From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Brazilian President Focuses on Investments in Cuba, Haiti
President Dilma Rousseff visited Cuba on January 30 and flew to Haiti on February 1 in a bid to expand economic ties with the two Caribbean countries. In Cuba, she discussed an $800 million renovation project of Havana’s Mariel port, largely funded by Brazil’s development bank and Brazilian company Odebrecht, as well as signing a number of science and technology agreements. Rousseff rejected invitations to meet with Cuban dissidents and human rights groups, despite requests that she address the issue, given international condemnation after the death of dissident hunger striker Wilman Villar last week. She did not meet with blogger Yoani Sánchez, who pleaded with Rousseff via a YouTube video to intervene on her behalf regarding an exit permit from Cuba. Sánchez received a visa to travel to Brazil but is still awaiting an exit permit from the Cuban government. While Rousseff did criticize the U.S. prison base at Guantanamo and the U.S. trade embargo against the island, she said human rights are a universal problem that need to be debated on a multilateral basis.
Hackers Attack Brazilian Banks' Websites
The Brazilian arm of international hacker group Anonymous brought down several banks’ websites this week, including those of Bank of Brazil, Bradesco, and Itaú Unibanco. Hackers say the weeklong cyberattacks intend to protest Brazil’s social inequality. On January 30, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court announced a new round of public “hacking” in March to test the security of the country’s electronic voting system.
Rio’s Building Collapses Linked to Lax Inspections
Rio Real Blog looks at the collapse of a 20-storey building in Rio last week and reports on the surprising lack of building-code infrastructure in Brazil. The collapse of the building was apparently due to unreported renovations. The blog notes that while inspections are de rigueur in many countries, Brazil only inspects new constructions, placing responsibility for compliance during renovations with building owners and project engineers.
At Davos, Latin America Seen as “Oasis of Stability”
Latin American leaders and government officials had packed schedules at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s minister of foreign affairs, commented that “what we see in Latin America is a solid pillar of global economic growth in the next few decades." At the conference, which ended on Sunday, Latin America was cited as an “oasis” of stability.
Hispanics Disproportionately Feel Pain of Economic Crisis
A new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that 54 percent of Hispanics believe they have been hurt more than other groups by the recent economic downturn. Roughly 38 percent believe they have been hurt “about the same.” This is corroborated by government data, which shows that unemployment, poverty, and decreases in household wealth all disproportionately affected Hispanics between 2005 and 2011. The study found a distinction between immigrants and native-born Latinos, with the former being far less optimistic about the future.
Majority of Mexico’s Illicit Capital Outflow Linked to “Trade Mispricing”
Shannon O’Neil writes in the LatIntelligence blog about the phenomenon of illicit capital outflow from Mexico between 1970 and 2010. Citing a report by Global Financial Integrity, which estimates that nearly $1 trillion left Mexico during that period, O’Neil points out that most of this outflow was not tied to drug money. Rather, 80 percent of it came from “trade mispricing,” in which a company “undervalues exports and overvalues imports,” and transfers the difference to a bank account abroad. O’Neil recommends that Mexican officials work to combat the practice to produce greater tax receipts, and that U.S. banks need to demand greater transparency from depositors.
New Bridge in Mexico Brings Opportunity and Optimism
The Washington Post reports on the construction of a 140-mile toll road in northwestern Mexico, crowned by the Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge, which will be the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world upon completion. The new road will cut travel time between the interior city of Durango and the port of Mazatlan from seven to two-and-a-half hours, and should provide economic opportunities that officials hope will make drug-trafficking less attractive.
Mexicans Overcharged $13.4 Billion a Year for Telecom Services
A new report by the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds that: “[t]he lack of telecommunication competition in Mexico has led to inefficient telecommunications markets that impose significant costs on the Mexican economy and burden the welfare of its population.” The OECD charges that the telecom companies owned by the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, dominate the market to such a large degree as to cost the Mexican economy $25 billion last year. Moreover, Mexicans consumers are being overcharged $13.4 billion a year for services. The report recommends that Mexico reform laws regarding its telecommunications sector.
Indian-Mexican Trade Ties on the Rise
Mexico’s El Economista looks at the growing commercial relationship between Mexico and India. Bilateral trade grew from nearly nothing 20 years ago to $300 million a month in 2011—already up 40 percent over 2010. “Our economies are complementary and have enormous possibilities for collaboration,” said Indian Ambassador to Mexico Dinesh Kumar Jain. But the envoy lamented how little people in both countries know about the other, and believes this inhibits further cooperation.
A Spring 2011 article in Americas Quarterly explores growing ties between India and Latin America.
Mexico-Peru FTA Comes into Force
A free-trade agreement between Mexico and Peru, signed on April 6, 2011, comes into force on February 1. The agreement hopes to “promote and expand trade between the countries,” and “eliminate barriers to the circulation of goods and services.” Bilateral trade between the two countries grew 13 percent a year from 2000 to 2010, from $414 million to $1.45 billion. Experts hope the agreement leads to further growth.
Peru Seeks to Protect Amazonian Tribe
Britain’s The Guardian discusses Peru’s struggle to keep outsiders away from the Mascho-Piro, an isolated Amazonian Tribe. Outsiders have recently begun to approach the tribe due to logging operations and oil and natural gas exploration. The government fears outsiders could decimate the population with disease, or provoke attacks from the tribe. The article links to a photo gallery of the tribe by Survival International, which describes the photos as “the most detailed sightings of uncontacted Indians ever recorded on camera.”
