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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Term Limits, Economic Liberalization, and a Leadership Shuffle for Cuba

Cuban head of state Raúl Castro proposed enacting term limits in order to rejuvenate the country’s political leadership, currently dominated by geriatric revolutionaries who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Castro made the proposal at the opening of Cuba’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, where the island’s leaders evaluated a slew of proposals designed to allow a greater role for private initiative and pare back the role of the state. The Congress officially retired Fidel Castro, bumping Raúl Castro up to the position of first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. José Ramón Machado, an octogenarian, was named to replace Raúl in the number two spot and The Christian Science Monitor notes that none of the top three spots went to an official under the age of 78.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis about the reforms considered by the Communist Party Congress over the weekend.

Obama Administration Ready to Move on Panama FTA

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Congress this week that he is ready to begin technical discussions for the ratification of the pending free trade agreement with Panama. The Obama administration took the decision to move forward on the deal after Panama’s Congress passed changes to its tax law that will allow the United States and Panama to share information on bank accounts in their countries. Bloomberg reports that the trade agreement with Panama could be worth some $6.5 billion to U.S. companies, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Obama will meet with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli at the White House on April 28.

Latin America’s Middle Class Makes Strides

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean released its 2011 review, with a focus on the rapid expansion of the region’s middle class as well as how expanded ties with China affect exports. Thanks to rising GDP, falling poverty rates, and better income distribution, Latin America’s middle class grew by 56 million since 1999. Brazil accounted for the largest portion of that growth, given that 38 million people joined middle class ranks there over the past decade.

World Bank Applauds LatAm Growth, but Warns of Challenges ahead

Latin America and the Caribbean weathered the economic crisis better and bounced back more strongly than the United States, Europe, and Central Asia, with an average 6 percent growth rate last year, according to a World Bank report released last week. But the report warns that Latin American economies remain dependent on the rebound of high-income countries and high commodity prices. Inflation, the inflow of speculative foreign capital, and the possibility of local currency appreciation also threaten to undermine the region’s continued economic wellbeing. 

A Long, Tough Primary for Venezuela’s Opposition

While some worry that a drawn-out primary election could weaken the Venezuelan opposition, Bloggings by Boz argues that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática would benefit from a “bruising fight in which the candidates focus on beating up each other for a while.” The blog says a tough primary would weed out weak candidates, force the stronger candidates to refine their messages, and take the focus off President Hugo Chávez for a period. Venezuelan daily El Universal views the opposition’s internal divide as a competition between those who want to restore the power of the traditional parties and those who want to forge a new leadership.

Medellin’s Participatory Budget

The Colombian city of Medellin is practicing an innovative system of participatory budgeting that allows citizens to vote to define funding priorities. NPR profiles the music group Son Bata, which used public funds to develop a cultural center that provides music lessons and helps musicians find paid gigs. The system of participatory budgeting originated in 1989 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2008) introduced it to Medellín. 

Managing Colombia’s Good Economic Fortune

In Colombia, foreign investment is up and rising commodity prices and oil output are helping fill the public coffers. But Colombian Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry must “manage the consequences of this good news,” according to The Economist. One of the main challenges he faces is muting the possible negative effects of a flood of foreign capital, which could cause the country’s currency to spike or create credit bubbles. 

Dilma Returns from Beijing with Concessions

China may be Brazil’s number one trading partner and top foreign direct investor, but Brazilian industrialists are not happy about the $23.5 billion trade deficit with China for manufactured goods. “The heady early days of Brazilian economic infatuation with China is waning, when Brazil, taken by its status as a BRIC and self-consciously viewing China as a partner despite a limited record of mutual engagement, saw the opportunity to triangulate with the United States,” writes COA’s Eric Farnsworth in Poder360. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traveled to China last week to wrest some concessions for her country’s manufacturers and came back with 22 cooperation agreements, including some that will pry the Asian giant’s market open for Brazilian value-added exports. The Economist Intelligence Unit assesses the rebalancing of the Sino-Brazilian relationship in the wake of Rousseff’s state visit.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis explaining why cheap Chinese imports make Brazilian manufacturers nervous. 

Brazil’s FinMin Airs Currency War Grievances before IMF

Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega criticized developed countries’ governments at a meeting of the IMF over the weekend, accusing them of trying to “export their way out of difficult economic situations.” Mantega’s comments highlighted tensions between developing countries with booming economies like Brazil and the countries of the “Global North”—both of whom are competing for access to the developing world’s consumer markets. Just days earlier, Mantega told The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones that the currency war pitting Brazil against the United States and China is still on.

