Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas



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.

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The Top Latin American News Stories of 2011

A number of regional and international news publications take a look back at the top news stories of 2011. Brazil’s Estado de São Paulo offers an overview of the top global news stories, with a large focus on Latin America.  Highlighted are the Chilean student protests, Cuba’s economic reforms, elections in Peru and Argentina, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s and former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s battles with cancer. The paper also looks at the ups and downs of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s first year in office, during which she served as the first woman to open the UN General Assembly and battled a number of corruption scandals at home. Colombia’s El Tiempo looks at the top scandals and captured criminals around the world, including the assassination of FARC leader Alfonso Cano in November. Foreign Policy published “The Stories You Missed in 2011;” Latin America-focused stories include the southward movement of Mexico’s drug war to Central America, the U.S. immigration crackdown, and the global growth of piracy. 

For AS/COA Online’s take on what to expect next year, check out “Americas Update: Looking ahead to 2012.” 

What Lies behind the Chávez-Obama Fight?

The Guardian looks at the row between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and U.S. President Barack Obama, which erupted in the wake of an interview Obama gave to Venezuelan daily El Universal.  In the interview, Obama criticized Chávez’s democratic record and ties with Iran and Cuba, prompting Chávez to respond that Obama is “a clown and an embarrassment.” The article claims the nasty remarks boil down to election pressures in both countries, given that Obama and Chávez are both expected to face tight races. “Chávez seizes every opportunity he can find to have a fight with the United States, but Obama’s motives for doing the interview were less predictable,” says Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College quoted in the article. It may, he claims, boil down to “increasing pressure by conservatives in the United States to sanction Venezuela.”

Arizona Sheriff under Fire from Department of Justice

Based on a three-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Arizona’s Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office, led by Joe Arpaio, is guilty of systematic civil rights violations, including unlawful racial profiling of Latinos.  Arpaio is influential in the GOP presidential race because of his anti-immigration stance and has endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry. Arpaio has two months to reach a voluntary settlement with the Department, which should include reforms and training, and oversight by the Department. Arpaio rejected the offer, and claims the allegations are untrue and politically motivated.

GOP Debate Presents Opportunity for Latino Voters

Latina Lista looks to what the January 26 GOP Presidential Debate in Miami, hosted by CNN and the Hispanic Leadership Network, could look like. With the field expected to be smaller after the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, the author wonders if Latino voters might get answers beyond the “regurgitated rhetoric that has become such a staple in the debates.”

Harper Tells U.S.: Clear Way for Pipeline or We’ll Sell Oil to China

In an interview with Canada’s CTV, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he will sell Canada’s oil to China if the United States cannot clear controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would connect Alberta’s oil sands to the United States. “I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent, selling our energy products off to China,” he said in the interview, which CTV will air on December 26. 

Mexican Ex-President’s Death Falsely Proclaimed via Twitter

The Los Angeles Times’ World Now blog reports that Mexican ex-President Miguel de la Madrid was erroneously reported dead by the Twitter feeds of Mexico’s top politicians—including that of President Felipe Calderón—before backtracking after the former leader’s family said that he was alive but in grave condition.

Vast Trash Dump in Mexico City to Become Green Space

On December 19, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard announced the city will close down what may be the world’s largest garbage dump—the Bordo Poniente—by the end of the year. The move is part of the ongoing effort to clean up the city. Recycling and compost efforts have cut the trash destined for the dump by half over the past year, and new efforts will transform the garbage into energy by capturing the bio-gas released from the decomposing refuse. The Bordo Poniente, which once received 12,600 tons of garbage daily, will eventually be transformed into green space. 

Kidney Disease Claims Central American Lives

Kate Sheehy writes for Public Radio International’s The World about a strange kidney disease sweeping Central America. The disease is the second leading cause of death among men in El Salvador, and deaths attributed to it have increased 41 percent in Nicaragua over the last four years. Researchers struggle to find the cause, with theories ranging from pesticides to painkiller or alcohol abuse to overexertion at high temperatures. 

Guatemalan Ex-President Asks to Stand Trial

Former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt last week asked Guatemala’s Attorney General when it intends to try him on ten-year-old charges of crimes against humanity and genocide of indigenous groups. Natalie Kitroeff discusses the motives behind Ríos Montt’s seemingly bizarre actions in a guest post for LatIntelligence, saying: “An obvious reason why Ríos Montt turned himself in voluntarily is that he wants to avoid the embarrassment of a very public arrest.”

MINUSTAH Peacekeepers Face Abuse Accusations

Defend Haiti reports on abuse allegations by three Haitian men against Brazilian peacekeepers participating in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). According to the accusers, the Brazilian soldiers beat and robbed them. This is the latest of a series of reports of abuse by MINUSTAH soldiers, which include a sexual assault against a man by Uruguayan soldiers in September.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis: “Martelly Steers New Course for Haiti.”

Credit Program Goes into Effect in Cuba

As of December 20, Cuba’s banks can begin offering credit and acting as financial advisors to Cubans. The reform was announced in November as part of President Raúl Castro’s ongoing efforts to “update” the state economy. It is the first time private lending has been allowed on the island since the 1959 Revolution.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis on Cuba’s economic reforms.

Cuba Mourns Death of North Korea’s Dear Leader

Latin American News Dispatch reports that the Cuban government declared a three-day mourning period in response to the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. As two of the few remaining Communist countries in the world, the two nations maintain close ties. Flags at government ministries and military sites will be flown at half-mast. The governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela also expressed their condolences to North Korea. 

