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.
Honduran Prison Fire Kills over 350
A fire at Comayagua prison in central Honduras killed over 350 people on Tuesday night. The origin of the fire is unclear, though Honduran press speculated a short-circuit was the cause. Authorities suspect inmates escaped during the blaze. It is the third major prison fire in Honduras in the last decade and one of the deadliest Latin American prison fires in the last quarter century. Just last month, a fire also broke out at a forced detention drug treatment center in Peru, killing 27.
The Legacy of Honduras’ Coup
NPR’s Weekend Edition broadcast a two-part series on the legacy of Honduras’ 2009 military coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya from power. The series examines the effect of the coup on the country now, suggesting Honduras may owe its status as the world’s most violent country in part to that event. “If the president can be taken out of a country and have his rights taken away, without a trial or anything, then what becomes of your average citizen?” asks one Honduran.
Deposed Honduran President’s Wife Running for Office
Xiomara Castro, wife of former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, announced her candidacy for president of Honduras on February 11, reports Honduras’ La Tribuna. She will compete as a pre-candidate for the Popular Strength and Refoundation Party in November and would run in the 2013 presidential election. She pledged that, if elected, she would pursue constitutional reform. Her husband also pushed for such reforms before the military ousted him from power in 2009.
Salvadoran President Backtracks on Drug Decriminalization
After initially supporting Guatemalan President Otto Pérez’s Monday proposal to decriminalize drugs in Central America, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes backtracked on the offer later the same day. The Nicaragua Dispatch reports Funes flip-flopped to “avoid erroneous interpretations” of his comments of support, adding: “I am not in agreement with decriminalization of production, trafficking or consumption of drugs.” The United States condemned the proposal.
Panamanian President Pledges Not to Seek Reelection
Amid popular speculation that he would seek an unconstitutional second term, Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli signed a pledge on February 14 not to seek reelection. The Americas Quarterly blog reports the pledge comes as Martinelli’s poll numbers plummeted—from 80 percent to 33 percent—following his controversial handling of last week’s Ngäbes Buglé indigenous protests.
Calderón Appoints First Woman to Lead Federal Police
On February 10, Mexican President Felipe Calderón named Maribel Cervantes Guerrero as the first female federal police commander. She will be responsible for implementing crime-fighting strategies across Mexico. The Public Safety Secretariat says Cervantes has “wide experience in the fields of organized crime, national security, intelligence, international terrorism, armed groups and kidnapping.”
Mexico Looks South
With Mexico’s application to become an observer in the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), BBC Mundo looks at the country’s political and economic reorientation southwards. While Mexican political and economic relations traditionally focus on the United States, Mexico’s close ties with that country caused it to feel the pain of the 2009 global financial crisis more than many other Latin American countries, causing it to look south to make up the difference.
Alphabet Soup: A Guide to Mexico’s Political Parties
The Los Angeles Times’ World Now blog offers a primer on Mexico’s three major political parties: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party (PAN), and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The blog outlines the histories, trajectories, and constituencies of the three principal parties, and discusses each party’s chances for winning the July presidential election.
U.S. Trims Military Aid to LatAm
Insight Crime reports on the 2013 U.S. State Department budget, which will cut military and anti-drug aid to Latin America by 10 percent for a total of $946 million in the 2013 fiscal year. U.S. military and police funding has been on the decline, including a 50 percent decrease in aid to Colombia over the past five years.
Alabama’s Year without a Mexican
Mexican magazine Gatopardo offers an in-depth look at how Alabama’s House Bill Number 56 affected the state. The bill, passed last year, is the United States’ harshest targeting undocumented immigrants, and caused a mass exodus of the state’s undocumented population. Lawmakers and citizens remain divided as to its legacy, with some hailing it as an effective tool to combat undocumented migration and others unhappy with its negative effect on Alabama’s agricultural economy.
