Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

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From the 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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Leaders from Across Americas Reach out to Chile

In the days since an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile claimed roughly 800 lives and devastated infrastructure, leaders from across the Western Hemisphere have rallied to show their support for relief efforts. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton each traveled to Chile in the wake of the disaster to pledge assistance. Peruvian President Alan García, who has not traveled to Chile in a year due to a maritime-boundary dispute, also visited to pledge humanitarian aid, saying: “We need to strengthen our fraternity, our closeness, and in these moments of need, work toward a true union of peoples.” Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that he will donate half his salary to Chilean and Haitian earthquake relief efforts. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Peru are among the countries sending crucial supplies, such as satellite phones, field hospitals, medical equipment, and blankets.

Access an AS/COA Online resource guide to the Chilean earthquake, with links to maps, images, and additional sources of information.

Social Media Tools Support Chilean Rescue Efforts

Faced with a natural disaster, people both in and outside of Chile used social media to help with rescue efforts. Worldfocus profiles Ushahidi, a “crisis mapping” site coordinated by Columbia University students. The project, first started to aggregate news about post-election violence in Kenya’s 2008 election, collects information that then gets mapped out to give a picture of where emergencies and relief efforts are taking place on the ground. Ushahidi-Chile will eventually be run by Chilean volunteers.

Foreign Policy’s Passport blog takes a look at how Chileans used Twitter to share news and support rescue efforts. “It’s clear that Twitter has become a tool for everyday navigation in a country that is, for the moment, a bit chaotic,” writes Elizabeth Dickinson.

Quake Hits Chile’s Economy, but Experts See Rebound

Early estimates say the price tag for economic damage caused by the Chilean earthquake could rise to about $15 billion. But experts say the country’s disciplined economic policy has led to a low debt and strong savings and Chilean economic consultant group LarrainVial still places the country’s GDP growth for 2010 at 5 percent. “I actually think Chile will grow quite substantially in 2010 because, while the impact of the earthquake will be felt in the first quarter, maybe the second, clearly reconstruction from the earthquake will have a stimulating effect on the economy,” said AS/COA President Susan Segal in a Worldfocus interview.

Bachelet Presidency Paves Way for Gender Equity in Chile

Even as Chile deals with a catastrophic natural disaster, it is also in the process of political transition, as President Michelle Bachelet prepares to hand the presidency over to Sebatian Piñera on March 11. IPS News reports that, because of gender-equity policies her administration implemented, Chile “will be the Latin American country with the most gains to show at the March 1 to 12 meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.”

Secretary Clinton, on Six-Country Tour, Presses Brazil on Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours Latin America this week with stops in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. In Montevideo she attended the inauguration of President José Mujica. In Buenos Aires, she encouraged Argentina and the United Kingdom to dialogue over their dispute on drilling in the Falklands. In Chile, she pledged U.S. assistance for earthquake relief and delivered satellite phones. She will end her trip in Central America.

But her toughest test may be in Brazil, where she hopes to win support for tougher sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has deepened ties with Iran, hosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in November and planning a trip to Tehran for May. Lula signaled Wednesday that he would not succumb to pressure on the matter, saying: “It is not wise to push Iran into a corner. It is wise to establish negotiations.”

“No doubt Brazil is a sovereign nation and can pursue its regional and global interests as it sees fit,” writes COA’s Eric Farnsworth in The Huffington Post. “At the same time, nations that aspire to leadership must be cognizant of the responsibility that comes with leadership.”

Colombian Court Rejects Uribe Reelection Referendum

By a vote of 7 to 2, Colombia’s Constitutional Court on Friday voted against a referendum that would have allowed President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third consecutive term. The court rejected the referendum as unconstitutional, saying that it was not only laden with irregularities but “substantial violations to democratic principles.” Although Uribe polled ahead of other candidates, the public’s support for a referendum waned as the court’s vote neared. Revista Perspectiva’s blog ponders Uribe’s legacy and what his post-presidency political role will be. La Silla Vacía writes that, “without reelection, now begins the fight for succession” and reports on who could serve as Uribe’s heir in the race for the May 30 election.

Read an AS/COA analysis about the constitutional court’s vote.

Transportation Strike Hits Bogota

A strike by transit workers in Colombia’s capital entered its third day on Wednesday in a dispute between the city government and transit unions over costs associated with exchanging old buses for new ones. The strike has left commuters stranded, leading to frustration and outbursts of violence that caused an estimated $400,000 in damage.

Colombia, Peru Reach Trade Deal with EU

After nine rounds of talks, the European Union concluded negotiations of a free trade deal on March 1. The free-trade pact will be signed during the May 8 EU-Latin America summit in Madrid.

Colombia also initiated its second round of talks on free-trade negotiations with South Korea this week.

Sino-Peruvian Trade Deal Takes Effect

A Chinese-Peruvian free-trade agreement took effect on March 1. The pact, signed in April 2009, will eradicate tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between the two countries. China Daily reports that bilateral trade hit $7.5 billion in 2008, an increase of 24 percent from the year before.

Cuban Dissident’s Death Could Chill U.S. Engagement

The February 23 death of Cuban hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo could cool Washington’s attempts to engage Cuba. Though President Raúl Castro made a statement saying he was “ lamenting” Zapata’s death, in a television report this week Havana denied playing a role in the dissident’s passing and published another report labeling him a common criminal. Nick Miroff writes for GlobalPost that “the island’s dissident community, meanwhile, has been galvanized by Zapata’s death.”

