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Humberto de la Calle (r.) head of Colombia's government peace negotiation team, speaks to reporters during the peace talks with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, Sunday. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Colombia, FARC rebels make peace progress with land deal

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / 05.28.13

Six months after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government first sat down to try and negotiate an end to the country's half-century-long conflict, many citizens felt their hopes deflate. The talks were beginning to appear to be just another failed attempt at peace, and critics' voices were growing louder.

But on Sunday came a major breakthrough. The FARC and the government made a joint announcement stating that they had reached an agreement for "radical transformations" in the Colombian countryside. Land rights have been a flash point of the conflict, and the FARC claim they are the reason they rose up against the state 49 years ago today. Over half of the farmland in this South American nation is held by 1 percent of landowners. The new agreement “seeks to reverse the causes of the conflict,” according to a joint statement read in Havana, Cuba, where the negotiations are taking place.

Land is just one of five points on the negotiating agenda, and no single deal is final until the entire negotiation process draws to a close, according to negotiation rules. Few specifics on the land agreement have been released since the May 26 announcement, and the FARC’s chief negotiator said there are some land reform details that remain unresolved.

The fact that the two sides decided to announce the agreement nonetheless is an indication of the urgency negotiators felt to show the public they were making progress.

'Generate controversy'

Some Colombians gushed with enthusiasm and hyperbole at the news. "What just happened in Havana is the most important thing that has happened in the last 100 years in the country," said Senator Armando Benedetti, a member of the government coalition.  "The issue of land is 60 percent of a peace agreement."

But critics continued to question the peace process. "Terrorist Farc kills our soldiers and policemen and the Santos government rewards them with a land agreement," tweeted former president Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of President Juan Manuel Santos. In another tweet he wrote: "It's unacceptable that the Santos government negotiate the model of the Colombian countryside with narco-terrorists."

Lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said criticism was welcome. "We know that these negotiations generate controversy and that's fine," he said. "But we ask for the debate to be sensible."

Many victims of the FARC remain skeptical that a peace deal is possible. "I doubt it. This is the same as the last time there were negotiations" which ended in 2002, says Sandra SÁnchez, who was displaced by guerrillas in 2007 from her home in Vichada province after her son and daughter deserted from the rebel ranks. "They talk and talk and then the negotiations break off and we’re left with more war."

Doubts are understandable – The FARC marked their anniversary by torching two trucks on a highway in the southern Cauca province – and there are still many thorny issues to work out before a peace deal is a sure thing. But there may be reason for cautious hope, too: Never before has the FARC and government come so far on agreeing on anything, much less a very root cause of the conflict. 

Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt sits in the courtroom before the judge reads the verdict during his genocide trial in Guatemala City, May 10. (Moises Castilo/AP)

Guatemalan court hits rewind button on Rios Montt's genocide conviction

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 05.21.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

In a three-to-two ruling Monday night, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned Efrain Rios Montt's guilty verdict and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez's not guilty verdict and returned the trial to April 19.

 While the dust is still settling, April 19 would mean that witness and expert witness testimony will not need to be re-admitted. The court will be at the point at which it will be preparing to hear closing arguments.

Obviously, the ruling is good news for Rios Montt, but it is bad news for Rodriguez Sanchez, who is in jeopardy again. It's also bad news for the survivors who worked so very hard to secure the guilty verdict.

Now the ruling could be a sign of corruption and impunity. That would obviously be bad. Mauro Rodrigo Chacón and Gloria Porras were the two judges who ruled against overturning the verdict. Chacón represents the University of San Carlos and Porras was appointed during the Colom administration. The court's reversal comes following weeks of escalating attacks in the press from a powerful economic group, veterans' groups, and other right-wing groups.

Or it could be a sign that the Constitutional Court is doing its job and making sure that all parties adhere to established legal practices. That would be good as it doesn't help if justice cuts corners.

Here's what I wrote on Al Jazeera last week:

First, the prosecution still has to secure the final verdict. The trial itself has been full of intrigue, with two different judges claiming they should be overseeing the trial. Pre-trial judge Patricia Carol Flores, who was responsible for evidentiary and other matters of the case, held a hearing on the morning of Friday's verdict during which she tried to annul the trial, once again, and send it back to November 2011.