With Santos Visit, Colombia and Ecuador Reach Rapprochement

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Quito, Ecuador, on December 19, where he met with his Ecuadoran counterpart Rafael Correa. This was the first visit to the country by a Colombian head of state since 2008, when Bogota carried out a military raid on Ecuadoran soil in pursuit of guerrillas. Correa praised the improved relationship Ecuador enjoys with Colombia under Santos, who took office in August 2010. The two presidents officially restored bilateral trade relations and agreed to a number of measures to improve cross border commerce.

Colombian Minister’s Dogs Poisoned by Police

Minister Germán Vargas Lleras demanded an investigation after his two prized German shepherds, imported from Europe, were poisoned by police entrusted to train the dogs. Investigators believe the culprit wanted to discredit the person responsible for taking care of the dogs, and not to target Vargas directly.

Mercosur Inks FTA with Palestinian Authority; Postpones Decision on Venezuelan Membership

Uruguay hosted the forty-second Mercosur summit from December 19 to 20. The presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay signed a free trade agreement with the Palestinian Authority, agreed to raise tariffs on 200 products by 35 percent, and decided to blockade ships flying Falklands flags in solidarity with Argentina. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez attended to push for his country’s ratification as a full member, though a fast-track solution was shelved due to political pressure from Paraguay. Also, the summit was interrupted by the shocking suicide of a senior Argentine official at his hotel.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis about the summit and Venezuela’s role in Mercosur. 

Brazil Leads Latin America in Soft Power Rankings

The Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog takes a look at the development of global soft power among emerging markets. Soft power refers to influencing others through persuasion rather than through military might or economics (hard power). The study finds Brazil tops Latin America for soft power (followed by Mexico) having jumped from spot 16 to four among emerging markets. As the blog points out, Brazil “scores well above average among the [emerging markets] in voter turnout, freedom, royalties, and Olympic competition,” but faces problems in university quality and English-language mastery.

Cellphones in Brazil Outnumber People

According to a report from Anatel, the national telecommunications agency, Brazilians had 236 million mobile phones at the end of November. With 190 million inhabitants, Brazil’s “teledensity,” or number of mobile phones compared to population, is 120.81 percent. The number of cell phones grew by 19.51 percent from 2010 to 2011.

Argentine Congress Races through Legislative Marathon

Legislators in Argentina are undertaking a “legislative marathon” since inaugurating new majorities for the President’s Front for Victory coalition in both houses on December 11. The Chamber of Deputies passed a number of measures important to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s platform. Among these are the 2012 budget; a controversial measure that grants the government control over the manufacturing, distribution, and import of paper for newspapers; and a measure restricting foreign ownership of land. The measures will be debated in the Senate this week, where approval is expected.

Read an AS/COA News Analysis on the passage of Argentina’s land law.

Chileans Pick Camila Vallejo as Person of the Year

In a national poll, Chileans selected protest leader and geography student Camila Vallejo as the country’s person of the year. Vallejo is considered the most prominent face of the Chilean student movement. She drew 35.3 percent of the vote, compared with 20.4 percent for President Sebatian Piñera and poet Nicano Parra at 14.8 percent, reports The Santiago Times. Nearly 83 percent of those surveyed support the student movement’s demand to to end the country’s for-profit educational system.

Bolivian Judge Orders Arrest of Santa Cruz Governor

A judge in the Bolivian capital of La Paz declared the governor of Santa Cruz, Rubén Costas, in contempt for failing to appear before the court and ordered his arrest. Costas is accused of libel against the government for comments where he insinuated the government profits from interactions with drug traffickers. Costas, one of three governors from the opposition party to win election last year, claimed not to worry about the ruling. He is the only opposition governor to remain in his post; the governor of the Amazonian Beni province was suspended last Friday, and the governor of the southern province of Tarija is in exile in Paraguay.

Stalemate Continues over Peruvian Mining Crisis

Talks between the federal government and local leaders in Peru’s Cajamarca region reached an impasse after attempting to end weeks of protests against the Conga mine. The largest mining investment in the country’s history has met resistance from residents who believe the mine could pollute the water supply. The crisis has been a major test for President Ollanta Humala; his prime minister resigned last week, forcing him to reshuffle his cabinet. On Monday, regional President Gregorio Santos refused to sign the agreement, even after officials believed a compromise had been reached. 

The Return of Lori Berenson: First Visit to U.S. Since 1995 Arrest in Peru

Lori Berenson, an American convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for helping the Marxist rebels of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was permitted to travel to the United States to spend the holidays with her family. She must return to Peru by January 11 to complete her parole. Peruvian authorities blocked her exit from the country on December 16, saying she lacked proper paperwork.

The Effects of South America’s Informal Mining Industries

Universia Knowledge@Wharton takes a look at the informal and illegal mining industry in South America. The industry poses an environmental and human health hazard in affected countries, as workers labors in unregulated and contaminated environments.

Focusing on an Amazonian Tribe: Ashaninka under Threat

The Atlantic’s In Focus blog published a photo gallery of the Ashaninka people of Brazil and Peru. The gallery features images of the tribe and home in the Amazon, exploring how hydroelectric projects and illegal logging have threatened the Ashaninka way of life.

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