Yoani Sanchez’s blog on The Huffington Post includes a column from a guest blogger profiling another Cuban human rights activist, Guillermo Farinas, whose health is failing following 23 days on a hunger strike.

Members of Brazil’s opposition criticized Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who arrived in Havana shortly after Zapata’s death, for not taking a harder stance against Cuban human rights abuses.

Spanish Judge Links Venezuela to ETA-FARC

Judge Eloy Velasco, a justice on Spain’s National Court, accused the Venezuelan government this week of working with Basque separatists ETA and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in assassination plots against Colombian officials traveling in Spain. According to Velasco’s report, ETA and FARC collaborated in plots to kill current Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Vice President Francisco Santos, as well as former President Andrés Pastrana. The judge’s report also accused Arturo Cubillas Fontán, who worked for Venezuela’s Agriculture Ministry in 2005, of serving as a link between ETA and FARC.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero requested an explanation from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez about the terrorist groups’ alliance and Caracas’ possible connection. Chávez denied the charges but said he would cooperate in efforts to clarify the situation. Meanwhile, Colombia has requested to have a dialogue with Venezuela over the charges.

IACHR Issues Human Right Report on Venezuela

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) issued a 300-page report last week on the human rights situation in Venezuela, condemning limits on freedom of speech, the executive branch’s control over other arms of government, erosion of the rule of law, and politi cal intolerance. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez responded by calling the IAHCR a “mafia.”

Insulza Presents Candidacy for Reelection as OAS Head

In a special March 3 session of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza will make the case for his reelection to a second five-year term. He’ll need 17 of 33 votes come March 24, and 15 countries have signaled they will back him. Washington has not signaled which way it will go. Thus far, Insulza is the only candidate.

Blogging for Americas Quarterly Liz Harper argues that the OAS is ready for a change, “[n]ot another five years of hesitancy and helplessness.”

Argentine President Issues New Debt Decrees

Just after Argentina’s Congress came back into session, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner scrapped one controversial decree that would have allowed her government to use Central Bank reserves for debt repayment and replaced it with two others. Her original proposal to use $6.6 billion of reserves for debt relief sparked a political crisis and would likely have been rejected by lawmakers. The two new decrees include one that transfers $2.18 billion to service debt payments while the second would allow the $4.38 billion in reserves to go to private creditors.

Mujica Takes the Reins in Uruguay

Former Tupamaro guerilla fighter José “Pepe” Mujica was sworn in as Uruguay’s new president on March 1 and declared his commitment to Mercosur and poverty alleviation. The Guardian looks at austerity measures Mujica has already taken, such as a promise to give away 85 percent of his salary, choosing his farmhouse as a residence over the presidential palace, and urging officials to use economical cars.

Assessing a U.S.-Mexican Border Enforcement Pact

Writing for ISN Security Watch, Samuel Logan covers an enforcement pact that outlines cooperation efforts in the Sonora-Arizona border area. The deal was signed February 18 by U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro García Luna. “Some success from this border initiative would give [presidents of Mexico and the United States] measurable achievement in a political arena marked by more bloody headlines than success stories,” writes Logan. “Building on any success could open doors for more sensitive discussions, such as immigration or adding more U.S. support for training and cooperative missions inside Mexico.”

Before Midterm Elections: Analyzing the Latino Swing Vote

A new report by America’s Voice explores 40 upcoming congressional races and documents not only why the Hispanic electorate is of increasing importance in U.S. elections, but also analyzes trends in how Latinos decide to vote. “While trending Democratic overall, at least one segment of the Latino electorate—foreign-born, naturalized U.S. citizens of Latino descent, who represent 40 percent of the Latino voter population—has proven to be a true swing constituency,” according to the report.

Guatemalan Police and Drug Czar Arrested for Trafficking

Both Guatemala’s national police chief and the anti-drug czar were arrested in connection with a March 2009 cocaine heist that left five police officers dead. This marks the second time within a year that a Guatemalan police chief was arrested for links to drug trafficking. It also comes on the heels of President Álvaro Colom’s dismissal of his interior minister, who was tied to an embezzlement case.

State Dept.: Drug Trafficking Shifts to Central America

The State Department released its annual report on the drug trade and counter-narcotics efforts on Monday and found that, given increased enforcement efforts in Mexico, smugglers are shifting transit routes further south into Central America. The report also said Bolivia and Venezuela have fallen short when it comes to anti-drug efforts, citing the latter for failing to slow shipments from hidden airstrips. The Venezuelan embassy contested the charges, saying its rate of drug seizures rose by 11 percent in 2009.

NYC Looks to Bogota for Public Transit Model

New York’s transit department announced plans this week to create an express lane for crosstown buses traveling on 34th Street. The proposal is based on ideas from Bogota’s TransMilenio project, launched in 2005, which boosted efficiency in the Colombian capital’s public transportation system. The TransMileno project, in turn, borrowed ideas from the transit system of Curitiba, Brazil.

Tags: Alvaro Uribe, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, disaster relief, Guatemala, OAS, Peru, Referendum, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Uruguay, Venezuela
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