The Constitutional Court (CC) already ruled that Flores had overstepped her authority and had interpreted its ruling too broadly. It seems the CC only wanted her to incorporate new evidence that previously had been excluded and then send the case back to Judge Barrios. However, Flores' latest decision to re-annul the trial remains pending.

Following Friday afternoon's verdict, Rios Montt's attorney argued that the defence had already lodged four constitutional challenges and eight amparos which had not yet been ruled upon. Those legal challenges could threaten the conviction. Guatemalan lawyers have a history of using excessive, often frivolous, legal challenges to delay or deny justice so it is possible that all are resolved in favour of the prosecution. In this trial alone, the defence lodged over 100 legal challenges. 

Judge Barrios and her two colleagues must have decided that the best strategy to reach a verdict was to push the trial through to the end without waiting to resolve all the outstanding legal challenges rather than let the trial get bogged down. 

If Judge Barrios and the other two judges remain in charge of the case and all that needs to be re-argued are closing arguments, the damage is minimal. If the CC determined that the trial court should not have proceeded when it did and it is now returning the case to the point in time at which it should have been stopped, April 19, that is justice in motion. That is a CC that takes its role seriously. However, the ruling might have gone beyond that.

As of tonight, though, the ruling's motivations and implications are not necessarily clear.

Guatemala's former dictator Ríos Montt wears with headphones as he listens to the verdict in his genocide trial in Guatemala City, last Friday. The Guatemalan court convicted Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 80 years in prison. (Luis Soto/AP)

What does genocide conviction of Ríos Montt mean to Guatemalans abroad?

By Kara AndradeGuest blogger / 05.17.13

• The views expressed are the author's own.

From Texas last week, I tuned in to the trial of Guatemala's former-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt as he was sentenced to 80 years in prison and heaved a tearful sigh of relief. 

His sentence – the maximum in Guatemala – came 12 years after the case was initially filed with the Inter-American Court in Spain. And it was long-awaited: Mr. Ríos Montt's 18 months as Guatemala’s dictator, is considered the bloodiest of the country’s entire civil war. His trial was the first time any domestic court has tried someone on genocide in the world. 

When I called my mother in Florida to share the news she didn't miss a beat: "Por fin ese viejo se va a la carcel, donde se merece estar." At last, that old man is in jail, where he deserves to be.

I wasn't the only Guatemalan-American live-streaming the trial, reading the blogs, local papers, and any new piece of information that could help me grasp what my country was going through. 

The rest of my family was doing the same from Los Angeles, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Miami, and North Carolina. And there were all the people I didn't know, who I was connecting with on Facebook from Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Amsterdam, Argentina, and other parts of the world. It seemed everyone was commenting on the Ríos Montt trial, which began in November 2012.

For many in the Guatemalan diaspora this was a David and Goliath moment, the giant dictator demolished by the humble stone of the Guatemalan court.

“I felt a rush of energy along the marimba of my spine, ending up as a cascade of tears of joy,” says Martha Chavez, a Guatemalan comedian based in Toronto. “I wanted to yell, ‘Champagne for the whole world, hooray!’"

Aida Morales, also in Canada, cried, too. This was the conviction of a man many long felt was most responsible for the genocide of the early 1980s.

“I was almost unwilling to believe that I was awake, rather than dreaming, it was too good to be true,” says Hugo Orozco, a political exile based in New York City.

History of the conflict

The origins of Guatemala's civil war date back to the split that emerged after the United States financially backed a military coup in 1954 that overthrew leftist President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Mr. Guzmán’s election was viewed by many Guatemalans as the first sign of democracy: The country adopted a new constitution that broadened suffrage and supported the labor and agrarian movements. He initiated land reform and sought to make United Fruit Company pay taxes on its immense holdings in Guatemala. But the victory was short-lived. 

In the context of the cold war, the US saw Guzmán’s moves as tainted by Cuba’s communist influence.

The US supported right-wing military governments in Guatemala until 1988. A significant period of support came after Ríos Montt’s brief presidency, which began in 1982 after a military coup. Some 200,000 people were killed during the Guatemalan civil war, mostly members of indigenous communities, and many point to Ríos Montt's tenure as one of the most violent periods of the 36-year internal conflict.

There were death squads, executions, forced disappearances, and torture of noncombatants. The majority of the human rights violations took place under Ríos Montt’s “scorched earth” campaign that aimed to destroy-all-opponents.

