that free trade has been a curse for farmers and the poor throughout Latin America for years. It's time for a better approach.

Avid free-traders will tell you trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown nearly five-fold since NAFTA was enacted in 1994. They'll say two-way trade between the United States and Central America and the Dominican Republic was $37.9 billion in 2009, a significant expansion thanks to the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement.

While free trade can dramatically increase exports--and boost corporate profits--its impact on the working class and poor isn't so rosy.

Examining impact of NAFTA--the hallmark free-trade agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico--provides a glimpse at free trade's impact on Latin America's poor. Research has shown that the 1.3 million jobs created in Mexico during the peak period of the maquiladora industry between 1994 and 2001 only provided a small portion of the jobs needed to cover the millions of workers pushed off their farms or forced out of Mexico's devastated domestic industries.

Researchers have found that only 10 percent of Mexicans have seen any rise in their incomes or standard of living thanks to NAFTA. In fact, the vast majority are far worse off.

Mexican corn farmers--the cornerstone of Mexico's agricultural economy before NAFTA--have been hit the hardest. Some estimates suggest millions of Mexican corn farmers were driven off their land, unable to compete with highly mechanized U.S. corn imports. Left with no job options at home, many have come here.

Now Obama wants Congress to ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia signed during the Bush administration. This deal won't just turn a blind eye towards egregious labor rights violations in Colombia, where more union leaders were assassinated in 2010 than the rest of the world combined. Most likely, it will push more farmers into producing coca, the raw material for cocaine.

A free-trade agreement with Colombia would devastate that country's small farmers--just as NAFTA did in Mexico. The escape valve for Mexican farmers has been emigration to the United States, with an estimated 30 crossing the border every hour. The escape valve for Colombian farmers will be farming coca.

Colombia is already the world's leading cocaine manufacturer and a top producer of coca, the drug's main ingredient, with an estimated 120,000 hectares in production. It's slightly more profitable than farming food crops. A free-trade agreement that floods Colombian markets with cheap U.S.-produced grains would put poor farmers in an unenviable position: fall deeper into poverty or switch to coca production.

That's why the Chamber of Commerce isn't the only group salivating over the prospect of Congress ratifying the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. Drug traffickers would welcome the surge in coca production that tariff-free trade with that South American nation would trigger.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year history monitoring U.S. policy in Latin America.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oaxacans Protecting Land and Culture: Citizens' March in Defense of the Rio Verde

By Tony Macias
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

“A river dies when a dam is built!” Cenobio Chavez called into a megaphone at the head of Monday's march in coastal Oaxaca.

On March 14, the International Day against Dams, thousands gathered in the city of Pinotepa Nacional to protest a proposed hydroelectric dam in the nearby Rio Verde, one of the most important rivers in Oaxaca. Cenobio is from Paso de la Reyna, a small town of 700 that sits at the river's edge. (See our March 2010 blog post for more background info.)

If the dam is built as the Mexican Federal Election Commission has planned, Paso de la Reyna would lie just 1 kilometer from the base of a 500-foot concrete wall holding back a 5,000 acre artificial lake. In the event of a dam collapse, the town would be wiped from the map by a 300 foot-high wall of water moving at over 150 miles per hour. Town residents would have just 40 seconds to flee.

Paso de la Reyna is just one of the 19 communities that would be directly affected by the construction of the hydroelectric dam, to say nothing of the 100,000 coastal residents that would face negative social and environmental impacts. According to local organizer and spokesman Juan Gomez some of the consequences, include unpredictable and irreversible changes to water availability, the likelihood of dam failure in one of the most seismically-active regions of Mexico, desertification, and the interruption of water and nutrients flowing to a nearby environmental preserve hosting the region's most biodiverse wetlands. Social impacts include the influx of thousands of temporary workers from other parts of Mexico, the loss of traditional farming and fishing livelihoods for thousands of locals, and the forced displacement of those can no longer make a living without their farms. And how many of those who are displaced will attempt to migrate to the United States?

Eloy Cruz, another local spokesman, said during Monday's march, “We are not opposed to development; it's not that we don't want development projects... we just want them for the benefit of our people. The benefits [of these projects] are not for us... they want to export this electrical energy to other parts of Central America."

