As Yemen dialog begins, are Saleh loyalists sabotaging transition?

 

More than 500 representatives of Yemen’s political parties and civil society today started a UN-backed dialogue for reconciliation with the aim of drafting a fresh constitution and preparing for free and fair elections in February 2014.

But the talks are being boycotted by southern separatists and by the country’s best-known civil society activist.  

“We are here by the thousands to reject the dialogue as it is an issue of northerners and those southerners who are involved in it do not represent the people,” activist Khaled Junaidi, told the AFP news agency.

Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman (above) is also boycotting the talks in protest at the presence of officials loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh during his 33-year rule.

“I will not participate in the dialogue, due to the obvious imbalance in the representation of the youths, women and civil society groups and the participation of people who have the blood of the revolution youth on their hands,” she told AFP.

“This was not the dialogue we had called for. We will work outside the dialogue to press the transitional government and president to achieve our demands including the reunification of the army, the release of detainees, and a probe into the crackdown” on anti-Saleh protesters in 2011.

While some civil society groups will join the dialogue to address challenges to a genuinely inclusive transition, others share Karman’s concern that Saleh loyalists may sabotage the process, said Mohamed Mikhlafi, the Minister of Legal Affairs.

“Saleh’s supporters are organized in militant groups that considerably influence the flow of events in Yemen, and they insist that he should stay in the country even after the uprising,” he said.

The former president will also attend the sessions and his presence typifies the obstacles to reforming state institutions, especially the security apparatus, a precondition for addressing the southern insurgency.  

“The presence of Saleh stops prospects of transformation and restructuring of the military and police bodies themselves,” Mikhlafi said. “The trouble caused by Saleh’s loyalists within all state institutions leaves us no time to map out a clear roadmap for other severely-deteriorating matters, and the southern crisis in one of those.”

While the country’s politicians have been dragging their feet over the transition, Yemeni civil society has grown increasingly vibrant, says Gabool Al-Mutawakel, co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation, and a former a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

But “after countless conversations in Sanaa over the past week” about the dialogue, analyst Danya Greenfield identifies “some worrisome dynamics that should be noted in order to increase its chances for success,” writing in Foreign Policy:

  • There is a perception that the National Dialogue is being driven by an international agenda, particularly in the way it was constructed (not including tribal representatives and religious authorities), the allocation of representation (decision made by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar) and some of the topics proposed for discussion (good governance, the environment, and child marriage). Among Yemenis sensitive to interference by outside powers, this is a particularly salient issue. ……Finding the appropriate balance will require a nuanced approach on the part of the United Nations, World Bank, Europeans, United States, and other supportive parties.
  • Many Yemenis express concern that the National Dialogue is merely an exercise among political and social elites, established families, and power brokers that is largely being followed by people in Sanaa, but not the rest of the country. In a nationwide survey conducted by an international firm in January, 52 percent of respondents across the country had not heard of the National Dialogue. When asked what President Hadi’s priority should be, 40 percent answered corruption, 38 percent answered the economy, and only 7 percent answered the National Dialogue. …….
  • The allocation of seats is heavily tilted toward political parties and existing elites who will likely dominate the dialogue. Although a percentage of seats were allocated for independent figures, the parties ended up playing a large role in the selection of those delegates as well. While creating strong political parties is generally an objective for a healthy, well-functioning democratic system, in this case, with many entrenched interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo, it risks leading to the marginalization of women, youth, and non-affiliated independent delegates. Ensuring that these voices are not drowned out by stronger and better organized political party representatives will be essential for the success of the dialogue …….
  • Some expect that the key decisions will be made outside the margins of the dialogue among Yemen’s primary power brokers and that all this dialogue activity is just for show. The question is whether the dialogue will actually be a meaningful forum to resolve the most divisive issues, or just a sideshow to pacify the international community and revolutionary activists clamoring for change. This will depend largely on the previous two factors and to what degree Hadi provides leadership to open space for genuine discussion and debate that leads to decision-making processes inside the dialogue structure.

“Yemen is no stranger to national dialogues, and many Yemenis will boast that there is a tradition and culture of dialogue and consensus-building not present in other Arab countries facing similar challenges,” writes Greenfield, the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council:

That may be true, but the list of issues to address would be a heavy load for any country — let alone one that is divided by deep political and economic cleavages, wracked with poverty and unemployment, and struggling to maintain security with separatist violence and extremism in various forms. Despite the obvious obstacles ahead, there is great opportunity in this moment. And hopefully next March 18 will be the anniversary of an important milestone in Yemen’s democratic process.

