Blog

  • Corruption Network in Guatemalan Health System Exposed

    May 22, 2015

    by Nic Wirtz

    Guatemalan authorities arrested 17 people, including the head of the Guatemalan Central bank, on Wednesday in an ongoing investigation into fraud at the Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social (IGSS—Guatemalan Institute of Social Security) that resulted in the deaths of at least five kidney failure patients.

    In December 2014, IGSS changed its supplier of kidney dialysis treatment from Baxter to PISA, a Mexican firm, awarding it a 116 million quetzal contract ($15.67 million). This was to provide dialysis for 530 patients. However, CICIG wiretaps revealed that IGSS employees, businessmen and the head of the Bank of Guatemala stood to make 15-16 percent of the contract in kickbacks.

    The Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH—Human Rights Ombudsman) received a number of complaints this year about the treatment, including a lack of personnel and poor facilities. Since December, a number of patients have died, while others have contracted peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen. On May 15, IGSS revoked the contract with PISA, citing "deficiencies in the educational plan" of patients and announced there would be a new tender for the service.

    Ramiro Lorenzana, a doctor and spokesman for PISA, responded to complaints in an interview with Nomada.gt, saying, “Patients are already in a terminal phase of the disease. Anything that happens today is down to them experiencing a failure of their kidneys. I insist they will die sooner or later.”

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    Tags: Guatemala, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala

  • Additional Guatemalan Officials Resign Amid Allegations of Corruption

    May 22, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Guatemala’s Ministers of Interior, Energy and Mining, Environment, and the Secretary of Intelligence resigned on Thursday, amid a series of corruption scandals. The resignations come two weeks after Vice President Roxana Baldetti was forced to step down due to a top aide’s involvement in customs fraud.

    Despite the resignations, President Otto Pérez Molina refuted claims that his government is collapsing. “[Rumors] that the cabinet is being dismantled [are] totally false, none of the ministers have indicated that they want to leave, not even in the most difficult of moments. I am making this decision with each one of them. Therefore, this is just a speculation. They are leaving their post at my request,” the president said.

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    Tags: Guatemala, corruption

  • Pinochet’s Former Secret Police Chief Receives Additional Sentence

    May 21, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Manuel Contreras, the former police chief during Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, received a 15-year sentence for murder on Wednesday, adding to the 490-year term he is currently serving. In 2013, the Supreme Court convicted Contreras, 86, for the December 1974 disappearance of Alejandro de la Barra and Ana Maria Puga, members of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR—Revolutionary Left Movement). Four other officials from the Pinochet era were also convicted by the Court.

    The Court’s rulings are a historical feat in Chile, marking the first time that disappeared Chileans have been acknowledged as victims of secuestro permanente (permanent kidnapping), which enables the crimes to be prosecuted despite the country’s 1978 amnesty law. The only way Contreras would have been able to evade a prison term on permanent kidnapping charges was “by producing the remains of the disappeared person or fully demonstrating that he or she is indeed dead,” according to Latin America Press.

    Contreras has been found guilty of a slew of atrocities. Throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship, Contreras headed the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA—National Intelligence Directorate), an agency responsible for managing torture centers where hundreds were slain. Contreras completed a seven-year prison term between 1994 and 2001 for the 1976 assassination of former Ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. In 2004, Contreras was sentenced to 12 additional years in prison for the kidnapping and disappearance of a MIR guerrilla member Miguel Ángel Sandoval. Contreras received a 490-year sentence for crimes against humanity carried out during the early years of the military regime.

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    Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, Rule of Law

  • Immigration Activists Mark National Day of Action

    May 20, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Immigration reform activists staged rallies and protests across the United States on Tuesday as part of a national day of action, calling for the implementation of President Barack Obama’s executive actions for undocumented immigrants. The day of action fell on May 19, the original date that one of the president’s blocked executive action programs, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), was to begin accepting applications.

    Under DAPA, certain undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents would be eligible for deportation relief and could apply for work permits. DAPA is an offshoot of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was to be expanded on February 18. On February 16, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction against DACA’s expansion and DAPA’s launch, and both programs remain delayed.

    Still, proponents of DACA and DAPA are pressuring lawmakers to push for the programs’ implementation and are preparing members of the undocumented community to be ready if and when this happens.

    On Tuesday—six months after Obama first announced DAPA—immigrant rights and labor groups held demonstrations, voter registration drives and town-hall meetings in 33 cities in 20 states, many outside government buildings and the offices of lawmakers who have supported a multi-state lawsuit against the program. On social media, DAPA advocates—including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—used the hashtag #Fight4DAPA to keep the programs on the national agenda.

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    Tags: DAPA, executive action, Undocumented immigrants

  • Mexico and Canada Threaten U.S. with Sanctions over Meat-Labeling Rule

    May 19, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Mexico and Canada won a final appeal from the World Trade Organization (WTO) yesterday, when the trade body upheld an early decision that found that U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for meat products violated international trade law. Both countries have warned that they may pursue punitive measures against U.S. exports unless the requirement, which was adopted in 2009 and amended in 2013, is dropped. The USDA describes COOL as a “consumer information program.”

    The Canadian Ministers of International Trade and Agriculture and Agri-Food, along with the Mexican Secretaries of Economy and Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food, issued a statement yesterday that said, “Once again, the WTO has confirmed Canada and Mexico’s long-standing position that the United States’ mandatory COOL requirements for beef and pork are blatantly protectionist and are a violation of the United States’ international trade obligations,” adding that “our governments will be seeking authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports.” According to estimates, the COOL requirements have cost Canada $1 billion a year. Industry groups have argued that the rule hampers trade in livestock due to the added costs of tracking animals along the supply chain and separating them according to country of origin.

