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.

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Pope Rounds out Tour of Mexico and Cuba

Benedict XVI arrived in Mexico on Friday, where he spent three days before leaving for Cuba on Tuesday. He will return to Rome tomorrow. Beyond entertaining Mexicans by donning a sombrero, the pope decried the drug violence affecting the country and asked for Mexico to honor religious freedom. The papal visit comes at a time when the Mexican Catholic Church is increasingly politicized, and the role of the institution in public life has reached legislative debate, according to analysis from The Los Angeles Times. “[A]lthough the Catholic Church has almost always enjoyed a powerful position [in Mexico], it has taken on a particularly activist role in partisan politics during the last decade,” says the article.

The pope’s visit to Cuba has invited inevitable comparisons to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country in 1998. In a post for ForeignPolicy.com’s Argument blog, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez writes about the general lack of enthusiasm among Cubans. “At the end of the nineties, Karol Wojtyla inspired us to hope. But now, in 2012, national cynicism conspires against enthusiasm. We already know, for example, that the phrase, ‘Let Cuba open herself to the world and let the world open itself to Cuba,’ never became more than the beautiful intention of the Polish pope.” 

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis on concerns in Mexico and Cuba preceding the papal visit.

Looking at a Rapidly Changing Cuba

The Economist this week features a 10-page special report on Cuba, with the headline “Cuba hurtles towards capitalism.” Articles focus on the island’s economic reforms, the consequences of those reforms, and relations with the United States. “After 50 years in which it has been an exception, the island’s destiny increasingly resembles that of its region. It is high time that those on both sides of the Florida Strait recognize that,” says the publication.

North American Defense Heads Talk Transnational Security

Mexico’s Defense Secretary General Guillermo Galván and Secretary of the Navy Admiral Mariano Saynez Mendoza met with the Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Ottawa on March 27 for the first trilateral meeting of North American defense ministers. Participants focused on the threat posted by Mexican organized crime and agreed to boost intelligence and security cooperation. “Quite frankly, these cartels don’t recognize borders, they don’t recognize nationalities,” said McKay.

Latinos Outpacing Other Ethnic Groups in Jobs Recovery

Based on data from the Pew Research Center, Univision reports that Latinos are recovering from the recession faster than other ethnic groups. The number of Latinos in the workforce increased to 20.7 million in 2011 from 19.9 million in 2007, compared with decreases of 5 percent among whites and blacks in the same period. “Latinos and Asians are the only groups to have experienced employment growth that exceeded the numbers of jobs lost in the recession,” says the article.

Arizona Superintendent Targets Mexican-American Studies at Universities

John Huppenthal, the official who eliminated Mexican American studies from public schools in Tucson, Arizona, says he now wants to suspend university-level programs. He believes the courses train teachers who then present an “unbalanced” view in the classroom, while university professors worry about the independence of their programs. “We do not indoctrinate, we educate. Academic freedom will be lost if these programs are not sustained at the university level,” Antonio Estrada, director of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told Fox News Latino.

Mexican Candidates Vie for Attention on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube

A report from Mexico’s El Financiero shows that Mexico’s three major presidential candidates perform differently via different forms of social media. Based on data from the week of March 19, the paper looked at how supporters of the candidates behaved on different sites. The data show that supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto were most active on Twitter, the National Action Party’s Josefina Vázquez Mota on Facebook, and the Democratic Revolutionary Party’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador on YouTube. 

Notable Mexicans Pose Questions to Transform Country

A group of dozens of prominent Mexicans inked a widely published document this week outlining a series of questions to the three major presidential candidates to answer. Titled “Questions whose answers could transform Mexico,” the document features questions on security, economics, politics, and international relations. The authors admit the questions are “neither exhaustive nor binding” and that they allow for “different answers, even contradictory ones.” Among those who signed the document are former presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, ex-Foreign Relations Secretary Jorge Castañeda, former Finance Secretary and Central Bank head Guillermo Ortíz, and actor Gael García Bernal.

