from Weekly News Update on the Americas

Congress has now passed the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), with proponents claiming it will lead the isthmus to secure democracy, prosperity and modernity. But even as revelations continue to emerge about the state terror that claimed thousands of lives in the 1980s, the death squads show signs of resurgence—this time targeting opponents of the trade treaty, as well as criminal gangs. Meanwhile in Nicaragua, the left-opposition Sandinista Front which held power in the ’80s is divided over ex-president Daniel Ortega’s unlikely alliance with his former foes—potentially weakening the anti-CAFTA forces in that country, one of the last two in Central America where the treaty’s ratification is still pending.—WW4 REPORT


The US House of Representatives voted 217-215 in the early morning of July 28 to approve the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The US Senate approved the measure on June 30; President George W. Bush, a strong supporter, is expected to sign it quickly. The trade pact requires ratification by the legislatures of all the participating countries. In addition to the US Congress, the legislatures of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have ratified; the measure is still awaiting a vote in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

Facing opposition from unions and even some business groups, DR-CAFTA supporters pulled out all the stops to achieve their narrow victory. President Bush visited the Capitol on July 27 in an unusual personal lobbying effort for the measure; Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and several other cabinet members were also there lobbying. The House’s Republican leaders began the voting shortly after 11 PM on July 27, but when it became clear that they didn’t have the votes to pass the measure in the normal 15-minute limit, they extended the time to nearly an hour. With all but 15 Democrats in opposition, the leadership put heavy pressure on Republican holdouts. According Lori Wallach, director of the DC-based Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (GTW), Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) talked about breaking arms “into 1,000 pieces.” There were even suggestions of vote tampering. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) insisted he voted no but was counted as not voting due to a malfunction in the electronic voting system. (CNN, Miami Herald, GTW statement, July; NYT, July 29)

US Trade Representative Bob Portman called DR-CAFTA a “gateway” deal to more ambitious trade pacts, like the Andean trade pact with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, which negotiators hope to complete in spring 2006, and the hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The House vote sent “a powerful signal” that the US would “continue to lead in opening markets and leveling the playing field,” according to Portman.

But to Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based pro-“free trade” group, “[t]hat it was so close, instead of an overwhelming victory, and so clearly split on partisan lines even in states such as Florida that depend on trade with Latin America and the Caribbean, indicates that the pro-trade consensus that used to prevail in Congress is on life support.” According to GTW’s Wallach, the close vote on “a trade deal of small economic significance” like DR-CAFTA “shows that any economically significant” measures like FTAA “would be dead on arrival.” (MH, July 28; GTW , Financial Times, July 28)

DR-CAFTA still faces hurdles in the three countries that haven’t voted. Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco has yet to send the measure to the legislature, which he wants to pass a fiscal reform bill first. Costa Rican unionists, environmentalists, students and farmers, especially rice growers, oppose the pact. The National Civic Movement has threatened social rebellion and national civil disobedience if the government proceeds with it.

Some 160 Dominican organizations have asked Parliament not to approve DR-CAFTA, and some legislators are insisting that the government include measures to compensate agricultural producers.

In Nicaragua a coalition of center-right legislators, including some members of the majority Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), claim to have the 47 votes needed to get DR-CAFTA through the National Assembly. But the current National Assembly president, Rene Nunez of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), hasn’t put the measure on the agenda. The FSLN, which lacks the votes to block the measure, may be planning to compromise. FSLN deputy Alba Palacios is calling for Nicaragua and Costa Rica to negotiate a five-year grace period before they join the pact, while FSLN deputy Edwin Castro wants DR-CAFTA to include “financing for infrastructure and other measures that will promote development and compensate the sectors that will be affected.” A study indicates that the trade pact will hurt 700,000 families and 200,000 agricultural producers in Nicaragua, which has a population of 5.4 million. (Servicio Informativo “Alai-amlatina,” MH, July 29)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 31


Heavily armed men shot and killed Guatemalan human rights activist Alvaro (“Alvarito”) Juarez the night of July 8 while he was in his home in San Benito in the northern department of Peten. Juarez was a leader in the Alliance for Life and Peace and a member of the Association of the Displaced of the Peten. He reportedly informed the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office in Guatemala City about threats he had received several days before his murder.