Hydroelectric dams are a crucial component of the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project (MIDP), a series of nearly 100 planned megaprojects reaching from Mexico to Colombia. MIDP would bring billions of dollars in profits to international corporations. To date, there are over 47,000 large dams located throughout the world. And while international financial institutions like the World Bank provide loans and seed money to start these projects, it is developing countries and their taxpayers that end up footing the bill- both in terms of costly loan payoffs and annual maintenance fees which reached $46 billion dollars per year worldwide in the 90s. Furthermore, between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced by these dams.

Unfortunately, the new state government of Oaxaca has not yet taken a definitive stance on the dam project. Meanwhile, local government officials and representatives of the Federal Election Commission have begun to use new tactics to win over nearby residents. Tactics include offering to build basketball courts in communities that accept the project, pro-dam educational projects in nearby schools, refusing to recognize local elections of residents opposed to the dam and even circulating fake newspapers stating that Oaxaca's new governor fully supports the project. To date there have been no serious threats or outright violence, but local organizers believe that this may not be far off. Anti-dam activists in the state of Jalisco have received numerous threats and are continuously harassed by state police forces. In Guerrero and Chiapas, respectively, environmental activists have been subjected to illegal imprisonment and even killed.

“We will do what is necessary –even give up our lives– because we are defending something more than money," says Juan Gomez. "We are defending the environment which includes water, land, flora and fauna. It includes the future lives of our children and grandchildren. It isn't something artificial that, if destroyed, we can just rebuild quickly. It is something unique that we have, and this is what motivates me most to continue in this struggle.”

Local activist Caudensio Villanueva said at the conclusion of the march “what happens in one country has repercussions on the international level... If more megaprojects of this type are done, we will further impoverish the most poor and the rich will just become richer.” He asked that Witness for Peace supporters in the U.S. “find a way to pressure our government so that this doesn't keep happening.”

Eloy Cruz reminded us, “Even though we are very poor, we all have the same rights. We can't let the dam be built, because then what will we leave to future generations?”

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Elephant in the Room with Obama and Calderón

By Moravia de la O
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

Amid rising tensions between their governments, yesterday Presidents Obama and Calderón addressed the small problems while ignoring the elephant in the room: the U.S.-backed war on drugs is failing. The presidents reiterated their commitment to continue current anti-drug strategies.

From the beginning of his presidency in 2006, President Calderón has deployed thousands of soldiers to the streets to fight the drug cartels. Since then, nearly 35,000 people have lost their lives. Thousands more have seen their communities torn apart by fear and insecurity. The U.S. has played a large role in this conflict, providing Mexico with millions of dollars in military equipment and training since 2007 through the Mérida Initiative.

In the last four years, the number of human rights abuses in Mexico has also skyrocketed. Since 2007, over 5,000 complaints of human rights violations by the military have been filed with the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. Among the most common complaints are disappearances, rape, torture and excessive use of force.

Despite continued pressure from civil society organizations and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the Mexican government has failed to implement comprehensive reform to prosecute human rights abuses by the military in civil courts.

There is little evidence that the current anti-drug strategy is producing positive results. In fact, the 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released by the State Department this week, estimates that drug production in Mexico has increased dramatically in the last few years. Impunity is also at an all-time high.

But you didn’t find either Calderón or Obama acknowledging that yesterday. Instead, they eased tensions by addressing a trade dispute that prevented Mexican trucks from operating on American highways. Since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, the U.S. has refused to abide by a provision that granted Mexican trucks these rights.

Although the advancement is small, it points to the grey cloud that hangs over the failed drug war in Mexico: the fact that U.S. economic policy, in the form of NAFTA, has done much to facilitate poverty and drug violence in Mexico.

“We are very mindful that the battle President Calderón is fighting in Mexico is not just his,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s also ours. We have to take responsibility, just as he’s taking responsibility.

His statement rings true. Although there are no easy fixes to the drug trade, the United States could take some important first steps by redirecting funds away from a military strategy in Mexico and towards policies that control the sale of assault weapons and significantly reduce demand for drugs in the US.

The United States is the biggest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. However, the Mérida Initiative does not allocate any of its funds to reduce drug consumption. Neither does it focus sufficiently on poverty-reduction.

About 90% of weapons used by cartels in Mexico come from the United States. In fact, the weapon used to kill Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata last week was purchased in Texas.

It is time for both the governments of the U.S. and Mexico to reevaluate their unsuccessful drug war policy and chart a new path for anti-drug cooperation.