Monday Memo: Castro visits Pope—Chilean Cabinet—Colombian Coca—Guatemalan Corruption—Central American Geothermal
May 11, 2015
This week’s likely news stories: Raúl Castro has an audience with the Pope; Michelle Bachelet shakes up her Cabinet; Colombia bans coca spraying; a Guatemalan judge is linked to a corruption scandal; Germany will invest in Central American geothermal projects.
Cuban President Meets with the Pope: Cuban President Raúl Castro met with Pope Francis this Sunday at the Vatican and thanked the Pope for his assistance in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. On several occasions, the Pope has called on the U.S. to end its embargo on Cuba. Castro said he was so influenced by his audience with the Pope that he might return to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is planning to visit Cuba on his way to the U.S. in September 2015. Also this weekend, French President François Hollande travelled to Cuba in the first visit by a French leader since 1898. Hollande is expected to meet with Castro on Monday, although the Cuban government has not confirmed whether or not there will be a meeting. France hopes to benefit from new openings with Cuba, and Hollande is travelling with business leaders as well as ministers.
Bachelet Names New Ministers to her Cabinet: On Monday, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced changes to nine ministers in her cabinet, following her request last week that all of her ministers resign. New appointments include Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdés, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos, Minister of the Government Secretariat Jorge Inzunza, and government spokesperson Marcelo Díaz. Tiago Severo, Latin America economist at Goldman Sachs, noted that “Rodrigo Valdes is certainly going to be most likely perceived as a market-friendly new minister, who could perhaps instill a renewed sense of confidence in the outlook for the economy.” The reshuffling of the cabinet comes amid record low approval ratings for Bachelet after a number of corruption scandals marred the administration.
Colombia Announces Ban on Coca Spraying: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced this weekend the decision to stop using glyphosate in the country's coca spraying programs. On Saturday, he asked the National Drug Council to ban glyphosate sprayin gdue to the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the substance is likely carcinogenic. The aerial spraying of coca fields, a program started in 1994 and backed by the United States, has been highly controversial. Farmers have claimed that the herbicides have killed their coffee plants and other crops, and citizens have called on the government to end the program due to the health risk. Santos stated that despite the decision, he will continue to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.
Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Implicated in Corruption Scandal: On Monday, Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stalling was implicated in the corruption scandal that forced Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign on Friday. Wiretappings uncovered by the AP include a conversation between lawyers, suspects, and businessman Luis Mendizábal that reveal a judicial bribery scheme to get suspects detained in the recent customs corruption scandal released. In the phone call, Mendizábal reportedly told defendant Javier Ortíz that he would be released soon, and mentioned Stalling. Stalling denies any wrongdoing.
Germany to Invest in Geothermal Energy in Central America: On Saturday, Nicaraguan news site El 19 reported that Germany will lend $112 million for geothermal energy projects throughout Central America. This weekend, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met with Klaus Krämer, the head of the Division of Regional Development Policy for Central America and the Caribbean of the German Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry, to discuss the program and how Nicaragua can participate. Following the meeting, German Ambassador in Managua Karl-Otto König stated that there is a strong desire on both sides to continue collaboration. Last Thursday, the German Development Bank extended a line of credit of $6.71 million to Nicaragua for a water treatment project in Managua.
March 20, 2015
On Thursday, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced new measures to curb corruption in Chile’s public sector. Speaking from the government palace La Moneda in Santiago, Bachelet declared that all public sector officials will be required to annually submit a declaration of financial assets, with the first submission deadline set for April 30, 2015. Bachelet also plans to amend the constitution to mandate that former presidents continue to file the declaration of assets even after they have left office. Bachelet asserted that she will make the first move by declaring her own assets.
While outlining the plan, Bachelet remarked that “solutions must be at the institutional level to keep our democracy strong. The Chilean state is based on public trust, respect for institutions and that pact of trust must be renewed.”
The declaration comes amid a series of political scandals that have troubled the country in recent months, including a case involving Bachelet’s son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos resigned from his position as socio-cultural director of the presidency in February following allegations that his family received preferential treatment for a private-sector bank loan they sought to purchase land. In a separate high-profile case, several political figures that founded the financial company Penta Group were detained earlier this month on charges of tax fraud and bribery. A third recent case of corruption involves the Chilean fertilizer group SQM, which is accused of illicit campaign financing.