During this armed conflict, many Guatemalans became political refugees, asylum seekers, or immigrants looking for economic opportunity outside of a country at war. My family left because of the poverty in the rural areas that resulted from the conflict, and still remains.

The conflict only came to an end in 1996, with the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, and Guatemala’s social fabric is still shadowed by its long history of political repression and decades of violence.

Included in the Peace Accords was the acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous people to receive a full range of social services in their own languages, including legal services, public education, and health care. But disparities in economic, health, and education services still remain between indigenous and nonindigenous populations.

'Reality check'

The day of the verdict, there was a collective sigh of relief among the many Guatemalans who had long felt betrayed – by their country, their legal system, and the international community. But the court’s decision to charge Montt was also a reality check: Reconciliation won't suddenly appear thanks to one conviction.

Montt is only the beginning. There is a lot of work left to be done in terms of holding people accountable for a whole host of crimes committed during the civil war. These crimes are inextricably part of the social fiber that is our country and our continuing battle with “los poderes ocultos,” the hidden powers, today.

And some are not so hidden. Testimony during Montt’s trial implicated current President Otto Perez Molina in similar crimes against humanity. (As standing president he has political immunity.) Mr. Perez Molina stated in an interview with CNN that while he is willing to apologize for crimes of the past, he does not believe genocide occurred in Guatemala.

The verdict itself is being challenged by Montt's attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel. Mr. Garcia stated he had lodged four constitutional challenges and eight protections, or amparos, which have not yet been ruled upon. 

My personal feelings about this trial bring up the same complex emotions I feel when I think about finding my father. He was a lieutenant in Guatemala during that era: Did he play a role in the atrocities? He abandoned my mother during the war, but he still shaped who I am. Much like Guatemala, he is inseparably a part of my identity, for better or for worse.

“Nothing will ever be the same,” Ms. Chavez from Toronto says. “Even if the reality is still gloomy, people now know there’s the undeniable truth of the sun. And it will eventually shine.”

– Kara Andrade is an Ashoka fellow working in Central America, and co-founder of HablaCentro LLC a non-profit that develops curriculum to help people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged.

'People of corn' protest GMO strain in Mexico

By Correspondent / 05.16.13

Everywhere in Mexico, from the megalopolis of Mexico City to the smallest farming community, the squeaking, creaking sounds of a tortillería churning out corn tortillas can be heard.

Corn is the most important staple of the Mexican diet. Corn tortillas of many varieties – white, yellow, blue – figure into every meal of the day. The grain works its way into the national cuisine in endless other ways: The large kernels of hominy corn in rich pozole soup, as the base for spicy tamales, in sweet breads, and in hot, thick atole drinks.

It’s native to Mexico, where some 59 indigenous strains of corn exist.

Which is why an emerging debate over whether to allow growers to cultivate genetically modified corn has heated up. Opponents of GMO corn have urged the Mexican government to ban GMO. To draw attention to their cause, on Thursday four local Greenpeace activists climbed a 335-foot monument on Mexico City’s busy Reforma Avenue and dropped a banner reading "No GMO" on the iconic Estela de Luz tower in protest, according to a Greenpeace spokeswoman.

Mexico has already allowed limited cultivation of GMO corn in a handful of northern states as part of an experimental program. In March, according to local news reports, agribusinesses Monsanto and Syngenta solicited permits to expand GMO plantings. If granted, planting will begin in the fall.

Greenpeace is asking the government to prohibit the cultivation of GMO corn in any form, whether in pilot programs or on a commercial scale. [Read about Peru's recent decision to say 'no' to GMO.]

The DNA of genetically modified corn can mix with native strains, threatening their existence, according to Antonio Turrent Fernandez, president of the nonprofit Union of Scientists Committed to Society, or UCCS.

“Mexico is the world’s only hope,” says Mr. Turrent Fernandez. “If a few years from now the world wants to revert to original strains, the only way to return is for native Mexican corn not to be contaminated.”

Mexican producers haven’t kept up with demand for corn, leading the country to import about 30 percent of what it consumes, he says.

That’s one reason why an association of Mexican corn producers has come out in favor of commercial-scale planting of GMO corn for its ability to resist increasingly hot temperatures and scarce water.

In the creation stories of the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan text, man and corn are described as inextricably linked – giving rise to the saying that Mexicans are “people of corn.” Now the country faces a decision: Of what kind of corn does it wish to be made?

