from Weekly News Update on the Americas


More than a thousand people are feared dead in flooding and mudslides in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas as a result of Hurricane Stan, which hit the region on Oct. 4. Heavy rains continued in some areas at least until Oct. 8. The worst destruction was in western Guatemala, where at least 652 people were reported dead and 384 missing as of Oct. 10; whole indigenous communities were buried by mudslides in Solola and San Marcos departments. Another 133 people died in Mexico and the rest of Central America. Observers attributed much of the devastation to deforestation, and noted that poverty forces poor campesinos to live in vulnerable areas.

Panabaj, a community on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan in Solola, was buried by a mud flow a half-mile wide and up to 20 feet thick. On Oct. 9 residents blocked troops who came to help dig out victims. “The people don’t want soldiers to come in here. They won’t accept it,” Panabaj mayor Diego Esquina told Associated Press. Esquina said there are still vivid memories of a 1990 army massacre of 13 residents. About 160 bodies were recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and most were buried in mass graves. Further west in Tacana, near the border with Mexico, rescue workers recovered more than 130 bodies on Oct. 9; a mudslide had buried a shelter where people had taken refuge from the flooding. (New York Times, Oct. 9; El Diario-La Prensa, Oct. 5 from EFE, Oct. 9 from unidentified wire services; Miami Herald, Oct. 11 from AP]

The effects of Hurricane Stan dominated much of the discussion at an Oct. 12-13 meeting US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld held in Key Biscayne, Florida, with seven defense ministers from Central America and the Caribbean. Guatemalan defense minister Gen. Carlos Humberto Aldana Villanueva pushed for increased coordination among regional militaries to deal with emergencies. “We have to prepare a bit more for the future, now that disasters seem to be coming every day,” he said. “State responses are sometimes limited.” But Rumsfeld promoted trade pacts like the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) to solve regional programs, focusing on military cooperation as a way to deal with people “who want to obstruct the path to social and economic progress, to return Central America to darker times of instability and chaos. No one nation can deal with those kinds of cross-border threats.” (Miami Herald, Oct. 13)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct 16


After more than five hours of debate, on Oct. 10 Nicaragua’s National Assembly voted 49-37 to ratify the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which brings Central America and the Dominican Republic into a trade zone with the US. The accord, which is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, had already been approved by the legislatures of the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the US. Of the seven signatories to the agreement, only Costa Rica has not completed the approval process.

All but one of the 38 deputies of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) voted against DR-CAFTA; according to the FSLN general secretary, former Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega Saavedra (1984-1990), the other deputy, Bayardo Arce, was out of the country at the time of the vote. National Assembly president Rene Nunez, an FSLN deputy, had previously blocked the accord from coming to a vote. But on Oct. 8 Ortega announced that the FSLN would no longer use its positions in the National Assembly leadership to keep the accord off the legislative agenda.

Also on Oct. 10, the same day DR-CAFTA was passed, Ortega made an agreement with right-wing Nicaraguan president Enrique Bolanos, following seven hours of negotiations in the presence of Argentine diplomat Dante Caputo, a special envoy from the Organization of American States (OAS). (Caputo was the United Nations’ special envoy to Haiti at the end of the 1991-1994 period of military rule.)

The FSLN agreed to break off its pact with Bolanos’ former party, the right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), which is dominated by former president Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo (1997-2002). Under the FSLN-PLC pact, the two parties had used their majority in the National Assembly to push through constitutional reforms in 2004 severely limiting the president’s powers. In September of this year, the FSLN and PLC deputies stripped six members of the Bolanos cabinet of immunity from criminal prosecution and seemed set to impeach Bolanos himself. In the Oct. 10 meeting, Ortega agreed to postpone implementation of the reforms until January 2007, when Bolanos leaves office; apparently plans to impeach Bolanos have been dropped. Ortega is expected to run as the FSLN’s presidential candidate in 2006, following unsuccessful runs in 1990, 1996 and 2001.