Study Finds Latinos Saving Insufficiently for Retirement
Based on reports from ING Retirement Research Institute, Forbes.com’s Kerry Hannon reports Latinos are not saving sufficiently for retirement as compared to other U.S. ethnic groups. The survey finds the trend continues throughout all income brackets. Forbes attributes the disparity to a higher number of dependents among Hispanics, the sending of remittances, and a lack of financial literacy. Hannon suggests better financial education for all could be the answer.
Detained American Knew of Risks in Cuba, Says Report
This week, Desmond Butler of the Associated Press offers a comprehensive piece on Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba on espionage charges. Under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Gross secretly brought “laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment” from the United States to Cuba in order to set up an internet connection for the island’s Jewish community. Despite Gross’ previous statements alleging he was duped, Butler reports Gross was well aware of the risks he took. Sources recounted that Gross said it was “very risky business” and that "detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic."
Caribbean Crime Report: Violence Harms Regional Economy
The UN Development Program released its annual Caribbean Human Development Report last week, which warned that rising crime hinders the region’s growth. The report finds that the cost of gang-related crimes ranged from 2.8 to 4 percent of the Caribbean’s GDP. Though the region contains less than 10 percent of the global population, it accounts for 27 percent of homicides worldwide. The report recommends more education and job opportunities for youth, as well as improved law enforcement.
Shining Path No More? Peruvian Military Captures Leader
The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that Peruvian President Ollanta Humala met with captured Shining Path guerrilla leader Comrade Artemio in the hospital and asked him to tell his followers to “lay down their arms and leave the path of violence.” Peruvian defense forces captured Comrade Artemio—born Florindo Eleuterio Flores—on February 12, effectively ending the insurgency. In December 2011 Comrade Artemio released a video admitting defeat of the Shining Path. He will face trial when he recovers from wounds suffered during capture.
Ex-Peace Minister Flees Colombia before Trial
On Thursday, prosecutors requested an arrest warrant for Luis Carlos Restrepo, Colombia’s peace minister under former President Álvaro Uribe. Restrepo allegedly fled the country in January after coming under investigation for faking a demobilization of guerrilla fighters in 2006, as well as aiding drug traffickers and paramilitaries to commit fraud during the demobilization process. He faces up to 12 years in prison.
In Colombia and Ecuador, Valentine’s Day Flowers Linked to Child Labor
The Atlantic reports that 90 percent of flowers sold in the United States are imported, mainly from Colombia and Ecuador. Due to high levels of child labor in the flower industries there, Americans had a one in 12 chance of buying Valentine’s Day flowers cut by children. The article says that during Ecuador’s school year, 80 percent of flower workers are children.
Colombian Film Released for Rent on Facebook
Starting February 14, Colombian romantic comedy Lecciones para un beso was available for rent via Facebook. The film, produced by Talleres Uchawi, is the first Colombian movie available on the site, and will be available to Latin American and U.S. users. The movie broke box office records in Colombia, where it debuted in April.
Capriles Wins Venezuelan Opposition Primary
Henrique Capriles Radonski won Venezuela’s opposition primary on February 12, garnering 1.8 million of the 2.9 million votes cast—a number that beat expectations. Capriles, the young governor of the state of Miranda, ran on a platform promising a pro-business government that will maintain the most successful of President Hugo Chávez’s social programs. Nevertheless, Capriles faces a tough battle ahead in his campaign against Chávez, who is expected to spend heavily before the October election and can depend on support from a number of sectors. But Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog points out: “For all his structural advantages, Hugo Chávez now has something he hasn't had in years: an organized opposition, headed by a legitimate, disciplined leader.”
Opposition Defies Supreme Court Order to Turn Over Voting Lists in Venezuela
The Miami Herald reports that the Venezuelan opposition coalition, Democratic Unity (MUD), defied an order from the Venezuelan Supreme Court to turn over voter lists from the February 12 primary to the National Electoral Council. The Supreme Court demanded the nationwide voter lists in response to a motion filed by a small-town mayoral candidate who noted local electoral irregularities. Via Twitter, MUD said that many of the voter lists had already been destroyed, and called the Supreme Court order “absurd, unconstitutional, and disproportionate.”
