U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden is set to visit Chile and the Dominican Republic with his wife Jill in mid-March. The visits will mark his third trip to the region. Biden will attend Chilean President-Elect Michelle Bachelet's inauguration before traveling to the Dominican Republic to discuss bilateral relations and regional cooperation with President Danilo Medina.
The vice president has been seen as an integral part of President Obama's Latin America strategy. Despite visits by both leaders to the region last year, the administration's foreign policy has focused primarily on Asia and the Middle East. The U.S. was seen as taking a positive step towards strengthening ties with the region last November when Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Monroe Doctrine had come to an end.
This year is critical for U.S. trade in the region as NAFTA turns 20 and the U.S. continues its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
I’m not a betting man, but if I were, this is what I’d bet. With a series of statements by leading Cuban-Americans, stories of change inside the island, and growing public pressure and attention to liberalize the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, I’d wager that soon the Cuban government will do something to halt the process.
Further, I’d wager that when it does, hardliners in Congress and the dwindling number of groups that advocate for the embargo will react predictably: denouncing those who argued for more freedom in the restrictions as naïve, and insisting that now is not the time to open up—that in fact, now is the time to close down even those small, but effective, openings that have already been made.
Why do I think this? Because this has been the pattern for decades, whether it was the regime’s crackdown on the broad-based alliance of democratic activists, Concilio Cubano, in February 1996, in the tragic shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that same year, or the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in 2009.
In each of these cases, talk of easing the embargo had grown just before the act of aggression by the Cuban government. And in each case, hardliners responded to ensure that the Cuban government got what it needs—isolation.
As surging inflation takes a toll on Argentine consumers, the Argentine government affirmed on Tuesday that it would levy fines against supermarkets who fail to respect voluntary price controls that many stores and wholesalers agreed to in December.
On Tuesday, Chief of Cabinet Jorge Capitanich said that the details of the new sanctions would be made public by the Secretary of Commerce this week. Meanwhile, he encouraged Argentines to act “rationally and effectively” and to not purchase overpriced items that would validate “product price increases due to speculation from industrialists, traders and entrepreneurs."
Initiatives to freeze the costs of common goods at supermarkets, accompanied by ongoing criticism of business owners and banks, have increased as the Argentine government tries to confront rising inflation. The government has also encouraged citizens to report overpriced items to officials by using a free app for smartphones called “Precios OK” (Okay Prices).
Despite the measures, however, analysts have questioned whether attempts to tackle inflation without implementing tighter fiscal and monetary policies will be sufficient. “If the government decides to maintain the interest rate below the rates of inflation and devaluation, mechanisms will arise that increase the demand for dollars,” read a report published in late January by the Instituto Argentino de Analisis Fiscal (Argentine Institute of Fiscal Analysis—IARAF).
Student-organized protests against the Nicolás Maduro Administration turned violent yesterday when pro-government groups began shooting into the crowd in Caracas.
Several thousand students and protesters took to the street with more protests cropping up throughout the country as the day went on. Anti-government groups denounced the administration for current economic and widespread crime, demanding the constitutional removal of President Maduro. At the same time, pro-government groups set to the streets to show their support of the Venezuelan socialist government. Amongst gun shots, fire and chaos, at least three people were killed, including 24 year old Bassil da Costa, a student protester, and Juan Montoya, a government supporter. Many more were injured and detained as the demonstrations escalated.
Leaders from both sides of the protests riled up street crowds, including former mayor and opposition supporter Leopoldo Lopez, who addressed a group of nearly 10,000 people in Caracas’ Plaza Venezuela. “All of these problems--shortages, inflation, insecurity, the lack of opportunities--have a single culprit: the government” said Lopez. The Venezuelan government, however, has retaliated, calling the protest groups “Nazi-fascists” and assuring supporters that they won’t back down to attempts to destabilize the government. Diosdado Cabello, the president of the national assembly, threatened over state television that the murderers of comrade Montoya would pay.
Protests against the Maduro Administration have been occurring in smaller numbers since he took over the presidency in April 2013, after the death of former populist leader Hugo Chávez. Wednesday’s protest occurred on Youth Day, a commemoration of student participants in the fight against colonial power in the nineteenth century.
Last week’s decision by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) to reduce Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term in office has been met by a wave of criticism and legal challenges.
The internationally-recognized Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is credited with improving the investigative work of the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) and reducing the rate of impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2013 (measured by the amount of cases that end in a prosecution, not necessarily a conviction). Paz y Paz also created Guatemala’s Cortes de Alta Riesgo (High Risk Courts), permitting vetted judges with international training to receive certain protections and resources so they can preside over difficult cases.
On February 5, however, the CC ruled that Paz y Paz must step down by May 2014, though her term would not have ended until this December. The court justified the decision by claiming that Paz y Paz’s term officially began in May 2010, when former Attorney General Arnulfo Conrado Reyes Sagastume was removed from office due to irregularities in his selection process. Paz y Paz took his place in December 2010.
