This week's likely top stories: the Panama Canal gears up to expand its Pacific coast facilities; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels to China and OPEC countries; the 114th U.S. Congress starts its session on Tuesday with a Republican majority and plenty of hot button issues for the Americas; the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide resumes; Uruguayan First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirms she will run for mayor of Montevideo in 2015.
Panama Prepares to Expand its Pacific Canal Facilities: On Saturday, the Panama Canal Authority approved the development of a new transshipment port in the Corozal region, the canal’s entrance to the Pacific Ocean. This two-phased expansion project will improve the port’s capacity on the Pacific side from five to eight million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) by 2020 through the construction of a 2,081 linear-meter dock, a container yard, offices and warehouse facilities within a 120-hectare area. The new terminal will also include port facilities capable of accommodating mid-size cargo ships that can pass through the canal. Aware of impending competition from Nicaragua, which inaugurated the construction of its own canal megaproject on the Pacific Coast just before Christmas, Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge Luis Quijano said, “This new facility will increase inter-oceanic cargo traffic, consolidating Panama’s position as an international logistics and maritime hub.” The Panama National Assembly will review the bill for final approval this week before issuing a call for bids from construction companies for a twenty year contract.
Maduro Packs His Bags for an Economic Relief World Tour: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro left Caracas on Sunday night to commence an urgent diplomatic mission to China and several as-yet-unspecified Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations in pursuit of assistance to lift Venezuela out of recession. China, Maduro’s first stop on his economic tour, is Venezuela’s principal foreign lender and is keeping Venezuelan state welfare projects afloat through an $8 billion oil-for-loan agreement. Maduro is expected to discuss financing options with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would help Venezuela meet its debt obligations and tamp down inflation. Since Venezuela’s economy has suffered from OPEC’s decision in November not to curtail oil output despite the price drop, Maduro will visit OPEC countries in the second leg of his trip with the hopes of establishing “a strategy for recovering the price [of oil] and strengthening the organization.” Venezuela’s oil basket has fallen nearly 50 percent, to about $47 dollars per barrel since the summer, with each dollar drop in oil prices costing the government an estimated $700 million per year in revenue.
Republican-controlled U.S. Congress Convenes: The 114th U.S. Congress will start its session in Washington DC on Tuesday, with a Republican majority set to take over the Senate and continue control of the House of Representatives. The new Congress is expected to clash with President Barack Obama over policy on Cuba-U.S. relations, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to win approval in Congress last year. In November, Obama announced executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba in mid-December after more than five decades. However, Cuban authorities’ arrest of dissidents at the end of the year has amplified concerns about the state of human rights on the island, and some members of Congress who have opposed improved relations have suggested that the Senate may refuse to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Meanwhile, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that a bill approving the Keystone pipeline will be an early priority for Republican lawmakers, though it could still be vetoed by Obama.
Genocide Trial Resumes for Guatemala’s Ríos Montt: After 14 months, the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges—for his alleged role in ordering 15 massacres of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Maya from 1982 to 1983 during Guatemala’s Civil War—resumes today. While the former president was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison in May 2013, Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) upheld a measure that annulled the verdict and required that the trial resume where it stood on April 19, 2013, claiming that the general had been denied due process. Ríos Montt will not appear at his trial proceedings, which begin today and will presided over by Tribunal President Janeth Valdez, due to his health. At 88, he remains under military house arrest in an upscale neighborhood of Guatemala City.
Uruguayan First Lady to Run for Mayor of Montevideo: Uruguayan Senator and First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirmed she will run for mayor of Montevideo in the May 2015 elections. Topolansky, who is married to outgoing Uruguayan President José Mujica, is a member of the Movimiento de Participación Popular (Movement of Popular Participation—MPP) political party, the largest voting bloc within the ruling left-wing Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front—FA). The Uruguayan first lady accepted the candidacy on some conditions, including a respectful campaign against Daniel Martínez, another FA candidate from the Uruguayan Socialist Party who is competing in the mayoral race. With Topolansky as mayor, the MPP would control Uruguay’s main electoral region and add to the FA’s absolute majority in the legislature.
