Central America: Assassination attempt on Guatemalan human rights leader

Assassination attempt on Guatemalan human rights leader; US pulls plug on US$3m in foreign aid to Nicaragua; Costa Rica and Colombia FTA in the making.

Assassination attempt on Guatemalan human rights leader

While left-wing President Fernando Lugo’s impeachment by the Paraguayan Senate sent shockwaves throughout Latin America and the international media, the Central American isthmus exhibited its own share of earth shattering news.

Last Saturday, human rights activist Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz suffered an assassination attempt on her way home from a peaceful protest at a mine site in San Pedro Ayampuc, Chinautla, Guatemala.

Two men on a motorcycle approached Oquelí, reportedly firing a total of four shots with a .38 pistol. One bullet hit the activist’s torso, the other three having sprayed her vehicle. Amnesty USA said Oquelí is in hospital ‘in a serious but stable condition’.

It is believed that the incident is directly linked to Oquelí’s activist work. Since August 2011, she has received death threats and filed several complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s office. Her last complaint was filed on 11 May.

Oquelí is the leader of the Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana (Northern Front of the Metropolitan Area – FRENAM), a community-based movement which has been taking to the streets in protest since March 2012 against the negative effects of a mining project in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc.

Protesters claim the mine will pollute the water supply, and that local communities were not consulted regarding its potential impact.

The mine is operated by Exploraciones Mineras de Guatemala, S.A. (EXMIGUA), a local wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canada based company Radius Gold Inc.

‘Eighty per cent of all metal mining in Guatemala is in Canadian hands,’ said project manager for Projet Accompagnement Québec-Guatemala (PAQG) Marc Drouin in 2005.

Since the onset of Guatemala’s civil war in the 1960s, several mining concessions have been granted to Canadian companies (e.g. INCO, Glamis Gold, Radius Gold Inc, etc.) with the blessing of the Guatemalan government. INCO is believed to have been associated with Guatemala’s military regimes since the 1970s.

Strong opposition to mining activities by Canadian corporations has been frequently met with repression from security forces and death squads which are perceived as acting in the interest of foreign capital.

US pulls plug on US$3m in foreign aid to Nicaragua

In other news, the U.S. government announced it would not renew Nicaragua’s fiscal transparency waiver this year.  Concurrently, some US$3m in annual foreign aid will be withheld due to the country’s ‘lack of fiscal transparency,’ a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said Thursday.

The suspension of the fiscal transparency waiver bears the contours of a bad omen realized. In January 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that aid policies toward Nicaragua would be subject to a review following the presidential re-election of Daniel Ortega in November 2011, which Washington claims was not transparent.

The announcement has set off alarm bells within Nicaragua’s business sector, spreading fears that the U.S. could proceed to cancel its second waiver in place in the country, the property waiver, estimated at a minimum of US$220m in international cooperation, a scenario likened to an ‘atomic bomb’ dropped in the country’s economy.

As a result, the president of Nicaragua’s Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (Superior Council for Private Enterprise – COSEP) José Adan Aguerri spoke on behalf of the business sector Friday and urged Ortega to ‘improve the country’s institutions and transparency’.

A response from Managua to the U.S. foreign aid pull-out came on Sunday, with President Daniel Ortega threatening to shut down cooperation programs which permit the establishment and operation of U.S. NGOs in the country, which he described as ‘agents of empire’.

‘If there’s no plata [money] here for health, the environment and the fight against drug trafficking, then there will be no plata for these agents of empire,’ Ortega said during an official act in the country’s capital.

The statement follows a call this week by the Political Council of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America – ALBA) for its member countries to ban the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from their territories.

While USAID proclaims itself to work to ‘strengthen democracy and good governance,’ a statement issued by ALBA on Friday accused the organization of interference in internal affairs:

‘In most of the countries of ALBA, USAID—and its different organizations and facades—is acting illegally and with impunity, without any legal structure, to finance illegitimate media outlets, political leaders and non-government organizations.’

USAID’s cooperation with Nicaragua took a nose dive this year, falling from approximately US$37m in 2011 to US$2m so far in 2012.

Costa Rica and Colombia FTA in the making

All was not gloomy in the isthmus’ record of multilateral relations in the western hemisphere. Both Costa Rica and Colombia are bracing themselves for upcoming negotiations regarding a free trade agreement (FTA).

Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel dos Santos and his Costa Rican counterpart Laura Chinchilla met at the Real Hotel InterContinental in Escazú, Costa Rica, to initiate talks which culminated with the signing of a bilateral agreement setting the framework for the envisaged FTA.

 ‘I hope we finish as soon as possible; it will depend on the dynamics of the negotiations, but Costa Rica and Colombia have plenty of experience in free trade and I do not see many problems,’ Santos said during the event’s joint press-conference with Chinchilla.

‘Our relationship keeps growing stronger in the political arena, and now in the commercial arena, which will lead us to join efforts in forums where we share interests,’ Chinchilla stated, adding that there was a ‘shared vision of development’ between both countries.

While Costa Rica’s exports to Colombia have been growing steadily over the past two years at a rate of 12.1 per cent, the trade balance clearly favors Colombia, according to sources cited by Tico Times.

In 2011, Costa Rica had a trade deficit with Colombia of US$407.5m, with exports to its neighbor estimated at US$48.2m against a whopping US$455.7m in imports.

Other aspects covered in last week’s talks included security, fighting drug trafficking, the environment and protecting marine resources.

The FTA is to include a controversial elimination of visa requirements to Colombian citizens visiting Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican private business sector will determine the national position on the agreement in early July. Negotiations between the two countries will begin in Colombia on July 30.