From 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.
Mexico Mourns, Makes Arrests after Casino Royale Tragedy
Police in Mexico arrested five men thought to be members of the Zetas drug gang and responsible for arson that killed 52 people in a Monterrey casino on August 25. Authorities believe gang members carried out the brutal attack, which led to three days of national mourning, after the casino’s owners failed to pay protection money. Despite the arrests, questions persist about who is at fault. President Felipe Calderón, who labeled the attack terrorism, placed blame on the United States for its role in the violence due to drug consumption—a move that Malcom Beith critiques in ForeignPolicy.com. In The Los Angeles Times’ La Plaza blog, Daniel Hernandez explores the blame game; he writes that some place responsibility in the hands of Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN), given that casinos—“seen as magnets for organized crime”—have proliferated since the PAN came to power a decade ago. Poor safety measures are at least partly to blame, writes James Bosworth for The Christian Science Monitor; blocked emergency exits prevented victims from escaping the fire.
In the days since the Casino Royale tragedy, a debate between Calderón and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, picked up steam. Fox supports negotiating with drug trafficking organizations to reach a pact to end the drug war—an idea Calderón has firmly rejected, as Mexican daily El Universal reports.
ATF Head Transferred after Botched Mexican Gun Operation
In the wake of the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, Kenneth Melson—head of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—will be transferred to another position at the U.S. Department of Justice. The ATF operation, which intended to gain intelligence on gun trafficking, allowed thousands of weapons to “walk” in southwestern states and across the Mexican border. The guns have been linked to at least 12 violent crimes in the United States and an unknown number of crimes in Mexico.
U.S. Grants Asylum to Second Mexican Reporter
Cameraman for Televisa Alejandro Hernández Pacheco became the second Mexican journalist to receive asylum in the United States because of Mexico’s drug war violence, news agencies reported Monday. Hernández, who was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel in July 2010 and later fled to El Paso, Texas, is expected to confirm the report in a press conference in the next few days.
Latino College Enrollment Hits All-time High in U.S.
A Pew Hispanic Center study found that Latinos aged between 18 and 24 years old enrolled in college in the United States rose by 24 percent in one year, to 12.2 million in October 2010. The increase outpaced growth for other groups, helping to narrow the gap in enrollment rates. While population growth accounted for some of the increase (the number 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics grew by 7 percent during the period examined), “[r]ising educational attainment is an important driver of these enrollment trends,” according to the report.
Ethics Commission Wraps up Study of 1940s Guatemalan Medical Testing
On Monday, the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues closed investigation of U.S. Public Health Service studies conducted in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. The Commission found that some 1,300 Guatemalans were exposed to sexually transmitted diseases to research whether penicillin could serve as a preventative medication. Victims included prisoners, psychiatric patients, and orphans; the experiments claimed 83 lives. The testing came to light in 2010, when a Wellesley College professor uncovered archives documenting the research. U.S. President Barack Obama subsequently apologized to Guatemalan head of state Álvaro Colom and set up the commission.
Ortega Courts Foreign Investors
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega may define himself as a socialist, but, according to The Economist, he is cultivating foreign investors as he prepares for a presidential race in November that he is expected to win easily. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund both praised Nicaragua’s macroeonomic management and manufacturers are looking to the country as a new place to set up shop, though corruption and a lack of infrastructure present challenges.
Panama’s Political Alliances Hit Speed Bump
President Ricardo Martinelli’s fired his foreign minister, Juan Carlos Varela, on August 30, accusing him of spending too much time preparing to run for president in 2014. The decision ruptured the governing alliance between Martinelli’s conservative Democratic Change Party and its center-right partner, the Panameñista Party.
Lula Talks Business in Costa Rica
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva visited Costa Rica on August 30, where he told reporters he hoped to convince Brazilian businesses of the Central American country’s potential. Lula was invited by Brazilian construction company OAS Limited, which is working to secure a $52 million contract to build a road in northern Costa Rica. Lula met with President Laura Chinchilla on August 30 and planned to meet former President Óscar Árias at his home on September 1.
New Defense Minister for Colombia
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos named Juan Carlos Pinzón as his new defense minister, after accepting Rodrigo Rivera’s resignation on August 30. Pinzón has held several government positions and served as vice minister of defense under Santos during the Álvaro Uribe administration. Santos emphasized Rivera’s achievements as defense minister, including the assassination of FARC leader “Mono Jojoy,” and offered him the position of ambassador to the European Union. Rivera faced criticism over a recent outbreak of political violence.
Colombia’s AG Weighs in on DAS Investigations
The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth sat down with Colombian Attorney General Vivian Morales days after the same newspaper reported that U.S. aid was diverted to Colombia’s Department of Administrative Services (DAS—Colombia’s intelligence agency) to spy on then-President Álvaro Uribe’s political enemies. “You can’t say that these funds were deviated to use for this illegal activity,” says Morales. “What was deviated was the authority and power of this intelligence agency.” Seven months on the job, Morales explains the two-year old investigation that led, thus far, to the jailing of 28 people linked to the scandal and a transformation of DAS.