Peter Smith’s classic text on U.S.-Latin American relations, Talons of the Eagle, posits a basic rule: the greater the perception of extra-hemispheric threat, the greater the attention to Latin America. This is particularly true in the U.S. Congress, where the region’s diversification of relations beyond the Western Hemisphere tends to arouse suspicion and competitive pressure.
China is the most obvious target, oft-mentioned in the debate over the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. India has also become more active in the region, and even Russia is touting its renewed interest in Latin America. It is Iran, however, that is doing the most to raise congressional hackles—vividly so in a recent House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere.”
As Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recognized in her opening statement, the hearing could not have been more timely, coming two days after U.S. officials announced an alleged attempt by the Iranian Quds Force to hire the Zetas, a Mexican criminal organization, to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
On Wednesday, October 12, just in time for the October 13 State Visit of South Korean leader Lee, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the pending trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The agreements were too long delayed, but the overwhelming margin of victory for all agreements in both chambers gives credibility to the argument that the Administration frequently made: to build sustainability for the trade agenda, broad-based political support was required, and political support had to be developed over time, with careful and methodical coalition building. In the end, Panama received 300 votes in favor of the agreement in the House, passing by 171 votes. The most controversial agreement, Colombia, received 262 votes and passed by 95 votes. Compare that to the passage of the trade agreement with Central America in 2004, which won approval by exactly two votes. This new margin of victory lays the groundwork for renewal of a politically sustainable trade agenda, and is a bright spot for those of us who believe trade remains one of the best tools that the United States has to support our security and economic interests abroad.
The agreements still need to be signed by the President and there will be a period of time before implementation actually occurs. But the biggest battle has been won. As a result—this being Washington—claims of credit abound. Indeed, there is much credit to go around. But some are more equal than others in this department, and deserve to be singled out for special praise.
The first, of course, is President Obama himself. At a yet-to-be-determined political cost, and little potential direct political benefit, the President defied the roots of the Democratic party to advance the agreements as part of his “doubling exports in five years” initiative. Unquestionably, his views on trade have evolved since the 2008 campaign, and by moving the deals forward, he has effectively neutralized trade as a potential wedge issue for the 2012 presidential campaign, which, importantly, will provide greater political flexibility to the President on these issues after January 2013. He got the deals done and moved them forward. He won’t get appropriate credit for it, but that does not mean he does not deserve it.
Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who renegotiated the agreements, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who publicly set a deadline when she told the foreign minister of Colombia in June that the deals would be done by the end of 2011, and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley did much of the political heavy lifting to lay the groundwork for submission to Congress. They are all on the heroes list.
I cannot recall when the issue of raising the United States’ debt ceiling was so contentious. The gridlock has reached fever pitch, despite warnings from economists, financiers and former Treasury officials of the risk the U.S. runs if government intervention is not undertaken. As the world’s strongest economy with the largest reserve currency, a U.S. default would have disastrous consequences on the global financial system.
What is different this time around has a lot to do with how the Republicans have been able to frame the debate around the current deficit numbers (around 9 percent of GDP) and the debt figure now surpassing 90 percent of GDP. As a result, President Obama is locked in a debate about the size and the role of government. The dialogue no longer concerns a balanced budget. Rather, the Republican leadership, under the scrutiny of a vocal and united Tea Party movement, is unable to deliver the kind of compromise solution that could include substantial spending reductions but would also involve new tax revenues.
Looking back on previous battles, we have seen a Republican president like George H.W. Bush raise taxes—at great political cost—to reduce the gap between spending and revenue. A Democratic president like Bill Clinton accepted welfare reform and tax reductions in his effort to streamline government; he left office with balanced and surplus budgets.
In Canada and Québec, the fight for fiscal sanity both in the 1990s and the most recent recession concentrated on careful consideration of the role of government. The mix of two-thirds spending cuts with one-third new revenues, agreed upon in the latest round of debt negotiations, has kept both jurisdictions on course for a balanced budget by 2014. In the process, Canadian lawmakers have not had to encounter an ideological battle about the size and scope of government to the extent that is seen in the U.S.
After Republicans won the House last November, predictions of gridlock usually cited one potential exception—trade policy. President Obama affirmed his support for free-trade agreements (FTAs) in his State of the Union address in January, raising hopes that the three pending deals could be approved this year. As a Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority report argued, in an era of divided government, the agreements “provide an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on the administration’s stated goal of doubling exports in 5 years.”
