Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas



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.

Strong Earthquake Rocks Mexico

The largest earthquake since 1985 rocked Mexico on Tuesday, with the U.S. Geological Survey placing the epicenter near the border between the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, and giving it a 7.4 rating on the Richter scale. Compared to the 8-point earthquake in 1985, which killed at least 10,000 people and destroyed parts of the capital, Tuesday’s earthquake resulted in no reported deaths and light damage. Officials attributed the lack of destruction to stronger building standards set after the 1985 quake. Mexican daily El Universal offers images and video of damage resulting from yesterday’s quake.

Mexico and Cuba Prepare for Six-Day Papal Visit

On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Mexico, for a three-day visit before going to Cuba until March 28. While the Vatican says the visit is purely for religious aims, the pope could play a political role in both countries. The Washington Post reports that, in Mexico, where presidential campaigning officially begins next week, the visit could bring support to President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party, which is close to the Church. In Cuba, the pope may look to expand the Church’s role following a religious opening in the 1990s. “Now the Church is an umbrella for many groups who seek more space for social action. This pope will try to strengthen this space, to try to position the Church to play a strong role in Cuba,” said Eduardo Barranco, a Catholicism specialist at the Center for Religious Studies in Mexico.

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about the pope’s upcoming visit to the region.

Ruling-Party Candidate Drops Five Points in Mexican Polls

A recent poll by GEA/ISA registered a 5-point drop for Mexican National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota, decreasing from 36 percent to 31 percent of expected votes. The poll widens the gap between Vázquez Mota and frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose lead grew from 43 to 48 percent. The third major candidate in the campaign, the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) Andrés Manuel López Obrador, retained 21 percent. The decline for Vázquez Mota comes after her poorly attended inauguration as the PAN’s candidate, which took place in a stadium where crowds left due to delays. 

Mexico to Be World’s Seventh-Largest Economy by 2020

A recent report by Goldman Sachs predicts that Mexico will become the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2020. By that year, Mexico should contribute 7.8 percent to global GDP, more than India or Russia, two of the so-called BRICS countries. Goldman Sachs, which created the concept of the BRICS, said it previously excluded Mexico from the BRICS because it was not growing at the same rate as countries like Brazil or China. This year, Mexico’s GDP should grow by 3.6 percent—equal to Brazil’s expected growth. 

Malia Obama in Mexico for Spring Break

U.S. President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia spent her spring break on a school trip in Oaxaca, Mexico, this week. Republican candidate Rick Santorum criticized the move, given the State Department’s travel warning for some areas of Mexico. “The president’s actions should reflect what his administration is saying,” Santorum said in a radio interview. However, Oaxaca has no travel warning in effect on the State Department’s site. The White House confirmed Malia’s safety after Tuesday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake. 

North American Leaders to Meet in April

The leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States will meet on April 2 in Washington, D.C. for the North American Leaders Summit. They will address trilateral issues, including the regional economic agenda, and prepare common positions for upcoming meetings such as the Summit of the Americas and G20. 

Obama to Fast-Track Portion of Keystone XL Pipeline

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce plans to expedite construction of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, White House sources said. Plans for the pipeline, which would connect Canada’s tar sands with the U.S. gulf coast, were stalled in January amid environmental concerns. Obama will make the announcement in Cushing, Oklahoma—an area through which the pipeline will pass. In response to the announcement, Oklahoma-based oil and gas executives objected, saying the move was not enough. Pipeline supporters want to complete the entire Keystone XL pipeline, writes The Hill’s E² Wire. 

The United States’ Latino Hubs

The Pew Hispanic Center published an infographic showing the growth of the Latino population in the United States and maps out the parts that serve as Hispanic hubs. The Hispanic population grew from 14.6 million in 1980 to over 50 million in 2010. At the beginning of the 30-year period, Latinos accounted for just 6.4 percent of the total population, and now account for 16 percent of the population. California, Florida, and Texas saw some of the largest rises in the number of Hispanic residents.

China and IDB to Set up Joint LatAm Fund

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will partner with China’s Export-Import Bank to create a $1 billion equity investment fund for Latin America, beginning operations by the end of the year.The fund will invest in public and private projects, including areas such as infrastructure and agribusiness. IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno said the platform “will promote stronger investment ties between China and Latin America and the Caribbean [in] helping our region overcome some of the most important development challenges.” However, Brazil is wary about China’s involvement. “We need to look at these kind of proposals cautiously because the Chinese presence in some places has meant that they bring over their own workers and practices,” said Brazil’s planning minister, Miriam Belchior. 

AS/COA will host Minister Belchior for a public discussion on March 29; a webcast will be available.

Arms Imports to the Americas Surge

A March 19 report from the Stockholm International Peace Institute showed a 61 percent increase in weapons imports to the Americas between 2002–2006 and 2007–2011. Arms imports to North America grew by 54 percent, and rose 77 percent in South America. Venezuela saw one of the largest increases in the region, with a 555 percent rise in arms imports, a jump that made it the world’s fifteenth-largest arms importer. However, weapons imports fell 15 percent in Central America and the Caribbean. 

Guatemala’s New President Two Months in

Guatemala’s Plaza Pública takes a look at the first 60 days of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez’s time in office. A former military officer, analysts expected Pérez to take a harder line against insecurity. Nevertheless, some observers are concerned about the role of the military in a democratic system.