    Republican lawmakers in the U.S. have signaled that they will move to repeal the legislation. “It is important now more than ever to act quickly to avoid a protracted trade war with our two largest trade partners,” said Michael Conway, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, whose office has reportedly downplayed the impact of COOL requirements on food safety.

    U.S. consumer groups, however, have decried the ruling. “Today’s WTO ruling ... effectively orders the U.S. government to stop providing consumers basic information about where their food comes from," said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, a consumer group.

    Meanwhile, U.S. beef and cattle producers have offered mixed responses. Ron Prestage, president of the National Pork Producers Council, called the prospect of Mexican and Canadian tariffs on U.S. exports a “death sentence for U.S. jobs and exports,” urging Congress to act quickly. Others, including Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, maintain that any resolution to the dispute “must involve continuation of a meaningful country-of-origin labeling requirement.”

    Tags: WTO, Country of Origin Labeling, NAFTA

  • Veteran Judge Sworn in as Guatemala’s New Vice President

    May 18, 2015

    by Louisa Reynolds

    Judge Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre was sworn in as Guatemala’s new vice president on May 15 after his predecessor, Roxana Baldetti, was forced to step down in the wake of a major corruption scandal.

    Maldonado Aguirre was not originally included in the shortlist of candidates that President Otto Pérez Molina sent to Congress. The original list included police reform commissioner Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, Minister of Labor Carlos Contreras and Adrian Zapata, executive secretary of the Cabinet for Rural Development. But due to a constitutional impediment, Contreras was replaced by PP Congressman Oliverio García Rodas.

    However, if Congressman García Rodas left his seat in Congress, he would have been replaced by former Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s personal assistant, Daniela Beltranena, which would have exacerbated the widespread discontent with the current administration. This forced Pérez Molina to remove García Rodas from the shortlist and replace him with Maldonado Aguirre.

    In the final vote count, 115 members of Congress voted for Maldonado Aguirre, 14 voted against him and 29 were reported absent.

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    Tags: Guatemala, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, Otto Perez Molina

  • The Next Chapter for China in the Americas

    May 18, 2015

    by Eric Farnsworth

    Chinese Premier Li Keqiang begins an eight day trip to South America today, landing in Brazil with a promise of some $50 billion in Chinese investments in Brazilian infrastructure. This trip follows on and is consistent with the promise that President Xi Jinping made in January to invest $250 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next 10 years. 

    Talk about checkbook diplomacy: whether each of these investments is ultimately consummated—and China has a history of big announcements that go unfulfilled—Latin American and Caribbean nations are paying attention. 

    The promise of infrastructure development is not unwelcome, even by the United States, which sees chronic underinvestment in Latin America’s creaking infrastructure to be a limiting factor in regional development.  Resources are insufficient, and Chinese largesse meets a need.  At the same time, China is not pursuing charity. Investments up to this point and into the future are clearly focused on the procurement of strategic natural resources, including energy and agriculture, and also the infrastructure to bring them to market—i.e. get them to China.

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    Tags: Li Keqiang, China-Latin America, Foreign Investment

  • Monday Memo: Guatemalan Protests—Costa Rican Discrimination—Chinese Investment—Guyana Election—Technology in Honduras

    May 18, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Demonstrators Call for Pérez Molina’s Resignation:  Thousands of protestors marched across 13 cities in Guatemala on Saturday to call for President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation. The protests came as a response to a customs tax fraud scandal uncovered by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) in April that led to the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti earlier this month, though she denies involvement in the scheme. The protests were organized via social media, without any clear leadership. While Pérez Molina had originally announced his intent to let CICIG’s mandate expire, the scandal later prompted the president to announce that he will request a two-year extension.

    Costa Rica orders Executive Action against LGBT Discrimination: In honor of International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia on May 17, Costa Rican Vice President Ana Helena Chacón announced new legislation that will punish public workers found discriminating against others on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While the decree does not outline what the sanctions for discrimination will be or how they will be issued, the decree does mandate training on equal access for employees of public organizations, as well as the redefining of a couple or partner to include same-sex partners for all institutions under the executive branch. Chacón, who has long been a supporter of LGBT rights, announced the decree on Friday at Costa Rica’s Casa Presidencial. Despite the new measure, same-sex marriages and civil unions are currently not recognized in Costa Rica.

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    Tags: President Otto Pérez Molina, LGBT Rights, Chinese Investment in Latin America, David Granger

  • Brazil: Up for Sale

    May 18, 2015

    by Stephen Kurczy

    Brazil is up for sale, and bargain-hunters from Sam Zell to Stephen Schwarzman are looking for deals.

    If the country’s economy could be spread onto a monopoly board, distressed domestic utilities like Companhia Energética de Minas Gerais S.A. (Cemig) would be selling for a bargain, while infrastructure like airports and railroads would be begging for investment. Meanwhile, any of the dozens of companies implicated in a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) might seem impossible to give away amid the ongoing risk of legal liability and financial fallout.

    In that context, foreign investors are rolling the dice that Brazil will stage a turnaround. C’mon snake eyes!