Supporters of Paz y Paz claim that the CC’s decision—initiated by the prominent lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume Morales , who is a member of the right-wing Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN)—is in itself illegal, based on transitional guidelines handed down in 1993. Article 251 of Guatemala’s Constitution clearly states that the attorney general’s term will last four years and that the attorney general can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”
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A new poll by the Atlantic Council released yesterday found that a majority of Americans are now in favor of stabilizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Of those sampled nationwide, six out of 10 said they favor policy changes that would allow more business transactions between the two countries, as well as the lifting of restrictions that don’t allow Americans to travel and spend money in Cuba as a result of the embargo.
According to the poll, 56 percent of Americans favor changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Sixty-three percent of adults in Florida—which holds the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans in the country—and 62 percent of Latinos favor removal of all travel restrictions. Although support is stronger among Democrats, the poll found that 52 percent of Republicans are also in favor of normalizing relations with the country. Sixty-one percent of Americans, and 67 percent of Floridians, also believe that Cuba should not be considered a state sponsor of terrorism.
The poll points to growing disapproval of the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba, which has been condemned by the international community 22 years in a row. The trade embargo aimed to collapse the Castro government more than 50 years ago, but has been unsuccessful.
“The Cuba embargo is hampering the United States’ ability to maximize cooperation with allies in the hemisphere at a moment when there is increasing stability, growth, and opportunity,” says the report. Based on the findings, the poll suggests that although the U.S. should demand reciprocal gestures from the Cuban government, such as the release of imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, naming a special envoy for Cuba could be a first sign by the Obama Administration of its willingness to begin deepen ties with the country.
When world leaders recently gathered in Switzerland to discuss the future of Syria last week, Brazil's foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, was in the northeastern city of Natal to participate in the inauguration ceremony of a soccer stadium. He had rejected an invitation to join the peace conference.
A day later, one of Brazil's major newspapers asked Figueiredo for an extensive interview focusing exclusively on the crisis in Syria, which would have allowed the new foreign minister to lay out Brazil's vision to the public. Once again, the minister declined the offer.
At the Munich Security Conference a week later, Brazil was the only large economy without a single participant. Figueiredo, who replaced the brilliant but hapless Antonio Patriota after a diplomatic crisis last year, has been strikingly invisible in the public debate.
President Dilma Rousseff is the main culprit. Obsessive in her drive to centralize decision-making, the president regards foreign policy as a minefield of little use in her bid for re-election. She has surrounded herself by uninspiring yes-men, at least one of whom—Education Minister Aloízio Mercadante—may actively undermine Itamaraty's standing in Brasília.
Two members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter yesterday to Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League (NFL), asking that the league change the Washington Redskins’ controversial name and logo.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State and chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, and Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and member of the Native American Caucus, wrote that “The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” adding that the league was on the “wrong side of history.” The letter also questions the NFL’s 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status.
The Redskins franchise, which has a profile of a Native American man as its logo, has recently come under fire by groups like the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). However, the Redskins responded to Monday’s letter with a statement saying it received more than 7,000 letters and emails in favor of keeping the name, with "almost 200 from people who identified themselves as Native Americans or as family members of Native Americans.”
The NFL continues to stand by the team and its owner, Dan Snyder, claiming that public opinion favors the current name. At a press conference before the Super Bowl last month, Goodell cited a survey of 768 self-identified Indians or Native Americans conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 that found that only 9 percent found the Redskins’ name offensive. Another national study done by Public Policy Polling in January of this year found that 71 percent of Americans oppose a name change, 18 percent support it, and 11 percent are undecided. But some Native American leaders have questions the validity of such studies.
Last year, the NCAI called for the end of Native American stereotypes and mascots in professional and recreational sports, and aired an ad prior to this year's Super Bowl that said the term "Redskins" is "the one thing Native Americans do not call themselves." In addition to the Redskins, other professional teams using Native American names and imagery include the Kansas City Chiefs (football), the Atlanta Braves (baseball), and the Cleveland Indians (baseball), among others.
Que en Colombia hay enemigos del proceso de paz que adelanta el Gobierno con las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) en la Habana no es nuevo ni sorprende. Hay fuerzas partidarias que le apuestan a las conversaciones de paz, tanto como aquellas que nunca estuvieron de acuerdo con que se comenzaran, el uribismo en particular. Este es el resultado de haber priorizado una salida militar sin éxito durante 50 años de conflicto armado.
Sin embargo, a los colombianos les cuesta confiar en una guerrilla a la que por años se le ha culpado por todos los males del país, especialmente después del fracaso de los diálogos del Caguán, en los que las FARC se fortalecieron militarmente al tener una zona de 42.000 km2 donde eran “Dios y Ley” durante el gobierno de Andrés Pastrana.
De estar en desacuerdo, a sabotear el proceso, hay un trecho enorme. Más aún si el sabotaje incluye una de las herramientas más nocivas contra la privacidad y el ejercicio de la oposición política en Colombia: las llamadas “chuzadas.” Recordado como uno de los grandes lunares del gobierno de Álvaro Uribe, que finalmente obligó a su sucesor Juan Manuel Santos a liquidar el controvertido Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), el caso reveló que ese organismo de inteligencia interceptaba ilegalmente las comunicaciones de periodistas, activistas de derechos humanos, jueces, magistrados y políticos de la oposición, con el objetivo de enlodar sus nombres, abrir expedientes falsos e incluso encomendar fuerzas paramilitares para asesinarlos.
