UN envoy and DRC sign accord to tackle sexual violence

The United Nations has signed an accord with the Democratic Republic of Congo aimed at combatting rape and sexual violence by armed militias in the strife-torn eastern region.

The accord, seen by AFP on Tuesday, was signed by DRC Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo and the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura (left).

The agreement “underlines the necessity of neutralizing armed groups and initiating an effective process of reform to the security sector” particularly in the eastern regions of North and South Kivu, and Oriental province.

“As an African woman from a post-conflict country – Sierra Leone – I recognize the many challenges the Congo is currently facing,” said Bangura, a former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Conflict-related sexual violence is among the most urgent of these, and one which requires the leadership, ownership, and responsibility of the Government of this country,” she said at a meeting in the capital, Kinshasa, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and representatives of civil society to address the problem of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence.

Bangura was one of four African democracy activists from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zimbabwe to receive the NED’s 2006 Democracy Award.

“Africa has been witness to more protracted conflicts than any region of the world,” said NED’s then-chairman Vin Weber. “The individuals NED honors this year have demonstrated enormous personal courage and optimism, facing down brutal regimes and working in some of the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. If democracy continues to advance in Africa, it will be due to the dedication of activists like these.”

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‘Tough times’ for post-Chávez Venezuela (or end cheap oil for Cuba)

“Doing business in post-Hugo Chávez  Venezuela is not for the faint of heart,” writes AP’s Fabiola Sanchez:

Thousands of companies suffer under currency controls that all but deny them the U.S. dollars they need to import vital items into this oil-rich country, from food to cars to spare parts — even gasoline. Venezuelan firms must sell their wares at state-controlled prices that don’t reflect the 22 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. Even Venezuela’s socialist government admits the controls don’t work — but its attention is focused on the April 14 election to replace the late President Hugo Chávez .

It’s a largely improvised economic policy that, despite oil earnings, has turned people’s lives upside down and produced shortages of flour, coffee, butter and medicines. It’s also a mess that will immediately challenge whoever becomes the president of this 28 million-person country.

Neither Chávez  successor Nicolas Maduro nor opposition candidate Gov. Henrique Capriles has proposals to resolve the crisis, said Alejandro Gutierrez, an economics professor at the University of the Andes.

“We are facing a transition situation, and they are going to wait until this situation is cleared up,” Gutierrez said.

Only Capriles has suggested a possible way of injecting more dollars into the economy: Ending subsidized oil exports to Cuba that began under Chávez .

The late leader had aided his allies by providing oil at preferential terms to more than a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba receives Venezuelan oil worth around $3.2 billion a year, estimates Jorge Pinon, a University of Texas energy analyst. Nicaragua gets about $1.2 billion worth of oil, according to economist Nestor Avendano.

“No one thinks that Capriles can radically reduce crime overnight or transform over half a century of the kind of ‘resources curse’ that has left Venezuelan civil society and its non-oil economy atrophied,” note Suffragio analysts:

But by reducing the worst corruption of the chavismo era, by allaying the basketcase business environment in Venezuela and by transforming Chávez’s misiones and other social welfare programs from a slapdash system of handouts into a more sustainable and lasting social safety net, a Capriles presidency could wind up solidifying the gains of Chávez’s revolution in a more enduring manner than Maduro ever could.

Contrary to suggestions that Chávez pursued a radically pro-poor agenda, The Economist (above) recently noted that Venezuela’s reductions in poverty were in line with general reductions in poverty across Latin America.

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Yoani calls for unity, agrees Payá’s death ‘must not be squelched’

“Cuba’s best-known dissident, journalist Yoani Sanchez, received a hero’s welcome from the Cuban-American exile community in Miami, her latest stop in an 80-day tour of more than a dozen countries,” Reuters reports:

Unlike other dissidents, who have been received with suspicion in Miami, Sanchez appears to have won the exile community over with her charm and wit, as well as her straight-talking blog.

Credit: Cubanet

But another dissident, Ailer Gonzalez (right), was detained upon her arrival back on the island, notes the Babalu Blog: State Security officials took Gonzalez aside and held her in a room as they interrogated her and did an exhaustive search of her baggage.

“When people ask me about democratic rights,” Sanchez said, “they always ask about the embargo. And I tell them there are much more important things.”

