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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The Wait for Washington’s Response on Cuba

Following Havana’s announcement that it would release 52 political prisoners, eyes turned to Washington for a White House response. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department applauded efforts by the Catholic Church and the Spanish Foreign Ministry to secure the dissidents’ release. “All those released from prison should be free to decide for themselves whether to remain in Cuba or travel to another country,” said a State Department spokesman. The first group of freed prisoners left for Madrid on Tuesday.

In an interview with TIME, AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini said the limited U.S. response “reflects the surprising policy radio silence we’re so often getting from this White House on Cuba and Latin America in general.”  The article also discusses an AS/COA report, to be published on July 15 in conjunction with the Cuba Study Group and Brookings Institution, that urges the Obama administration to roll back restrictions on U.S. telecommunications links with Cuba.

Join Americas Society and Council of the Americas on July 16—either in person or via live webcast—for a discussion on social media and information technology in Cuba.  Visit http://www.as-coa.org/ on July 15 to access the report.

Read an AS/COA analysis on Cuba’s prisoner release.

Fidel Castro Makes Touted TV Reappearance

Aging former President Fidel Castro made his biggest media appearance in years July 12 during a televised interview with Cuban talk show “Round Table.” Castro talked about the danger of nuclear war in the Middle East rather than the release of 52 Cuban dissidents and his appearance sparked a flurry of questions and coverage. “He’s baaaack,” reported The Christian Science Monitor. The Havana Note pondered various reasons for the TV interview but concluded: “he’s doing this because he’s bored out of his skull and simply wants to jump back into the fight.” Comedy writer Andy Borowitz erroneously predicted that Castro would announce plans to sign with the Miami Heat.

Ingrid Betancourt Reverses Course on Lawsuit

Two years after her dramatic rescue, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt filed a suit requesting compensation of $7 million from the Colombian government for damages suffered during her six years in FARC captivity. But, after drawing criticism from local and international media, Betancourt dropped her claim. In an interview with Caracol TV, Betancourt argued that her claim did not constitute an attack on the government but served as a way for Colombians to “understand the need for compensating victims of terrorism.”

Haiti Reconstruction Officially Begins

Six months after the earthquake, Haiti began the reconstruction phase of its recovery. At a ceremony outside the presidential palace, President René Préval unveiled plans for the removal of debris and reconstruction of the country. UN officials also pressed donor countries to release more of the funds pledged to Haiti. The Miami Herald’s Haiti website features ongoing multimedia coverage of the rebuilding process. An InterAction map highlights hundreds of development and recovery projects in Haiti.

Wagering on the DOJ’s Case against the AZ Immigration Law

We can’t take bets on this because it’s illegal and probably immoral,” write the authors of The Houston Chronicle’s Immigration Chronicles blog in a post about whether a U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit will succeed in blocking implementation of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Legal experts interviewed wager that the case will achieve its end before the July 29 implementation of the legislation.

Read an AS/COA analysis of the Justice Department’s federal case against Arizona.

Campaigns Launched for Brazil Vote

Last week marked the official start of campaigns in Brazil’s presidential race, with elections scheduled for October 3. Ten candidates are competing, but the two frontrunners are Dilma Rousseff, former chief of staff for current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and ex-Governor of São Paulo José Serra. Sylvie Stein writes in Foreign Policy’s Passport blog that, given Lula’s high approval rating, “each [candidate] is fighting tooth and nail to prove one thing: that he or she is the most cautious, the most predictable, the most moderate candidate of them all.”

Rio-São Paulo Bullet Train: Let the Bidding Begin

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva opened up the bidding process for building bullet-train service between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The project, estimated to carry an $18.75-billion price tag, should be concluded by the time Brazil hosts the 2016 Olympics. Bidding closes in December.

Plan Colombia Marks Tenth Anniversary

Colombia Reports takes a look at Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded antinarcotics project, which began its tenth year on Tuesday. During the tenure of the $8 billion-program, Colombia saw an 84 percent decrease in terrorist attacks and an 88 percent drop in kidnappings while foreign investment has doubled since 2002. However, some criticize the plan for displacing drug production to neighboring countries rather than achieving eradication.

Colombia Invites Presidents of Ecuador, Venezuela to Inauguration

Setting a new tone in diplomatic relations with its neighbors, Colombia invited Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador to the August 7 inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos. Relations between Bogota and the other two countries have been rocky since Colombia staged a 2008 attack on a FARC guerilla camp just inside Ecuadoran territory.