IACHR to Decide on Leopoldo López Case
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights meets today in Bogota to rule on the case of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan politician who was prohibited from running for mayor of Caracas by the Comptroller’s Office over allegations of corruption. López denies the corruption charges and argues that the Venezuelan government cannot disqualify him unless it can prove him guilty in a court of law. Today’s binding decision could affect the cases of hundreds of Venezuelan politicians who have been prohibited without trial from running for office. The decision also has implications for the case of former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, who lost her seat over allegations of maintaining alliances with leftist guerrillas, although the allegations were never proven in court.
Setting up Shop: Rio or São Paulo?
The Economist’s Schumpeter blog compares doing in business in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The post contends that, while it’s conventional wisdom that São Paulo is the business capital, economic and political shifts are in Rio’s favor. “[T]here are signs that the cost-benefit calculation is shifting,” says the blog. “São Paulo’s economy has done well in Brazil’s recent boom years and it is still much bigger, but Rio’s is growing faster, boosted by oil discoveries and winning its bid to host the 2016 Olympics.”
Wages Rise and Unemployment Drops in Brazil
Unemployment dropped to 6 percent in Brazil in July, according to official figures released by the country’s Institute of Geography and Statistics. The figure marks Brazil’s lowest unemployment rate since 2002. Average real income also reached its highest rate since July 2002, marking an increase of 2.2 percent over the prior month.
Sky-high Interest Rates May Soon Start Dropping in Brazil
A group of economists from Banco Santander say that Brazil can begin cutting its soaring interest rates beginning in November, due to slowing global growth. The bank predicts that Brazil will reach its 4.5 percent inflation target in 2013 and that growth will slow to 2.1 percent in 2012, as demand slackens for Brazilian exports.
Brazil Hopes to Become Tablet Giant
In an attempt to spur both domestic production and consumption, the Brazilian government will eliminate several taxes on locally produced tablet devices. The cuts could allow the cost of the thin, portable computers to drop by as much as 36 percent, according to Business Monitor International. Tablets are currently prohibitively expensive in Brazil, fetching prices as high as $1,049, compared to rough$449 in the United States.
Value of LAC Exports to Surge in 2011
A report released this week by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean predicts that the value of regional exports will grow by 27 percent this year. The rise is due not only to increased volume of exports but also an 18 percent increase in the prices of exported goods. The survey also attributes the increase to rising trade with Asia and warns that market volatility could eat into the growth rate in 2012.
Argentina Forecasts Record Car Production
Already on its way to building a record 840,000 cars in 2011, the Argentine automobile industry predicts the figure will hit one million next year, due to domestic and Brazilian demand. The country also hit a record last year when it produced over 724,000 cars.
Access materials from AS/COA’s 2011 Argentina conference, focusing on the country’s economic outlook ahead of the 2012 elections, at www.as-coa.org/Argentina2011.
A 25 Percent Minimum Wage Boost for Argentine Labor
Argentina’s General Workers Confederation, an umbrella organization composed of labor unions, reached an agreement with a leading business group to raise the minimum wage by 25 percent, according to reports published on August 27. The confederation had originally asked for a 41 percent increase, while the Argentine Industrial Union offered 18 percent.
Cross-border Railway Bridges Argentine-Uruguayan Ties
In an event heralded as marking improved bilateral ties, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and her Uruguayan counterpart José Mujica on Monday inaugurated a new railway connection previously closed for 30 years ago. The service will be open to the public September 9 and begins with a weekly run before building up regular service to meet tourism demands.
Shantytowns No More in Uruguay?
Uruguay unveiled a $150 million plan to “regularize” 676 shantytowns, the majority of which are located in Montevideo. The project will involve relocating half of the settlements’ residents from flood-prone areas facing contamination.
Students and Piñera to Meet at the Table
After months of protests that have paralyzed portions of Chile’s education system, President Sebastián Piñera has agreed to hold talks directly with student leaders on Saturday. Chilean daily La Tercera reports that the only cabinet member expected to attend Saturday’s talk is Education Minister Felipe Bulnes, in order to allow the students more direct access to the president. Meanwhile, Congress has already begun debating the future of for-profit schools in response to student demands to remove the profit motive from the country’s education system.
Chile Fires Five Policemen in Wake of Student Death
Following the death of 16-year-old Manuel Gutiérrez during an education protest in Santiago last week, the Chilean government sacked five policemen held responsible for the youth’s death. It was determined that a bullet from a weapon killed the teenager.
Bolivian Court Convicts Seven for Genocide
The Supreme Court of Justice of Bolivia convicted five military officers and two former cabinet members on August 30 of committing genocide, doling out 10- to 15-year prison sentences for the officers and three-year sentences for the former ministers. The convictions, which cannot be appealed, stem from the military’s quashing of a 2003 protest that resulted in the deaths of 63 people. Bolivia has requested the United States to extradite then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, but Washington has refused, saying the genocide charge is politically motivated.
Amazon is Home to World’s Oldest Living Person
The Brazilian government has verified the birth certificate of Maria Lucimar Pereira, an indigenous Amazonian woman from western Brazil’s Kaxinawá tribe, making her the world’s oldest living person. Pereira, who will celebrate her 121st birthday on Saturday, credits her longevity to her all-natural Amazonian diet and plenty of exercise.