In an Oct. 11 press conference, Ortega denied that the FSLN’s new stance was connected to the Oct. 4-5 visit of US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick, who had threatened to cut off US aid and trade if the PLC continued to bloc with the FSLN. This led to speculation that the PLC was about to pull out of the pact. Ortega insisted he and Bolanos started their discussions on Sept. 11, long before Zoellick’s visit. (El Nuevo Diario, Managua, Oct. 11, 12 from ACAN-EFE,Oct. 13, 14; La Prensa, Managua, Oct. 11, 12, 14; Nicaragua News Service Vol. 13, #38, Oct. 3-10; FSLN communique, Oct. 11; BBC News, Oct. 11)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct 16


In a visit to Nicaragua Oct. 4-5, US deputy secretary of state and former trade representative Robert Zoellick warned business sectors and the rightwing PLC against continued collaboration with the leftist FSLN and against efforts to impeach President Bolanos. Bolanos “is democratically elected, and for those who think they can remove him, my message is there will be consequences in terms of their relations with the US,” Zoellick said.

Zoellick warned that the US could block a $4 billion debt forgiveness plan and withhold a planned $175 million aid package. In an Oct. 5 meeting, he told business leaders they would lose business with the US if they backed the FSLN or the PLC. “Your opportunities will be lost,” he said. On Oct. 4, as he began his trip, the US State Department announced it was revoking the US visas of chief prosecutor Julio Centeno, a PLC backer, and two of the children of former president Aleman (1997-2002), who heads the PLC.

The US government is said to be worried that despite his current low standing in the polls, Ortega may regain the presidency in November 2006 and ally Nicaragua with Cuba and Venezuela. Zoellick made a point of meeting with presidential candidate Herty Lewites, Managua’s former mayor, who was expelled from the FSLN for seeking the party’s presidential nomination. Zoellick said the meeting was a clear sign Washington “could work with” Lewites.

“As Nicaraguans, as Central Americans and sons of Latin America, we protest to the world about the US government’s unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of our country,” the PLC said in a statement. But the New York Times reported that Carlos Noguera and other “senior members” of the PLC were backing away from the agreement with the FSLN. Aleman and the PLC were strong allies of the US during Aleman’s term; Bolanos was Aleman’s vice president and remained an ally until after his own inauguration. (New York Times, Oct. 5, 6; Boston Globe, Oct. 6 from Reuters; The Guardian, UK, Oct. 6)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct 9


A strike by bus owners’ cooperatives shut down most of the public transportation in Managua Sept. 19-21 as Nicaragua continued to confront problems from rising petroleum prices. Rafael Quinto, president of Managua’s Regional Union of Collective Transportation Cooperatives (URECOOTRACO), announced on Sept. 17 that bus owners would begin an open-ended strike on Sept. 19 because of the local and national governments’ inability to provide 30 million cordobas ($1.8 million) in subsidies to allow the owners to cover higher fuel prices without raising fares. Managua’s bus owners, who generally drive their own buses, were demanding $4.8 million in subsidies for the rest of the year.

The national government of President Bolanos and the Managua government, headed by Dionisio Marenco of the FSLN, originally agreed to the subsidies to end three weeks of militant protests in April. Initially intended for May through July, the subsidies were extended in July for another three months when the owners threatened more protests. But the governments failed to carry out the agreement, according to Quinto. When the bus owners started an unauthorized fare hike, Mayor Marenco threatened to suspend their licenses and start a municipal company to compete with the 38 cooperatives.

Violence broke out on Sept. 21, the third day of the strike. At various points in the city, bus owners began attacking “pirate vans” that had been transporting people during the strike. Meanwhile, the bus drivers attacked police agents with rocks when the agents tried to confine their protest to a small area outside one of the main public transportation cooperative buildings, in the northeastern sector of the city. Six to eight agents were injured, and some 63 people were arrested. The French wire service Agence France Presse reported that the drivers also used clubs and homemade mortars (which are like firecrackers but can be deadly).