Dutch Foreign Minister Dispatched amid Venezuela Dispute

The Dutch foreign minister arrived in Curaçao on Wednesday after Caracas accused Dutch military planes of violating its airspace. Venezuela’s foreign ministry says Dutch military planes operating out of Curacao have repeatedly violated its airspace over the past two weeks. Curaçao refines much of Venezuela’s petroleum into gasoline and also plays host to a U.S. airbase that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez considers a staging ground for future U.S. attacks.

ALBA Foreign Ministers Visit Tehran

Bolivia’s ambassador to Iran said on Wednesday that his country’s President would visit Tehran in September. The trip by President Evo Morales was announced as foreign ministers from Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador were in Tehran to condemn the latest round of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic and denounce U.S. and Israeli foreign policy.

Ecuador Captures 100-ft Smuggling Sub

During a July 9 raid, Ecuadoran police captured a 100-foot submarine being constructed by drug smugglers. The vessel would have been capable of diving to depths of 65 feet and traveling for ten days—a major advance when compared to the semi-submersibles typically used for narcotics trafficking. “This is a game changer for us and will prompt an array of countermeasures,” Jay Bergman, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Andean director, told The Los Angeles Times.

Guide to Lima’s Candidates for Mayor

Writing for the Americas Quarterly blog, Sabrina Karim offers a rundown of the 12 candidates competing to take over the job of mayor from Luisa Castañeda Lossio, who is in the race for the April 2011 presidential vote. The mayoral vote is slated for October 3.

Mexico to Train Thousands in Oil-Spill Cleanup Plan

In an effort to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” the Mexican government announced a contingency plan that involves training thousands of its own Gulf Coast farmers and fishermen to assist with anticipated cleanup from the BP oil spill. Oil slicks could get trapped in national waters in October. Financial Times reports that the cost of the cleanup will reach $40 million and Mexico expects BP to pick up the tab.

Read an AS/COA analysis about how various countries in the Americas have pitched in to help in the face of the oil spill, as well as which ones could be affected.

Taking Stock of Chinese-LatAm Space Collaboration

The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief explores space cooperation between Beijing and several Latin American countries. China, which has sold satellites to countries with limited ties to Washington such as Venezuela and Bolivia, maintains an ongoing partnership with Brazil, and could create links with Mexico when it hosts the Space Conference of the Americas in November 2010. “Each of these developments will advance the PRC’s presence in the technical infrastructure of Latin America while moving it toward an ever more capable, multidimensional space capability—a reality to which the United States and other global players will have to adjust.” writes Evan Ellis.

COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth covers growing Sino-Latin American trade ties in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times.

Beijing to Invest $10 Billion in Argentina

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner visited China this week, leading to a series of accords including a Beijing pledge to invest $10 billion, mostly in Argentina’s railway system. However, Fernández de Kirchner fell short of resolving a ban on Argentine soy exports during her meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The dispute stems from Argentine anti-dumping measures against Chinese imports and signifies $2 billion-worth of losses for Argentina.

Argentina’s Senate Prepares for Gay Marriage Vote

Senators in Argentina are due to vote on a bill that would legalize gay marriage, awarding same-sex couples equal rights under federal law. The bill, which polls indicate has the support of 70 percent of Argentines but is hotly contested by local Roman Catholic groups, is being championed by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and former President and current Senator Nestor Kirchner, both of whom are due to stand for reelection in 2011. The lower house has already approved the measure, which would make Argentina the first Latin American country to allow gay marriage.

Former Nicaraguan President to Run Again

Ex-President of Nicaragua Arnoldo Aleman was nominated July 11 as a candidate for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party in November 2011 elections against current President Daniel Ortega. Polls show Ortega with a sizeable lead over Aleman, who places third in hypothetical match-ups, though polls also find that both men are more disliked than liked by Nicaraguans. Aleman served as president from 1997 to 2001 and was later indicted for laundering $58 million in government funds. Cases linked to corruption charges have since been closed and a conviction overturned.

White House Hosts Dominican President

Dominican President Leonel Fernández met his U.S. counterpart Monday to talk about trade and anti-trafficking cooperation. With the meeting taking place exactly six months after the Haiti earthquake, President Obama recognized the Dominican government’s response in the disaster, saying: “It saved lives and it continues as we look at how we can reconstruct and rebuild in Haiti in a way that is good not only for the people of Haiti but also good for the region as a whole.”

Mexico, Argentina, Colombia Lead LatAm Pack on Facebook Use

A new study by SMLatam, a Latin America-based social media organization, reports on the number of Facebook users in the region. Weighing in at 12.5 million, Mexico accounts for the largest number of Latin American users, followed by 10 million in Argentina and 9.7 million in Colombia. There are 60 million users across the region, which accounts for 17 percent of users worldwide.

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