La historia de Colombia es prueba de que el ejercicio de la oposición política en el país es peligroso. Ahora en la era de Santos aparece de nuevo este fantasma, descubierto gracias a las revelaciones del portal Semana.com.
Knights Templar and Vigilante Groups Clash in Apatzingan, Michoacán: Vigilante self-defense groups drove into the town of Apatzingan, Michoacán on Saturday, bolstered by support from local police and army personnel. The town, previously a command center for the Knights Templar drug cartel, has been caught in a bloody battle since the self-defense groups launched an offensive against the cartel in early January. The Knights Templar cartel says that the self-defense groups are actually a proxy for the rival New Generation cartel from neighboring Jalisco, an accusation that the self-defense forces deny. Meanwhile, the Mexican government has granted the self-defense groups legal status by defining them as “rural defense corps.”
Venezuelan Newspapers Say They May Close Due to Currency Controls: Venezuelan newspapers say they may have to shut down due to a paper shortage caused by paper importers’ inability to obtain dollars due to strict government controls. Newspaper employees and media advocates have been staging protests outside the Venezuelan currency-exchange board, warning that the scarcity of newsprint will silence opposition voices and curtail free speech. The Venezuelan advocacy group Espacio Público said that 12 newspapers have recently closed and another 15 may follow suit. The government has declined to comment on the paper shortage. Venezuela imports most of its newsprint from Canada.
Manaus Stadium Workers Threaten Strike After Another Death: After a third construction-related death at Amazonia Arena in Manaus, Brazil on Friday, workers are threatening to go on strike. A 55 year-old man died in an accident while disassembling a crane for the stadium’s roof. Two other workers have died at the stadium in less than a year. Amazonia Arena is scheduled to host four matches for this year’s World Cup, and was expected to be inaugurated this month.
Public Awaits Decision on Keystone Pipeline: A week after the U.S. State Department released its environmental impact assessment of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, spurring a wave a protests from environmental activists, President Obama is expected to make a decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline in the coming days. The State Department report claimed that the pipeline, which would cross through six U.S. states, would have a somewhat larger carbon footprint than other sources of oil but would not likely affect the rate at which oil from Canada’s tar sands is extracted. Obama has said that he would approve the pipeline as long as it did not “significantly exacerbate” climate change.
Nine People Die in Guatemala Massacre: Armed gunmen killed nine people in Petén, Guatemala on Saturday, killing seven adults, a 5-year-old girl, and a 3-month-old baby. Guatemalan Security Minister Mauricio López said that the shooting appeared to be related to drug trafficking in the area, but no arrests have yet been made. Petén shares a border with Mexico and organized crime has been a major problem. Meanwhile, Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, will be forced to step down early from her four-year term in May, due to a ruling last week by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court that upheld a claim that her term began in May 2010, when her predecessor was appointed, rather than in December 2010. Paz y Paz has been recognized for her prosecution of organized crime and retired military officers accused of human rights abuses.
Yesterday, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) effectively squashed the possibility of passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year, blaming President Barack Obama for stalled negotiations. During a midday news conference on Capitol Hill, Boehner said “There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” and that reform has a slim chance of passing until that perception among House Republicans changes.
The announcement comes a week after the GOP released a statement of principles for immigration policy—including a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants—which were seen by some as a positive step toward making a deal on reform. However, facing increasing conservative opposition to pursuing reform in a midterm election year, Boehner has decided to back down for now. Representative Raúl Labrador (R-ID) went so far as to say that Boehner’s earlier support of reform legislation should cost him his speakership.
The White House defended President Obama’s record of enforcing border security and other immigration laws, having already deported nearly 2 million immigrants. And while the chances for comprehensive reform appear bleak, House Republicans like Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and others are still working on piecemeal legislation to address Dreamers, visas for low-skilled workers, and increase security enforcement.
With the World Cup fast approaching and preparations for South America’s first Olympics already underway, the visibility of sports in the Western Hemisphere is at an all-time high.
In addition to the fun and fanfare, sports can be an effective tool to help achieve goals in education, health, security, gender equality, and community development. Sports have the ability to level the playing field by providing marginalized children and youth with the tools they need to be healthy and productive members of society.
Young people today face many challenges. Youth in the Americas are among the most overweight and obese in the world. Research conducted by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in eight countries in the Western Hemisphere found that less than 30 percent of students between 10 and 24 years of age were physically active. Being physically inactive and overweight can lead to non-communicable diseases such as asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, which are estimated to cause a global output loss of $47 trillion over the next two decades.
In addition to health issues, many young people engage in risky behavior, such as drug use, alcohol consumption, smoking, sexual activity, and violence. Although adolescents in the Western Hemisphere have relatively high school enrollment rates, the average Latin American student only attends 4 to 5 hours of school per day, compared to 6 to 7 hours per day in the United States. What they do in the remaining hours makes all the difference.
This is where sports can play an important role. While playing a game of pick-up soccer in a neighborhood park is an enjoyable and healthy recreational activity, it takes a great deal more to impact social development.
The future of the expansion work on the Panama Canal was put into question on Wednesday over cost disputes between the construction company and the canal’s authority.