Bachelet’s plan received mixed responses. Opposition leaders said the plan did not go far enough to fight corruption. Eduardo Engel, president of Chile’s anti-corruption board, argued that while the plan sends a strong signal, it would not be the end of the corruption battle. “This is a very powerful first step […] but it must only be seen as the first step and not as something that completely solves the problem.”
January 29, 2015
After a four-year debate, the Chilean Senate has passed a bill allowing for same-sex unions. The law passed on Wednesday with a vote of 25 to 6, with three abstentions.
Under the new law, called the Acuerdo de Unión Civil (Civil Union Accord—AUC), same-sex couples are afforded many of the rights of married couples, including health, inheritance and pension rights. The law was originally proposed under the Sebastián Piñera administration, coined the Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja (Couple Life Agreement—AVP), and has been advocated for publically by President Michelle Bachelet, who promised to pass the AUC during her latest presidential campaign.
“We’re very happy that the State recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples also constitute a family and deserve protection,” said Luis Larraín, president of the LGBT rights group Fundación Iguales.
While the bill has now passed the Senate and the House of Representatives (on a vote of 78-9), it still needs to be approved by President Michelle Bachelet and then will go to the Constitutional Court. Upon its final approval, Chile will be one of three South American countries to allow same-sex civil unions, along with Colombia and Ecuador. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow same-sex marriage.
Taking the next step to same-sex marriage remains unlikely in Chile, which has historically conservative laws based on Roman Catholic ideology. Divorce was illegal until 2004, and Chile is still one of the few countries in Latin America where abortion for any reason is illegal.
September 12, 2014
Just days after a bomb exploded in a Santiago metro station, Chile commemorated what is perhaps the most divisive event in the country’s modern history—the September 11, 1973 military coup that interrupted Chile’s democracy, and ushered in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
In a speech at the presidential palace, La Moneda, on Thursday, President Michelle Bachelet linked the two events, saying that “there is no room for violence and fear” in Chile. Calling democracy the country’s “most precious asset,” Bachelet went on to declare that “we will not allow the culture of respect, of rights and of peace that we are celebrating today, which belongs to all of us, to be trampled, abused or scorned by anyone.”
The day, however, was marked by violence and signs of general unease. According to local reports, confrontations between security forces and protesters left 10 police injured and led to the arrest of at least 30 individuals. Police sources also reported receiving 35 false bomb alerts over the course of day. It is unclear who is responsible for the false alerts, or whether they are related to Monday’s bombing. Authorities are still investigating Monday’s attack, though government officials have blamed “terrorists.”
The government also announced yesterday that it intends to repeal the country’s 1978 Amnesty Decree Law. The law covers the period from 1973-1978, and critics say that it shields members of the Pinochet regime accused of human rights abuses from prosecution. The effort to repeal the law was announced by Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez. In an unrelated event, a national legislator, Rosauro Martínez, was arrested in connection to the death of three Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left—MIR) activists in 1981.
September 4, 2014
On Wednesday morning, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet pledged $510 million for the restoration of Valparaiso after large wildfires devastated parts of the city in April. The blazes lasted several days and killed 15 people and destroyed or damaged at least 15,000 homes in the port city, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
The money will be disbursed over eight years and will be divided into three tiers—the city overall, neighborhoods and individual homes. Destroyed homes will receive almost $100 million, with the rest of the money being put towards urban development, cultural spaces, public transportation and city infrastructure to reinforce and protect inhabitants from future fires, including safety devices such as fire alarms and sprinklers. Seventy-one percent of the restoration and construction is expected to be completed by March 2018.
President Bachelet said that the plan’s benefits would go beyond Valparaiso and is meant to reactivate the Chilean economy. “This plan is about more than normalizing life in the city; it is a commitment to change the urban development of the country,” she said.