If only it were that easy. While yesterday’s “mock mark-ups” were a welcome and necessary step, they didn’t stand out for bipartisanship. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the implementing bills for the Colombia and Panama FTAs on partisan lines, with all Republican Members voting for them and all Democratic Members voting against. Many of these Democrats expressed support for the agreements, but used their nay votes to protest the omission of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in the South Korea bill.
Indeed, TAA has proved to be the partisan sticking point. Many Republicans and Democrats can agree that free-trade agreements are tools to spur job creation and growth without deficit spending, but the same can’t be said of training for displaced workers. The unfortunate irony is that the fiscal cost of renewed funding for TAA would be much lower than the cost incurred to U.S. businesses by a failure to approve the three FTAs.
On the Senate side, the Finance Committee met yesterday on the second try, after Republicans boycotted the mock-up originally scheduled for June 30. The South Korea bill, with TAA language included, was the target of the partisan standoff, passing on party lines by 13 Democrats to 11 Republicans. Ranking Member Orrin Hatch vowed to vote against the agreement if it includes “the TAA poison pill.” For once, Colombia was less controversial with an 18-6 vote, and Panama passed easily, 22 to 2. No amendments passed.
The U.S. Congress is as relevant as the executive branch on many specific issues that affect U.S.-Latin American relations, from trade to immigration. Yet individual Members of Congress rarely pay sustained attention to policy toward the region as a whole. Instead, Capitol Hill’s focus tends to be narrow, reflecting the domestic sources of foreign policy and the constraints of lobbying interests in the exercise of its oversight responsibilities.
There are of course exceptions to this congressional trend, and among them, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) stand out. That's why both received the Council of the Americas Chairman’s Award for Leadership in the Americas last week.
Senators Menendez and Lugar are both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Menendez is the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and Lugar is the Ranking Minority Member of the full Committee. It’s not easy to find bipartisan comity these days in Washington, but in fact these awards were richly deserved and widely praised.
With the House passing the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act last Wednesday and the Senate set to vote on it as soon as this Friday, now is a good time for a personal account of what’s at stake with DREAM.
Gaby Pacheco, a 25 year-old undocumented immigrant whose parents brought her from Ecuador to the United States at age 7, has been an outspoken advocate for DREAM since 2004. In addition to her work with Students Working for Equal Rights and the Florida Immigrant Coalition, she joined three other undocumented students on the Trail of Dreams earlier this year—a four-month walk from Miami to the nation’s capital—to call attention to the plight of the roughly 2 million undocumented people brought to this country as minors. We spoke about her experience as an undocumented child, her involvement in DREAM advocacy and some of the difficult compromises involved in getting the DREAM Act through the Congress.
Altschuler: I was hoping you could start out by telling me a bit about your personal story and how you became aware of the immigration issue.
Pacheco: I’ve been in the United States for 18 years. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, but I was raised in Miami, Florida. I started in the 3rd grade, and I scored really high in math and science, so I was put in a gifted program. That gave me confidence to believe in myself, and my teachers instilled in me a great desire to achieve and persevere, with the idea of achieving the American dream—that if we work really hard, we can achieve anything that we set our minds to.
At elementary school, I was in the choir, and I would stay after-school helping the teachers grade papers. I guess you could call me a teacher’s pet, but I just really loved school.
In middle school, I started getting into honors classes. In high school, I took AP classes, and I was part of the cross-country, basketball and the track-and-field teams. I was part of the ROTC program with the Army and the Navy and was one of the top students in the school.
The first time I started finding out that there was something wrong was in the 8th grade. One of my two sisters had finished high school, but she wasn’t able to go to school and continue her path—she wanted to be a nurse. It shocked me, so I started working even harder. And then in 10th grade, I took Drivers Ed, and I took all the paperwork that they’d given us. They told me, “All you need to do is fill out these papers and they’ll give you your learner’s permit.” So I did do that, and I was really happy, but then I got turned down. And then my dad said, “That’s OK, we’ll just go to another office.” But then I kept getting turned down. I was missing a paper that was going to stop me—not only from driving, but also potentially from going to college.
