Guatemala talking

On Monday 11 February, the Guatemalan foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, attended several events in London. This is a review of the talk he gave at Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute

Guatemala is a small nation. With a population of 14 million, it is dwarfed in many ways by its huge northern neighbour, Mexico. So on matters of policy it generally tends to stick together with the other little Central American states. Its foreign minister is a stocky, smooth-talking economist who was at great pains last night to point out the much larger ambitions that his country has – particularly in terms of regional integration.

Fernando Carrera, in a late afternoon talk at Canning House, focused his short speech on regional integration and relations between Latin American countries as a whole and the democratisation of the region.

INTEGRATION

Carrera could not have been more excited by the prospect of a closer economic and political club for the Central American countries. He was especially vocal about the possibilities of partnership between the southernmost five states of Mexico long with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – “[that will be] part of our future, for sure”. He then added Cuba to the guest list for entry to what he labelled the ‘4 x 14 million’ group. These are four areas: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; El Salvador and Honduras; and Cuba that have about 14 million people and may be open to getting together to form another Latin American bloc. Such alliances are not rare. From the Organisation of American States (every North and South American country), through CELAC (the same lot minus the US and Canada) to ALBA (a leftist group of eight states), the politicians of the region seem to spend a lot of their time dreaming up acronyms for the next combination of countries.

One of these blocs that Carrera eulogised was the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile); he praised its abilities to “go beyond traditional markets”. This comment could have been seen as a slight nudge to some of those aforementioned blocs, which pander to regional trade and policy. The Pacific one is trying to get the nations on the other side of the ocean involved as well. Guatemala is an observer of the Alliance. However, he did also make sure he underlined the importance of running a healthy home as well as planning holidays abroad – “by supporting each other, we learn how to get out of war” and “it’s clear today that creating economic opportunities in Central America is very easy”.

DEMOCRATISATION

Mr Carrera used the latter part of his talk to address the current state of democracy in the region. He was openly happy that Latin American countries had finally got over the hurdle of arguing about different political ideologies and got on with some proper dialogue at the head-of-state level. He said that a “united Latin America can now be considered” and that democracy had opened the minds of the people of Latin America in a way that had not been previously possible.

After his talk, Fernando Carrera took four QUESTIONS, of varying themes:

He was first pressed on Guatemala’s relations with Belize. The two countries have been disputing their shared border for many years and have agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in October on submitting Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claims to the International Court of Justice. Mr Carrera did not mention Belize when he was discussing teaming up with his neighbours, despite the two countries’ proximity to one another. This omission was noted by the audience; the minister called the issue “challenging” but he did say that he would “love Belize to be part of the regional integration plan”.

The second question focused on co-operation between Guatemala and its neighbours to try to combat the ongoing violent crime in the region. The politician said that one major problem that needed fixing was the weakness of the state actors of Central American countries. He conceded that this had been lacking in his nation, saying that the strengthening of national executives, legislatures and judiciaries across the area was paramount to being able to take on the violence in a strong and measured manner.

After that, Mr Carrera was asked about further integration with Mexico. He referenced simple ideas such as academic exchanges and grander plans like a possible chamber of commerce between certain areas of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Finally, I wanted to know what steps the minister could take through his foreign affairs role to try to safeguard the lives and rights of Central American migrants making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. Crimes against migrating workers – regularly travelling illegally and therefore taking even more hazardous decisions and routes – are common and range from robbery to rape and murder. Mr Carrera had spoken a lot that evening about integration and it seems that it is only with international action that such violence could possibly be confronted. The minister said it was a “pity not to be able to guarantee the migrants’ lives and rights”, saying that his government will “do our best to avoid this horrible situation”. He highlighted that one way to try to act was through ensuring that “we strive not to allow state actors to violate rights or perpetrate crimes” against the migrating workers.

The Quetzal Conundrum

Rising violence will be the biggest problem confronting the next president of Guatemala

The first-round of the Guatemalan presidential election on 11 September produced no clear winner and so a run-off will take place on 6 November. Retired former general Otto Perez Molina (36%) and businessman Manuel Baldizon (24%) will contest the second vote. At barely 2%, support for the only left-leaning candidate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan rights champion Rigoberta Menchú, hardly registered.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of public security formed the core of the election campaigns. The people are worried about powerful criminal organisations from Mexico, such as Los Zetas gangsters, tapping into the Central American underworld of mara criminal units and building allegiances and animosities. In May this year, outgoing president Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern jungle region of Petén after 27 people were brutally killed at a ranch. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 (the second-highest in the region after El Salvador, according to a World Bank report).

Mr Perez Molina adopted a clenched fist as his campaign logo and has promised a firm response to the violence; his pledge to expand the role of the army in the fight against the gangs has been supported by rival Mr Baldizon. However, with weak state institutions and a glance north to current Mexican public feeling about the deployment of the military to battle the gangsters, letting the army loose in the rainforests will be far from an easy twirl of the presidential pen.

Mr Baldizon has hinted at another tough measure to deal with the violence: increasing the use of the death penalty, last used in 2000. This may well be popular with the people but Guatemala must not just look inwards in the battle. The Mérida Initiative pledges much greater US support for Mexico than for Central American nations. Renegotiating the terms of such agreements and calling upon cross-border aid and debate through such institutions as the Central American Parliament, or PARLACEN, (which was founded in Guatemala), would be a prescient and less regionally divisive reaction to the growing crisis.

Mr Baldizon’s pledge to continue the social programmes started by incumber leftist Mr Colom poll well in a country with critical levels of poverty, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, but his promise to ensure the national soccer team qualifies for the 2014 World Cup is a distraction.

By focusing on the destructive violence, Mr Perez Molina has maintained healthy support that will probably see him home in the run-off. Training his eye on the gangsters is one thing but it would also be wise to devote some attention to the July 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which are set to be the most important event in the current drugs violence crisis. If Mr Perez Molina really wants to use his ‘clenched fist’ he will have to shake hands and ensure neighbourly support first to combat this cross-border problem.

Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

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