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Ousted Caracas mayor reaches Spain after fleeing Venezuela

November 18, 2017

MADRID (AP) — The ousted mayor of Caracas pledged to spread his protest against Venezuela’s socialist government across the world as he arrived in Spain on Saturday, a day after escaping from house arrest and slipping past security forces into Colombia.

After embracing his wife and two daughters with a Venezuela flag draped over his shoulder, Antonio Ledezma said he was going to continue to fight Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exile. “I am going to dedicate myself to traveling the world, to spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship,” Ledezma said. “Venezuela isn’t on the verge of an abyss, it has fallen into the abyss.”

Maduro, for his part, called Ledezma a “vampire flying around the world.” Ledezma, 62, was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust Maduro. He was one of the leaders of anti-government in protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 that also led to the jailing of other prominent opponents, including his former cellmate Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

Ledezma’s flight from Bogota landed early Saturday in Madrid where besides his family, he was greeted by the former president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, and the former Venezuelan ambassador, Fernando Gerbasi.

Ledezma said he “felt freedom” upon touching Spanish soil and hopes to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy before starting his global tour. He did not say what countries he plans to visit. “Venezuela is completely collapsing. We can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We don’t have any resources left, only our morale.”

Ledezma told The Associated Press on Friday that his decision to flee was driven by threats intended to force the opposition to resume negotiations with Maduro’s government. After slipping past intelligence police officers stationed 24 hours a day outside his residence, he passed through several police checkpoints in a long journey by car to Colombia. Colombian immigration authorities said Ledezma entered the country legally across the Simon Bolivar Bridge.

Ledezma, who thanked both Spanish and Colombian authorities for what he described as their warm welcomes, was elated after his escape. “I’ve lived out a James Bond movie,” Ledemza said. “I made this route of more than 24 hours, passing 29 control points, checkpoints, crossing paths, accepting all the risks, and in every moment I always thought about the value of freedom.”

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Venezuela officials: Ruling party wins most governorships

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said candidates for the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won nearly all of the 23 governorships up for grabs in Sunday’s regional elections. Opposition leaders disputed the accuracy of the vote count.

Independent pollsters had projected the opposition would ride a wave of discontent over Venezuela’s economic calamity and win a majority of the state elections for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist rule.

Tibisay Lucena, the pro-government president of the electoral council, said socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered “irreversible” late Sunday. One race was still undecided.

Lucena said 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the elections, far higher than many people had anticipated. Even before the results were announced, opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said there was reason to question the results. He said the opposition’s count would be “very different” from the electoral council’s results.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” Blyde said. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

“There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “I think that’s going to deepen the polarization.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Throughout Sunday, President Nicolas Maduro and socialist party leaders said the election would be proof that Venezuela remains a democracy and not a dictatorship, as a rising number of foreign leaders have begun to call the embattled nation. Few checks and balances remain on Maduro’s rule after the constitutional assembly declared itself superior to all other branches of government and replaced the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor with a socialist ally of the president.

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said in a televised address to the nation during the day. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility.” After results were announced, Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the count and would ask the constitutional assembly to order an audit of the vote in order to extinguish any cries of fraud.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely to lose. The vote was rescheduled for this December, but the constitutional assembly moved it up to October.

Days before the vote, the electoral council announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds, one of several unusual changes before the election. The opposition accused the council of trying to suppress turnout among its base — a significant portion of which has grown disillusioned about the possibility of change and lost faith in leaders they perceive as disorganized and divided.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Socialist candidates had urged Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change. Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed the socialist candidate in Miranda, said he hoped his vote would set Venezuela on the right path.

“I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said.

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuelan socialists claim victory as opposition cries foul

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council proclaimed candidates with the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won a vast majority of the 23 governorships at stake in Sunday’s election, results the opposition immediately rejected and which threatened to further divide the nation.

An hour before results were announced, the opposition’s command centers had been filled with smiles and jubilation. Leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told a room filled with journalists and supporters that while he couldn’t share the preliminary results, they showed a victory of “historic dimensions” for the Venezuelan people.

But shortly before Tibisay Lucena, president of the government-stacked council, declared the results, opposition mayor Gerardo Blyde came out to warn that leaders believed the official count would be off.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” he said. According to the CNE, socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered irreversible. One race was still too close to call a victor. In all, 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the election, far higher than many people had anticipated in a country where many have grown disenchanted and apathetic.