In 12th grade, when I graduated from high school, I confronted that issue. But, thankfully, Miami-Dade College opened the doors to me and other students. I was able to excel. I was student government president—not just of my college, but of the 28 colleges in the whole college system in the state of Florida. In 2006, I was representing 1.1 million students and had the opportunity to meet with the governor and senators and promote legislation that actually became law. I was really proud of myself. When I graduated from college, I thought I had proven everybody wrong, and maybe there was some way that I was going to be able to somehow find a reprieve. But I went to lawyers, and they told me that wasn’t going to happen.
Altschuler: How did you get involved in advocating for the DREAM Act?
Pacheco: I became an advocate for the DREAM Act in 2004. And now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we get the DREAM Act passed.
I’m formally connected to Presente.org, which does online organizing. And I came from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and I was one of the founders of Students Working for Equal Rights in the state of Florida. From four of us that used to meet to try to pass the DREAM Act, we now have 16 chapters throughout Florida. Students Working for Equal Rights is part of the United We Dream network, which is led by students and represents 26 states.
This year, along with Felipe, Carlos and Juan—we walked from Miami to DC. And last week, I was able to witness passage of the DREAM Act from the House gallery. This week, we’re looking forward to talking to our senators to try to get a favorable vote either this week or next week for the DREAM Act.
Altschuler: Could you share with me your position on the DREAM legislation in its current form, after negotiators opted to reduce the age limit (from 34 to 29 years old) and the extension of the waiting period for citizenship (10 years before one can apply for citizenship) to get the bill through the House?
Pacheco: For me, it was really tough to see the DREAM Act change, and change in such a dramatic way. Now it will leave out my sister, for instance. The reason I’ve been fighting so hard has been for her. Actually, December 14, is her birthday—she turned 31. And so I thought that the legislation would have passed by now, and I thought that if the legislation changed, it would be for 30 or under. She was fighting so hard, is so bright—she wants to be in the Air Force—and now will be left out, unable to do anything.
But at the same time, it’s still good legislation, and it would still allow potentially 1 million students to fulfill their dreams.
Altschuler: Can you tell me about the discussions between the pro-DREAM groups about the compromises that were on the table?
Pacheco: For us, the compromises and the changes came at a high cost. But, at the same time, we understood that they were needed to push forward and have the bill where it is today. For us, that was the bottom line. We don’t want the legislation to change anymore, because we don’t want to lose any more students.
So, as a collective, at all the different stages, we did have a call where we discussed it, and everybody took a vote. The majority—and it was almost unanimous—felt that this was what we needed to do, and that we needed to move forward. But making sure that we are keeping our leaders responsible—making sure that these changes would allow more senators to vote for it.
Altschuler: How concerned are you about the possibility of there being further concessions to DREAM—for instance, on enforcement provisions—to get it passed in the Senate? Would you and other pro-DREAM groups stay on board?
Pacheco: There are definitely concerns about what might get attached to it. And I think a lot of people are aware of where the limits are going to be. But, because we haven’t seen the language yet, we’re just worrying about pushing it forward. At the same time, we respect the decisions that the organizations from border states make. They’re the ones that will be most affected, and their voices will be crucial in how we want to move the legislation forward. Because we do not want to hurt people in the process of helping others. And that’s one of the beautiful things about being united—that we can have these conversations and say, “Arizona, how do you feel about this? Texas, how do you feel about this? California, how do you feel about this?” Because we’re a family, we’re a community, and we need to make sure that everyone’s going to be OK. So there will probably be a time when we have to talk if the legislation comes with extreme things that we cannot allow. And I think we’ll stand together if it does have things that are unacceptable to our community.
Altschuler: Can you tell me about the recent activities in which you’ve been involved to promote DREAM?
Pacheco: Tuesday was an incredible day. We had faith leaders from all different religious backgrounds and states come to DC. In the morning, we had a press conference, and the different religious leaders had the opportunity to speak to say why it’s important for DREAM to pass. We had organizations that represent millions of people saying that this is something they want. Also, the faith leader who was leading the press conference said, “If the senators don’t pass this, they’re going to have to deal with us, and all the Christians, Muslims, and Jews that are represented here. We’re going to open our universities and colleges, and we’re going to go against the laws, because they’re going against the will of God.” And it was really amazing to see older preachers saying, “We’re going to do civil disobedience and they’re going to have to go through us to get to these students.” It fills our souls and our hearts. Having people from the faith backgrounds supporting us is really key.