Venezuela and Colombia Finalize Trade Pact
The neighboring Andean countries announced an end to negotiations of the commercial pact signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and President Hugo Chávez in November 2011. The treaty will establish a bilateral trade accord, which was terminated when Venezuela withdrew from the Andean Community in 2006. Once signed and valid, the pact will eliminate the tariff on 91 percent of the items Colombia exported to Venezuela between 2006 and 2010.
Brazil and China Fail to Reach Agreement on Trade
The Chinese Vice Prime Minister Wang Qishan visited Brasilia this week with the China-Brazil High-level Coordination and Cooperation Committee to discuss the potential to increase bilateral trade. China is now Brazil’s largest trade partner and in 2011 trade between the two countries reached $77.1 billion. However, officials balked at making an agreement as both sides deliberated over sensitive trade issues. Brazil is concerned about the “massive and indiscriminate increase” of manufactured Chinese goods in the Brazilian market, especially in the textile and footwear industries. The Chinese were unhappy about a recent rise in import taxes in the auto sector. In his new blog, Folha de São Paulo’s China correspondent Fabiano Maisonnave observed that unlike a similar China commission in the United States that meets annually, the Brazil commission has only met twice in eight years. Maisonnave believes that China will expect Brazil to adapt to its demands, and not the other way around.
Watch a video of AS/COA’s panel discussion on China’s growing role in Latin America.
The latest issue of Americas Quarterly looks at China’s presence in Latin America.
Bahia and Rio de Janeiro Police Strikes End
On February 13, Rio de Janeiro police and firefighters agreed to end a strike which began late last Thursday after police rejected an offer for a 39 percent pay raise. Thirty officers were arrested during the strike, but the city did not see a rise in crime. A police strike in Salvador, Bahia, also came to an end on Saturday, after the murder rate doubled and army troops came to restore order. Some feared Rio would also see increased levels of violence and that the strike could continue through Carnival, when thousands of tourists descend on the city.
Is Brazil’s Twitter Blocking Harmful to Free Speech?
The Committee to Protect Journalist’s Internet Channel blog evaluates the recent decision by Brazil to censor Twitter content. The Brazilian government requested the right to remove content that warns users about police activity, including enforcing radar traps or roadblocks. The blog points out this is not a symptom of Brazilian censorship being draconian, but rather of that Brazil’s judicial system that allows people to demand content removal. However, the blog raises concerns about the possible repercussions on free speech, stating: “[W]hen simply disseminating information becomes a criminal offense, the more dangerous it becomes to report any news.”
Argentina Will Accept UN Mediation for Falklands Controversy
Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman this week formally accepted a UN offer to mediate the conflict between his country and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, reports Infolatam. Argentina’s acceptance of the offer comes a week after that country formally denounced the UK for the “militarization” of the South Atlantic due to the arrival of Prince William on the islands for military instruction. Argentina has seen bolstered support for its claim over the past weeks from diverse sectors including the Bolivarian Alliance, the Argentine Catholic Church, and U.S. film actor Sean Penn.
Report Offers Recommendations to Avoid Chilean Energy Crisis
Americas Society/Council of the Americas released a report on energy security in Chile, which could potentially face a crisis due to increased energy consumption and reliance on foreign oil. Because of minimal domestic production, Chile depends on imports for its energy needs: 75 percent of its supply consists of imported fossil fuels. The report’s recommendations include greater public involvement in the debate, upgraded infrastructure, and deeper cooperation with neighbors.
Meet Mexico’s Xoloitzcuinitli
NPR’s blog introduces readers to the xoloitzcuinitli—or xolo for short, one of six new breeds that debuted in this year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The breed is Mexico’s national dog and is best known for being hairless.