Negotiations between the Spanish based construction company Sacyr and the Panama Canal Authority over who should foot the bill for the $1.6 billion additional, unforeseen costs unraveled, leaving construction and 10,000 jobs in limbo. The project, originally scheduled to be completed in June of 2015, has already cost an estimated $5.2 billion and is in jeopardy of being set back several years due to cost conflicts.
While Manuel Manrique, the president of Sacyr, has denied that there has been a complete halt in construction, he has acknowledged possible delays associated with the controversy. “Without an immediate solution, we face years of disputes in national and international tribunals” he said. Jorge Quijano, the Canal Administrator, has also spoken with other companies, though he is willing to continue talks with Sacry. Many doubt that the Canal construction would be handed over to a new company given that it is already 70 percent complete.
First inaugurated in 1914, the Canal celebrates its one-hundreth anniversary this year. The widening of the Canal, in the works since 2009, would allow larger ships to pass through the waterway, carrying up to 12,000 containers—over twice the currently allowed 5,000 containers.
Narcocorridos—songs that celebrate drug dealers as folk heroes—have been a part of Mexican culture for as long as the illicit activity has existed in the country. Attempts to censor them from reaching radio airwaves have triggered debates over freedom of speech, as well as outcries from the more liberal media.
But as a recent concert in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, shows, there is a fine line between painting a pretty picture of criminality and actually engaging in direct support for organized crime groups that have brought parts of Mexico to unmanageable levels of violence.
The state of Michoacán has been in the spotlight for almost a year now, due to a complete degradation of the rule of law. A clashing arena for a number of criminal organizations including the Familia Michoacana, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), Michoacán is a case study where criminality has grown larger than the state itself.
Two top Colombian intelligence officers were dismissed on Tuesday after allegations that the Colombian military was spying on government peace negotiators.
General Mauricio Zúñiga, chief of army intelligence, and General Jorge Andres Zuluaga, director of the army’s national intelligence center, were dismissed from their positions after an investigation by the Colombian newsmagazine Semana found an undercover intelligence-gathering site set up by an army team in Bogotá. According to the investigation, the army recruited hackers to break into the email accounts and text messages of government officials associated with the peace talks in Havana.
Army General Juan Pablo Rodríguez said in an interview that the military knew about the site, which was one of their “many intelligence gathering activities.” However, Rodríguez said that the military never approved of spying on government officials.
President Juan Manuel Santos has ordered an in-depth investigation. He said that military spying on the country’s own citizens and officials is unacceptable, and questioned whether the incident is linked to plans to sabotage the peace negotiations.
This is not the first time that Colombia’s security forces have been linked to illegal spying and wiretapping. During the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (Administrative Department of Security—DAS), the country’s main intelligence service, faced allegations of illegally wiretapping public figures and collaborating with paramilitary groups. After Santos’ election, the DAS was dismantled and several of its agents were prosecuted.
If there is one issue that has pitted the Canadian government against a U.S. administration in recent years, it has been the Keystone Pipeline XL project. The project is meant to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Final approval of the trans-border pipeline rests with President Obama.
It is fair to say that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping that the Obama administration would decide to approve the project during its first term in office. In addition, the Canadian prime minister showed remarkable restraint when President Obama was facing reelection in 2012, knowing the president had to wrestle with a portion of his political base. Instead, Harper used discreet diplomacy.
Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer proved to be an effective spokesperson and promoter. Having a strong environmental background, Doer pushed the case in a methodical manner with U.S. legislators and administration officials behind the scenes. The case for Keystone and North American energy security can be compelling.
Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla plans to present Puerto Rico’s balanced budget plan a year early in response to the Switzerland-based financial services company UBS AG’s credit downgrade forecast.
“Given the myriad obstacles facing Puerto Rico, we believe that at least one rating agency will [downgrade Puerto Rico’s general-obligation bonds] within the next 30 days,” analysts Thomas McLoughlin and Kristin Stephens wrote in a report released last week.
The downgrade to junk status would limit demand for the commonwealth’s debt, as it would be below investment grade.
Meanwhile, the balanced budget plan, which the governor had pledged for 2016, will go into effect for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. The current administration has pledged to change pensions and raise taxes to help close the budget gaps. Details of the changes have not been released.
The announcement is expected to generate negative backlash from Puerto Ricans, who have seen the cost of commodities soar while nearly half the population lives under the poverty line. The passage of pension cuts in January led to a two-day teacher’s strike and a lawsuit filed by the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Teacher’s Association of Puerto Rico) in Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court.
Governor García Padilla is expected to introduce the detailed budget in the coming weeks.
Likely top stories this week: presidential candidates in Costa Rica and El Salvador will advance to runoff elections; the dispute over the Chile-Peru border continues; Colombia brings charges against the U.S.-based coal company Drummond; heavy rains in Uruguay lead to flood warnings in most of the country.
Costa Rican Presidential Elections: Costan Rican voters on Sunday sent former San José Mayor Johnny Araya of the Partido de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Party) and Partido de Acción Ciudadana (Citizen Action Party) candidate Luis Guillermo Solís to a runoff election that will decide who becomes the country’s next president. With 82 percent of the vote counted, Solís had received 30.9 percent of the vote, while Araya received 29.6 percent. The two candidates will face each other again on April 6.
