Central America: Thousands of Honduran farmers seize land

Thousands of Honduran farmers seize land, as Chinchilla proposes debt-tackling measures and Italian bribery controversy mars Martinelli government.

Thousands of Honduran farmers seize land

Longstanding land disputes between Honduran farmers and landowners caught fire once again this week, with an estimated 3,500 farming families occupying 12,000 hectares of land in eight provinces on Tuesday, the International Peasant Day of Struggle.

The coordinated and nationwide action was organized by supporters of former President Manuel Zelaya, deposed 28 June 2009, and featured occupations in the provinces of Yoro, Cortes, Santa Barbara, Intibuca, Comayagua, Francisco Morazan, El Paraiso and Choluteca.

Activists said the largest seizure occurred along the country’s Caribbean coast, where an estimated 1,500 farmers squatted a sugar plantation near the city of San
Pedro Sula.

Coordinator of Via Campesina Rafael Alegría stated that the farmers are demanding their right to land and survival and that all seized land is public property.

Under Honduran law small farmers have the legal right to grow crops in arable land, activists said.

Squatters say they have been waiting for land for 15 years, while the large landowners maintain that they bought the land legally from the government.

On Wednesday, farm workers peacefully withdrew from the 2,500-hectare area of the San Manuel sugar plantation after they were presented with an eviction notice by security forces.

Activists say occupations were still active late Wednesday.

According to figures from the UN and the Economic Commission for Latin America cited by Al Jazeera, ‘53 per cent of Hondurans live in the countryside’ and ‘the residents of 72 per cent of rural homes are below the poverty line’.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that Honduras – ‘the third poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean’ with 7.5 million people – has 1.5 million people facing hunger, while a third of its population earns less than a dollar a day.

WFP figures also place chronic malnutrition in rural areas at 48.5 per cent.

Chinchilla proposes debt-tackling measures amid government scandals

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Costa Rica the government of Laura Chinchilla is struggling to pass its first tax reform while attempting to recover from tax evasion scandals within its own constituency.

On 2 April, then finance minister Fernando Herrero tendered his resignation after daily newspaper La Nación uncovered that he – along with other high-profile ministers – had underpaid his taxes on his properties for several years.

Also involved in tax evasion was former director of Costa Rica’s Tax Administration Francisco Villalobos, who resigned on 3 April after it was made public that he failed to pay US$3,600 in taxes in 2008.

Chinchilla moved this week to patch up the two casualties which have wrapped her government in controversy by appointing Carlos Vargas as head of the Tax Administration and Edgar Ayales as her new finance minister.

The Costa Rican President is likely hoping that her government will be quick to recover from these scandals and build up pace toward a much anticipated fiscal reform.

Costa Rica remains the sole country in Central America to have not yet passed a tax reform since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008.

As the country’s debt nears 6 per cent of GDP, Central Bank officials have estimated this figure could climb to as much as 10 per cent if fiscal measures are not enacted by 2014.

Chinchilla announced Wednesday a set of measures designed to tackle the country’s rising debt, which the President claims amounts to 45 per cent of the nation’s expenses.

Four measures are to be proposed, including the creation of an electronic invoice for sales tax in order to cut down on tax evasion; the suspension of tax exemptions on a number of luxury goods; selling of state-owned property; and freezing pensions and wages, as well as slashing political party financing by passing a new fiscal reform bill..

‘These actions, coupled with those we have already taken, represent about 0.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product and ensure that the deficit does not exceed 5 percent by the end of my administration,’ the Costa Rican President announced, adding that ‘half of this figure will depend on the laws that are passed by the Legislative Assembly.’

This new bill is a ratified version of the previous one, which stressed the need to raise taxes and was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last week.

If passed, it will undoubtedly be seen as a political victory for Chinchilla, not simply because it is expected to offer more compromises with the Costa Rican opposition, but also due to the need to drastically slash Costa Rica’s debt.

Italian bribery scandal mars Martinelli government

Also this week, on Monday the arrest of Italian businessman Valter Lavítola in Rome made headlines around the world.

His alleged involvement in prostitution rings and Silvio Berlusconi’s sex scandals have put the former Prime Minister and media guru back into the spotlight.

Lavítola was also known to be an unofficial aide to Berlusconi, whom he accompanied on trips abroad on several occasions, including to Panama.

In effect, it was in South America, where the businessman spent eight months as a fugitive rather than Italy that his arrest caused the biggest turmoil.

More specifically, the corruption allegations involving him have rocked the foundations of the Panamanian government.

Lavítola is wanted on charges including money laundering, fraud and offering bribes totaling US$20m to Panamanian high officials, including President Ricardo Martinelli, whom Lavítola is said to have described as ‘my brother Martinelli’.

Prosecutors in Italy say the Panamanian President received 670,000 euros in bribes on two separate occasions in order to secure four prison construction contracts for Italian defence conglomerate Finmeccanica.

Martinelli is also reported to have been promised US$28m and one helicopter estimated at US$8m after his cousin Fernando Martinelli and Lavítola obtained the construction lease.

President Ricardo Martinelli responded to the allegations through his Twitter account:

‘No prison in Panama is being built by an Italian company.’

The Italian prosecution maintains that Finmeccanica’s construction contracts in Panama ultimately failed due to Lavítola’s judicial complications in Italy related to former Prime Minister Berlusconi.

Finmeccanica’s initial involvement with the Panamanian government dates back to August 2010, when the latter acquired six helicopters, 19 radars and one digital map from the defence firm.