Lucena and others praised the vote as an example of Venezuela’s democracy but Blyde claimed fraud. “Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world buy that story,” he said of the results. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed, ruling with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the CNE’s results but would ask the constitutional assembly to request an audit in order to extinguish any doubts that the results were inaccurate. “A triumphant victory for chavismo!” he proclaimed, referring to the name used for his predecessor’s movement.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely slated to lose. They were repeatedly delayed for a variety of reasons, including a requirement for political parties to “renew” their status with electoral authorities.

Then in May, during the height of opposition protests, Lucena announced the elections were being scheduled for December, after a vote for delegates to a constitutional assembly in July. Opposition leaders blankly refused to participate in the July vote, choosing instead to mount street protests in hopes of pressuring Maduro into canceling the vote. The vote continued as planned and CNE rectors proclaimed that more than 8 million Venezuelans participated in the election for delegates. International voting software company Smartmatic came out days later to assert that Venezuelans electoral officials had deliberately altered turnout results.

The new assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s constitution quickly removed the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor and declared itself superior to all other branches of government. Assembly delegates also decided to move up the delayed gubernatorial elections to October.

Projections by independent pollsters showed opposition candidates would win a majority, if not nearly all offices, while socialist party contenders were expected to claim a small handful of victories.

Still, opposition candidates vying for votes proved to have their work cut out with them. Many young supporters who had participated in the street protests are upset at leaders they perceived and disorganized and unable to unite behind a single strategy on how to loosen Maduro’s grip from power. Others were skeptical any change might happen at the ballot box, given the electoral council’s repeated favoring of the ruling party and accusations of fraud.

Meanwhile, pro-government candidates like Hector Rodriguez waged competitive campaigns, trading the polarizing red shirts identified with the socialist party for neutral colors. Rodriguez’s campaign focused largely on resolving the daily problems of Venezuelans and healing the divisions that have come to define the nation.

It was a message that resounded with voters like Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed Rodriguez. “I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said before getting on a bus to vote Sunday.

Electoral experts voiced repeated concern at several changes made by the CNE in the lead-up to the vote, though many believed that the vote count was likely to be accurate. Unlike the July vote, opposition parties would be on site to compare paper print-out tallies with the electronic ones in the final tally. The CNE was also slated to use Smartmatic software utilized in the 2015 legislative race, the last national electoral faceoff between the government and opposition.

The CNE did not allow the opposition to remove several candidates who lost in a September primary, despite an electoral law permitting political parties to substitute contenders up until 10 days before the vote. Less than three days before voting, the council also announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Attention is now likely to shift to any impact such irregularities might have had. “There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The opposition called for an audit and urged Venezuelans to mobilize on the streets Monday in support. Government supporters called on detractors to respect the results and said the count is proof that the movement started by Chavez remains alive and well, despite Maduro’s low approval ratings.

“The cradle of the revolution doesn’t surrender,” said Argenis Chavez, the late president’s brother and declared winner of the race in Barinas, where Hugo Chavez spent his early years.

Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuela’s Maduro meets Turkey’s Erdogan on European tour

October 06, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is meeting his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for talks on bilateral relations and international issues. Maduro’s visit on Friday comes amid stringent U.S. sanctions on the South American nation and a deepening political crisis in Venezuela, as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages.

The foreign ministers of both countries will also participate in the second meeting of their joint “partnership commissions” aimed at forging cooperation between the two countries, according to the Turkish president’s office.

Maduro’s visit follows a tour to Russia and to Belarus, where he discussed expanding military ties with the ex-Soviet nation. In February 2016, Erdogan visited Chile, Peru and Ecuador to boost trade ties between Turkey and South America.

The Tuxá Indigenous Paradise, Submerged under Water

The Tuxá Indigenous Paradise, Submerged under Water

By Fabiana Frayssinet

RODELAS, Brazil, Sep 30 2017 (IPS) – The Tuxá indigenous people had lived for centuries in the north of the Brazilian state of Bahia, on the banks of the São Francisco River. But in 1988 their territory was flooded by the Itaparica hydropower plant, and since then they have become landless. Their roots are now buried under the waters of the reservoir.

Dorinha Tuxá, one of the leaders of this native community, which currently has between 1,500 and 2,000 inhabitants, sings on the shore of what they still call “river”, although now it is an 828-sq-km reservoir, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, along the border with the state of Bahia, to the south.

While singing the song dedicated to their “sacred” river and smoking her “maraku”, a pipe with tobacco and ritual herbs, she looks dreamily at the waters where the “Widow’s Island” was submerged, one of several that sprinkled the lower course of the São Francisco River, and on which the members of her community used to live.