El Salvador Presidential Elections: Salvadorans will vote in a March 9 runoff election for president after neither Salvador Sánchez Cerén, an ex-guerrilla from the Frente Farabuno Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabuno Martí National Liberation Front—FMLN) and Normán Quijano, from the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (National Republican Alliance—Arena) won a majority of the vote in Sunday’s election. With 81 percent of the vote counted, Sánchez Cerén narrowly missed a first round victory, capturing 49 percent of the vote. This will be the first time since 1994 that El Salvador will vote for its president in a runoff election.
Peru-Chile Border Ruling: A week after the International Court of Justice in The Hague redrew the maritime border between Peru and Chile in a historic ruling that largely favored Peru, the two countries are continuing to debate the ownership of a small portion of land known as the triángulo terrestre (land triangle). According to Chile, the 3.7-hectare triangle of land is Chilean because the ICJ ruling determined that the maritime border begins at a landmark known as “Hito 1” and not at a point further south called “Punto Condordia.” Meanwhile, the Peruvian government maintains that the land is Peruvian, adding that the ICJ ruling only refers to the maritime border between the two countries, and not to land.
Colombia Plans to Sue U.S. Coal Company Drummond: Colombian Chief Prosecutor Eduardo Montealegre said Friday that the country will bring charges against Drummond, an Alabama-based coal company, after crane operators dumped tons of coal into the sea off Colombia’s Caribbean coast in January 2013. The crane operators were attempting to rescue a sinking barge. Drummond has been ordered to pay a $3.5 million fine and Montealegre said that six of the company’s employees will face charges. Colombia has since banned the use of cranes and barges in all its ports to prevent spillage and pollution.
Flooding in Uruguay: The Uruguayan government declared a flood warning in 13 of the country’s 19 departments on Sunday night after heavy rainfall over the weekend led to the evacuation of more than 150 people from their homes. The rains affected a large portion of the country and may jeopardize the country’s agricultural production this year.
The State of the Union (SOTU) address can be considered an institutionalized “bully pulpit” for the President of the United States. It is delivered yearly on the last Tuesday in January. As expected, the President forcefully made his case for new proposals to Congress before a primetime television audience.
President Obama’s speech was delivered in the midst of low approval numbers (43 percent), and after what many have termed 2013--Obama’s annus horribilis. Beginning the sixth year of his presidency with his Democratic Party bracing for a potentially tough mid-term election cycle, it is fair to speculate about whether Obama is already facing a premature lame duck status.
For those of us north of the border, we tend to follow the SOTU with keen interest, but very rarely expect to see Canada in the forefront. The battle over the Keystone Oil pipeline project is of interest, but judging from the President’s general statements about U.S. energy, Canadian officials were not given any indication of a decision coming soon. The President spoke of the progress made due to his energy policies, the rising importance of renewable energy sources, and stated emphatically that “climate change is a fact”. For the opponents of Keystone, these comments were likely encouraging. For the proponents, it seems the wait is not yet over.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives released a long-awaited list of standards on immigration reform legislation on Thursday. The announcement comes seven months after the Senate approved its own comprehensive bill that stalled in the House.
The GOP standards include a pathway to citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children, and legal status for the remaining 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Like the Senate bill, the Republican standards also support changes to the visa system, increased border security and create a biometric system to track who is entering or exiting the United States.
"I believe these standards represent a fair, principled way for us to solve this issue, beginning with securing our borders and enforcing our laws," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. Even with the standards, however, it remains to be seen whether comprehensive immigration reform—a priority for President Barack Obama—will become law this year.
The thirty-three countries that make up the Latin America and Caribbean Economic Community (CELAC), wrapped up their second summit by declaring the region a “zone of peace,” on Wednesday. Heads of state including Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, and recently elected Michelle Bachelet of Chile signed an accord vowing to resolve conflicts respectfully and peacefully.
According to the summit declaration, the meeting provides an opportunity for coordination within the region and emphasizes the need for pluralistic and respectful cooperation. This year’s summit highlighted issues of crime, economic hardship and inequality in the region, the potential economic benefit of free trade, and support for Argentina’s claims over the Falkland Islands.
The summit culminated with a commitment to non-intervention, cooperation and respect of "the inalienable right of every state to choose its political, economic, social, and cultural system, as an essential condition to guarantee peaceful co-existence among nations," read Cuban President Raul Castro, outgoing CELAC president.
CELAC was created in 2011 as an alternative to the Organization of American States, which has excluded Cuba since 1962. Costa Rica will assume the CELAC’s rotating presidency at the end of the summit.
Reforms to Mexico's energy sector were signed into law late last year. The legislation proceeded rapidly from President Enrique Peña Nieto's announcement of the reforms in August, to the negotiations among the major political parties during the fall, to voting in both houses of Congress, resulting in a majority of the 31 state legislatures changing the Constitution. For the first time in 75 years private participation will be permitted in Mexico's energy sector, not only in oil and gas, but also in electricity and power generation. The repercussions of this reform will be felt not only in Mexico but across the hemisphere, including Canada as increased development of Mexico's energy sector is a win-win for Mexico and the rest of North America.