The owners called off the strike on Sept. 21 after Public Finance Minister Mario Arana promised to provide $1.8 million to the bus drivers within the coming days. (Nicaragua News Service V. 13, #36, Sept. 2026; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Sept. 19, 22)

On Sept. 20, in the midst of the transit strike, Marenco announced an agreement on petroleum between the Nicaraguan Association of Municipal Governments (AMUNIC) and Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), Venezuela’s state-owned oil monopoly. As part of an initiative by the left-populist government of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias to aid regional governments, PDVSA will be supplying petroleum to Nicaragua’s municipalities, starting with Managua, at 40% less than the international prices. Through an agreement with the Nicaraguan Petroleum Company (PETRONIC), AMUNIC will distribute the cheaper fuel only to drivers of taxis and buses for the first year; the project could be expanded later to include other vehicles such as small business vehicles. Marenco was unable to say when the Venezuelan oil will start to arrive. (NNS, Sept. 20-26)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 3


On Oct. 21 Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco sent DR-CAFTA to the Legislative Assembly for debate and an eventual vote on ratification. The accord has already been approved by the other partners. Costa Rica’s trade representative signed it in May 2004, but Pacheco refused until now to send it on to the 57-member legislature for approval, saying he wanted a fiscal reform proposal passed first.

Ratification seems certain. Only the Citizen Action (AC) party openly opposes DR-CAFTA, and it lacks the votes to block approval. The vote isn’t expected to come up before Jan. 1, when the treaty takes affect in the other DR-CAFTA countries, Pacheco acknowledged. Legislative Assembly President Gerardo Gonzalez said he thought the debate would start before Feb. 15, and Foreign Trade Minister Manuel Gonzalez expressed certainty that the ratification would come before Pacheco’s term ends in May.

Pacheco said the legislative deputies were already analyzing a “complementary agenda” to mitigate negative effects on some sectors, and he indicated that the vote on the treaty would come after approval of a law strengthening the Electricity Institute (ICE), the state agency that controls energy and telecommunications, areas that DR-CAFTA will open up to private competition.

Labor and grassroots groups were not satisfied with these measures. “The red alert remains activated,” the Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), the country’s largest union, said in a press release, while the National Civic Committee threatened on Oct. 21 to begin strike actions as early as November. The committee’s Jorge Coronado called for a “national day against the DR-CAFTA” in November, with marches and an open-ended general strike. Students from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the National University (UNA) have already planned two protests. On Nov. 1 UCR students are to march on the Legislative Assembly, while on Nov. 2 UNA students plan to march in Heredia province, 15 km north of San Jose. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Oct. 22 from AP; La Nacion, Costa Rica, Oct. 22)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 30


A group of 16 campesinos from the Honduran department of Colon began a hunger strike in front of the National Congress in Tegucigalpa on Oct. 17. The campesinos are demanding the return of 25,000 hectares of land in the Bajo Aguan area which they say was illegally taken from them by a Honduran business owner with the last name Facusse and a Nicaraguan identified as Rene Morales; they say the two men bribed local officials to get legal title to the properties. The business owners claim the land had been abandoned, but protesters insist it had been actively worked by cooperatives for over 30 years. The strikers, members of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA), say they will continue their protest until the government addresses their demands. MUCA represents some 15,000 families from Tocoa, Saba, Limon, Trujillo, Bonito Oriental and other areas of the Aguan valley in Colon department. (Hondudiario, Oct. 17 via Honduras News in Review Update, Oct. 22; Adital, Brazil, Oct. 17)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct 23


On Oct. 26 some 200 workers took over the San Martin open-pit gold mine operated by Entre Mares Honduras, S.A. in San Ignacio in the Honduran department of Franciso Morazan. As of Oct. 27 they were still occupying the mine to push demands for the company to recognize their union, which has been active for two months; provide medical benefits to the workers and their families; and stop the planned layoff of 27 workers from the crushing department.

“We’ll be here until the company takes care of our demands,” union president Daniel Martinez told the Associated Press wire service. “Entre Mares is violating our rights, which we are defending today.”

Entre Mares has 300 employees at the plant, which it has been operating for about five years. Local residents have staged protests, accusing the company of degrading the environment and affecting the sources of their drinking water. The Tegucigalpa archbishop, Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, headed a protest by some 5,000 residents on July 4, 2001. The company is a subsidiary of Glamis Gold Ltd, based in Reno, Nevada and Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP, Oct. 28) Glamis’ Marlin mine in Guatemala has also been the target of protests.