Panamanian Constitutional Reform Raises Questions
Bloggings by boz’s James Bosworth looks at the development of constitutional reform in Panama, where President Ricardo Martinelli received a draft of a new constitution on January 31. The draft maintains a ban on reelection—contrary to popular expectations. It also officially recognizes indigenous languages and makes social programs a constitutional right. However, some worry if proposals to create new chambers within the Supreme Court could allow the executive to pack the court, allowing him to later drive through his own changes.
Cuba Announces Reduced Cellphone Rates
Cuban government press announced the introduction of reduced cellphone rates as of February 1. Cuban cellphone users will no longer be charged for receiving a call, while the price per local text message has decreased from 15 to nine cents. Calls per minute decreased from 60 to 45 cents. According to official date, Cuba has 1.2 million cellphones—with 300,000 activated in the last year—out of a total population of 11 million.
Record Visitors Test Bounds of Cuban Tourist Infrastructure
Cuba welcomed a record 2.7 million tourists last year, and expects to exceed that figure in 2012, reports the Montreal Gazette. While Canadians continue to make up the bulk of tourists, Europeans and Russians were drawn to the island as an alternative destination due to political insecurity in North Africa, while Americans took advantage of relaxed travel restrictions. The paper reports that the large number of tourists in Havana reveals the country’s underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, with the city receiving more visitors than hotel beds last month.
Baby Doc to Face Trial for Corruption, Not Human Rights Abuses
A Haitian judge ruled on January 31 that former Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, better known as Baby Doc, can face charges for corruption and embezzlement, but not for human rights abuses committed during his 15 years in power. The ruling was criticized by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which said the decision “would entrench Haiti’s culture of impunity by denying justice for Duvalier’s thousands of victims.” The UN High Commission for Human Rights also urged the government to prosecute those responsible for Duvalier’s “well-documented serious human rights violations.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Haitian President Michel Martelly is considered sympathetic to Duvalier, with whom he is connected through family ties.
Venezuelans Await High-stakes Presidential Race
With the announcement last week that Leopoldo López will pull out of the opposition primary to support frontrunner Henrique Capriles Radonski, Michael Penfold writes for Foreign Affairs about the implications of the high-stakes presidential contest in Venezuela. While Capriles leads among candidates of an increasingly revived opposition, President Hugo Chávez continues to enjoy an approval rating of around 55 percent. Penfold argues that, even though Chávez faces a number of problems, such as “a weak administration that is unable to cope with high crime rates, and his alleged battle with cancer,” the election winner will confront the challenges of a “dysfunctional economy and the people’s lost confidence in public institutions.”
Chávez Convenes Last-minute ALBA Summit
On January 29 Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced a last-minute Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) summit to be held on February 5. While the summit’s agenda has yet to be decided, Chávez hinted it will focus on economic themes, including the creation of an ALBA economic zone. Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have confirmed their attendance.
Venezuela’s Latest Craze: #Rosinesing
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s daughter, Rosinés, caused a stir in Venezuela this week when she posted a photo of herself holding a fan of American dollars to online photo-sharing site Instagram. As Foreign Policy’s Passport blog explains, Venezuelans are barred from purchasing “more than $3,000 for travel and $400 for web purchases a year,” with those who wish to purchase more forced to turn to a black market where they pay up to twice the official exchange rate. However, there is a lighter side to the controversy, as Passport explains: “the photo has also given birth to a Tumblr—#Rosinesing—featuring people mocking Rosinés with other items that are hard to find in Venezuela such as cooking oil, medicine, and, well, Rosinés.”
Argentina’s Political Son
Mercopress offers an English-language summary of France’s Le Monde’s profile of Máximo Kirchner, son of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor Kirchner. Máximo has taken his father’s place at his mother’s side at official events and is head of an organization of young Kirchnerites called “La Cámpora.” Some speculate if he might continue the family’s presidential dynasty by running for office in 2015.
Organized Crime Rising in Uruguay
Though Uruguay is still Latin America’s safest country with 6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Insight Crime reports that organized crime is on the rise in the country. Recent shoot-outs in the streets of Montevideo between criminal groups shocked the country. Officials say Uruguay’s long coastline and relatively unmonitored borders with fellow Mercosur members Brazil and Argentina make it an attractive transshipment point for international drug-trafficking groups.
Santos Raises Possibility of Drug Decriminalization
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated over the weekend that he would not be against decriminalizing drugs. "Colombia may be the country that has suffered most fighting drug trafficking. It has cost us our best leaders, our best journalists, our best judges and our best policemen," Santos said during a debate at an arts and literature festival in Cartagena, Colombia. He called on the United States—“the main consumer of the world”—and Europe to discuss drug decriminalization as a way to combat the drug problem.
Pro-TIPNIS Road Protests Reach La Paz
Thousands of protesters arrived in Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz this week to protest in favor of a road through the TIPNIS (Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory). The protesters claim the road—suspended in October amid protests by indigenous groups—would bring development to their “isolated” region of the country. However, as the BBC reports, anti-TIPNIS development groups claim the march was orchestrated by supporters of President Evo Morales, who hope to use land in the TIPNIS for coca production.
An AS/COA News Analysis looks at earlier protests against TIPNIS.
Cowboy Frogs and Crayola Katydids Discovered in Surinamese Rainforest
National Geographic features a photo gallery of a handful of the 46 new species discovered during a recent expedition into the Surinamese rainforest. Among the new species is the Pac-Man frog, the armored catfish, the glittery water beetle, and the “Crayola” katydid.