The reform has led to large expectations and deservedly so. It goes further than what was originally envisioned when Peña Nieto announced the reforms in August 2013. The two conservative political parties, Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN), molded the legislation to make it deeper and more robust. The opposing liberal party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido Revolucionario Democrático, PRD), demonstrated rampant opposition to the reforms as they viewed them as a “privatization” of Pemex, the state oil company. The PRD is still hoping to halt the reform through a popular referendum, but the success of this initiative is unlikely.
They say the devil is in the details, and proponents of turning around Mexico's declining oil and gas production appear pleased with the components of this legislation. The vehicles that allow foreign investment vary in the amount of risk involved. These include service contracts, profit-sharing agreements, production-sharing agreements, and licenses. The latter functions in the same way as a concession, and faces a potential legal hurdle as Mexican law prohibits concessions. Nevertheless, these contracts allow foreign companies to have more skin in the game, and catapult Mexico into the top 10 in the world in terms of investment regime offered.
The Mexican government announced a temporary agreement on Monday that will incorporate vigilante groups in the state of Michoacán into national law enforcement.
Over the past year, civilian groups have taken arms to combat the violent Knights Templar drug cartel (Caballeros Templarios) based out of Apatzingan, Michoacán. The government moved to integrate the local groups into the Rural Defense Corps, a preexisting organization that is controlled by the military, after failing to disarm vigilantes in the region earlier this month.
The plan comes after the leader of the Knights Templar, Dionisio Loya Plancarte, was captured on Monday. Some see the move to combine state forces with the vigilantes as a major development in the fight against drug cartel related violence. “This is the start point of the new dynamic in which we are going to work together, the state and federal governments, with civil society,” said Alfredo Castillo, the federal government envoy to Michoacán.
Pese a que la Cancillería ecuatoriana reportó de manera optimista la semana pasada que los países del continente “avanzan para una decisión de consenso sobre el cambio de sede de la CIDH,” otra parece ser la realidad frente a lo que opinan sus pares sobre esta materia.
La declaración ecuatoriana se produjo tras la terminación de la III Conferencia de los Estados Parte de la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos, llevada a cabo el 21 y 22 de enero en Montevideo. Estas reuniones han sido promovidas por el grupo de países Alianza Bolivariana Para Los Pueblos De Nuestra America (ALBA) desde hace un poco más de un año como forma de mantener la discusión sobre lo que consideran debe ser el futuro de los órganos de derechos humanos de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA).
Como en sus dos ediciones anteriores, realizadas en Guayaquil y Cochabamba, a la reunión no fueron invitados todos los gobiernos de la OEA, sino solo aquellos que han ratificado la Convención de Derechos Humanos. Una movida política para acelerar las discusiones sin el contrapeso de países que se han opuesto a la visión del ALBA, como Estados Unidos y Canadá.
In a landmark case, judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) redrew the maritime border between Peru and Chile yesterday, granting Peru parts of the Pacific Ocean that had formerly been considered Chilean territory. However, the United Nations’ highest court’s ruling on the maritime dispute left the rich, coastal fishing grounds in Chile’s possession. Both countries had previously pledged to respect the ICJ’s ruling.
Peru had asked the ICJ to rule on the maritime border in 2008, despite arguments by Chile that the border was legally set by treaties in 1952 and 1954. The ruling found a compromise between the two sides by maintaining “the course of the maritime boundary between the parties without determining the precise geographical coordinates," Judge Peter Tomka said.
While the lucrative anchovy fishing grounds remain in Chile’s possession, the ruling was celebrated in Peru as an issue of national pride—Peru and Bolivia lost territory to Chile during the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1893.With the new nautical border, Peru gained access to shark and mackerel fishing grounds.
Bolivia filed its own lawsuit against Chile stemming from territorial losses from the War of the Pacific in the ICJ last April.
Likely top stories this week: the International Court of Justice will rule on the Chile-Peru Maritime border; the CELAC Summit begins on Tuesday in Havana, Cuba; Argentina begins easing restrictions on purchasing US dollars; protesters of the World Cup clash with police in Sao Paulo; Belize and Guatemala sign an agreement at the OAS.
International Court to Rule on Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute: The United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to make a decision today on Peru and Chile’s disputed maritime border. The ruling will decide which country owns 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of ocean, which includes one of the world’s richest fishing grounds with an annual catch of $200 million. If Peru wins the dispute, some 2,000 Chilean fishermen fear they could lose their jobs. Presidents of both countries have each said they will adhere to whatever decision the court makes.
CELAC Summit Begins in Havana: World leaders from around the hemisphere are traveling to Havana, Cuba this week for the two-day Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which begins tomorrow. Thirty-two heads of state will be attending the summit, including presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Raul Castro of Cuba, among others. Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a new “wave of political repression” ahead of the summit. Activist Guillermo Farinas has been kept under house arrest for three days, and as many as 100 members of the Ladies in White have been arrested to prevent them from attending a forum on human rights on Tuesday.