Guatemala Hosts Drug Decriminalization Summit

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina hosted a drug decriminalization summit in Antigua, Guatemala, this past weekend that was attended by the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama—though not all attendees pledged support. During a visit to Honduras this week, the U.S. State Department’s senior antinarcotics official William Brownfield said Pérez’s plan “would not work.” He also announced a number of initiatives to improve security, including community policing and anti-gang programs. Brownfield expressed confidence these initiatives would create “strong institutions that will make drug traffickers look elsewhere.” 

Salvadoran Gangs Confirm Truce

Representatives from El Salvador’s two largest gangs, the rival MS-13 and Barrio-18, confirmed the existence of a truce between them on March 23, reports InsightCrime. In the statement released last week, the groups said they no longer “wish to keep making war,” and have undertaken peace talks. The statement also denied the rumored involvement of the government in the talks. Speculation about a truce began when El Salvador’s murder rate fell by 53 percent in early March.

Haitian Government Commands Soldiers to Disband

Last week, the Haitian government ordered hundreds of former soldiers to vacate barracks they had occupied in recent weeks, reports Haiti’s Le Matin. The soldiers want President Michel Martelly to reinstate the army, which the government disbanded in 1995. The uniformed and sometimes armed soldiers are demanding $15 million in wages and pensions in addition to pressuring the government to reestablish the armed forces.

Recount Ordered for Puerto Rico’s Primary

Puerto Rico’s electoral commission ordered a recount of votes following allegations of irregularities in the March 18 Puerto Rico primary, in which Puerto Ricans chose mayoral and legislative candidates and the U.S. Republican presidential candidate. The decision was prompted by complaints filed by the island’s two major political parties, the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party, joined by representatives of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. This is the first recount in the island’s history.

The Case for Colombia’s Ocampo as World Bank President

Developing countries proposed two candidates for president of the World Bank, a post that gone to an American since the bank’s founding in 1944. Though the U.S. nomination Jim Yong Kim is the favorite to win, many expressed support for Colombian José Antonio Ocampo. In a guest post for the Financial Times’s BeyondBrics blog, Boston University international relations professor Kevin P. Gallagher argues that Ocampo is the best choice. “Ocampo has the utmost credibility as a policy-maker and diplomat; he works well with the U.S. and developing countries alike; and he is one of the leading academic economists in the field of development,” Gallagher writes.

As Chávez Heads back to Cuba, PSUV Tensions Mount

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez returned to Cuba on Saturday to begin five days of radiation treatment after his cancer recurred in February. As rumors about Chávez’s health continue to swirl, public infighting among high-ranking members of the president’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) appears to be on the rise. PSUV Vice President Diosdado Cabello and Monagas state Governor José Gregorio Briceño are at odds after the federal government said drinking water in the state’s main river was safe after an oil spill; Briceño accused Cabello of corruption and of wanting to install his brother as governor of Monagas. The Economist’s Americas blog says: “The fissures in the ruling party show only too clearly what is likely to happen once the president is no longer around—or fit enough to bang his underlings’ heads together. Most observers agree there can be no chavismo without Mr. Chávez.” 

Indigenous Protesters Rally against Mining Project in Ecuador

More than 1,000 indigenous protestors reached Ecuador’s capital on March 22 after a two-week march from the south of the country, joining thousands of government protestors in opposition to a Chinese-led copper mining project on indigenous lands. The project is the first large-scale mining enterprise in Ecuador, and the government wants to attract more foreign investment in the sector. While President Rafael Correa called protestors “counterrevolutionaries” and deemed the protest a failure, the president of the Indigenous Nationalities Confederation, Humberto Cholango, said it accomplished at least one objective. “The first thing is to position the mining issue in the national political debate, and this has been accomplished by generating awareness that large-scale mining is harmful,” he said.

Bolivia Proposes “Ecological Alternative” to TIPNIS Road

The government has proposed an “ecological alternative” to the original route of the Isoboro-Securé Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), given the strong opposition to the project that caused its suspension last year. The new proposed path of the road would include aqueducts and viaducts to allow people and wild animals to pass below and would be topped by tall tree cover, reports Bolivian daily Los Tiempos. The government unveiled the new proposal four days after indigenous leaders said they planned a new march against the road to begin April 20.