Safety check: Are some car models sold in Latin America held to lower standards?

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 05.13.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

"Four of Brazil's five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests," [reports an] AP article on how cars in Brazil fail safety tests. [It] is probably the most important read out of Latin America this weekend.
 Car companies around the world appear to be cutting corners in models sold in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Lower government safety standards and poor monitoring mean that many of the most economical cars sold in Brazil fail tests that are required for US or European consumers.
 It's likely that these safety failures on the part of both car manufacturers and Brazilian government have contributed to thousands of avoidable deaths on the country's roads. The death statistics from car crashes do not receive the same attention as a brutal massacre or a factory collapse.

 To be clear, this is not just a story about Brazil's manufacturing industry. It's not just cars made in Brazil, but cars sold in Brazil, including many that are imported.

From the article:

The Mexico-produced Nissan March compact sold in Latin America received a two-star rating from Latin NCAP, while the version sold for about the same price in Europe, called the Micra, scored four stars. The crash tests found the Latin American model had a weak, unstable body structure that offered occupants little protection in even non-serious wrecks. Factories in Mexico are producing essentially the same car for both regions, but with lower safety standards for the Brazilian market.

 Automakers aren't going to change their practices until politicians and regulators in Brazil and elsewhere in the region force them to do so. Political systems aren't going to move until citizens pressure them.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

People hold a signs that read in Spanish: 'there was no genocide in Guatemala' during a protest outside the Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, Sunday. Demonstrators say the judicial process was corrupt and are demanding a higher court nullify the verdict. A tribunal ruled Friday that Rios Montt knew about the killings and didn't stop the slaughter between 1982 and 1983, the height of Guatemala's brutal civil war. (Luis Soto/AP)

What will the Rios Montt genocide conviction do for Guatemala?

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 05.13.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

A Guatemalan court found former dictator and US Cold War ally, Efrain Rios Montt, guilty on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. His intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was found not guilty on all charges. It's a historic day for the people of Guatemala. Here's Will Grant with the BBC's take:

When the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed in 1996 after a civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, very few ever thought this moment would be reached. In blisteringly critical language, Judge Jazmin Barrios said that as de facto president it was logical that Rios Montt knew of what was happening in the country, but did nothing to stop it.

Hunger, systematic rape and forced displacements were all used as tools of war against the Ixil people for whom merely being a member of the indigenous group was a "mortal offence" in the military government's brutal pursuit of left-wing guerrillas.

Judge Barrios's summary and subsequent sentencing of Rios Montt was everything that human rights organisations and victims' families' groups in Central America had been hoping to hear for decades. Now the 86-year-old former general is facing the rest of his life in prison, though he is almost certain to appeal on the grounds of his age.

From a July 2011 post of mine on Dos Erres:

I know that it probably sounds like I go back and forth about this, but that's not really the case.I think that all those who committed human rights violations during the war (and the postwar) should be held to account for what they did. However, not everyone is equally responsible and not every should obviously suffer the same punishment. And while it is right that these four men from the Dos Erres massacre have their day in court, I am uncomfortable with the fact that the people who trained, ordered, and rewarded them for their behavior will not.

Now, the courts have finally brought the man most responsible for the genocide of the early 1980s to justice. There's more work to be done.... Judge Flores tried, once again, to annul the trial and send it back to the beginning [Friday] morning. Rios Montt's attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, argued after the verdict that they have already lodged four constitutional challenges and eight amparos which have not yet been ruled upon.
 Judge Barrios said that the attorney general's office still has the responsibility to continue to pursue justice. For many, that seems to mean going after President Otto Perez Molina who was tied to the genocide during witness testimony. Mr. Perez Molina can't be brought before a court right now as he has immunity while president. The president, by the way, issued a statement supporting the court's ruling. [Though he told CNN that he personally did not believe a genocide occurred.]
 However, I'd like to know more about why Rodriguez Sanchez was found not guilty. Legally, why wasn't he found guilty? And what does the prosecutor's office learn from that? The lessons should influence who, if anyone, they pursue next.
 Charges have also been filed against a former ORPA guerrilla for a massacre of twenty-two campesinos. I'd like to see the AG's office go after the financial backers of the genocide and/or those who profited.
 Will the trial heal the wounds of war? I doubt it. The audience's singing of a poem by terrific poet, Otto René Castillo, following the verdict probably didn't help. He was a guerrilla in the Rebel Armed Forces who was disappeared by government forces in the 1960s.
 Will the verdict help strengthen the country's judicial institutions? I'm not convinced. This was a very politicized case with both sides frustrated with the process and only one side frustrated with the outcome. The international community will herald it as a sign of the much improved justice system, which I have and continue to agree with, but I don't know how the verdict will play out locally. Many on the right still believe that this was a political lynching. They've consistently fought efforts to strengthen the country's judiciary and this will probably all but end any support they still might have had, if any, for Paz y Paz and CICIG.
 But none of those issues mattered [Friday night]. The Maya-Ixil population, who suffered so much during the war and who still suffer today, have finally found the justice for which they have been struggling for over three decades. 