Argentina Lifts Restrictions on Purchasing U.S. Dollars: Argentina’s Economy Minister Alex Kicollof announced on Friday that it was relaxing restrictions on the purchase of U.S. dollars starting Monday. The decision came amid a 28 percent inflation rate and the sharpest slide in the value of the Argentina peso since the 2002 economic collapse. However, in an interview published by Pagina 12 on Sunday, Kicillof said that the lowering of the tax rate on credit card purchases made in U.S. dollars from 35 percent to 20 percent would not happen on Monday, with no indication of when the change will happen. It’s not clear whether the easing of restrictions will be enough to stabilize the country, given the already high inflation rate and the general lack of confidence in the government—from chronic blackouts, recent looting in the provinces, and President Kirchner’s recent absence—that has grown.
World Cup Protests in São Paulo Turn Violent: Protesters clashed with police this weekend in São Paulo, where thousands had taken to the street to protest the cost of the 2014 World Cup. More than 130 protesters were arrested, and one man is in critical condition after being shot by police for allegedly carrying an explosive in his backpack. The Anonymous Rio protest group organized the demonstrations using social media and called it “Operation Stop the World Cup”. Following the massive protests last year, Brazil has seen “rolezinhos”—flash mobs by young people from the favelas targeting affluent shopping malls —crop up across the country.
Belize and Guatemala Sign Bilateral Agreement: The foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala met with Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza over the weekend, and signed on to a “Road Map and Plan of Action” to deepen transnational cooperation. According to Insulza, the agreement will allow the two countries to “develop significant projects in the areas of the environment, security, labor, immigration, health or education, (which) helps people to get to know and value each other.” Through the agreement, both nations also pledged that they will adhere to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the pending territorial dispute.
U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman announced today in Davos that the United States would join others including China, Canada, the EU, and Japan to negotiate freer global trade in environmental goods. An economic sector estimated at over $950 billion annually, the market for such products is already significant and it is only expected to grow. A reduction of tariffs, some as high as 35 percent according to a USTR announcement, would encourage even greater trade in products designed to promote the use of alternative energy and support environmentally-friendly economic growth and development.
It’s an important initiative, consistent with one of the key trade policy recommendations that the Council of the Americas prepared for the then-incoming Obama Administration in 2009. Certainly, working to promote global trade in environmental products makes economic, political and common sense. The only surprise, perhaps, is that it took six years into the administration to launch the initiative.
Nonetheless, the lack of emphasis on Western Hemisphere nations is troubling, particularly since Latin America’s energy profile is the cleanest in the world. At the same time, as the custodian of the Amazon Basin, the “lungs of the earth,” Latin America has both experience and vested interest in promoting increased trade efficiencies in environmental goods and services. Only three of the 13 listed parties to the negotiation, however, are from the Western Hemisphere, and two of those are Canada and the United States itself. The other? Costa Rica, an environmentally-friendly nation but hardly a global trade giant.
In a recent blog, I described Canada’s new and emerging American economic challenge with our neighbor to the south as it was heading towards energy self-sufficiency with its consequent impact on the manufacturing sector of its economy. While Canada has increased its trade with new partners in recent years and is actively pursuing new markets for its products through free trade agreements, I concluded by saying that the United States remains our number one export nation and this will not change in the near future.
On the political front, there are few relationships more stable and predictable than that of Canada and the U.S. We have fought wars together, have done peace missions together, have shared intelligence on national and continental security matters, and generally have had compatible national interests. The post-World War II years have seen some differences between these two neighbors, but none significant enough to doubt the depth of trust, commonality of interest, and shared commitment. At least until recently.
The current trip by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with a huge delegation of government officials and business people to the Middle East, including Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, has raised speculation that Canada has steadfastly decided on a go-it-alone policy at a crucial moment as U.S. diplomacy is actively pursuing peace in the region. The reception offered to the Canadian visitors by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is unmatched in recent memory and Prime Minister Harper has reciprocated with an unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s conditions for peace. Some observers in Canada are asking: is Canada more supportive of the Israeli government’s negotiating position than the brokering efforts of the U.S.?
The Canada-Israel bond contrasts with the frosty relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. Considering the Israeli Prime Minister’s warmth to the Republican Party and its 2012 Presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, and his public lecturing of President Obama, Netanyahu’s enthusiastic praise for Harper’s policy seems meant to convey an implicit mistrust of the U. S. government in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Clearly, this did not seem to be a factor in the Canadian Prime Minister’s trip.
The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal privacy review board, has concluded that the National Security Agency (NSA)’s phone call record collection program is illegal and should be discontinued. The 238-page report published yesterday finds that the spying program “lacks viable foundation” under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, violates the First and Fourth Amendments and poses threats to privacy and civil liberties.
The report comes a week after President Barack Obama’s speech on limiting the reach of the NSA in order to protect civil liberties, during which he pledged to change how the NSA collects civilian telephone records in order to increase transparency on surveillance activities. The president also said he would alter the metadata gathering program, moving the bulk information out of government hands into a third party where privacy can be protected, but U.S. officials have expressed concern about the feasibility of achieving these changes.
The NSA’s surveillance tactics have also recently sparked debate about the impact on U.S. foreign relations, the topic of the Americas Quarterly Winter 2014 Hard Talk Forum. Responding to international criticism, President Obama proposed setting limits on the surveillance of foreign heads of state as part of the planned reform. Many Americans remain skeptical of government surveillance programs according a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll released Monday, with as many as 73 percent saying they don’t believe the proposed changes will make a significant difference.