While the plan will help the 2,600 families affected by the fire, it is facing criticism for being too narrow in scope. Renzo Trisotti, deputy of the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union—UDI) party of Chile’s Tarapacá region expressed his concern with the omission of the northern regions of Chile, also affected by natural disasters earlier this year. “Five months after the two earthquakes affected the northern regions, there are still families living and tents and there is no plan for reconstruction,” he said.
July 29, 2014
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet unexpectedly canceled her trip to Venezuela for today’s Mercosur Summit yesterday afternoon. Alvaro Elizalde, a spokesman for the Bachelet administration, confirmed that Heraldo Muñoz, Minister of Foreign Affairs, will represent the Chilean delegation at the summit in Caracas.
In addition to the Mercosur meetings, Muñoz will also meet with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and with the Venezuelan opposition coalition Mesa De Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Coalition–MUD), at their request.
Muñoz is expected to express Chile’s interest in restarting and facilitating the stalled peace negotiations between MUD and the Venezuelan government. It is unclear whether he will address the continued imprisonment of opposition leader and former mayor Leopoldo López of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party.
President Bachelet’s absence was attributed to a winter cold and emergency meetings regarding her signature tax, healthcare and education reform.
June 27, 2014
Chilean Minister of Health Helia Molina set out on Thursday to clarify the government’s position on legalizing therapeutic abortion—abortion only in cases of rape, putting the life of the mother at risk, and the inability of the fetus to live outside of the womb. Molina said that the government was not promoting a law that would allow the voluntary termination of pregnancy under any circumstance, and that the proposed legislation would be formally debated in congress.
The announcement comes a day after Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in an interview in Spanish newspaper El País that she would send the legislation to congress in the second half of the year. President Bachelet’s spokesman, Álvaro Elizalde, has since referred to the headline as misleading.
The president the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union–UDI) opposition party, Ernesto Silva, expressed his disapproval at the president’s proposal on such a controversial topic, stating, “like the immense majority of Chileans, we are always advocates for the defense of life.”
In Chile, abortion was legal for medical reasons until 1989 when former President Augusto Pinochet’s military government instituted a total ban on the practice. Abortion has become a hot-button issue since the return of democracy. The Chilean right, including ex-President Sebastián Piñera, has been vigorously opposed to the practice of abortion in any form. In 2013, Piñera controversially praised an 11-year-old pregnant girl for keeping her baby after being raped, and has recently reiterated his position opposing therapeutic abortion legislation.
Bachelet has had a busy first 100 days, successfully passing a tax reform that would fund her sweeping reforms to make education free at all levels, and proposing policies towards reconciliation with the Mapuche–Chile’s largest indigenous minority–including increasing political representation and returning land to the Mapuche in Southern Chile. In total she has completed 91 percent of the 56 measures she intended to propose during her first 100 days.
June 13, 2014
On June 10, 2014, a ministerial commission in Chile rejected the HidroAysén project, an $8 billion joint venture of the Spanish company Endesa, S.A. (51 percent), which is a subsidiary of Italy’s Enel, and the Chilean company Colbún S.A. (49 percent).
Recently-inaugurated President Michelle Bachelet had stated that she would not support the project, and her ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy, and health agreed. Nevertheless, the country faces a challenge of energy poverty and high costs, which President Bachelet must address going forward.
The HidroAysén plan was to build five hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in the Patagonia region in the south of the country. The rivers–located in the Aysén region–are in an area of Patagonia that is virtually empty. The project developers viewed the plan as potentially very lucrative since the region receives steady rainfall.
HidroAysén was initially approved in 2011 during the administration of former President Sebastián Piñera, but popular protests derailed the environmental impact study. According to one estimate, more than 70 percent of Chileans opposed the project, and they took to the streets to express their disapproval.
Monday Memo: Venezuela Sanctions – Mujica in Washington – Zetas – World Cup in Brazil – Bachelet in Argentina
May 12, 2014
This week’s likely top stories: U.S. Congress considers sanctions against Venezuela; Uruguay’s José Mujica visits with Barack Obama; the leader of the Zetas may be dead; Brazil faces new obstacles in World Cup preparations; Michelle Bachelet visits Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.