    It takes a certain type of investor to be drawn to the country right now. The economy is expected to contract more than 1 percent this year. The government is in a state of political paralysis amid calls for President Dilma Rousseff’s resignation and Congress’ refusal to sign off on belt-tightening measures meant to avert a sovereign credit downgrade. Rich Brazilians are fleeing for Miami.

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    Tags: Brazil, Foreign Investment, Brazilian Economy

  • Dominican Republic Denies Extension Request from 18 Haitian Migrant Rights Organizations for the National Regularization Plan

    May 15, 2015

    by AQ Online

    On Wednesday, the Dominican Republic government denied a deadline extension request for applications to the Plan Nacional de Regularización (National Regularization Plan) from 18 advocacy organizations dedicated to defending Haitian migrant workers’ rights. The deadline for registration is scheduled for June 17. Roudy Joseph, spokesman for the coalition of organizations, announced that a document would be submitted to Haitian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Daniel Supplice, calling on the Haitian government to formally appeal for an extension until December.

    The decision to deny the extension request comes during a time of deteriorating relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti following the passage of Sentencia 168-13 in September 2013, a law that effectively rendered hundreds of thousands of Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic stateless. The ruling retracted citizenship from anyone who was born to undocumented parents residing in the country. After immense pressure from the international community, the Dominican government established the Plan Nacional de Regularización in June 2014 to offer legal status to immigrants, primarily Haitian, who either entered the country illegally or who had been rendered stateless as a result of Sentencia 168-13. Over 200,000 people have already applied to register. Those unable to meet the deadline may face deportation.

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    Tags: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Dominican Republic-Haiti relations, citizenship

  • La guerra es contra el glifosato

    May 14, 2015

    by Jenny Manrique

    Más de 20 mil firmas alcanzó en pocos días la petición hecha en la plataforma Change.org para acabar con la fumigación con glifosato de cultivos ilícitos en Colombia. La abogada ambientalista Astrid Puentes Riaño de la Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), autora de la iniciativa, espera recaudar 25 mil apoyos antes de este 14 de mayo, que es cuando el Consejo Nacional de Estupefacientes se reúne en Colombia para decidir sobre la petición del presidente Juan Manuel Santos, de acabar con el uso del herbicida en la guerra contra las drogas.

    Aunque no es un camino expédito, (el período de transición para encontrarle reemplazo al herbicida se vence el 1 de octubre), después de 16 años de ensayo y error usando la aspersión aérea, el viraje del debate es excepcional:  ahora la guerra es contra el glifosato.

    La reciente evaluación de la Agencia Internacional para la Investigación sobre el Cáncer, que aumentó la calificación de riesgo del agrotóxico para la salud humana, vino a respaldar lo que por años han dicho organizaciones de derechos humanos en departamentos como Putumayo y Nariño, conceptos de la Corte Constitucional en Colombia y un sinnúmero de estudios científicos: el glifosato hace más mal que bien.

    Los cultivadores re-siembran con facilidad las zonas asperjadas sin mencionar que muchas veces son sus cultivos para consumo los que terminan afectados. Según un paper de la Universidad de los Andes, para eliminar una hectárea de coca con glifosato, hay que fumigar 30, lo que cuesta 72.000 dólares, muchísimo más del valor en el mercado de los kilogramos de droga que esa hectárea podría producir. Ya Colombia tuvo que pagar a Ecuador una indemnización de US$15 millones, cuando el gobierno de Rafael Correa denunció al de Álvaro Uribe ante la Corte Internacional de la Haya por fumigar en zona fronteriza afectando la salud de los pobladores.

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    Tags: Colombia, glifosato, salud, Narcotráfico

  • Brazil’s Lower House Passes Amendment to Austerity Bill in Setback for Government

    May 14, 2015

    by AQ Online

    On Wednesday, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies passed its second austerity bill in a week, just hours before approving an amendment that changed the bill’s direction and increased federal spending for retirees. If passed by the Senate, the amended bill faces a possible presidential veto and represents a roadblock to the government’s strategy for increasing revenues.

    The initial bill, which passed by 277 votes to 178, limited sick leave and restricted access to social security pensions for relatives of deceased employees in an attempt to save an estimated 7.5 billion reais ($2.47 billion) in public funds. The measure was a key component of the government’s strategy to balance fiscal accounts and avoid an impending credit downgrade, and its initial passage represented a win for President Dilma Rousseff’s current fiscal agenda.

    However, amid backlash from the country’s largest labor union, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers' Central—CUT) and members of the president’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT), the lower house passed the amendment with a vote of 232 to 210. Nine PT members approved the changes to the bill, while five did not attend the vote. O Globo reports that the bill would not have been changed had all PT members in the lower house voted against the amendment.

    Bloomberg called the amendment to the austerity measure the “first major setback” for Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, who has pushed an austerity agenda in order to reduce a growing federal deficit. Levy called last week’s approval of a bill reducing social-security benefits a “victory for all of society.”

    Rousseff has threatened to veto the second bill after Wednesday night’s amendment passed, and is negotiating with labor unions and lawmakers to avoid a congressional override of the veto.

    Seven more amendments to the bill were scheduled for a vote on Thursday.

    Tags: Joaquim Levy, Austerity, Brazil budget

  • Guatemalan Customs Fraud Scandal Taints Lawyers, Judges

    May 14, 2015

    by Louisa Reynolds

    On May 8, Guatemalan authorities arrested three lawyers representing defendants in a massive customs tax fraud case known as Caso SAT that has thrown the current administration into a state of disarray and forced Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign.