There is also the Jericho Walk around the Senate by the students. And the faith leaders joined, and they went to every single one of the buildings and the Capitol, where they had the students in the middle and the religious leaders praying around them. And, before that, all the students got together and sang the national anthem. And after that, we walked into the Senate Hart building, where there were prayers, and then the religious leaders did pray-ins in Senate offices with the students. We went to the offices of Senators Sessions, Lemieux, Hutchinson, Landrieu, McCaskill, Brownback, and many others.
Altschuler: One final thing—assuming the DREAM Act passes, what would becoming a citizen mean to you?
Pacheco: It would be a golden key for success. It would be the ability to use the talents and gifts that I have to give back to this country. The DREAM Act would mean the realization of the dreams that I have, and unleashing the potential of hundreds of thousands of students throughout the United States.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.
With control of the U.S. House of Representatives switching to the Republican Party, the future of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform is now in greater doubt. And Democrats—unable to put forward a proposal that could muster the necessary support to right our broken immigration system—will take a back seat to the immigration plans of the new House leadership.
One of the first orders of business when the new Congress convenes in January will be the designation of new committee chairpersons. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) is out as the House immigration subcommittee chairperson, and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) will likely take the gavel. As for the full Judiciary Committee, it will likely be led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). This means a new approach for immigration-related issues. And in essence, going back to the drawing board on many of the core concerns.
The Democrats had been working on comprehensive immigration reform that revolved around four pillars originally put forward by Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Graham (R-SC) in March. (That is before Sen. Graham withdrew his support a few months later.) The approach included: requiring biometric Social Security cards; beefing up border security; creating a system for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a path for the legalization of certain undocumented immigrants. And President Obama asserted that the chance for reform was close, noting last week: “Right now on immigration reform, we’re eight votes short or 10 votes short.”
With all the recent talk about a slow economic recovery and rising unemployment in the United States, there is a real risk that major environmental concerns will once again get overlooked for the sake of achieving renewed growth. Worse still, the failure of the UN Copenhagen Conference of 2009 to achieve substantive gains and the inability of the U.S. Congress to pass climate change legislation could lead many observers to conclude that the push for sustainable economic development is losing momentum. Based on some recent trends and events, however, I believe neither is happening and that the general consensus of the past decade that economic prosperity must not be achieved at the expense of environmental conservation is holding firm.
The quest for renewable energy sources and the development of green technology is generally supported by policymakers across the globe. The lack of progress at the Copenhagen summit had more to do with the process than an absence of conviction. Countries throughout the hemisphere, from Chile to Canada and Quebec realize the threat that global warming poses to our collective future.
The emerging debate around the exploration of shale gas in the Northeast of the North American continent is evidence that the economic potential of this resource should not blind us to the concerns of local populations regarding the technology used and its possible impact on the environment. New York State is in the process of establishing a moratorium on shale gas exploration in order to conduct further studies on its environmental consequences. Pennsylvania, which has embarked on an aggressive initiative to explore shale gas, has also substantially increased the number of its environmental inspectors. Just recently, the Quebec government asked its environmental assessment agency to conduct a thorough study of shale gas exploration with the promise that legislation will follow that takes into consideration the studies’ results.
This afternoon Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) reminded the American people what awaits in 2010: a much-needed national discussion on immigration reform. Joined by lawmakers from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Progressive Caucus, Gutierrez introduced his long-awaited Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009. Or, CIR ASAP as the bill’s acronym fittingly spells out.
And while his legislation is unlikely to be the bill that ultimately passes, it puts pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to step up their efforts at finding a workable solution to one of the
Of course, health care reform must first be voted on in the Senate, and if passed, reconciled with the House version before discussions shift to immigration reform. But when they do, all eyes will be on Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration.
Schumer is said to be working closely with Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and is expected to introduce an immigration reform bill in January. Leaders in both chambers expect action in February or March. But the House is likely to take its cues from the Senate on this one.