RTWT

For further background, check out the invaluable Yemen Digest, an initiative of the Center for International Private Enterprise, one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group

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Who will stand up for Oswaldo Payá?

Credit: NDI

…. asks the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl.

He considers why the Spanish government and other Western democracies have ignored Angel Carromero’s revelation that the car in which he was driving leading Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá (left) was rammed from behind last July by a vehicle with official license plates.

Payá was killed alongside fellow activist Harold Cepero. Carromero was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December.

“If legendary dissident Andrei Sakharov himself had died in a suspicious car accident in the Soviet Union, and a credible Western witness had then offered testimony like Carromero’s, it’s hard to imagine that Ronald Reagan and former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez would have remained silent,” writes Diehl:

Is it credible that a vehicle bearing dissidents and two Western politicians would not be followed on a road trip? Right. So where are the occupants of the two cars, one with official plates, described by Carromero?

The Cuban version says Carromero’s car struck a tree. But the photo authorities released shows a sedan clearly smashed from behind. ….. Then there are the texts: Payá’s family say they have SMS messages that Carromero and [Swedish politician Jens Aron] Modig sent to friends in Europe soon after the crash, saying they had been hit from behind and run off the road. And there is Modig himself: The young Swede, who was also detained for a time in Cuba, told Swedish radio last week that he did send the reported texts, and that while he did not remember the accident, “I don’t have any doubts about what is now revealed.”

“Finally there is this,” writes Diehl, a veteran foreign correspondent:

The crash marked the second time Payá had been in an accident in two months. In Havana, a car he was driving was also struck by a suspicious vehicle, injuring him slightly. His family says he regularly received telephone calls with death threats.

Payá’s daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, last week presented a petition signed by 46 activists and political leaders from around the world to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for an international and independent inquiry into Payá’s death.

“Mounting and credible allegations that the Cuban government may have been complicit in the murder of its most prominent critic, a leading figure in the human rights world, cannot go ignored by the international community,” said the appeal, organized by the UN Watch human rights NGO.

In 2002, Payá initiated the Varela Project, a mass petition calling on Cuba’s Communist authorities to guarantee constitutional rights.

The regime targeted Payá because he “crossed a red line in challenging the government’s relations with the church, which had become a pillar of the government’s strategy of survival…. at a time when the regime, emboldened by the cardinal’s silence at the mass arrests during the pope’s visit to Cuba in March, was not about to tolerate criticism,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman.

RTWT

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Yoani Sanchez on Cuba’s future of freedom

 

Cuba’s Castro dictatorship has clung to power for more than five decades. As the regime ages and the outside sources of finance that buttress it are put in jeopardy, a new generation of Cubans is using the Internet to dissent against the pervasive lack of freedom and opportunity in their country.

At a meeting in Washington, DC, next week, prominent Cuban dissident writers Yoani Sanchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo — recently given permission to travel outside Cuba — will describe life in current-day Cuba, the activities of the island’s dissident community in the face of repression, and the prospects for a free country. They will also assess the extent of Raul Castro’s so-called reforms and share their vision of a pluralistic, tolerant society. 

The Future of Freedom in Cuba 

Featuring 

Yoani Sanchez, Dissident blogger, Generation Y

a
nd

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (above), Photographer and Editor, Voces 

moderated by

Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute

RSVP HERE

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Pope Francis ‘collaborated’ with Argentine’s junta or ‘stood up to power’?

A fierce dispute is raging over the new pope’s moral integrity and credibility as a promoter of human rights and democracy. The arguments center on what Jorge Mario Bergoglio did or didn’t do during the “dirty war” of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military junta.

“The Vatican strongly denied accusations by some critics in Argentina that Pope Francis stayed silent during systematic human rights abuses by the former military dictatorship,” Reuters reports:  

Some human rights activists in Argentina have questioned the moral credentials of Francis since his election as pope on Wednesday, because of the allegations over the dirty war period.

The Argentinian Church’s reputation was tarnished by links between some high-ranking Roman Catholic clergymen and the military junta that kidnapped and killed up to 30,000 leftists. The wounds have yet to heal.

One of the most biting reactions, the New York Times reports….

…..came in a statement from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (above), the association of women whose children were disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. The group contrasted Francis, who has long been criticized for not confronting the dictatorship, with the 150 or so other priests who were killed during the so-called Dirty War.

“About this pope they named, we have only to say, ‘Amen,’ ” Hebe de Bonafini, the group’s president and a longstanding critic of the incoming pope, said in a statement steeped in irony.

