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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Haiti Rocked by Destructive Earthquake

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, resulting in widespread chaos and substantial casualties. “Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed,” said Haiti’s President René Préval in an interview with The Miami Herald, who described the catastrophe as “unimaginable.” The United Nations and other agencies have warned that the rampant devastation is hampering efforts and The International Red Cross says as many as three million people have been affected and tens of thousands may have been killed by the earthquake, the epicenter of which lies just outside the Haitian capital. Images and reports of the destruction have been widely distributed via Internet and social media. Get updates via Twitter at #Haiti.

AS/COA has compiled a resource page with information about how to support relief efforts and get more information.

Obama’s Tango: U.S.-Latin American Relations

A year into the Obama presidency, AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini and Jason Marczak take stock of U.S.-Latin American relations in a new article for Foreign Affairs. The Obama administration has pursued a Latin America policy based on the idea of partnership. But recent crises have revealed a fundamental weakness in the Obama administration’s nascent Latin America policy, they argue. “It is time…for the United States to refocus efforts on defining its national interests in the region and to forge and lead the ad-hoc alliances necessary to further them,” write Sabatini and Marczak.

U.S. Judge Freezes Argentine Central-Bank Assets

A clash with Argentina’s Central Bank head over the president’s plans to use reserves to pay debt has led to concerns of a weakened currency and capital flight. Last week, an Argentine judge reversed President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s decision to dismiss Central Bank Governor Martín Redrado after he rejected her plan to use $6.6 billion in reserves to pay debt. The case has since been turned over to a higher appeals court, which will come to a decision about whether Redrado should retain his position as well as the reserves-for-debt plan. On Tuesday, a U.S. judge embargoed $1.7 million worth of Argentine central-bank assets, creating an obstacle to using reserves and playing a role in a selloff of Argentine bonds, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Venezuela Closes Dozens of Shops after Devaluing Bolivar

The Venezuelan government closed dozens of stores charged with speculation in the days following a decision to devalue the bolivar. Shoppers turned out in droves after President Hugo Chávez’s Friday announcement that the bolivar would drop in value by 50 percent—from 2.15 to 4.3 to the dollar—for “nonessential” goods. The rate was set at 2.6 for products such as food and medicine. Meanwhile, the black market rate stands at roughly 6.25 to the dollar.

Electricity Blackouts Imposed in Venezuela

The government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced a nationwide plan to impose four-hour electricity blackouts. The country’s National Electricity Corporation predicts a severe energy shortage in the next 120 days. Water reserves at the hydroelectric dam at Guri, which provides three-quarters of the country’s power, have fallen to emergency levels after the lowest rainfall in decades last year.

Opposition Ahead in Polls in Chile’s Runoff Elections

Chilean runoff elections on Sunday will likely deliver the Concertación coalition’s first loss since democracy’s return to Chile in 1990, even though President Michelle Bachelet commands an approval rating of over 80 percent. Infolatam offers an overview of Monday’s televised debate between Sebastián Piñera, the conservative expected to take power this March, and the Concertación candidate, former President Eduardo Frei. Piñera polls just ahead of Frei.

Read AS/COA analysis about the coming year in Latin American presidential elections as well as the first round of Chilean elections.

OECD Brings Chile into the Fold

Chile became the first South American country to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) under an agreement signed in Santiago between Finance Minister Andrés Velasco and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurra. “This is a place where Chile belongs, out of sheer merit,” said Gurra. “For nearly two decades Chile has developed a strong set of policies for democratic consolidation and sound economic growth.” Chile will officially join the group of mostly high-income countries once the Chilean Congress ratifies the agreement.

Guatemalan President Cleared as UN Reveals Lawyer Staged Own Death

In a bizarre twist on an already bizarre murder case, UN investigators revealed Tuesday that prominent Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg hired a hit man to kill himself. After he was fatally shot in May 2009 while riding a bicycle, Rosenberg’s allies released a video of the lawyer saying: “If you are hearing or seeing this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.” The incident sparked protests and the UN began its eight-month investigation.

Daycare Program Aims to Stem Teenage Dropout in Chile

Chile is opening daycare centers in schools to fight dropout rates among teenage students, reports GlobalPost. The government of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet tripled the number of daycare centers for children under two years of age since 2006, putting the country on track to meet its goal of 3,500 childcare facilities by March 2010. More than 16 percent of Chilean babies are born to teenage mothers.

Proposed Truth Commission Sparks Controversy in Brazil

Brazil’s defense minister and senior military figures threatened to resign following the proposal of a truth commission to investigate human rights violations carried out during the years of military rule (1964 to 1985). Supporters of the commission argue that it will secure justice for victims’ families. Military officials say it is an attempt to bypass an amnesty law enacted before the return of democracy that granted immunity to state officials.

Investors Seek to Buy Seized-property Claims in Cuba

Foreign investors are seeking U.S. government approval to buy claims against Cuba for U.S.-owned properties seized in the 1960s, which they aim to swap in a debt-for-equity exchange with the island’s government. Investors would negotiate a price for the claims with Havana and trade them for equity in Cuban properties, bonds or other assets. A request for the license to purchase the claims was filed in July with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, but the government has not yet responded.

2009 Job Losses Hit 2.2 Million Mark for Latin America

Latin America lost 2.2 million jobs in 2009 as the global financial crisis and dropping commodity prices hit regional economies. This reverses five straight years of falling unemployment, according an annual report released by the International Labor Organization.

Latino Unemployment Rate Outpaces U.S. Average

New U.S. Labor Department figures show that the unemployment rate for Hispanics reached 12.9 percent, almost three percentage points above the national average.

Foreign Minister Resigns over Ecuador’s Amazon Oil Proposal

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Fander Falconí stepped down Tuesday after President Rafael Correa criticized his handling of a plan to seek international donations of $3.5 billion to not drill for an estimated 846 million barrels of heavy crude oil located in the Yasuni National Park.

Soldiers Linked to Colombian “False Positives” Case Released

With trial deadlines left unmet, 17 Colombian soldiers connected to Colombia’s “false positives” case were freed last week. The soldiers were implicated in the murder of 11 youths from Soacha, Colombia. The victims were kidnapped, murdered, and falsely reported to be members of a guerilla group. Despite the release of the soldiers, the chair of Colombia’s Supreme Judicial Council said investigations will continue. Some 1,200 members of Colombia’s military have been linked to the false positives scandal.

Bolivian Land Reform

National Public Radio examines the effects of land reform under Bolivian President Evo Morales by focusing on how changes are being manifested, both for wealthy landowners and for once-landless indigenous communities.

Mexican Journalists Targeted

Three journalists were killed or kidnapped in Mexico in recent weeks. Reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa was abducted and found shot to death late last week in the city of Saltillo in northern Mexico. “Mexican journalists find themselves terrorized by this wave of lethal violence that is barring them from reporting the news,” said Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ). CPJ research shows that 42 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992. At least 18 were killed in direct reprisal for their work, making Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for the press.

Mixed Results for Latin America in Freedom House Report

Freedom House released the latest edition of Freedom in the World, an annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, showing suboptimal results for Latin America. Honduras was removed from the list of electoral democracies owing to the political crisis resulting from Manuel Zelaya’s ouster from the presidency. The survey also criticized the deterioration of Nicaraguan civil liberties stemming from President Daniel Ortega’s use of intimidation and judicial manipulation and declining Venezuelan political rights as President Hugo Chávez continues to concentrate executive power. On a positive note, the report noted that Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay strengthened their countries’ democratic institutions.

Tags: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Economy, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, OECD, President Obama and Latin America, unemployment, Venezuela
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