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 30


More than 2,000 Salvadoran prisoners, most of them accused of being gang members, began a simultaneous hunger strike on Sept. 27 at jails in Chalatenango, Cojutepeque and Ciudad Barrios, a maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca and a juvenile detention center in Tonacatepeque. The hunger strikers were demanding improved conditions and treatment, respect for their rights, medical care, and the firing of the prison directors. They are also demanding that the original visitation system be brought back instead of a new system of staggered visits.

Another 2,800 prisoners at the Mariona prison in San Salvador have been protesting since Sept. 4, preventing garbage from being removed from the prison and refusing orders to attend court hearings. The Mariona prisoners are demanding respect for their rights, dismissal of the prison authorities and repairs to the facility. El Salvador has a prison population of 12,000, housed in jails with a capacity for 7,000. (La Opinion, Los Angeles. Sept. 29, Oct. 6; Hoy, NY, Sept. 29 from AP; EFE Sept. 30)

The last of the hunger strikes apparently ended on Oct. 5 after prison authorities beat and threatened the participants and doused them with buckets of water. Authorities also prevented reporters and human rights representatives from entering the jails to interview the hunger strikers.

The hunger strikers included many prisoners who were deported to El Salvador after living for years in the US. On Oct. 5, family members of jailed Salvadoran deportees joined members of Homies Unidos, an organization of former gang members, in a demonstration in front of the Salvadoran consulate in Los Angeles, California, to protest prison conditions in El Salvador and the treatment of the hunger strikers. (LO, Oct. 6)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 9


Dozens of residents of various communities in the central Salvadoran departments of Cuscatlan and San Salvador blocked the Pan-American highway at the Cojutepeque exit on Oct. 27, halting hundreds of vehicles for two hours. The protesters were among the many who suffered losses when Hurricane Stan hit El Salvador at the beginning of October, causing 69 deaths and some $200 million in damages. Mauricio Martinez, a spokesperson for the residents, told reporters: “[W]e’re demonstrating, in the first place, to let public opinion know the feeling and the suffering we’ve had after Hurricane Stan.” He asked for the government “to pay attention to us, to give the population the international aid and not to play politics with aid.” The area needs housing for 800 families, he said.

Hundreds of residents of the eastern departments of Usulutan and San Miguel, another area affected by Stan, protested in San Salvador, also on Oct. 27. “We’re tired of the government’s abandonment of us and its indifference to the problems of the communities of Rio Grande de San Miguel and of Bajo Lempa,” said Mercedes de Jesus Reyes, who lives in Santa Rosa community, in Puerto Parada. “That’s why we’ve come to ask [Governance Minister] Rene Figueroa to resign.” The protesters marched to the Governance Minister, where they denounced Figueroa as “inept and corrupt.”

The protesters proceeded to the Legislative Assembly to demand that the legislative deputies intervene to get aid to the victims; carry out a serious investigation of the country’s vulnerabilities; reconsider the Disaster Prevention Law proposed by environmental groups; start the construction of dikes to prevent flooding; forgive agrarian debt and provide compensation to farmers for the loss of crops. Only deputies from the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) met with the protesters. (Terra, El Salvador, Oct. 28; Diario Co Latino, El Salvador, Oct. 27, 28)

Residents had attempted a march on the Presidential Residence the weekend of Oct. 22, but anti-riot police harassed the protesters and attempted to disperse them. They also blocked a group of university students who had tried to join the march; the police violently detained 16 students. Aristides Arevalo, director of the Bajo Lempa Coordinating Committee, criticized the “authoritarian measures of the regime of [President Antonio] Saca, which is scared of popular protest. We demand the release of the captured students and the distribution of the aid to the poor communities of our country.” (Adital, Brazil, Oct. 24)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 30


Weekly News Update on the Americas

See also WW4 REPORT #114

See also “Gold Mine in Guatemala Faces Indigenous Resistance,” WW4 REPORT #114