The death of Manuel Marulanda, the 78-year old chieftain of the Farc, Latin America’s oldest guerrilla movement, brings the end of the four decade old war a step closer.
That is not because Alfonso Cano, his bearded 52-year old replacement, is a moderate, more disposed to talks with the government of President Álvaro Uribe than his intransigent predecessor. (Although admittedly, Mr Cano is marginally preferable to Jorge Briceño, another leading candidate for the job, who has won a reputation for ruthlessness, extreme even by the exacting standards of the Farc.) But Mr Marulanda’s death on March 26 – which came after heavy bombardments on his camp – further weakens an organization, which is on the ropes after six years of successful counter-insurgency.
In March alone two other two Farc commanders died. Last year, several important Farc leaders were killed. Since 2002, when Mr Uribe took office, the Farc has lost about 50 per cent of its troops.
If Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was – as the Colombians allege – providing logistic and financial support to the Farc, it is now becoming more difficult for him to do so, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the captured Farc laptops.
In this context, Mr Marulanda’s departure will do nothing to improve the fading morale of those fighters that remain. It seems likely to spur more desertions and infighting between rival factions, which Mr Cano will struggle to contain.
The Colombian government’s offer of $100m to guerrillas who release hostages seems well-timed in this sense. The Farc could well unravel. Whether it unravels fast enough to save the lives of desperately ill hostages held by the Farc, such as Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian citizen and former Colombian presidential candidate, is another matter.
Argentina’s farm: who’ll blink first?
Even if she gets her own way in the end – and it’s a big if – Argentine President Cristina Fernández will have paid a high price for her obstinacy in an 11-week-old standoff with farmers.
Talks are supposed to resume on Monday on the sliding-scale of export tariffs which triggered the unprecedented conflict with the farming sector, the nation’s biggest breadwinner.
The divisions – as demonstrated by rival rallies on Argentina’s May 25 Independence Day – appear to be getting worse. People are fed up with the protest, but if a new opinion poll by consultancy Poliarquía putting Ms Fernández’s approval rating at 29 per cent is to be believed, they are even more fed up of the president’s confrontational style.
The protest has disrupted Argentine grain supplies in recent weeks, putting pressure on prices and tight world stocks, and doing serious damage to the country’s image as a reliable trading partner at a time of world food inflation. Instead of engaging in a show of strength in the best Peronist tradition, Ms Fernández should keep in mind the bigger picture. Argentina already has official inflation and poverty statistics few take seriously; it does not need further self-inflicted damage to its image.
Farmers seem willing to accept the controversial sliding-scale of export tariffs, with some adjustments. That, too, may prove the most face-saving way out of this mess for the government, which likes to see itself as Robin Hood using taxes from rich farmers to help the poor. Dragging things out is pointless and the government should seize back the initiative, settle the farm dispute, and then get on with sorting out the other problems it has got itself into.
INPE, Brazil’s space research institute responsible for satellite monitoring of the Amazon, was due to release figures on Monday showing a sharp increase in deforestation during April.
It will no longer do so. INPE has decided to wait until the dust settles on a public row sparked by Carlos Minc, the new environment minister who takes office on Tuesday – a row that could do as much damage to the forest as the ranchers and loggers blamed with burning and cutting it down.
Mr Minc, who apparently had early sight of the INPE figures, said deforestation in the state of Mato Grosso, on the Amazon basin’s southern edge, had increased by 60 per cent in April and laid the blame squarely on Blairo Maggi, the state governor and head of an agribusiness clan, saying he would plant soya as far as the Andes if given the chance.
Mr Maggi has a history of turbulent relations with environmentalists. Greenpeace gave him its ”golden chainsaw” award for being the individual doing the most damage to the forest. But his championship of a soya moratorium, under which big traders have stopped buying soya from recently-deforested land in Brazil, turned him into something of a hero among more pragmatic conservationists.
Ranchers in Mato Grosso, in part inspired by the soya moratorium, have begun signing up to a scheme designed to reward them for better land management. Its organisers say it could increase the amount of forest in the state by 30 per cent. But Mr Minc, following the example of his predecessor, Marina Silva, who resigned two weeks ago, has chosen to antagonise the very people whose cooperation is vital if the forest is to be saved. He could hardly have got off to a worse start.
Calderón’s Merida dilemma
This week, staff members of the US Congress will start ironing out the differences between two approved versions of the so-called Merida Initiative, a multi-million-dollar anti-narcotics aid package drawn up by President George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón, his Mexican counterpart. Staffers say a final, reconciled version should be ready by mid-June.
But whatever the final shape of the package some kind of human rights conditions seem set to be included and these are likely to become a serious headache for Mr Calderón and his centre-right administration.
According to one approved version of the bill, a large chunk of the $350m - $400m in the package could be withheld unless Mexico ensures that allegations of human rights abuses committed by members of the army are investigated and tried in civilian courts. That is hardly surprising, given the widespread perception that the armed forces’ own procedures are a license for impunity.
The problem for Mr Calderón is that many Mexican congressmen see conditionality as US interference in domestic affairs.
To complicate matters further, opposition parties are beginning to step up the pressure more generally on the president over his controversial decision 18 months ago to involve the army in the war against drugs and organised crime and the patchy results obtained to date.
The idea of involving the US in the war on drugs may have looked inspired a year ago. Today, the downside is becoming increasingly apparent.
Venezuela’s new party
For all the rhetoric about participatory democracy, next Sunday’s internal elections to choose candidates for the newly formed pro-government United Socialist Party seem to have more to do with Venezuela’s top-down political tradition.
In theory, members of the PSUV on June 1 will decide who will stand in the all-important regional elections slated for November 23. The problem is, many of the votes are likely to be meaningless. In order to win, candidates must gain 51 per cent of the vote or have a 15 per cent lead over their closest rival. That will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, given that over 5,000 candidates are competing for less than 400 positions.
Moreover, those aspirants with high public profiles will have a significant advantage. Such is the case of the former vice-president Jorge Rodriguez, one of 120 pre-candidates in the Caracas municipality of Libertador, for example.
If an outright victory is not secured (in any event, the results are not to be made known to the public), the decision will be left to a committee, led by none other than President Hugo Chávez.
Hot tips for the candidates who will end up running for some of the 24 state governorships include: finance minister Rafael Isea for Aragua; current incumbent Diosdado Cabello for Miranda; Jose Vielma Mora, former head of the tax office, for Tachira; former communications minister Willian Lara for Guarico; Mario Silva, the controversial host of a programme on state television, for Carabobo; possibly former finance minister Rodrigo Cabezas for Zulia; but almost certainly Adán Chávez, the president’s brother, for his home state of Barinas.