“This song is to ask our community for unity, because in this struggle we are asking for the strength of our ancestors to help us recover our territory. A landless indigenous person is a naked indigenous person. We are asking our ancestors to bless us in this battle and protect our warriors,” she told IPS.

The hydroelectric plant, with a capacity of 1,480 megawatts, is one of eight installed by the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (CHESF), whose operations are centered on that river which runs across much of the Brazilian Northeast region: 2,914 km from its source in the center of the country to the point where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the northeast.

After the flood, the Tuxá people were relocated to three municipalities. Some were settled in Nova Rodelas, a hamlet in the rural municipality of Rodelas, in the state of Bahia, where Dorinha Tuxá lives.

After a 19-year legal battle, the 442 relocated Tuxá families finally received compensation from the CHESF. But they are still waiting for the 4,000 hectares that were agreed upon when they were displaced, and which must be handed over to them by state agencies.

“What nostalgia for that blessed land where we were born and which did not let us lack for anything. The river where we used to fish. I have such nostalgia for that time, from my childhood to my marriage. We were indeed a suffering and stoic but optimistic people. We grew rice, onions, we harvested mangoes. All that is gone,” Tuxá chief Manoel Jurum Afé told IPS.

The new village is very different from the community where they used to live on their island.

Only the soccer field, where children play, retains the shape of traditional indigenous Tuxá constructions.

But the elders strive to transmit their collective memory to the young, such as Luiza de Oliveira, who was baptized with the indigenous name of Aluna Flexia Tuxá.

She is studying law to continue her people’s struggle for land and rights. Her mother, like many other Tuxá women, also played an important role as chief, or community leader.

“It was as if they lived in a paradise. They had no need to beg the government like they have to do now. They used to plant everything, beans, cassava. They lived together in complete harmony. They talk about it with nostalgia. It was a paradise that came to an end when it was flooded,” she said.

After three decades of living with other local people, the Tuxás stopped wearing their native clothes, although for special occasions and rituals they put on their “cocares” (traditional feather headdresses).

They welcomed IPS with a “toré” – a collective dance open to outsiders. Another religious ceremony, “the particular”, is reserved for members of the community. That is how they honour the “enchanted”, their spirits or reincarnated ancestors.

But they are also Catholics and very devoted to Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Rodelas, which was named after Captain Francisco Rodelas, considered the first chief who fought alongside the Portuguese against the Dutch occupation of northeast Brazil in the 17th century.

Armando Apaká Caramuru Tuxá is a “pajé” – guardian of the Tuxá traditions.

“The waters covered the land where our ancestors lived. Many times I saw my grandfather sitting at the foot of a jua (Ziziphus joazeiro, a tree typical of the eco-region of the semi-arid Northeast), there on the island talking to them up there (in the sky),” he said.

“We lost all that. That place which was sacred to us was submerged under water,” he said, sadly.

The Tuxá people, who for centuries were fishermen, hunters, gatherers and farmers, practically gave up their subsistence crops in their new location.

Some bought small parcels of land and grow cash crops, such as coconuts.

“We need to improve our quality of life. Before we used to live on what we produced from agriculture and fishing. Today that is not possible, so we want to return to agriculture, and to do that we need our land,” Chief Uilton Tuxá told IPS.

In 2014, a decree declared some 4,392 hectares of land an “area of social interest” in order to expropriate it and transfer it to the Tuxá people.

In June of this year, they won a lawsuit in a federal court, which ruled that the National Indigenous Foundation (Funai) had three months to create a working group to begin the demarcation process. It also set a new compensation to be paid to the Tuxá people.

But distrustful of the state bureaucracy and the courts, the Tuxá people decided to occupy Surubabel, the area near their village, on the banks of the reservoir, which was expropriated in order for it to be demarcated in their favor, but this never happened.

They began to build a new village there, in what they call “the recovery” of their lands.

“The occupation of this land by us, the Tuxá people, represents the rekindling of the flame of our identity as an indigenous people native to this riverbank. We were already here, since the beginning of the colonization process, even in the 16th century when the first catechists arrived,” argued Uilton Tuxá.

“We want to build this small village for the government to fulfill its obligations and the order to delimit our territory,” he said.

During the week they have other activities. They are public employees or work on their plots of land. But on Saturdays they load their tools in their vehicles and build their houses in the traditional way.

“Nowadays a lot of land in this sacred territory of the Tuxás is being invaded by non-indigenous people and also by indigenous people from other ethnic groups,” chief Xirlene Liliana Xurichana Tuxá told IPS.