The (Cuban) government has exaggerated its importance,” said Sanchez, adding that different opinions about the embargo were not a reason for division.

“No one has been more effective in denouncing what’s going on in Cuba and the myths of the Cuban regime,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a prominent Cuban exile politician and journalist.

Asked on Monday how she has been able to finance her trip between the United States, Europe and Latin America, Sanchez praised the generosity of friends and universities that have invited her to speak.

“The Cuban government says I am a millionaire. It’s true. I have millions of friends,” she said.

Sanchez repeated her call for an independent investigation into the deaths of Oswaldo Payá (left) and fellow dissident Harold Cepero in a car crash reportedly caused by state security agents.

The United States recently voiced support for an inquiry “with independent international observers” into the deaths, said US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“The people of Cuba and the families of these two activists deserve a clear, credible accounting of the events that resulted in their tragic deaths,” she added during a news briefing.

Cuba’s Communist authorities claimed that Spanish youth activist Angel Carromero caused the deaths when he accidentally drove the car into a tree. Carromero was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December. Western democracies have largely ignored Carromero’s subsequent revelation that the car was rammed from behind by a vehicle with official license plates.

“The next question is who will have the principled courage of Mr. Payá and lead an investigation to extract the truth from Cuba….The suspicious circumstances of the deaths of Mr. Payá and Mr. Cepero demand an investigation that won’t be tainted by the Cuban authorities,” says The Washington Post:

“What was it about a simple petition drive more than a decade ago that so frightened Fidel Castro?” the Post asks:

In the end, Mr. Castro squelched the Varela Project. But the timeless goals of the petition are still relevant in the search for truth about the deaths….. To read the Varela document again today is to see that Mr. Payá struck where the regime is most vulnerable: at its legitimacy to rule from above. Mr. Payá insisted that legitimacy came from below, from “the participation of citizens in the political, economic and cultural life of the country as free people.” Perhaps that is why, although not imprisoned, Mr. Payá had been subjected to death threats for so long.

Last week, a bipartisan group of six US senators signed a letter calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the deaths.

“Recent interviews published in Spanish news media indicate that Carromero is innocent and that the vehicle carrying Payá was deliberately attacked by Cuban government officials,” the letter said.

The letter was sent to ICHR executive secretary Emilio Alvarez Icaza and signed by Senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, his Republican counterpart Marco Rubio, Arizona Republican John McCain, Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk.

In her Miami speech, Sanchez (right) told a story of a conversation with a young man in Berlin, who asked her, “You’re from Cuba? From the Cuba of Fidel or from the Cuba of Miami?”

“My face turned red, I forgot all of the little German I knew and I answered him in my best Central Havana Spanish, `Chico, I’m from the Cuba of Jose Marti,’” Sanchez said, referring to Cuba’s most famous national hero and poet.

“That ended our brief conversation,” Sanchez said. “But for the rest of my life, that conversation stayed in my mind. I’ve asked myself many times what led that Berliner and so many other people in the world to see Cubans inside and outside the island as two separate worlds, two irreconcilable worlds.”

“I am finding Cuba outside of Cuba,” she said. “I was raised in Cuba and indoctrinated that the exiles were the enemy, that they had betrayed the country. And here I am, seeing Cubans preserving Cuba, preserving the culture, the history, the music.”

She named her blog Generación Y, a nod to Cubans her age who were given names beginning with Y at a time when the Soviet Union held greater sway over the island, The New York Times adds. The blog receives millions of hits a month, the vast majority from people outside the island because Cuba restricts Internet access. She also has 459,000 Twitter followers.

Natalia Martinez, the communications director for Roots of Hope, a network of 4,000 young professionals who work to help young people in Cuba, said Ms. Sanchez spoke often about the need for a diversity of opinion and emphasized the importance of empowering Cubans on the island.

“She addresses the fact that there is a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, associated with the Cuba issue, and she doesn’t dismiss it,” Martinez said. But, she said: “Cuban-Americans have more opportunities to be involved in Cuba now than they had before, and Yoani has come to symbolize some kind of joint agency between them. That resonates here.”

 “She is focused on building a narrative about the future.”

“I don’t know of any dissident from the island who has been this warmly received,” said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a group of young, Cuban American professionals and university students. “She has the ability to speak to the pain of the exiles and to the daily struggles of life in Cuba.”

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