U.S. Congress Pushes for Sanctions Against Venezuela: The United States House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday recommended the passage of a bill that would sanction the Venezuelan government for human rights violations committed since nationwide protests started in February. The sanctions would include banning visas and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials involved in the abuses. On Friday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called the proposed sanctions a “stupid idea,” and on Sunday, the Venezuelan government announced the release of 155 protesters who had been arrested in raids on street encampments last week, although some 160 protesters remain in jail.
Mujica Meets With Obama in Washington DC: Uruguayan President José Mujica is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday in Washington DC. Along with a discussion of hemispheric politics and trade, Mujica and Obama are expected to discuss Uruguay’s offer to receive five prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Mujica is also expected to seek Obama’s help in fighting a $2 billion lawsuit by tobacco giant Philip Morris, which is suing the South American country for a 2009 anti-tobacco law that the company says violates its intellectual property rights. Mujica is in Washington DC until Thursday, when he is expected to make a presentation before the OAS on the legalization and commercialization of marijuana.
Zetas Leader Believed Dead: Galindo Mellado Cruz, accused of being one of the founders of the Zetas Cartel in Mexico, is believed to be one of five people killed in a shootout in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on the Mexico-U.S. border. Although Mellado, also known as “El Mellado” or “Z-9”, no longer held a position of power in the Zetas, he was one of the 30 founding members of the cartel, who were originally part of Mexican special forces. The Zetas collaborated with the Gulf Cartel until the two cartels split, provoking a territorial battle that was particularly deadly in Tamaulipas. The Zetas reportedly control more territory than any other criminal gang in Mexico and are notorious for extremely violent and gruesome crimes.
Brazil World Cup Preparations: As rumors circulate that the International Olympic Committee has considered moving the 2016 Olympic Games to London, Brazil is stepping up security preparations for the World Cup, deploying more than 30,000 troops to the country’s borders to target illegal immigration and the trafficking of drugs and weapons. Meanwhile, about 7,000 members of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Homeless Workers’ Movement—MST) have set up camp outside the new Arena Corinthians in São Paulo to demand affordable housing for working-class Brazilians and to protest rising prices and expenditures on World Cup stadiums. Arena Corinthians will host the opening match of the World Cup on June 12.
Bachelet Meets with Fernández de Kirchner: Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has arrived in Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, marking Bachelet’s first international visit since the beginning of her second presidency. The leaders will meet on Monday and primarily discuss reviving the Treaty of Maipú, which was signed by the two presidents in 2009 and sets out to create a bi-oceanic railway network between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. In addition, the presidents will discuss Argentina’s plans to join the Pacific Alliance and relations within the more protectionist Mercosur trade bloc.
March 11, 2014
On Tuesday, March 11, in her first act as senate president, Senator Isabel Allende will place a red, white and blue sash over the shoulder of Michelle Bachelet, officially making her the first re-elected president of Chile’s modern era.
It will be a moment loaded with symbolism of the country’s struggle to break the shackles of a recent dictatorship and age-old traditions of patriarchy and machismo. Both Allende and Bachelet lost their fathers in the days following the country’s September 11, 1973 military coup
Salvador Allende, Senator Allende’s father, was the first democratically-elected Marxist head of state in Latin America. He took his own life in the presidential palace, rather than submit to the military forces that bombed La Moneda palace and maintained power for the next 17 years with a reign of terror and unimaginable atrocity. His daughter escaped with her life and was forced into exile for the duration of the dictatorship. She returned to pursue a long-standing and distinguished career as a parliamentarian and champion of progressive causes.
Brigadier General Alberto Bachelet died from torture at the hands of his former military colleagues for remaining loyal to President Allende. His daughter was captured and imprisoned before she, too, made it out of the country and lived in exile.
Michelle Bachelet returned to Chile to practice medicine and eventually went on to become health minister, then the first female defense minister in Latin America and, later, Chile’s first female president. She left office with an enviable 84 percent approval rating. During the Piñera years, she became the inaugural head of UN Women, earning the praise and esteem of world leaders. She returned, triumphant, to sweep first the primaries, followed by the first round of general elections and finally the runoff vote.
But these potent and evocative narratives obscure another reality—just how difficult this term will be for Bachelet.