    The UN Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which launched the investigation into the La Linea corruption network, accused lawyers José Arturo Morales, known as “Chepito,” Jorge Luis Escobar and Ruth Emilsa Trigueros of running a “law firm of impunity” that bribed corrupt judges to make unjustified decisions favoring organized crime groups. 

    A total of 27 individuals—including the director and former director of Guatemala’s Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (Tax Administration Superintendency—SAT)—Álvaro Omar Franco Chacón and Carlos Enrique Muñoz Roldán, have been arrested as part of the wider investigation into La Linea.

    Wiretap recordings show how six other leading defendants in the case—Francisco Javier Ortiz, known as “Teniente Jerez,” Salvador Estuardo González, known as “Eco,” Miguel Ángel Aldana, Mónica Patricia Jáuregui, José Rolando Gil, and Carlos Ixtuc—used the three lawyers to bribe the judge presiding over the case, Marta Josefina Sierra González de Stalling, in exchange for obtaining release on bail and unguarded house arrest instead of prison.

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    Tags: Guatemala, Caso SAT, corruption

  • U.S. Senate Votes Against Fast Track for Trans-Pacific Partnership

    May 13, 2015

    by AQ Online

    The U.S. Senate voted 52-45 on Tuesday against a bill that would grant President Barack Obama a “fast track” to close the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal. This outcome not only marks a defeat for one of Obama’s trade priorities, but also highlights the challenges he faces within his party ranks.

    The TPP is a multilateral trade agreement among 12 countries that together represent approximately 40 percent of world GDP and nearly a third of world exports. Chile, Mexico and Peru are the three countries from Latin America that are included in the agreement.

    In a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April, Obama said, "TPP will help level the playing field. [It] will have strong protections for workers and the environment and help us set high standards for trade in the 21st century." 

    Yesterday’s results fell just shy of the 60 votes Obama needed to enact a legislative procedure known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which enables trade deals such as the TPP to be voted on by Congress with a “yes” or “no” approval without amendment. Congress has enacted TPA since 1974, but it expired on July 1, 2007. Under current law, the trade promotion authority must be voted on and renewed by Congress every two years.

    Democrats have been the most vocal opponents of the TPP. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren co-authored an opinion piece in the Boston Globe with Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro earlier this month, citing corporate influence and a lack of transparency as reasons to reject the deal.

    “Powerful corporate interests have spent a lot of time and money trying to bend Washington’s rules to benefit themselves, and now they want Congress to grease the skids for a TPP deal that corporations have helped write but the public can’t see,” they said.

    In addition to these issues, other bipartisan concerns about the TPP include the lack of provisions on human trafficking, currency manipulation, child labor laws, displaced workers, and unfair trade practices, among others. These pending concerns reveal that TPA is not the only hurdle the TPP deal is facing right now.

     After the vote, Obama called on ten Senate Democrats who had publicly backed the fast track provisions in order to discuss the outcome and work on a strategy to get the votes he needs. The outcome of these discussions are yet to be disclosed, but will certainly shed more light on the future of TPP.  

     

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    Tags: TPP, trade, President Obama

  • Baldetti’s Resignation Deepens Guatemalan Political Crisis

    May 13, 2015

    by Nic Wirtz

    Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned last Friday, ending a tumultuous three weeks of protests after an investigation raised questions about her possible involvement in a high-profile corruption scandal known as Caso SAT. Baldetti’s former private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was recently accused of organizing a corruption network targeting Guatemala´s tax collection agency—the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT)—and is now at large.

    President Otto Pérez Molina praised Baldetti’s “brave decision” in a press conference on Friday.  He said, “This was a voluntary, personal decision of the vice president.  It was thoughtful, difficult, courageous, but consistent with her principles and values.”

    The vice president was facing a congressional impeachment hearing this week, after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled to send one of the four motions filed against Baldetti about her possible involvement in Caso SAT to Congress. 

    Baldetti’s resignation marked the culmination of a difficult period. In March of this year, she was left on the sidelines of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Guatemala.  She received further scrutiny after the disappearance of Monzón, who is suspected of masterminding the SAT’s fraud. By the time Guatemala’s business elite from the Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras (Coordinating Committee of Agriculture, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations—CACIF) withdrew their support for Baldetti, the writing was on the wall.  A few days later, the Conferencia Episcopal de Guatemala (Episcopal Conference of Guatemala—CEG) publically condemned fraud committed by the SAT.

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    Tags: Guatemala, Roxana Baldetti, Caso SAT, corruption

  • Mexican Officials Investigate Possible Vaccine-Related Deaths

    May 12, 2015

    by AQ Online

    After two infants died and 29 others fell ill after being vaccinated against hepatitis B in the southern state of Chiapas on Friday, the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (Mexican Social Security Institute—IMSS) announced yesterday that it has sent samples of the vaccines to Mexico City for analysis. The move follows the launch of an investigation into the case by the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) on Saturday, and a visit to the affected families by the IMSS director, José Antonio González, and the governor of Chiapas, Manuel Velasco, on Sunday.

    On Saturday, the IMSS announced the national suspension of tuberculosis, rotavirus, and hepatitis B vaccinations, but later clarified that the suspension applied only to the lots of hepatitis B vaccine used in the municipality of Simojovel, where the affected children were vaccinated. “We still don’t know what caused the problem,” said Rodrigo Romero Feregrino, secretary of the Asociación Mexicana de Vacunología (Mexican Vaccinology Association). “We must wait for the results of the investigation. I think it was a human error.”