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

A powdered-chocolate Che? It must be Cuba. (Linda Feldmann)

Move over Beyoncé: Another American explores Cuba, 'people to people'

By Staff writer / 05.09.13

Raul leans forward, at the end of a satisfying lunch of seafood and flan, and asks me a favor.

“Please give a message to Obama,” says the deeply tan fisherman with electric eyes. The crucial message that I am to personally deliver to the leader of the free world: that the president has a kindred spirit in Cuba. “He is a mason, and I am a mason,” Raul says.

I have my doubts about the first half of the message, but no matter. Our table of visiting Americans – plus Osvaldo, our Cuban guide – has had quite the conversation with Raul Sierra Carriles, president of the local fishermen’s cooperative.

Raul told of the 350-pound marlin he caught two years ago, which took an hour to reel in with a heavy line and lots of hooks. He talked about the cigarette boats he has seen speed by as he fishes far offshore, and the time one offered to take him and his crewman to Florida. They declined.

Inevitably, the discussion turns to Ernest Hemingway, who lived nearby for 20 years and used to keep his fishing boat, the Pilar, at the marina here in Cojimar, near Havana. Raul is a bit too young to have known Hemingway, but he knew Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s boat captain, who died in 2002 at the age of 104. The walls of the restaurant – an old Hemingway haunt named La Terraza – are crowded with pictures of “Papa” and the old man.

Mind you, we are told, Hemingway insisted that Santiago, the main character in “The Old Man and the Sea,” was based on no one in particular. But if I ever read the book again, Fuentes’s weathered face will surely come to mind.

It is the final day of a jam-packed week in Cuba, and I am pinching myself. I’ve just had lunch with a guy who knew a guy who knew Hemingway.

But I am not here on a journalist’s visa. Nor did I sneak in illegally, in violation of the five-decade US trade embargo with the island. Like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who traveled to Cuba just a couple of weeks before us, my mother and I are here on a “people to people” tour – since 2011, a legal way for Americans to see this long-forbidden island just a short flight from Miami to Havana. Until then, legal travel was limited to family visits and other restricted categories, such as academic, cultural, and humanitarian.

Technically, Beyoncé and Jay-Z weren’t tourists, and neither were we. Our trips were set up by tour operators licensed by the Treasury Department, and under the rules, we were to have a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” The idea is to support Cuban civil society. For the Cubans, the trips help their economy. 

To many Americans, the allure of Cuba is clear: It is the largest island in the Caribbean, steeped in culture – music, literature, art, dance, food – and the storied homeland of so many Cuban-Americans who lost it all when Fidel Castro took over in 1959.

Everyone in our group wanted to see the place before the Castros depart the scene and, sooner or later, the island becomes just another stop for the cruise lines. As a former Moscow correspondent, I was expecting the Soviet Union with palm trees. I wasn’t far off.   

Start with the revolutionary billboards and slogans plastered on buildings. Right there at José Martí International Airport, overlooking the parking lot, there it is – the handsome, iconic face of Che Guevara looking sternly off into the distance. More than former President Fidel Castro or his successor, brother Raul, or even national hero José Martí, Che’s visage is everywhere – even stenciled with powdered chocolate onto the foam of a cappuccino.

The condition of the buildings also suggests 1980s Moscow. In many neighborhoods, block after block of shabby, crumbling infrastructure tell visitors all they need to know about a state-run economy. At least Old Havana and other tourist areas are restored, or under renovation, thanks in part to foreign investment.

