ECUADOR ELECTION – Video Report from London

In the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election no one candidate won outright with more than 40% of the vote. The country is looking for a successor to Rafael Correa and will hold a run-off in April. Here’s my preview video:


Snowed under

Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade

Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.

He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.

Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.

There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.

Correa cruising on

The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, sets off on his landmark third term

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month

After blitzing the opposition in a crushing first-round victory in the presidential election on 17 February, the next job for Rafael Correa is to count down the days to yet another inauguration later in the spring. He was so confident of victory last month that he hit the airwaves shortly after polls closed claiming his third win in the battle for the small South American country’s hot-seat.

Rafael Correa seems to follow an interesting policy agenda. It is a concoction of hardline leftist leanings in the manner of his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez and softer capitalist schemes. A kind of curious, simultaneous mix of the defence of the protective power of the state and a defence of letting private foreigners tap for resources in the forests.

Many governments in Latin America regularly seem to put themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issues of ‘public v private’ asset ownership. Venezuela is an example of a country that has scythed a path through private fields and turned the crop over for harvest by state monopolies. Countries like Brazil prefer the state to lead the way overall even if there are gradual moves such as the announcements from the Dilma administration towards favouring some private investment in infrastructure projects like road and airport construction.

Who owns whose natural resources and who does what with them is always a hot topic in the region. Mexico was sure to underline the significance it attaches to this matter: it inked the promise that all its oil shall be owned by the people and for the people into its constitution. In his second term, Rafael Correa gave a Chinese firm the green light to construct an enormous copper mine near the town of El Pangui. Almost a year ago to the day, large demonstrations by indigenous people preceded a march to the capital, Quito, by residents who feared the development would pollute their water supply, among other complaints. A leftist ally of the president, Bolivian leader Evo Morales, has also felt the heat from indigenous groups who he has rubbed up the wrong way with highway construction through their territory. If Correa is to continue to allow foreign powers to dig and drill in his lush Andean lands then how he deals with the local backlash will remain a serious issue in his third term.

Interestingly, road-building has actually been one of the welcomed development projects in Ecuador. Correa is championed as a leader who takes the time to focus on basic projects. Many people have credited him with a policy agenda that looks to build the country up from the ground, via both motorway construction and social support programmes such as the $50 monthly aid stipend for the poorest families.

There have been low points in his presidency. Rafael Correa has had several serious encounters with the media and he has been accused of trying to exert the same sort of state control over the press that he has wielded in other areas of Ecuadorian society. He has not been shy in bringing lawsuits against the media and the most notable case was his dispute with El Universo newspaper in 2011. This case not only drew international denouncements for the attack on the press, but also over the neutrality of the judges involved. (Mr Correa has also been accused of the age-old tactic of stuffing the courthouses with favourable friends.) Enraged by a critical editorial, the president filed a case against the publication’s opinion editor and two directors and the men were found guilty of libel, sentenced to three years in jail and forced to cough up $40 million in damages. The constitutional court that handed down these verdicts later absolved the convicted journalists after Correa triumphantly announced that, despite him supposedly suffering grave damage to his character, he could still summon up the laudable strength to pardon the men.

And despite his friendliness to outside nations when it comes to tapping up natural resources, he has also not been afraid of stepping on other people’s shoes, particularly those of the United States and the United Kingdom, as the Julian Assange case illustrates. The controversial Australian head of the Wikileaks website is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was given asylum last year in a multi-national row also involving Sweden, where he is wanted over allegations of sexual abuse. Correa took his time considering the matter but in the end was more than happy to step in and waggle his thumb once again in Washington’s face. For his third term, it seems likely that we will see more of the same: more social support for the poor; more permits for foreign investors; and more antagonism of the West. One area of concern is whether we will see more of the worrying attacks on the press. Overall though, his policies have served him well so far. He might as well continue blazing his trail.

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month


Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.