Pacifying Rio’s Favelas

Rio de Janeiro’s police earned applause from many for their November raid on the Complexo de Alemão, a notorious hotbed of drug trafficking and violence. Brazil owes part of its success to the advent of the Police Pacification Units (UPPs, in Portuguese), which work to build positive relationships with targeted communities instead of relying exclusively on repression, Albert Souza writes for the International Relations and Security Network. But the program also has its critics, who charge that installing UPPs in the cities’ favelas may result in the creation of quasi-police states.

Washington Worries about Chinese Spies in Chile

China’s increasingly close relationship with Chile worries the United States, according to WikiLeaks cables provided to investigative journalism organization CIPER. Washington’s fears were first noted in 2005, when Chile and China signed a free trade agreement. The U.S. Embassy in Santiago said that Chile’s growing ties to China “will increase Chile’s vulnerability to Chinese intelligence gathering activities”—particularly military secrets.

Last Argentine Dictator Gets Life Term

Argentina’s last ruler from the military dictatorship, Reynaldo Bignone, received a life sentence for torturing and murdering political opponents. The 83-year-old was already serving a 25-year sentence for other murders. The Argentine court convicted four other former soldiers and police officers along with Bignone.

Uruguay’s Mujica Wrestles Soapy Eel of Inflation

Referring to inflation as a “soapy eel,” Uruguayan President José Mujica pledged to control the economic menace in a radio program last week. Uruguayan inflation hit nearly 7 percent last year—up from 5.9 percent in 2009—and has risen steadily since February, according to the Financial Times. The country’s economy expanded 8 percent last year.

Salvadoran Ex-general Faces Deportation Over Torture Allegations

Eugenio Vides Casanova, a former general from El Salvador, became the first high-level foreign military officer to face charges from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s human rights office. Vides, who headed the National Guard from 1979 to 1983 under El Salvador’s military junta, received a Legion of Merit award from U.S. President Ronald Reagan and has lived in the United States since 1989. He is accused of ordering torture against leftist combatants during the country’s civil war.

Journalism in the Americas Explored

The new issue of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, explores the current state of journalism in the Americas. With contributions from cell phone journalism guru Kara Andrade, Director of the Knight Center at the University of Texas Rosental Alves, and founder of La Silla Vacía Juanita de León, the issue gives a platform for emerging voices, identifies attacks against Latin America’s media, and details the impact of Mexico’s drug war violence on the country’s journalism. 

Carlos Slim Slapped with $1 Billion Fine

Mexico’s regulatory agency fined Carlos Slim’s Telcel $1 billion for monopolistic practices stemming from its network interconnection fees, Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Shannon O’Neil notes. The fine is the biggest in Mexico’s history. If Telcel receives another fine, the Mexican government would have a legal case to break up the company.

Hispanics Outnumber Blacks in U.S. Cities

The 2010 U.S. Census shows that Hispanics now constitute the largest minority in 191 of the country’s 366 metropolitan areas, marking the first time the group outnumbers blacks in the country’s cities. While the political implications of the demographic shift are not yet fully clear, William Frey of the Brookings Institution says that “from now on, local state, and national politicians will need to pay attention to Hispanics rather than treating blacks as the major minority.”

The Man Behind the Anti-immigration Movement

The New York Times profiles John Tanton, the Michigan ophthalmologist who helped drive the anti-immigration movement by arguing from a centrist position and appealing to liberals. As the issue became more polarizing, however, Tanton adopted a racially oriented perspective and alienated his original followers. The Times credits him with leading the campaign that derailed George W. Bush’s 2007 attempt to pass immigration reform.

Caribbean Migration to U.S. Continues to Slow

In a new survey, Migration Policy Institute reports that, since the 1970s, Caribbean migration to the United States has slowed each decade and, in terms of share of foreign born, has declined since 1990. As of 2009, 3.5 million immigrants came from the Caribbean and represented 9 percent of the immigrant population in the United States. 

Thousands of Dominican Security Officers Canned for Corruption

More than 5,000 Dominican police officers and soldiers have been fired over the last three years for corruption and drug trafficking, The Miami Herald reports. Many of them have formed business relationships with Dominican and Colombian cartels that move cocaine through the island to the world’s major markets in the United States and Europe.

Exploring African Experiences in Latin America

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. looks at the black experience in Latin America, where more than 11 million Africans were sent as slaves. The first installation of the four-part documentary series for PBS, called “Black in Latin America,” premiered on April 19 and is available for viewing online.

100 Facts for 100 Years since Machu Picchu’s Rediscovery

July marks one hundred years since the rediscovery of the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian highlands. In a countdown to the anniversary, The Los Angeles Times is posting a fact a day until then “about Machu Picchu, its country, its history and its players.” Access the web page to find out how many Californias would fit into Peru, which five countries border the Andean country, and the purpose of khipu.

Tags: Cuba, favelas, Medellin, Middle class in Latin America, Raul Castro, Rio de Janeiro, Venezuela
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