    According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, the principal theory among specialists and the Mexican Secretaría de Salud (Health Secretariat—Ssa) is that the deaths and sickness were caused by errors in the storage or handling of the vaccines. According to Rafael Gual Cosío, the director general of the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Farmacéutica (National Pharmaceutical Industry Chamber—Canifarma), the vaccines may have been spoiled due a lapse in temperature control during storage or transport.  In an interview with the news site El Economista, he said, “What surely happened here is that part of the vaccine that was sent to this locality didn’t maintain adequate cold chains, at some point it was broken, and that’s what could have caused the vaccines to decompose.”

    Meanwhile, the parents of the children in Chiapas await answers. “They ask for justice,” Marcelo Pérez, a priest in Simojovel municipality said. “They want a deep investigation into what really happened, and why. That’s what they ask for. There’s a lot of pain.”

    Tags: Vaccines, Simojovel, IMSS

  • Monday Memo: Castro visits Pope—Chilean Cabinet—Colombian Coca—Guatemalan Corruption—Central American Geothermal

    May 11, 2015

    by AQ Online

    This week’s likely news stories: Raúl Castro has an audience with the Pope; Michelle Bachelet shakes up her Cabinet; Colombia bans coca spraying; a Guatemalan judge is linked to a corruption scandal; Germany will invest in Central American geothermal projects.

    Cuban President Meets with the Pope: Cuban President Raúl Castro met with Pope Francis this Sunday at the Vatican and thanked the Pope for his assistance in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. On several occasions, the Pope has called on the U.S. to end its embargo on Cuba. Castro said he was so influenced by his audience with the Pope that he might return to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is planning to visit Cuba on his way to the U.S. in September 2015.  Also this weekend, French President François Hollande travelled to Cuba in the first visit by a French leader since 1898. Hollande is expected to meet with Castro on Monday, although the Cuban government has not confirmed whether or not there will be a meeting. France hopes to benefit from new openings with Cuba, and Hollande is travelling with business leaders as well as ministers.

    Bachelet Names New Ministers to her Cabinet: On Monday, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced changes to nine ministers in her cabinet, following her request last week that all of her ministers resign. New appointments include Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdés, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos, Minister of the Government Secretariat Jorge Inzunza, and government spokesperson Marcelo Díaz. Tiago Severo, Latin America economist at Goldman Sachs, noted that “Rodrigo Valdes is certainly going to be most likely perceived as a market-friendly new minister, who could perhaps instill a renewed sense of confidence in the outlook for the economy.” The reshuffling of the cabinet comes amid record low approval ratings for Bachelet after a number of corruption scandals marred the administration. 

    Colombia Announces Ban on Coca Spraying: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced this weekend the decision to stop using glyphosate in the country's coca spraying programs. On Saturday, he asked the National Drug Council to ban glyphosate sprayin gdue to the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the substance is likely carcinogenic. The aerial spraying of coca fields, a program started in 1994 and backed by the United States, has been highly controversial. Farmers have claimed that the herbicides have killed their coffee plants and other crops, and citizens have called on the government to end the program due to the health risk. Santos stated that despite the decision, he will continue to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.

    Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Implicated in Corruption Scandal: On Monday, Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stalling was implicated in the corruption scandal that forced Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign on Friday. Wiretappings uncovered by the AP include a conversation between lawyers, suspects, and businessman Luis Mendizábal that reveal a judicial bribery scheme to get suspects detained in the recent customs corruption scandal released. In the phone call, Mendizábal reportedly told defendant Javier Ortíz that he would be released soon, and mentioned Stalling. Stalling denies any wrongdoing.

    Germany to Invest in Geothermal Energy in Central America: On Saturday, Nicaraguan news site El 19 reported that Germany will lend $112 million for geothermal energy projects throughout Central America. This weekend, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met with Klaus Krämer, the head of the Division of Regional Development Policy for Central America and the Caribbean of the German Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry, to discuss the program and how Nicaragua can participate. Following the meeting, German Ambassador in Managua Karl-Otto König stated that there is a strong desire on both sides to continue collaboration. Last Thursday, the German Development Bank extended a line of credit of $6.71 million to Nicaragua for a water treatment project in Managua.

    Tags: Raul Castro, Michelle Bachelet, geothermal energy, Roxana Baldetti

  • Unpopular Austerity Measures May Be Brazil’s Best Path to Growth

    May 8, 2015

    by Flora Charner

    A proposed government austerity package may keep Brazil from a credit rating downgrade, but could cost President Dilma Rousseff some of her biggest supporters: the country’s labor unions.

    Lawmakers in Brazil’s lower house passed a proposed bill this week that would limit thousands of workers’ access to social security benefits. The MP 665 bill was approved by a narrow 252-227 vote during a heated debate late Wednesday. 

    Finance Minister Joaquim Levy called the legislative decision a “victory” and said it could potentially lower government spending by 18 billion reais ($5.9 billion) this year.

    “It’s a victory for all of society,” Levy told journalists in Brasília on Thursday. “We will meet our objectives so that we can start an agenda that goes beyond the fiscal adjustment.”

    Earlier this week, representatives from the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers’ Central—CUT) met with the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) congressional leadership and said they were against the bill.

    CUT is considered one of the largest unions in the country and one of the PT’s founding groups, and has been a strong supporter of Rousseff and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s governments.

