Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas



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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Immigration Reform Debate Revived with New House Bill

Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced, with the backing of nearly two-dozen lawmakers, a new comprehensive immigration reform bill on December 15. The proposed legislation represents the first immigration bill submitted since 2007 reform attempts fell apart. “We have waited patiently for a workable solution to our immigration crisis to be taken up by this Congress and our president,” said Gutierrez in a press release. “The time for waiting is over.”

In a new AQ blog post, AS/COA Director of Policy Jason Marczak reports on the new bill and looks ahead to an anticipated Senate version expected early in the new year. “[W]hile [Gutierrez’s] legislation is unlikely to be the bill that ultimately passes, it puts pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to step up their efforts at finding a workable solution to one of the United States’ most challenging domestic issues,” writes Marczak.

Piñera Wins First Round of Chilean Elections

National Renewal Party candidate Sebastian Piñera won the primary round of Chile’s presidential elections, marking the first time since the country’s return to democracy in 1990 that a conservative has come out on top in Chile. Piñera did not obtain 50 percent of the votes needed to avoid a runoff. He will have to face Concertación candidate and ex-President Eduardo Frei in the second round on January 17.

Read an AS/COA news analysis of the Chilean elections.

WTO Dispute Settles EU-LatAm “Banana War”

The European Union and Latin American countries reached an agreement this week to end the longest-running dispute at the World Trade Organization. The deal will cut duties by 35 percent over seven years on banana imports from Latin America. The change could decrease EU prices on the fruit by 11 percent over seven years and increase imports from Latin America by 17 percent. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy said the dispute, which was triggered by changes the EU made to its banana-import regime in July 1993, was one of the “most technically complex, politically sensitive and commercially meaningful” ever brought to the multilateral organization.

Calderón’s 10-Point Plan for Political Reform

Mexican President Felipe Calderón introduced a 10-point plan to reform and streamline the country’s political system, including a proposal to carry out runoff presidential elections in cases where an absolute majority is not reached in first rounds. As part of the plan, which requires a string of constitutional amendments to pass, Calderón also recommends extending maximum term limits of mayoral and assembly member leaders to 12 years as well as reducing the number of senators to 96 from 128 and the number of representatives to 400 from 500.

Mexico Hit with Second Ratings Downgrade

Standard & Poor’s slapped Mexico with its second sovereign debt downgrade in less than a month over concerns about slumping oil revenue and weakened fiscal profile. The credit rating agency lowered the country’s foreign-currency debt rating from BBB-plus to BBB. Fitch made a similar move late last month. “But stock and currency investors continue to give Mexico the benefit of the doubt in the short run,” reports The Los Angeles Times‘ Money & Company blog. “Some investors may well wonder why the country deserves a lower debt rating than Greece, given the latter’s far more desperate budget situation.”

Latin American Interests Central to Copenhagen Summit

An op-ed for The Miami Herald explores the crucial role of Latin American and Caribbean countries in the Copenhagen summit this week. Laura Tuck, World Bank sector director for Sustainable Development in the Latin America and Caribbean region, writes about Latin America’s leadership on climate policies and the region’s progress on renewable energy programs. “Taking actions now to move to even greater dependence on renewable energy will ensure its place among the world’s most climate-friendly regions,” writes Tuck.

The Fall 2009 issue of Americas Quarterly examines the hemisphere’s environmental priorities.

Faced with Drought, Colombia Rations Water

Water has been rationed in 50 Colombian municipalities due to the country’s severe drought caused by the “El Niño” effect. A report released by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies states that Colombia faces an increased risk of forest fires and authorities expect the drought to last until April 2010. Due to water scarcity, Colombia has temporarily reduced exports of electricity to neighboring countries Ecuador and Venezuela.

Honduras Hit Hard by Extreme Weather since 1990

As if a political crisis isn’t enough, Honduras ranks high as a country hit hard by extreme weather conditions. A new report released at the Copenhagen Summit by the international climate and development group Germanwatch found that Honduras is among the top three countries—along with Bangladesh and Myanmar—most aversely affected by weather-related events. The report reveals that, around the world between 1990 and 2008, approximately 600,000 people have died due to severe weather conditions. Financial losses were $1.7 trillion and occurred in mainly low-income or lower-middle income countries as a result of storms, floods, and heat waves.

House Passes Extension of Trade Preferences with Andean Countries

The U.S. House of Representatives approved on December 15 a one-year extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) for Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. In 2008, total exports from those countries to the United States amounted to roughly $27 billion. The extension awaits approval by the U.S. Senate and is expected to come into force starting January 1st, 2010.