“We were the first indigenous people from the Northeast to be recognized and we are the last to have the right to our land. This is just the beginning. If the justice system does not grant us our right to continue the dialogue, we will adopt forceful measures, we will mobilize. We are tired of being the good guys,” she warned, speaking as a community leader.

Meanwhile, the small portion of their ancestral land that was not submerged, and the land they occupy now, are threatened by new megaprojects.

These lands were left in the middle of two canals, on the north axis of the diversion of the São Francisco River, a project that is still under construction, which is to supply 12 million people with water.

“The Tuxá people have suffered impacts, above and beyond the dam. There is also the diversion of the river and the possibility that they might build a nuclear plant will also affect us,” said Uilton Tuxá, smoking his marakú during a break.

They say the marakú attracts protective forces. And this time they hope these forces will help them to get the land promised to them when their ancestral land was taken away, and that they will not lose it again to new megaprojects.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/09/tuxa-indigenous-paradise-submerged-water/.

Admirers honor ‘Che’ Guevara 50 years after his death

October 08, 2017

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A little band of guerrillas had been on the run through rugged, mountainous terrain, struggling unsuccessfully to build support among the indigenous people of rural Bolivia as a step toward a global socialist revolution.

Finally, on Oct. 8, 1967, the army ran them down. A day afterward — apparently at the behest of the CIA — an army sergeant shot to death their leader: Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Fifty years later, the mountain village where he was killed and the nearby town where he was buried have become shrines to a sort of socialist saint, a man whose death helped cement his image as an enduring symbol of revolt. Some there even pray to him — an outcome that likely would have outraged the iconoclastic atheist.

Thousands of activists and sympathizers from many countries poured into La Higuera and Vallegrande this week for ceremonies to commemorate Guevara led by the country’s leftist president, Evo Morales, who laid flowers at a bust of the fallen guerrilla in the village on Sunday.

In Cuba, President Raul Castro — one of Guevara’s old comrades-in-arms — oversaw a memorial ceremony at the large mausoleum constructed to hold the revolutionary’s remains, though the main speaker was the man many believe may replace him, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

“The colossal example of Che endures and multiplies day by day,” said Diaz-Canel, who added warnings that the United States, Guevara’s chief foe, had demonstrated “a marked interest in a political and economic reconquest” of Cuba.

Guevara was the very personification of the communist dream of spreading revolution around the world. The Argentine-born physician was radicalized by a youthful trip through South America, witnessed the CIA-backed overthrow of a leftist president in Guatemala and ran across exiled Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro while working as a photographer in Mexico.

Despite an often-debilitating asthma, he turned himself into one of the most important fighters of Castro’s Cuban revolution, winning the climactic battlefield victory in the city of Santa Clara that prompted dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the country.

In the aftermath of that triumph, Guevara commanded the Havana military fortress of La Cabana, where hundreds of men accused of crimes under the Batista regime were put to death. Castro then made Guevara into an unlikely financial bureaucrat, naming him to head Cuba’s Central Bank and later the Ministry of Industry. He was famous for working long hours, and then turning up for volunteer work in the sugar fields.

But he felt the call to spread socialism to other nations. He left Cuba in 1964 to help rebels in the Congo, renouncing his Cuban citizenship but relying on Cuban aid. The mission was a flop and he had to pull out a year later.

Back in Cuba, Guevara secretly organized another revolution, this time in Bolivia. But his band there, which included several Cubans, failed to find the sort of popular support that Castro had won in Cuba during his revolution. Bolivia’s army tracked Che down and killed him.

An oddly Christ-like photo of the slain Guevara emerged and helped build the image of him as a martyr. An even more famous photo of the living Che, seeming to gaze into the future, has become an icon of rebellion on t-shirts, tattoos and key rings — sometimes to the consternation of Guevara’s socialist allies, who disapprove of the way it has become commercialized.

One of Guevara’s younger brothers, Juan Martin Guevara, said the causes he fought for remain important. “The inequality today is greater than when he fought, the economic concentration is much greater. What he fought for is still present,” the brother said in Buenos Aires. “He would be in the same place that he always was, confronting it.”

Andrea Rodriguez reported from Havana. Associated Press journalist Paul Byrne contributed from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Finally, Argentina Has a Law on Access to Public Information

By Daniel Gutman

BUENOS AIRES, Sep 28 2017 (IPS) – After 15 long years of public campaigns and debates in which different political, social and business sectors held marches and counter-protests, Argentina finally has a new law that guarantees access to public information.