Petróleo problems

Ecuador, Brazil and Chevron take legal action against each other

Although Chevron maintains that it acted in “diligent and appropriate way”, the Agencia Nacional do Petroleo, Brazil’s oil industry watchdog, has indicted the company three times over an oil leak in November. Across the other side of the continent, Ecuadorean judges have upheld damage claims against Chevron totalling $18bn over alleged pollution in the Amazon jungle.

In Ecuador, the oil firm has been accused of spilling toxic waste in precious areas of the rainforest and having a detrimental effect on the health of the local population due to its operations. It has admitted that its subsidiary Texaco “fully remediated its share of environmental impacts arising from oil production operations prior to 1992”. In this instance the ‘remediation’ that took place was to set alight any mess they had created.

The case has been from court to court but Chevron maintains its innocence from the very expensive legal wrangling building up against it:

“Chevron is defending itself against false allegations that it is responsible for alleged environmental and social harms in the Amazon region of Ecuador”

The company has accused the Ecuadorean legal teams of exercising undue pressure on the justice system in order to achieve the favourable judgment. But the Pacific nation’s government is also in the dock as the US company has brought a claim against Quito of international law violations relating to the pollution case. And a tribunal in The Hague has ordered Ecuador to suspend enforcement of any judgment against Chevron until it resolves the claims the company has made.

In Brazil, Chevron has taken full responsibility for an oil leak in November in the Frade field. The company blamed the spill on higher pressure than expected in the oil reservoir. However, it was at pains to highlight that further damage was avoided due to a seabed valve encapsulating some reserves.

But owning up to the spill has not exonerated Chevron. The Agencia Nacional do Petroleo said it would fine the company (as yet an unspecified amount) because they did not take sufficient protective and preventive measures during the drilling. In addition, federal police have brought a criminal case against Chevron for alleged environmental crimes.

So both Quito and Brasilia, whilst opening up their natural resources to foreign paws, have come down hard after apparent crimes against Nature. The biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty that both countries enjoy must be celebrated and protected. Nevertheless, the two governments realise that outside investment in their black gold is a policy that must be continued.

But, as we saw with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the fervour for oil and the subsequent accidents seem to know no bounds. The oil companies must work more carefully. But no matter how hard Chevron is battered legally by Quito and Brasilia, the welcoming governments must play more of a role from the start with the drillers and not just intervene with the lawyers’ fees when there is an unfortunate spill at the end.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1

Lula wading into choppy waters one last time

Never one to shy away from the chance to promote Brazil on the world stage – and try to reaffirm the country’s growing global stature – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the outgoing Brazilian president, has angered the US once more.

The government in Brasilia has announced that the time has come for the country to recognise the Palestinian state, a move which has immediately drawn criticism from the US and Israel.

Lula has played this game before. In May, he refused to vote for energy sanctions to be placed on Iran. Only Turkey and Lebanon joined his call-to-arms. Many saw Lula’s decision as a signal of support for embattled Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he had welcomed to Brazil on a tour earlier.

However, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor who will replace her mentor as president next month, has attempted to scupper claims that she is nothing more than Lula’s puppet. She has admitted that the Brazilian position on Iran was unpopular and warned that there will be a more ‘cautious’ foreign policy on her watch.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American nation to recognise Palestine: Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Venezuela have all formalised relations with the disputed territories.

Last month Uruguay joined the list and on 6 December Argentina added its name to the group. Latin American nations have powerful backers (Colombia – US; Venezuela – Iran) but are seizing the mantle more and more now to become outspoken defendants of global causes themselves.

They are still learning the trade, though. On 30 November, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, Kintto Lucas, made a forthright decision to offer the since-arrested Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, the platform to speak publicly. President Rafael Correa then rubbished the idea that an offer of accommodation would be made (in all likelihood because Ecuador will not escape complicity in the compromising cables).

Ecuador’s confusion demonstrates its infancy on the vocal world stage. Lula is no such paddler; he has been swimming against the current for a while. It will be up to Dilma whether to maintain Lula’s defiant oratory or to change tack and go with the flow.