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    Tags: Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Joaquim Levy, Brazilian Economy

  • Sixty Percent of Latin Americans Will Have Internet Access in 2016

    May 8, 2015

    by AQ Online

    The number of Latin Americans with access to the Internet will increase by 20 percent over the next twelve months, according to the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Address Registry (LACNIC). The Uruguay-based NGO is one of five Regional Internet Registries in the world that assigns and administers IP addresses to local Internet service providers—it also advocates for Internet development in the region.

    LACNIC’s director, Oscar Robles, shared his organization’s prediction of increased Internet usage in a private breakfast with news reporters on Thursday in Montevideo. Robles, who is from Mexico and was appointed director of the organization in April, said that predicted growth in Internet usage could be attributed to improved regulations and new education initiatives. He estimated that at the end of 2015, there will be 370 million Internet users in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is more than half the region’s population.  

    Internet availability still varies among countries in the region, and Robles said that governments should democratize access by “providing a certain level of promotion and awareness that the Internet is necessary to meet the needs of society”.

    Robles praised specific countries for leading the region in Internet expansion. In Brazil, government regulations allow multiple service providers to operate in the country, encouraging connection in both urban and remote locations. In Uruguay, the Plan Ceibal initiative equips school buildings with WIFI and provides laptops for students.

    Robles also stated that Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the Latin American countries most ready to implement the new version of Internet Protocol (IPv6), which will replace the previous version (IPv4) and assigns a unique alphanumeric address to computers on networks and also routes Internet traffic.

    “While IPv4’s days are numbered, the fact that certain technologies exist that can help mitigate this situation have provided operators with a false sense of security, Robles wrote in April. “In some countries of the Latin American and Caribbean region, a significant percentage of networks (ASN) support IPv6 and are currently ready to handle IPv6 traffic.”

    On Thursday, Robles also suggested that IPv6 would secure a greater sense of Internet autonomy for the region—referring to revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied electronically on other countries.

    Read an AQ article about Internet usage in Latin America from our Spring 2015 issue on technology.

     

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    Tags: Internet acces, Digital Divide, Information Technology

  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet Asks Cabinet to Resign as Disapproval Hits Record High

    May 7, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called for the resignation of her cabinet Wednesday as the fallout from a corruption scandal among top-level officials continues to take its toll on her administration. The president announced her plans to reshuffle the cabinet the same day a new poll put her disapproval amongst Chileans at a record high.

    "A few hours ago, I requested the resignation of every minister," Bachelet said during a TV interview on Wednesday, adding that she may decide to keep certain ministers in her cabinet. The president said the decision would have come sooner were it not for a recent series of natural disasters in the country, including severe flooding in the north and the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in the south.

    The president’s move—which Reuters reports was received positively by most members of Bachelet’s center-left party—came as her approval ratings fell to the lowest level in her political career. A Gfk Adimark poll released Wednesday measured the president’s disapproval at 64 percent. 

    Fourteen months into Bachelet’s second administration, the Chilean political class is facing a crisis marked by scandal. In addition to allegations of illicit campaign finance schemes involving wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicians, members of Bachelet’s own family have also been accused of corruption. In Februrary, her son Sebastian Davalos resigned from his position as socio-cultural director of the presidency amid allegations that he and his wife used their political connections to obtain a $10 million bank loan to purchase land they later sold for $15 million.

    The cabinet reshuffle is one of several moves the president have made to react to the corruption scandals. In March, Bachelet announced a series of anti-corruption measures requiring government officials to publically declare all assets.

    Bachelet has attributed her falling approval ratings to a “crisis of confidence” among Chileans rocked by corruption allegations in a country traditionally perceived as the least corrupt in the region. On Wednesday, she said a new cabinet would represent a “new cycle.”

    Tags: President Michelle Bachelet, corruption, Chilean Cabinet

  • Alberta’s “Revolution”

    May 6, 2015

    by John Parisella

    Any political party that loses an election after 44 consecutive years in office and ends up in third place is the object of some kind of "revolution."  Such was the fate of the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta’s general elections on Tuesday.

    The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), under the charismatic leadership of Rachel Notley, earned a decisive majority government victory in Canada’s oil-rich province, Alberta, winning 53 out of 87 seats and 41 percent of the popular vote.  It is a first for the NDP in Alberta.  The party’s closest rivals were the Tea Party-like Wildrose Party, with 21 seats, followed by the Progressive Conservative Party, with 10 seats.

    Some three years ago, I wrote in AQ Online that Alberta had rejected its version of the Tea Party when the ruling Conservatives confounded the polls by defeating the upstart Wildrose Party.  I had characterized the victory as one of moderation over a more extremist, ideological political formation.  I also defined Alberta as Canada’s closest version of Texas because of its fossil fuel resources, low tax rates and strong libertarian streak. 

    In three short years, has Alberta become so transformed that the left-leaning NDP could so easily unseat an entrenched political establishment party like the Conservatives?  Alberta has changed, but not that much.

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    Tags: Canada, Alberta, Jim Prentice, Rachel Notley

  • Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Responds to Sentencing of Top Aides

    May 6, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe responded yesterday to the Colombian Supreme Court’s April 30 sentencing of two high-ranking members of his administration who organized a spy ring targeting Uribe’s political opponents and critics. María del Pilar Hurtado, former head of the now-defunct Colombian intelligence agency Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), received a 14-year prison term, while Uribe’s former chief of staff, Bernardo Moreno, received an eight-year sentence.