This step forward must now be reflected in reality, in this South American country where one of the main social demands is greater transparency on the part of the authorities.

The Law on the Right of Access to Public Information, which considers “all government-held information” to be public, was approved by Congress in September last year and enters into force Friday Sept. 29.

Eduardo Bertoni stressed the importance of the new law. He is the academic appointed by the government of President Mauricio Macri to lead the new Agency for Access to Public Information, which will operate within the executive branch, although “with operational autonomy,” according to the law.

“There are already 113 countries that have right of access to information laws and 90 countries have incorporated it into their constitutions,” Bertoni said during the public hearing where his appointment was discussed.

Bertoni, a lawyer with a great deal of experience regarding the right to information, served as Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIADH) between 2002 and 2005.

“We must now encourage society to demand more information from the authorities. And it is essential to push for better organisation of the public archives, because if we do not find the information people seek, we will fail,” he added.

The text is broad in terms of the list of institutions legally bound to respond to requests for access to information: besides the various branches of the state, it includes companies, political parties, trade unions, universities and any private entity to which public funds have been allocated, including public service concessionaires.

The Agency was created to ensure compliance with the law. Its functions include advising people who seek public information and assisting them with their request.

“This was clearly a pending issue for Argentina. It is incomprehensible that the governments of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández (2007-2015) did not push for approval of this law, which should be an incentive for provinces and municipalities to do the same, since very few have regulations on access to public information,” Guillermo Mastrini, an expert on this question, told IPS.

For Mastrini, a former director of Communication Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, “this does not change the worrying scenario with respect to the right to information, since the government is regulating by decree issues related to audiovisual communication services in a way that does not favor plurality and transparency.”

The bill was sent to Congress by the government a few months after Macri took office in December 2015, and passed with large majorities in both legislative chambers.

Until now, at the national level, there was only decree 1172, signed in 2003 by Kirchner with the aim of “improving the quality of democracy”, which was not only below the status of a law, but only covered the executive branch with regard to the obligation to provide information.

José Crettaz, a journalist and the coordinator of the Center for Studies on the Convergence of Communications, told IPS that “Néstor Kirchner’s decree, which applied to the executive branch, worked very well at first, but then public officials began to leave most requests for information unanswered.”

“Now we are seeing a huge step forward, since the law encompasses all branches of the state, and I see a government with a different attitude. The decisive thing will be how the law is implemented. The only valid criterion should be: if there is public money involved, it is public information,” he said.

The law was passed after dozens of bills on access to information were introduced in Congress in recent years. The first was presented under the government of Fernando de la Rua (1999-2001), with the support of a network of civil society organisations, but with little backing from journalists.

The initiative obtained preliminary approval from the lower house of Congress in 2003, passed to the Senate and then the main Argentine media outlets joined the public campaign demanding that it be approved. However, they later distanced themselves from the bill.

They did so, Bertoni recalled in a paper written in 2011 for the World Bank, when a senator warned that the media should also respond to requests for information submitted by any member of the public, as they receive state advertising, which is considered a subsidy.

In 2004, the Senate approved the bill, but with modifications that included private entities among the subjects obligated to provide information, and sent it back to the lower house, where it was shelved. Another bill was passed by the Senate in 2010, but it also failed to prosper.

Now one thing that stood out is that just two days before the law went into effect, the government modified it through a questioned channel: based on “a decree of necessity and urgency”, putting the new Agency in the orbit of the chief of the cabinet of ministers.

“The government thus gave a lower status to the Agency, which according to law was to depend directly on the Presidency of the Nation; the decision, moreover, cannot be taken by decree when Congress is in session,” said Damián Loreti, professor of Right to Information at the University of Buenos Aires.

“That the law is in force is good. But I am concerned about a number of things, such as not including among its objectives a guarantee for the exercise of other rights, such as housing or sexual and reproductive rights. The model law of the Organisation of American States was not followed,” he told IPS.

For Sebastián Lacunza, the last director of the Buenos Aires Herald, a well-respected English-language newspaper that closed this year, “in a country that does not have a culture of transparency, there is a risk that the law will fail.”

“This government promised a regeneration of the country’s institutions, but in some aspects it ended up aggravating the shortcomings of the previous administration, which was not prone to being open with information,” he told IPS.

In his view, “in a context of global crisis in the media industry and a shrinking of plurality of information, the most important thing is that there is an active state that combats the concentration of the media in a few hands.”

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/09/finally-argentina-law-access-public-information/.

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