Just like in the movies, classic 1950s American cars really are ubiquitous, a source of pride for the ingenious Cubans who manage to keep them running. There are also plenty of Soviet-era cars – mostly the little boxy Ladas and Moskviches. Then there are the new cars – Hyundais, BMWs, Fiats – driven by the Cuban 1 percent.

Still, the people-to-people dimension of our trip is what gave it the juice. Any visitor can drive around and look at the monuments and visit Hemingway’s favorite bars in Old Havana – and even head to the suburb of San Francisco de Paula to visit Finca Vigia, the Hemingway residence-museum, where the Pilar is on display. We did all of that.

But in keeping with Treasury Department requirements, our tour operator, the Grand Circle Foundation, filled much of our time with Cuban people: artists and intellectuals, musicians, schoolchildren, senior citizens at a Catholic center, young “street opera” performers, a tobacco farmer, the fishermen of Cojimar. We got lectures on music and baseball, a tour of an orchid farm, and a crash course on Santeria, a widely practiced African faith. Leo, our American guide, took us to his favorite paladar, or private restaurant, in Havana – Doña Eutimia.

Sometimes we created our own “people to people” moments, such as the game of dominoes some in our group had with locals. There was also free time at night to head out to jazz clubs.

We also got out of Havana for a few days, heading west into the scenic Viñales Valley, famous for its box-shaped hills known as mogotes and tobacco farms. In the town of Viñales, we fanned out to private homes for dinner. Our hosts, Teresa and Severo, proudly told us about the bed and breakfast they run out of their house, a practice allowed by the government since 1997. Teresa showed us her appointment calendar, booked with guests from all over the world. A night at their place goes for 25 convertible pesos (about $30).

Of course, throughout the trip, we were interacting with “government approved” Cubans, who met often with American tour groups, they admitted. The phrase “people to people” itself contains echoes of the old Soviet Union, and the days of “fellow travelers” who were more than willing to put a happy gloss on the often tragic outcomes of dictatorial rule. To flesh out what I was seeing, during the trip I read the book “Havana Real” by Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez.

But even without Ms. Sánchez’s book, there’s no hiding the struggles of daily life for average Cubans, who still get their food via a ration system. Grand Circle advised us to bring gifts – not trinkets, but everyday necessities, such as toothpaste, shampoo, cleaning supplies, powdered milk, socks, shoes (didn’t have to be new), and granola bars. For the fishermen, we were to bring fishing line, leaders, hooks, and lures. For the kids, art supplies, clothing, and athletic equipment. I threw in two scuffed baseballs, and was assured they would be welcome.

Our guide Osvaldo, a former high school teacher, fielded our endless questions with good humor. We heard about his teenage son, who likes to watch “Friends” and “Vampire Diaries” and recordings of Boston Red Sox games. We heard about the high divorce rate, and the challenges of live-in mothers-in-law. We got an update on Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was the subject of a fierce custody battle with the US back in 2000. Elian is now 19, a young communist, and a student at a Cuban military academy.

Embarrassment was a running theme. To Osvaldo, the drab Soviet-era architecture dominating some neighborhoods is an insult to Cuban aesthetic sensibilities. But nothing says former imperial overlord like the former Soviet (now Russian) Embassy, a garish, sword-shaped tower of concrete rising above Havana’s upscale Miramar neighborhood.

The moist poignant moment of our trip came at Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. As we entered, we were assaulted by the odor of melting paint. The air conditioning was broken; the necessary part was reportedly on its way from Canada. Our guide, Wifredo, spoke of his embarrassment as we sweated our way through the exhibitions.

By the end of the museum tour, only two of us were still with Wifredo. But he was determined to show us his favorite piece. It was the word “Revolución,” constructed from dinged-up, recycled building materials – rusted metal, bathroom tile, old plaster. He didn’t need to say why it spoke to him so profoundly.

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, Friday, May 3. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

Study abroad in Mexico? Fewer US students make the trek.

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 05.07.13

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

One of the announcements that the US and Mexican governments want to highlight from President Obama's trip is the creation of the United States-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. The vaguely worded announcement promises to "encourage broader access to quality post-secondary education for traditionally underserved demographic groups, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. They will also expand educational exchanges, increase joint research on education and learning, and share best practices in higher education and innovation."
This is important as education exchanges between the US and Mexico have stagnated or fallen for the past decade. What the presidents didn't say [last week] is that this is something that needs to be fixed because it is a real problem. The numbers and quality of student exchanges between the two countries are quite poor and have been for some time.