Paraguay’s Chaco Facing Rapid Deforestation

The New York Times reports on the rapid deforestation of Paraguay’s Chaco. A surge in the global demand for beef has driven up prices and is attracting Brazilian and German Mennonite ranchers to the region to reap the benefits. Satellite imagery shows nearly 1.2 million acres of the Chaco deforested in the last two years, with consequences for the region’s wildlife and indigenous communities. “Paraguay already has the sad distinction of being a deforestation champion,” said José Luis Casaccia, a former environment minister.

Argentina Hosts Food Security Talks

On March 26, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) began its biannual five-day meeting in Buenos Aires for the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Conference. The meeting of 32 agriculture ministers from throughout the region brings together government and private-sector participants to discuss food security, as well as agriculture issues and climate change. FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva underscored the importance of the meeting, explaining that while the region is a net exporter of food, 50 million Latin Americans suffer from malnutrition. 

Washington Suspends Argentina’s Trade Benefits

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the suspension of Argentina from the U.S. system of trade preferences, a program that permitted Argentina to export $477 million worth of goods to the United States duty free in 2011. The move comes due to Argentina’s failure to pay $300 million plus interest in damages awarded to two U.S. companies by the World Bank’s arbitration arm. The damages stemmed from Argentina’s 2001 debt default. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk urged Argentina to pay the debt to gain readmission.

Argentina Declassifies Falklands War Report

Last week, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declassified the 1983 Rattenbach Report, which detailed the 1976-83 military junta’s role in the Falklands War. The report outlines a series of diplomatic and tactical blunders committed by the junta, which believed it could count on the support of the United States but did not count on the United Kingdom defending the islands. In releasing the report, Fernández de Kirchner said she hoped it would “help each of us become warriors of peace.”

Rousseff in India for BRICS Summit and State Visit

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is in New Delhi this week ahead of the fourth BRICS Summit on March 29 for her first state visit to India. She will hold bilateral meetings with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Russian President Dmitri Medevedev, and South African President Jacob Zuma. During the summit, the five countries will discuss the creation of a development bank to invest in sustainable development and infrastructure project in emerging markets.

U.S. Opens Global Entry Program to Brazil

On Monday, the U.S. government announced that it would include Brazil in its Global Entry program, which would allow trusted travelers to enter the United States at 20 airports without passing through immigration. Instead, travelers will be able to check in at a computerized kiosk. The program must be approved by the Brazilian government and both countries are expected to sign a bilateral agreement by June. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon commented on the program: “We’re trying to open our doors and facilitate [Brazilian visits] in all possible ways, under the laws of both Brazil and the United States.” The program is currently open to Canadian, Dutch, and Mexican nationals, as well as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Brazil’s Highest Court to Evaluate Amnesty Law

On March 29, Brazil’s Supreme Court will reopen a case to evaluate the legality of the 1979 Amnesty Law, which protects the military from prosecution for crimes committed during the dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. The court upheld the law in 2010, but Brazil’s Order of Attorneys hope to prove that the law violates international agreements. The organization also wants the court to rule if the law applies to “continuous crimes,” such as disappearances. A Para state judge recently ruled against the prosecution of a former military officer accused of human rights abuses, saying that the charge of a continuous crime was an attempt to get around the Amnesty Law.

Chilean Protests Shine a Light on Centralism

Inspired by ongoing protests in the southern Chilean region of Aysen, where residents began protesting their isolation and economic disadvantages in February, protesters took to the streets in the northern Chilean cities of Arica and Calama with similar demands. The protests have been related to Chile’s centralism, with governors and provincial authorities appointed by the central government, and all government policy determined in Santiago. This policy is criticized in an opinion piece in CIPER Chile, with the author arguing: “there’s many differences between the regions, and none is the same as another, except that they are all inhabited by Chileans.” Chilean Energy Minister Rodrigo Alvarez resigned last Friday after being excluded from negotiations with the Aysen protesters. 

Hate Crime Brings LGBT Rights to the Fore in Chile

After an attack by Neo-nazis three weeks ago, 24 year-old Chilean Daniel Zamudio succumbed to injuries this week, becoming a symbol for the gay rights movement in Chile. Activists are urging the government to pass an antidiscrimination law that would include language to protect the LGBT community. In a March 28 statement, President Sebastián Piñera condemned the crime, and said: “We must learn to value and respect diversity.”

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