Senior U.S. Diplomat Hits Brazil on Southern Cone Tour

A top U.S. envoy visited Brazil this week during a Latin American tour and following some recent bilateral diplomatic wrinkles. The diplomatic wrinkles stem from Brazil’s recent hosting of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as controversy over a U.S.-Colombia military deal that has drawn concern from several Latin American leaders. After a delayed confirmation, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela made his first trip to Latin America this week as the Obama administration’s point man. According to a MercoPress article, Valenzuela may have felt a chill while in Brazil as a result of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s December 11 warning that Latin American countries should “think twice” about close ties with Iran. Neither President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva nor Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim received the envoy during his visit. Still, the two countries found common ground on the Honduran crisis in the meeting between Valenzuela and Brazil’s International Affairs Advisor Marco Aurelio García, reports the Latin Americanist blog. “We coincide in something: for the Brazilian and the U.S. governments the [Honduran] election is insufficient to normalize democracy,” Garcia said, adding that they still had a “small difference” over the results of the Honduran elections.

Brazil Votes in Favor of Venezuela’s Mercosur Admission

After two years of debate on the matter, the Brazilian Senate approved Venezuela’s membership in Mercosur. Argentina and Uruguay have ratified Venezuela’s admission and the fate of Venezuela’s entry now rests with Paraguay’s Senate. However, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has removed the motion from the agenda of the opposition-controlled legislature.

Chávez Demands 30 Years in Jail for Venezuelan Judge

Venezuelan Judge María Afiuni has been jailed over her ruling to free banker Eligio Cedeño, imprisoned since 2007 on charges that he broke currency-control regulations. President Hugo Chávez’s calls for Afiuni to remain in jail for 30 years have triggered criticism from his political rivals as well as legal experts who cite this as an example of the judiciary’s lack of independence in Venezuela. “We should not be surprised that Afiuni is being persecuted for doing her job. In these kinds of political cases, there is a long history of the state attacking various officers of the court who do not fulfill the orders of the executive,” writes Cedeño’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam.

Zelaya’s Mexico Travel Plans Derailed

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya almost made his way to Mexico to conclude a three-month stint hiding out in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa last week. But the de facto government halted his travel plans when Zelaya refused to sign papers resigning from his position as president. Zelaya stated that he planned to go to Mexico to be in a “neutral place” where he could establish dialogue with newly elected President Porfirio Lobo, but he wanted to enter the country as president, not as a seeker of political asylum.

Human Rights Activist Gunned Down in Honduras

Rights activist Walter Trochez was killed in Tegucigalpa on Monday. Trochez, who worked with Honduras’ gay community, was previously kidnapped and beaten by masked men who threatened him for his participation in the Resistencia, which opposed the ousting of Zelaya. The International Observatory for Human Rights in Honduras reported that 14 people have died for possible political reasons since Zelaya was deposed on June 28.

U.S. Government Subcontractor Arrested in Cuba

A USAID subcontractor was arrested in Cuba for allegedly distributing computers and communications equipment as part of U.S. pro-democracy efforts on the island. The subcontractor is an employee of Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI) and served as a U.S. government consultant supervising aid for civil society organizations in Cuba, writes Politico blogger Laura Rozen. The prisoner is reportedly being held in a high-security facility.

Growing Support for Democracy in Latin America

Support for democracy in Latin America has reached its highest levels since the Latinobarómetro began surveying on the topic in 1995. As The Economist points out, this year’s poll marked an important milestone in that, for the first time in the survey’s history, respondents approved of their governments at higher rates than national armed forces. U.S. President Barack Obama was the leader with the highest marks, just ahead of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro rounded out the bottom of the list. The poll was taken in 18 countries across the region.

ECLAC Forecasts Quicker Recovery in Latin America

Latin America will recover more quickly from the global economic downturn than predicted a few months ago, according to a report published last week by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The report forecasts that Brazil will lead the region in growth next year at 5.5 percent, followed by Peru and Uruguay (5 percent); Bolivia, Chile and Panama (4.5 percent); and Argentina and Surinam (4 percent). However, ECLAC warns that this growth may not be sustainable due to uncertain economic prospects of developed countries. “The worst of the crisis is behind us. The motors of growth have been turned on again, but we don’t know how long the fuel will last,” said ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena.

High Hopes, Weak Prospects for Hispanic Youth

A new report from the Pew Hispanic Center paints a mixed picture of the attitudes and behaviors of America’s growing young Hispanic population. Ninety-five percent of Latinos are satisfied with their lives and nearly three-quarters expect to be better off financially than their parents. However, Hispanics are more likely than the general population to drop out of school, live in poverty, and become teenage parents.

All-Immigrant School Earns Top Grade in High School Ranking

A Queens, New York, high school with an all-immigrant student body ranked sixth in U.S. News and World Report’s latest list of 100 best high schools in the United States. That makes it the top city public school in the country. Fifty-six percent of Newcomers High School’s 1,000 students—who hail from 50 countries and speak 30 different languages—are Hispanic.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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