In a July 13 statement the Alliance for Life and Peace of the Peten said that Juarez’s death “occurred in the context of the struggles the Guatemalan people are carrying out against the Free Trade Agreement with the US [DR-CAFTA], the struggle against the dams on the Rio Usumacinta, the privatization of the Yaxha National Park, the struggle against mining in our lands….” Guatemalan human rights analysts note that two other human rights defenders have received written death threats. Like Juarez, they are leaders who have been important in the movement and active in the struggle against DR-CAFTA but have not been public.

The Association of the Displaced of the Peten has decided not to seek publicity in the media at this time, but activists are urged to appeal to President Oscar Berger Perdomo (fax +502 251 2218, email presidente@scspr.gob.gt) and Attorney General Juan Luis Florido (+502 251 2218) for a thorough investigation of the case and protection of Juarez’s family members and other human rights defenders. (Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA Urgent Action, July 12; Alianza por la Vida y la Paz de Peten statement, July 13)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 17


In an official ceremony on July 18, the Guatemalan government recognized the state’s responsibility in the 1982 massacre of 268 people in the village of Plan de Sanchez, Rabinal municipality, in Baja Verapaz department. The formal ceremony at the site of the massacre, in which Vice President Eduardo Stein apologized directly to survivors and relatives of the victims, was mandated in a Nov. 24, 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. Stein also visited the chapel where the victims were buried, and said that the $8 million in compensation ordered by the Inter-American Court will be put into a special fund.

“It’s not enough to ask forgiveness for the damages,” said Rosalina Tuyuc, president of the National Compensation Commission (CNR). “Now the most important thing is that the Public Ministry facilitate the investigations and sentence those with material and intellectual responsibility for the massacre.”

On July 18, 1982, a commando of some 60 army soldiers, military commissioners, court officials and civilian paramilitary patrollers dressed in military uniforms and armed with assault rifles entered Plan de Sanchez. The commando members first raped the women and girls of the village and killed them, then took the men, older women and children to a nearby site and murdered them. The next day military commissioners ordered the survivors to quickly bury the bodies at the site of the massacre. (Guatemala Hoy, July 19 from Agencia Cerigua, El Periodico, Prensa Libre, Diario de Centro America)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 24


Starting at 6 am on July 4, residents of La Campanera and El Limon neighborhoods in the Salvadoran municipality of Soyapango blocked the main access road to protest a July 1 increase in bus fares from $0.20 to $0.25. The protesters said they would block the road until the old fare was restored. There were reports that the transport companies had agreed in the afternoon to reduce the fare; the protesters opened the road but said they would resume the blockade if the companies failed to honor the agreement. Soyapango is one of several large municipalities surrounding San Salvador. (Diario Colatino, El Salvador, July 14)

At 7 AM on July 6 some 50 to 200 students from the University of El Salvador (UES), in the northern part of San Salvador, protested the fare hike by blocking streets in front of the campus with burning tires. There was some tension with doctors and employees from the nearby Social Security clinic for the Atlacatl neighborhood. One patient arriving for an appointment told the students that in the 1970s they all would have been killed; but others supported the students. In mid-morning some 100 police agents from the Order Maintenance Unit (UMO) arrived and attacked the students, who threw rocks and withdrew into the campus. The police followed them to the edge of the university grounds and began firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the campus. Three police agents and at least six protesters were injured during the fighting, as were six journalists, who said masked youths threw rocks at them, calling them “manipulators.”

After an intervention by UES rector Isabel Rodriguez and Human Rights Ombudsperson Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo, the police began a staged withdrawal. At around this time, a group of masked people thought to be students took over a bus near the campus and set it on fire. Children from a nearby school had to be evacuated because of fears that the burning bus might explode.