    Hurtado and Moreno are two of many former Uribe top aides who have been either convicted or under investigation for conspiracy and corruption since 2010. The two were convicted in February of illegally spying on journalists, human rights activist, and opposition leaders during Uribe’s 2002 to 2010 term as president.

    Hurtado fled to Panama in 2010, seeking asylum, but turned herself in to Colombian authorities in January in the hope that she would receive more leniency.

    Uribe, now a senator for the conservative Centro Democrático party, urged Hurtado to negotiate with the Supreme Court for a shorter sentence. “[Hurtado] should negotiate without involving innocent colleagues from the government or third parties,” Uribe said. “She should negotiate her liberty and that of Bernardo Moreno, saying everything that she should about me and if I committed a crime, I should be tried.”

    Uribe has denied any knowledge of the spying ring and referred to the investigation and convictions as a “shameful massacre.”

    Tags: Colombia, corruption, Alvaro Uribe

  • Teachers’ Union, Government Fail to Reach Deal in Colombia

    May 5, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Over 330,000 teachers will continue to strike in Colombia after a 20-hour round of talks between the government and the Federación Colombiana de Educadores (Colombian Teachers’ Federation—FECODE) failed to produce an agreement. The results of the meeting were announced yesterday by the Defensoría del Pueblo(National Ombudsman’s Office), which is mediating the negotiations.

    The strike, which began on April 22 and centers around teachers’ demand for higher salaries, better health services and the repeal of teacher evaluation, is affecting an estimated 9 million-plus students, who have not attended class since the strike began. After nationwide protests late last month, Colombian Minister of Education Gina Parody seemed to discount the possibility of resuming negotiations until the strike ended. Protesters marching on the Ministry of Education were greeted by a banner strung across the ministry’s façade that read: “Let the children return to class.” “My urgent plea is to not affect the children,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at the time. “The children should not have to pay for the consequences (platos rotos) of these protests.”

    The government has been in negotiation with FECODE since February to reach a compromise, but the union rejected an earlier deal that included a 10 percent raise in teacher salaries because it was tied to a reform package that would have had to have been approved by the Colombian Congress. After the latest round of talks, the government’s negotiators, including Minister Parody, Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas, and Labor Minister Luis Eduardo Garzón, accepted a package proposed by the Ombudsman that incudes a 12 percent salary increase.

    FECODE, however, has indicated that it wants Santos to take a more active role in the negotiations. “The government commission has shown a series of limitations when it comes to negotiating,” a FECODE spokesperson said after the talks concluded, noting the union’s hopes “that it will be President Santos who gives clear instructions about the path to follow.” 

     

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    Tags: Colombia, Teacher Protests, Juan Manuel Santos

  • Monday Memo: Brazilian Corruption—Bolivian Opposition—Bolivia-Chile Dispute—Marijuana in Puerto Rico—Chemical Leak in Costa Rica

    May 4, 2015

    by AQ Online

    This week’s likely top stories: Former Brazilian president investigated; Opposition gains influence in Bolivia; ICJ hearing on Bolivia-Chile border dispute begins; Puerto Rico legalizes medical marijuana; Costa Rican coast suffers chemical spill.

    Report of an Inquiry into Lula Shocks Brazil: On Friday, Brazilians were shaken by news of a probe regarding possible influence-peddling by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). The anti-corruption division of the Public Ministry is examining da Silva’s relationship with Odebrecht, one of the largest companies in Brazil, and whether he used his position as president to get loans for Odebrecht from the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (Brazilian National Development Bank—BNDES). An Odebrecht spokesperson denied any misconduct, and da Silva did not address the investigation on Friday when speaking on International Worker’s Day. The inquiry will determine whether or not there is reason to open a wider investigation. The governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) has suffered recently, with current President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s successor, also tainted by a corruption scandal involving the PT and the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. However, investigations have not uncovered any wrongdoing by Rousseff.

    Opposition Wins Runoff in Bolivia: On Sunday, Bolivian citizens from Beni and Tarija voted in runoff municipal elections after the initial elections failed to produce clear winners. The ruling Movimiento al Socialismo party (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) prevailed in five of nine states in March 2015. The opposition won in both Beni and Tarija yesterday, giving the opposition a stronghold in the four richest states in Bolivia, which includes La Paz. Carlos Dellien from Nacer beat Alex Ferrier of MAS in Beni. In Tarija, Adrián Oliva of the Unidad Demócrata coalition (Democratic Unity) beat Pablo Canedo by a wide margin (61 percent to 38 percent).

    ICJ Hearing on Bolivia-Chile Maritime Dispute Begins: On Monday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague will hear preliminary arguments on the maritime case that Bolivia brought against Chile in April of 2013. Felipe Bulnes, the former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., will speak today, arguing Chile’s position that their border dispute was already settled in 1904 by a previous agreement, and that the ICJ does not have jurisdiction over the matter. On Wednesday, the Bolivian delegation is expected to speak, reiterating the Bolivian right to sovereign access to the sea. The ICJ will have until the end of 2015 to determine whether or not the case is under its jurisdiction. The maritime dispute has been a source of tension between the two countries for decades.

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    Tags: Chile-Bolivia dispute, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Movimiento al Socialismo

  • Customs Fraud Sparks Guatemalan Protests

    May 1, 2015

    by Nic Wirtz

    Tens of thousands of Guatemalans protested last Saturday, calling for the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti for her alleged role in Caso SAT, a scandal involving the defrauding of hundreds of millions of quetzales from the Guatemalan government.