The Argentine government adopted new legislation limiting online buying on Tuesday in an effort to defend domestic production.
The resolution, adopted by Argentina’s tax agency, the Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos , and published in the Boletín Oficial, restricts Argentines to two tax-free purchases of up to $25 on foreign-based websites per year, with a 50 percent tax imposed on any additional amount spent.
Argentines will also no longer be able to have items purchased on foreign websites delivered directly to their residences, but will have to pick up their packages at a customs office. The new resolution changes the way the government gathers information on shipments, requiring the buyer to fill out paper work on their transaction before picking up their order. Prior to the resolution, increased online spending made it difficult for Argentine Customs to track online transactions, but with the newly imposed measures, the government expects easier application of the import tax.
While international online purchasing will have tax restrictions, national online spending will still be unlimited. With Argentine reserves at $30 billion—their lowest levels since 2006—and a 30 percent drop since last year, the resolution aims at decreasing dollars from leaving the country, which can occur when purchasing from foreign countries. According to Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, Internet purchases in Argentina have doubled over the past year, and Argentines spent almost 30 million dollars during an organized Cyber Monday sale last month.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football—FIFA) warned officials in the Brazilian city of Curitiba on Tuesday that it could be excluded as a host site of the 2014 World Cup if preparations remain behind schedule.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said that renovation of the 43,000-capacity Arena da Baixada stadium is so far behind schedule that it represents an “emergency situation.” FIFA will decide on February 18 whether to keep Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state, as a host city. The Paraná state government and FIFA have pledged to invest an extra $17 million in the renovations to speed up progress.
Curitiba’s stadium is one of six venues in Brazil that missed FIFA’s December 31 deadline for completion and are still not tournament-ready. Arena da Baixada is scheduled to host its first World Cup match between Iran and Nigeria on June 16, as well as Spain vs. Australia, Honduras vs. Ecuador, and Algeria vs. Russia.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff defended the country’s preparedness for the World Cup earlier this month, saying via Twitter, “We love soccer, and that’s why we’ll host this Cup with pride and make it the Cup of Cups.” President Rousseff was responding to an interview with FIFA President Sepp Blatter published by the Swiss newspaper 24 Heures, in which Blatter claimed that the South American nation failed to begin preparations for the mega-tournament early enough.
The New York City-based rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its annual World Report, presenting a dismal outlook on human rights in the Americas. This year’s report focused specifically on some of the most troubled countries in the region, including Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, and Venezuela, as well as regional economic powerhouses Brazil and Mexico.
HRW released the report in São Paulo, highlighting various abuses across the hemisphere including NSA surveillance, police brutality, political violence, and new laws curtailing freedom of expression. HRW criticized media laws that have effectively silenced journalists in Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance scandal that was made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last May.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, stated that the reforms announced by President Obama last Friday did not go far enough. "In none of this has there been a recognition that non-Americans outside the United States have a right to the privacy of their communications, that everybody has a right to the privacy of their metadata and that everybody has a right not to have their electronic communications scooped up into a government computer," Roth told Reuters in Berlin.
Argentine government officials formalized a $500 million plan to improve the distribution of electricity in Buenos Aires this week, but remained strongly opposed to raising utility rates in order to alleviate the city’s ongoing energy crisis.
The measure comes after the hottest heat wave on record prompted a series of power outages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Argentines without light and running water in December and January. According to the Argentine Ministry of Infrastructure, Julio De Vido, energy consumption reached unforeseen levels during those two months.
The new government plan will enable two privately-owned electric companies, Edesur and Edenor, to install new substations and upgrade low-voltage cables in neighborhoods affected by the recent blackouts. Edesur and Edenor serve 13 million residents of Buenos Aires and, according to De Vido, will have to increase work crews by 20 percent.
Many, however, accuse the government of sidestepping its own role in the energy crisis. “The outages are synonymous with failure,” said Sergio Massa a likely presidential candidate from the opposition party Frente Renovador (Renewal Front).
The Brazilian state of Acre has asked the government to temporarily close the Brazil-Peru border to control Haitian migration. Acre’s secretary of justice and human rights, Nilson Mourão, said the levels of Haitian migration into the region are unsustainable and have strained the capacity of social services in the area.
Since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, more than 15,000 Haitians have migrated into the Amazon region of Brazil through Brazil’s border with Peru in order to look for jobs.
Acre’s local government says it is not equipped to receive the new migrants, who have overcrowded shelters as they await documentation. This month alone, the arrivals have tripled to between 70 and 80 a day, prompting Mourão’s request to temporarily close the border between the Peruvian town of Iñapari and the town of Assis in Brazil.
This is not the first crackdown on Haitian immigrants in Brazil. In 2012, Brazil restricted Haitian immigration after 4,000 Haitians crossed into the country through the Amazon. After granting 1,600 visas to incoming Haitians fleeing the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, the Brazilian government declared it would only grant 100 temporary work visas and 2,400 humanitarian visas to recent migrants. Hundreds of Haitians were stranded in Peru after the changes were implemented.
Four years after the earthquake in Haiti—which killed 220,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless—817,000 Haitians are still in need of humanitarian assistance and 172,000 still live in displacement camps.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.