Legislators from the right-wing ruling Republican National Alliance (ARENA) party charged that the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) is promoting the conflicts in order to destabilize the country and prevent the US Congress from approving the Free Trade Agreement. (DC, July 6; Diario El Mundo, El Salvador, July 6; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, July 7)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 10


The bodies of three unidentified youths were found in the beginning of July on the highway from San Salvador to Santa Ana. Their hands were tied, and they had been shot in the head. Human rights groups said they feared this might indicate a return to the sort of summary executions that right-wing death squads carried out in the 1980s. “These murders, whose motive could be social cleansing for the extermination of gang members, show that the structures of the death squads are still present,” said Maria Julia Hernandez of the San Salvador Catholic archdiocese’s legal office. (ENH, July 5)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 24


On July 17, thousands of people marched in the Nicaraguan city of Granada to protest an agreement between ex-president Daniel Ortega Saavedra (1984-1990) of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and ex-president Arnoldo Aleman (1997-2002) of the rightwing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, July 18) The two parties joined forces last November to approve a packet of constitutional reforms which weaken the role of the presidency and strengthen the power of the National Assembly. President Enrique Bolanos has refused to accept the reforms, citing a March 29 ruling by the Central American Court of Justice (CCJ) which deemed them “legally inapplicable.” (El Mostrador, Chile, July 19)

Participants in the march decried the “pact” and demanded changes to Nicaragua’s electoral laws to make the presidential elections of 2006 “more democratic.” Activists said they gathered 1,500 signatures at the march on a petition supporting changes to mandate primary elections for party presidential candidates.

Former Managua mayor Herty Lewites and former vice president Sergio Ramirez spoke at the rally. (Nicaragua News Service, July 12-18; ENH, July 18) Lewites was expelled from the FSLN by unanimous vote of the Sandinista Assembly on Feb. 26 of this year because he sought to compete with Ortega for the party’s presidential candidacy for the 2006 elections. His campaign manager, Victor Hugo Tinoco, was also expelled. (Nicaragua News Service, Feb. 22-28) The FSLN then named Ortega as its presidential candidate at an assembly on March 5. (ENH, March13)

Lewites still plans to run for president in 2006, and on July 14 he announced that in September he would launch a “great coalition” to challenge the “strongmen that control almost all the institutions and branches of government.” Lewites was accompanied by Tinoco and ex-FSLN leaders Luis Carrion and Victor Tirado. (NNS, July 12-18)

The July 17 march was organized by the “Network for Nicaragua,” an alliance of civic and political groups which came together in June to challenge the PLC-FSLN pact and ensure that other parties are not excluded from the elections. Participants included members of leftist groups like Lewites’ “Rescue Sandinismo” movement as well as rightwing dissidents from the PLC and members of the Conservative Party and Bolanos’ Alliance for the Republic Party (APRE). (ENH, July 18 from AFP)

On July 19, Ortega headed an event marking the 26th anniversary of the day in 1979 when the FSLN overthrew the brutal US-backed right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The celebration took place near the Managua waterfront at the Plaza de la Fe Juan Pablo II, named for Pope John Paul II, who spoke there in February 1996. Independent pro-Sandinista newspaper El Nuevo Diario said the FSLN event filled the plaza to overflowing, but gave no crowd estimates; the anti-Sandinista La Prensa and the Spanish news service EFE both said only that “thousands” attended, while a pro-Ortega article by Francisco Chavarria in the European leftist internet publication Rebelion said the turnout of “more than 500,000” showed that “those who want to divide the party have suffered a resounding failure.”

Ortega told the crowd that the people will give him a new opportunity to be president of Nicaragua in next year’s elections. He blasted those who march against the FSLN-PLC pact, accusing them of polarizing the country and promoting confrontations. Ortega also criticized PLC leader Aleman, calling him a thief, according to El Nuevo Diario.

The theme of the event was reconciliation and peace, and its special guests included several former opponents of the FSLN, including right-wing politicians Jaime Morales Carazo and Azucena Ferrey; Atlantic coast leaders Steadman Fagoth and Brooklyn Rivera, who led armed “contra” forces against the FSLN government in the 1980s; and auxiliary bishop of Managua Msgr. Eddy Montenegro. (Rebelion, July 22 via Resumen Latinoamericano; END, July 20; LP, July 20; El Mostrador, July 19) A day earlier, July 18, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo–a prominent anti-Sandinista figure–headed up a “mass for reconciliation” attended by top FSLN leaders, including Ortega, who was photographed by the press accepting communion from his former opponent. (EM, July 19; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, July 20)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 24

Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #111

Our last blog post on Nicaragua’s political crisis


Global Trade Watch


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution