Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

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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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Mexico Hosts First 2012 Presidential Debate

On Sunday night, the four top Mexican presidential candidates faced one another in the country’s first of two planned presidential debates. The debate was seen as an opportunity for candidates to gain an edge as the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) Enrique Peña Nieto maintains a lead of over 20 percent. Though the National Action Party’s Josefina Vázquez Mota and the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador attacked Peña Nieto’s record, polls after the debate show no diminished support for the PRI candidate. The Wall Street Journal noted that the debate revealed areas of agreement between Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota, such as allowing foreign investment in Mexico’s state oil company and fighting crime. The paper said this “suggests that Mexico could begin to see consensus on key issues like energy, where attempts at reform have been blocked by a divided Congress for years.” 

Social Media a Double-Edged Sword in Mexico’s Election

Mexico’s 2012 election marks the first time many of Mexico’s tech-savvy youth will vote, giving social media—and especially Twitter—a tremendous influence on the campaign, writes Nathaniel Parish Flannery for The Atlantic. “For the campaigns, the hope is that something that comes out of social media will get picked up as news and broadcast more widely,” commented the Council on Foreign Relation’s Shannon O’Neil in the article. However, Flannery writes that “[c]andidates have…seen the strategy backfire, as viral videos of awkward stumbles during important speeches by both Josefina [Vázquez Mota] and Enrique Peña Nieto spread rapidly across the web.”

U.S. House Speaker Urges Engagement with LatAm

On May 8, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) addressed the Council of the Americas’ 42nd Washington Conference, cautioning that disengaging Latin America could threaten security and economic stability in the Western Hemisphere. He advocated for a free enterprise zone in the Americas, and spoke about the threat of organized crime in the region. “The best defense against…the destructive aspirations of international criminals is for the United States to double down on a policy of direct engagement,” he said. 

Access full coverage of COA’s 42nd Washington Conference on the Americas, including summaries of remarks by speakers such as Boehner, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou. 

Canada Files New Application for Keystone XL Pipeline

On Friday, Canadian firm TransCanada filed a new application for the construction of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, aimed to connect Canada’s oil sands with the U.S. Gulf Coast. The application seeks a new route, as U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the first proposal, which slated the pipeline’s construction through areas of Nebraska considered environmentally vulnerable. While the project has become a contentious election year issue in the United States, the U.S. State Department—responsible for reviewing the application—said it would only release a decision in early 2013. 

UNASUR Pitches Regional Body to Fight Organized Crime

The first meeting of UNASUR defense ministers concluded last week in Cartagena, Colombia, as attendees suggested the creation of a regional body to combat organized crime. The proposed body would target drug, arms, and human trafficking, as well as money laundering. At the meeting, the Brazilian and Colombian defense ministers agreed to perform joint patrolling of thir shared Amazon bordersto begin in 2014, reports Colombia’s Caracol Radio.

Brazil Deploys Troops to Northern, Bolivian Borders

Last week, the Brazilian government sent 8,700 troops to the border with French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela in an effort to combat drug trafficking and environmental crimes in the Amazon region. Brazilian military officials assured neighboring countries the move was not aggressive, but meant to reinforce state presence in that remote area of the country where such crimes are prevalent. Brazilian troops were also dispatched to the border with Bolivia at the beginning of May after Bolivian military crossed the border while expelling Brazilian farmers from the border region. “This is not a retaliation,” said Brazil’s Lieutenant Colonel Danilo Mota. “We are here performing our constitutional duty to protect our citizens and our sovereignty.” 

Drought Hits Brazil’s Northeast

The northeast region of Brazil is experiencing the worst drought in three decades, with 525 municipalities in a state of emergency. As well as a shortage of food and water, the drought caused a loss of 370,000 tons of grains. 

Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru Lead LatAm Infrastructure Projects

CG/LA Infrastructure reports that four countries—Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—dominate two-thirds of Latin American spending on infrastructure, collectively totaling $200 billion. Of that amount, $90 billion will be spent in Brazil, largely in preparations for the World Cup and Olympic Games, says blog Diverging Markets. The report also points to a significant shift in development: while previous projects focused on resource extraction, current projects involve urban mass transit, highways, and energy projects.

A Closer Look at Investing in Colombia

Financial Times released a special report Tuesday on investing in Colombia, praising Colombia’s security gains, booming economy, growing foreign investment, and centrist politics. The report features articles about the country’s security policy, energy sector, and infrastructure developments. However, a guest column by former World Bank presidential candidate José Antonio Ocampo warns about the danger of high commodity prices for the country’s efforts at economic diversification.  

After Gun Ban, Homicides Decline in Bogota

A February gun ban passed in February in Bogota is yielding results: homicides in the city were down 23 percent in April compared with last year. Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro said April saw the lowest murder rate in 15 years.

Santos and Humala Travel to Asia for Trade Talks

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Peruvian counterpart Ollanta Humala traveled to Asia this week to promote trade. Santos began a trip to Singapore and China on Tuesday. Colombia’s El Tiempo reports that China recently surpassed Venezuela as Colombia’s second largest trading partner, and Santos plans to promote more exports to that country, including beef and dairy. Santos also hopes to attract Chinese investment in infrastructure in Colombia. Humala departed Monday for a five-day trip to Japan and South Korea to promote the benefits of recent free trade agreements with those countries, as well as to encourage business opportunities and political cooperation. 

Spain Pledges to Increase Investments to Peru

While in Lima with Spanish business leaders, Spain’s Trade Secretary Jaime García-Legaz announced that the Iberian country would invest $3 billion in Peru over the next five years. “We’ve sent a message to Spanish companies: if you want to bet on a country in Latin America, bet on Peru—a country with enormous opportunity,” said García-Legaz. Spanish officials also hope the recently inked EU-Peruvian free-trade agreement between the European Union and Peru will receive final EU approval to go into effect this year. 

Peru Ponders Tourist Visas

Lima announced plans this week to instate a tourist visa for all visitors to the country, estimated to raise $1 million a month. The Peruvian Foreign Ministry says the money would be used to fund consular activities throughout the world. Peru currently requires a tourist visa for nationals from a number of Latin American and African countries, but most North American and European nationals are exempt.

Bank CEO Enters Ecuador’s 2013 Presidential Race

Ecuador’s El Universo reports that Banco de Guayaquil CEO Guillermo Lasso stepped down from his post on Monday to become a pre-candidate in Ecuador’s 2013 presidential election. Lasso previously served as governor of the state of Guayas and as economy minister under President Jamil Mahuad. If he wins the nomination, Lasso will run against current President Rafael Correa.

Asian and LatAm Development Banks Call for More Cooperation

Over the weekend, representatives from the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank underscored the need for cooperation between the two institutions. Representatives cited robust growth enjoyed by Asia and Latin America amid global economic sluggishness, and suggested the two regions continue to open opportunities for trade. A report released by the two organizations in March says an average of two free-trade agreements a year were signed between Asian and Latin American countries from 2004 to 2011, with a total of 18 accords. The leaders said they want to see that number increase to 30 by 2020.

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about growing Vietnamese ties with Latin America.

Bolivia and Spain Seek Compromise on Nationalization Compensation

Officials from the Spanish company Red Eléctrica Española (REE) and the Bolivian government announced on Monday that they would find a fair compensation price for the country’s electrical grid. Bolivia nationalized REE’s 99.9 percent share of the grid on May 1 amid accusations of underinvestment. “We will work together in a process based on objectivity and transparency to find a fair price of compensation,” said REE President José Folgado.

Argentina Approves YPF Expropriation Law

On Friday, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed a bill into law which expropriates a 51 percent share of Spanish Repsol’s 57 percent share of Argentina’s oil company YPF. The bill passed both houses of Congress by a wide margin earlier in the week.The president named a young petroleum engineer, Miguel Galuccio, to lead YPF. He must await confirmation until a June 4 YPF shareholders meeting. 

Is Chávez Planning for a Successor?

The Economist’s Americas View blog takes a look at the council of state appointed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez last week before he departed for chemotherapy in Cuba. Though still in its early stages—only five members plus Vice President Elías Jaua have been appointed—the author sees the council as a sign of Chávez planning a possible transition. “[T]he decision clearly looks like the government’s first public recognition that the omnipresent president’s illness may curtail his ability to govern,” the author writes. 

Haiti Gets New Prime Minister

The Haitian Chamber of Deputies approved the appointment of Laurent Lamothe as the country’s prime minister last Friday by a vote of 62-3 with two abstentions. His appointment ends months of political stalemate brought on by the February resignation of Prime Minister Gary Conille, which observers say compromised President Michel Martelly’s ability to govern and the country’s reconstruction efforts. Martelly confirmed Lamothe by decree 12 hours after the vote—an unusually fast turnaround, notes The Miami Herald.

Puerto Rico: Bilingual by 2022?

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño announced plans this week to make the island completely bilingual by 2022 by requiring public schools to teach all courses in English. The governor believes this would pave the way for Puerto Rican statehood, but says it would provide economic benefits as well. “Bilingualism opens doors and provides opportunity to our children so they can shine and become successful in a labor market that is increasingly competitive and globalized,” he said.

Bahamian Opposition Wins in Landslide Election

Caribbean News Now! reports that the Bahamas’ opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) beat the incumbent Free National Movement (FNM) in the largest landslide in the country’s political history. Though many pundits predicted a close race, the PLP won 29 of the 38 seats in parliament. The FNM took power in 2007, but faced voter discontent due to a 15 percent unemployment rate and record number of murders last year. 

Amid Scandal, Costa Rican Transport Minister Steps Down

On Friday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla asked Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez to step down amid accusations that he received gifts from companies involved in the construction of a 100-mile road near the Nicaraguan border. Inside Costa Rica points out that this is the second ministerial resignation in five weeks, and the eleventh of Chinchilla’s two years in office.  (h/t PanAmerican Post). 

Brazil Becomes World’s Second Biggest Facebook Market

A report from SocialBakers, a web analytics agency, shows that Brazil surpassed India this week to become the world’s second-largest Facebook market after the United States. The report shows that Brazilian Facebook users grew to more than 46 million—up by 22 percent in the past three months.

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