A Look inside Cuba’s Prisons

El Nuevo Herald obtained exclusive access to 10 videos shot on a camera smuggled into Cuba’s largest prison, the Combinado del Este. The videos show poor prison conditions, including no running water, poor sanitation, leaking sewage, and food described as “worse than animal feed.” While some analysts say Cuba’s prison conditions are no worse than the region’s other overcrowded and underfunded prisons, Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere that does not permit inspections from the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

Death of Chilean Consul’s Daughter Reveals Venezuelan Police Violence

Karen Berendique, the 19-year-old daughter of the Chilean consul to the Venezuelan City of Maracaibo, was shot to death by police on March 17 after her car, driven by her brother, failed to stop at an unmarked police checkpoint. An editorial in Venezuela’s El Universal says the murder highlights the growing levels of police violence and politicization in the country. “The murder…reveals the helplessness of the citizenry before the state security forces,” the author writes. 

Summit of the Americas: Correa Sends His Regrets, Obama Extends His Stay

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said he will not attend the Summit of the Americas to be held next month in Cartagena, Colombia, due to Cuba’s exclusion from the event. Correa was the force behind a Bolivarian Alliance movement to boycott the summit if Cuba was not permitted to attend, saying at a press conference: “I cannot accept that one country excludes another.” Though Colombia declined to extend an invitation to Cuba, citing a lack of consensus among members, other Bolivarian Alliance members such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, confirmed attendance. 

Meanwhile, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced that U.S. President Barack Obama will extend his stay by one day to meet with the Colombian head of state after the summit. Their agenda has not been finalized.

EU Approves FTA with Colombia and Peru

On March 16, trade ministers from the European Union gave the green light to a free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru. Negotiations began in March 2010 and originally included Ecuador as well. The agreement must still be approved by the European Parliament before taking effect and a vote is scheduled for September. EU officials offered to include Ecuador in the agreement, despite its withdrawal from talks. Ecuadoran officials flew to Brussels on Monday and agreed to resume negotiations within the next 30 days. 

Ecuador Seeks to Boost University Quality

The New York Times reports on efforts by the Ecuadoran government to improve its university system. Led by President Rafael Correa, a former economics professor, the efforts seek to set a minimum standard for for-profit university education. Private universities “are cheating their students because they don’t have the minimum elements to guarantee academic excellence,” the president said in an interview. Moreover, the government wants to level the playing field at the country’s free public universities by basing admission on an aptitude test.

Bolivia Plans First Bond Sale in Almost a Century

For the first time since 1920, Bolivia will issue a bond, the country’s economy minister announced Friday at the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay. The government plans to sell up to $500 million to earn revenue to promote local industry, such as lithium processing. The Financial Times reports that investors worry about Bolivian investments after the 2006 nationalization of the country’s gas reserves, but that the distrust may be undeserved, given the country’s strong economic growth and stability. 

Judge Throws out Brazil Dictatorship Case

A federal judge in Para state rejected a criminal trial against former Colonel Sebastião Curió Rodrigues de Moura, accused of human rights abuses during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Judge João Matos said the case would violate Brazil’s amnesty law, which prohibits criminal prosecution of offenses committed during the military regime. The case would have been the first of its kind, as Brazil has never prosecuted dictatorship-era crimes.

Brazil and FIFA Make Peace

Sepp Blatter, the president of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), met with President Dilma Rousseff and Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo in Brasilia on Friday. He made the trip to smooth over a rocky relationship following strongly worded criticism of Brazil’s World Cup preparations from Jérôme Valcke, another FIFA official. Rousseff assured Blatter that Brazil’s Congress would pass the World Cup bill, a legal framework required to hold the 2014 international soccer tournament. The lower house of Brazilian Congress will vote on the bill as early as March 21. “We are very happy with the outcome of this meeting. You see a smiling FIFA president,” Blatter told reporters. 

In Brazil’s Footsteps, Argentina Wants to Renegotiate Mexican Auto Pact

On March 20, Argentina’s industry minister announced that the country would seek to renegotiate the terms of a free trade agreement for autos with Mexico, after Brazil successfully renegotiated a similar accord last week. While Argentina had an auto trade surplus with Mexico for nine years, it showed a deficit in 2010 and 2011. Writing for Financial Times’ Beyond Brics, Adam Thompson commented on Argentina’s disparate view on trade: “Mexico would seem to be a true believer. It never complained when the trade balance with individual countries was going against it in the short term, believing instead that bringing down barriers was in the country’s long-term interest.”

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis on Brazil and Mexico’s auto agreement renegotiation. 

Inside the EU-Mercosur Relationship

Germany’s Center for European Integration Studies at the Universität Bonn published a discussion paper on Mercosur’s relationship with the European Union. Written by two Brazilian researchers, the paper evaluates the changes in trade and investment between the two regional bodies in the context of the global financial crisis, and the effects of Brazil’s global rise on the relationship. As China has become the main export market for Mercosur countries, the authors argue the relationship with the EU must be reassessed. 

Chile and Argentina Cooperate on Regional Integration

Meeting in Santiago last week, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed seven bilateral cooperation agreements. The accords concern a number of issues regarding health services, education, mutual defense, and border control, reports Chile’s La Tercera. In addition, the Chilean government reiterated its support for Argentina’s claims to the Falkland Islands. 

Facebook Outpaces Google in Latin America

Forbes reports on the growth of Facebook in Latin America at the expense of Google. Facebook poached two executives from Google’s Latin American offices and recently surpassed Google’s Orkut among users in Brazil. Facebook announced this week that it will open an office in Buenos Aires to focus on advertisement sales within the region.

Pope Sends Cuba a Reptilian Ambassador

Prior to visiting Cuba, where he will arrive March 26, Pope Benedict XVI repatriated a Cuban brought illegally to Italy: a four-year-old Cuban crocodile. Confiscated by Italian authorities in November 2011 and given as a gift to the pope in January, it was later placed at the Rome Zoo. After a lavish send-off from Rome, the crocodile was taken to Cuba last week. Vatican authorities hope the crocodile can become a symbol of cooperation between the Holy See and Cuba.

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