The number of Mexican university students in the US holds steady around 13,000 to 14,000, and that number has barely increased over the last decade (it was 12,500 in 2002). The opposite direction is worse. The number of US students studying in Mexico peaked in 2006 over 10,000. However, security concerns caused numerous US university programs to pull out of the country. By 2011, the number was only 4,100 US students in Mexico. That's less than the number of US students studying in Costa Rica and Argentina and is only slightly above Brazil, Chile and Ecuador.
 To reach President Obama's goal to double the number of student exchanges in the hemisphere, including 100,000 US students in Latin America, the numbers for US-Mexico student exchanges will need to be at least 20,000 and probably 25,000, students traveling in each direction. We're nowhere near that number and the trend lines are not looking good, thus the need for this initiative.
 There are at least four areas where this forum can help improve the numbers: admissions, tuition, credit transfer, and security.
 On admissions, universities need confidence that the exchange students are qualified and students need relief from burdensome paperwork that some of these programs demand. Usually, this is fixed by one-off agreements between individual universities. This forum could help create a larger system agreed to by multiple universities that could ease this process and open up additional opportunities for students in both directions.
 Tuition needs to be more transparent for students, so they know how much they are spending and where that money goes when they enter an exchange program. Government encouragement and regulations can help empower students on this front and make exchange programs more affordable.
 Students can't go on exchange programs if the credits don't transfer and it requires an additional semester of university to graduate. Universities need to communicate and collaborate to better understand how classes and prerequisites overlap and how they can count towards credits. This is one area that should be easier in STEM than it is in the social sciences and humanities.
 On security, US universities need encouragement to allow their students to travel to Mexico. Unlike the media, universities should be able to look beyond the hype and recognize that some areas of the country, including the capital, are relatively safe. Even a city that is less safe, like Monterrey, has some great universities and students should be able to make informed decisions about whether they would like to attend. Perhaps surprising to some US citizens, Mexican universities also need a bit of encouragement on the security issue after all the coverage of school shootings in the US. This is a dialogue that needs to go in both directions.
 Of course, governments can only encourage these goals. The reason this is a "forum" is that it needs the voluntary cooperation of public and private universities to be a success. Governments [...] cannot force students to study abroad, nor are they going to provide significant additional resources. The hope is that the forum can get universities, civil society, and the private sector talking.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

Opposition supporters bang pots against President-elect Nicolas Maduro as they protest the results of the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, April 18. Opposition protesters have been protesting the election results every night with pot banging since the Sunday election. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Venezuelan tools of protest? Pots, pans, and smartphone apps.

By Alasdair BaverstockContributor / 05.06.13

Nearly a month after Nicolás Maduro’s controversial inauguration as Venezuelan president, the noise of banging pots and pans still brings the deserted streets to life here. 

A nightly occurrence for the first two weeks after April’s hotly contested presidential election results, the sounds of anti-Maduro sentiment are now the street-level soundtrack whenever a government-mandated broadcast, or “cadena” (chain), takes over the airwaves. Opposition supporters pick up their pots, pans, spoons, and in some cases smart phones, and hang out windows and on balconies to create a cacophonous "cacerolazo," as the noisy protest is called here.

“They didn’t get the result they wanted, so they’re making a lot of noise,” says Vladimir Hernandez, a chavista and supporter of Mr. Maduro from eastern Caracas. “We’ve heard it before, and we’ll hear it again,” Mr. Hernandez says of the clanging pots and pans.

The cacerolazo has taken such a hold in Venezuela that a number of smart phone apps have been launched to replicate the sound of banging pots and pans. The free Cacerolazo Android app in particular, developed in Argentina, saw over 50,000 downloads in April as news spread worldwide of the protests in Caracas.

“It could be that we’re lazy,” says Marianna Hernandez, whose Samsung Galaxy phone does the work for her in her Caracas neighborhood of Colinas de Santa Monica. “But after twenty minutes your arms get tired,” she says.

“We simply plug my phone into the stereo and open the window,” Ms. Hernandez says. “It’s a much greater sound than you can make physically."

She says her friends poke fun at her, but she doesn't mind. "It’s about showing solidarity.”