”Beyond the details, the main thing is that it’s clear that he was not—by a long shot—at the level needed in the dramatic circumstances,” Gabriel Pasquini, an Argentine playwright and author of the current-affairs magazine El Puercoespín, told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson :

There were other clergymen—“Catholic and from other religions”—who “did whatever they could to save lives,” Pasquini added. “For someone who aspires to be a bastion of moral values, it doesn’t seem like a great precedent. Never, in the years he headed the Catholic Church in Argentina, did he acknowledge its complicity in the dictatorship, much less ask for forgiveness. Will he do so now, from the Vatican?”

But other rights advocates absolved him of complicity with the junta.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights during the dictatorship, said Bergoglio “tried to… help where he could” under the junta.

“It’s true that he didn’t do what very few bishops did in terms of defending the human rights cause, but it’s not right to accuse him of being an accomplice,” he told Reuters.

“Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” he told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires. “Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.”

“I have no proof linking Bergoglio to the dictatorship,” said Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a former congresswoman who headed the National Commission Against the Disappearance of Persons.

Church authorities in Rome rejected accusations that Bergoglio “knew about serious human rights abuses but failed to do enough to halt them,” the New York Times reports.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters the accusations: “Must be clearly and firmly denied,” adding that, “They reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church”.

“The Pope himself has denied such allegations in the past,” the FT reports, “saying in the book The Jesuit that he had nothing to hide.”: “I did what I could with the age I had and the scant relations I had, to work on behalf of the people who had been kidnapped.”

The principal source of the allegations against Francis emanate from Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, author of a book “The Silence,” about the church’s role under the junta.

“He turned priests in during the dictatorship,” said Verbitsky, a journalist close to President Cristina Fernandez.

“I used to have the same opinion of him that most people have, of a humble, intelligent man dedicated to the poor … but then I discovered everything that is contained in my books, in my research,” he added.

But some observers consider the writer’s perspective to be overly simplistic.

“Verbitsky is not wrong, but he doesn’t understand the complexity of Bergoglio’s position back then when things were so dangerous,” said Robert Cox, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the only Argentinian newspaper to report the murders at the time. “He can’t see how difficult it was to operate under those circumstances.”

But Cox, who moved to North Carolina after death threats against his family in 1979, suggests Bergoglio could have done more.

“I don’t think he gave them in,” he said. “But Bergoglio didn’t protect them, he didn’t speak out.”

Vatican spokesman Lombardi dismissed accusations of Bergoglio’s “alleged complicity in the torture of two slum priests, as old and unfounded,” the Washington Post reports:

Lombardi pointed out Friday that no courts had ever formally accused Bergoglio of wrongdoing and that one of the Jesuit slum priests who was kidnapped in the case in question had earlier in the day issued a statement saying the two had reconciled.

While Bergoglio did not confront the abuses of the junta with anything approaching the public fervor of his fellow clerics facing other dictatorships, as in Chile, it is not clear whether he used other, more private channels, to protect his flock. Bergoglio once told a biographer that he purposely said Mass for the nation’s dictator, Jorge Videla, once in order to advocate for mercy.

“This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard,” Lombardi said. “He was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations.”

“The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected,” he said.

Francisco Jalics, one of two Jesuit priests Bergoglio was said to have betrayed, said that he had since spoken with him.

AP news agency quoted Jalics as saying: “It was only years later that we had the opportunity to talk with Fr Bergoglio… to discuss the events.

“Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed.”

The new Pope’s official biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that the Jesuit leader “took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them”.

The Church failed to publicly denounce the disappearances because of internal divisions, Nobel laureate Esquivel told the BBC.

“If the Episcopal Conference had joined and had had one voice, it would have had a strong force to save lives, but that did not happen in Argentina,” he said.

It’s no surprise the Argentina’s left-leaning president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner gave a lukewarm reaction to news of Francis’s appointment, said Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga.

Fraga said Francis “was a critic of corruption, of social inequality, drugs, human trafficking, which in reality wasn’t an agenda of confrontation, but that the government perceived as an agenda of confrontation.”

Vatican analyst George Weigel told NBC News that Francis had been “a reformer his whole life” and “a great defender of democracy in a country where democracy is under real stress right now in Argentina.”

The pope could have a positive impact on democratic prospects beyond Argentina, said Weigel, author of Evangelical Catholicism and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

 “At a moment when the momentum of the democratic project in Latin America is flagging (while new opportunities are opening up in places like post-Chávez Venezuela and the inevitable post-Castro-brothers Cuba), the new pope should be able to rally Catholic forces in defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties in a continent where they are now under assault,” he said.

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