The regular toc-toc-toc sound of anti-Maduro attitude is countered by fireworks, which explode above the Venezuelan capital’s socialist strongholds. The fireworks are distributed by the city's police force, which encourages demonstrations of support for the country’s “first chavista president,” as Maduro describes himself.

Everything but the kitchen sink

The cacerolazo is not endemic to Venezuela: Many point to 1970s Chile as the originator. Citizens of Santiago showed their discontent with the economic policies of Salvador Allende’s government through the cacerolazos. The nature of the protest allowed them to express their discontent from the safety of their homes.

The demonstration has since been adopted across Latin America, becoming a common soundtrack throughout the continent, particularly in Buenos Aires, where the app used by many Venezuelans this month was first designed by the COLPIX Argentina studio. Outside of the region it has gained traction as well, most notably last year in Quebec, when students took to the streets to protest a government bill to make mass protest illegal. 

‘I’ll keep going’

Both Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles acted to discourage street-level protests, fearing violence. Maduro closed the streets each night in the weeks following his contested victory, while Mr. Capriles called off plans for a large opposition march.

Capriles turned instead to calling for nightly cacerolazos, instructing his supporters to show their discontent through this nonviolent – though not particularly peaceful – protest.

“It won’t change anything,” says Ms. Hernandez, who voted for Capriles in the country’s past two elections. “Street protests need to be organized, that way you can give a number to those who are against this government.

“The cacerolazo may sound like a lot of people, but it lacks visual impact.”

Maduro won the election by 1.8 percent of the vote, and his victory has been acknowledged by regional leaders including the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. However, Capriles has cited close to 3,200 counts of electoral fraud, including illegal election-day campaigning and police intimidation in opposition-strong polling stations. 

He has petitioned the government for a full recount, and a partial recount is currently underway.

 “People will eventually get bored of [the cacerolazo], but I’ll keep going as long as everyone else does," Ms. Hernandez says.

US President Barack Obama (l.) shakes hands with his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto after a joint news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City Thursday. Obama arrived in Mexico on Thursday for a visit he hopes will draw attention to Mexico's emerging economic might, even as worries about containing drug-trafficking and related violence remain an inescapable subtext. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Obama in Mexico: Little talk of human rights (+video)

By Correspondent / 05.03.13

It didn’t appear to get much play in the meeting between presidents, but civil society organizations in Mexico and the United States say they hope human rights will be higher on the bilateral agenda than they have in recent years. 

Making respect for human rights central to the US-Mexico security strategy is a critical issue for those who have suffered at the hands of soldiers, police, investigators, and other authorities here.

Abuses mounted over the past six years, as the Mexican government deployed the military to police communities wracked by drug-related violence. The US has recognized Mexico's shortcomings on human rights, but some say it and the Mexican government haven't done enough to encourage change.

Separate issues?

In a 2012 report on human rights practices in Mexico, the State Department noted “significant human rights-related problems” such as “police and military involvement in serious abuses, including unlawful killings, physical abuse, torture, and disappearances.”

Ernesto López Portillo, director of Mexico’s Institute for Security and Democracy, or INSYDE, warns against the US providing “blind support” to Mexican institutions with poor track records on human rights.

“They aren’t separate issues, but the United States separates them,” Mr. López Portillo says. “The State Department emits a report systematically criticizing Mexico on human rights and then gives it money at the same time.”

As part of the Mérida Initiative, the US has provided $1.9 billion in aid to Mexico since 2008.

Last week, two dozen US lawmakers expressed similar concerns in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to make human rights a core feature of cooperation with Mexico. The letter cites the fourfold increase in complaints of torture and cruel treatment to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), as well as the high levels of impunity in the country for those who commit abuses.

Mexico’s defense department ranked No. 1 last year for complaints of human rights violations with the CNDH. According to Human Rights Watch, the military attorney general’s office opened some 5,000 investigations into human rights violations during the previous administration of Felipe Calderón; only four cases resulted in sentences.

Current President Enrique Peña Nieto frequently talks about the importance of human rights to his government – although it wasn't mentioned in the joint news conference he and President Obama held yesterday. In a speech last month on security, he said that public security institutions should operate from a “fundamental premise” of “safeguarding of the human rights of all Mexicans.”

But as the saying goes here, entre dicho y hecho hay mucho trecho – a rhyming allusion to the difficult distance that often separates word and deed.

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