    On April 16, Guatemalan authorities arrested 22 people in the culmination of an eight month investigation by the Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad (Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau—FECI)—part of the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) and the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry—MP).  A number of officials from the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT), Guatemala’s tax collection agency, were detained, including the head of SAT, Omar Franco, his predecessor, Carlos Muñoz, and the private secretary of Baldetti, Juan Carlos Monzón. 

    CICIG was investigating an alleged corruption network called “La Linea” (The Line) that targeted Guatemala’s customs system. Businesses that had their goods in two ports, Puerto Quetzal or Puerto Santo Tomás, would call a certain cellphone number to negotiate the rate to have their property released after passing through Customs.  A review of 500 containers revealed that 40 percent of customs taxes would be paid to the state, 30 percent to the fraudsters and the remaining 30 percent was a discount to the company.

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    Tags: Guatemala, CasoSAT, corruption, Roxana Baldetti

  • Ecuador Reacts to U.S. Watch List of Intellectual Property Rights

    May 1, 2015

    by AQ Online

    The government of Ecuador released a statement on Thursday dismissing the headline of an earlier article by the Spanish international wire service EFE that Ecuador is on a United States “black list” of countries in violation of intellectual property rights. The EFE story was an interpretation of an annual report, also released on Thursday, issued by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) titled “Special 301,” which evaluates U.S. trading partners on their protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights. The Ecuadorian government said that the EFE headline misconstrued the intentions of USTR and that the report was not a black list.   

    The second section of the Special 301 report gives country-specific details and is divided into two parts titled ”watch list” and “priority watch list.” Ecuador appeared on the watch list of last year’s report, but has been elevated to the priority watch list for 2015. The report states, “This decision is based on Ecuador’s 2014 repeal of its criminal [Intellectual Property Rights] provision….the current lack of criminal procedures and penalties invites transnational organized crime groups that engage in copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting to view Ecuador as a safe haven.”

    The statement released by Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Trade on Thursday highlighted a section of the report indicating that the U.S. will reconsider downgrading Ecuador from its status on the priority watch list if Ecuador “reinstates the repealed provisions or adopts new acceptable procedures and penalties by December 30, 2015.” The Ministry of Foreign Trade remarked that such a statement in the report “implies a tacit recognition of the process of regulatory change that [Ecuador] conducts.”

    The statement by Ecuador’s Ministry of Trade also asserted that it is working on improving its compliance with international standards on intellectual property rights and foreign trade. On April 23, the Ministry of Foreign Trade asked Ecuador’s Justice Commission of the Assembly to accelerate reforms that would criminalize offenses against intellectual property. The reforms outline penalties against offenders that include 31-45 days of imprisonment and fines consistent with the value of stolen intellectual properties. Thursday’s press release by the Ministry of Trade stated that the Justice Commission of the Assembly will consider the reforms in the coming days.

    The proposed reforms were reportedly issued to protect trade relations with other regions of the world. Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Trade Diego Aulestia stated on April 23 that if Ecuador fails to address proper compliance with international intellectual property standards, it would have “serious consequences for national interests”.

    The USTR report listed a total of 13 countries on its priority watch list— Argentina, Chile and Venezuela join Ecuador on the list.

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    Tags: Intellectual Property Rights, trade, Piracy

  • Violence and Government Regulation Continue to Limit Press Freedom in the Americas, Report Finds

    April 30, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Only two percent of Latin Americans in 2014 lived in a media environment considered free, according to a press freedom report released Wednesday by the research institute Freedom House. The report registered no collective improvement for press in the Americas from the year prior, when press freedom dropped to its lowest level in five years. Globally, press liberties in 2014 fell to their lowest point in more than a decade.

    According to Freedom of the Press 2015, 15 countries in the Western Hemisphere were considered free media environments, 15 were considered partly free and five not free—Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. Aside from Cuba, those countries and Peru received their worst press freedom score in over a decade, with Ecuador ranking among the five countries globally posting the sharpest five-year declines. The report cites “hostile rhetoric from the government combined with pervasive legal harassment of journalists and media outlets” as contributors to the country’s decline. In 2013, Ecuador’s government passed a controversial media law which heightened state regulation of the media, a move that critics say reduced transparency and press freedom.

    In Honduras, pervasive violence and alliances between media owners and the government resulted in a four point drop in the country’s score on the report’s 100-point scale. Journalists in Central America face particularly grave threats to their personal safety. The murder of three Guatemalan journalists in March highlighted the high risk journalists take exposing government corruption.

    Cuba was the only country in the Americas to make the report’s list of the ten worst countries or territories for press freedom due to the government’s official censorship of the media and imprisonment of political figures. The country’s release of over 50 political prisoners in early 2015, however, may improve the country’s score in the coming year. 

    In North America, the United States’ score fell one point due to police harassment of journalists covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Mexico received its lowest score in a decade due to high levels of intimidation and violence toward journalists exposing the country’s organized criminal networks. Additionally, the country’s new telecommunications reform law had a detrimental effect on Internet liberties, the report says.

    Read Americas Quarterly’s Fall 2013 issue on press freedom in the Americas here.

    Tags: Freedom of the press, journalists, Media Law

  • Increased Militarization of Citizen Security in El Salvador: Responding to the Surge

    April 29, 2015

    by Julio Rank Wright

    Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle has been at the center of attention for the past two weeks, and not particularly for the right reasons. Stories of corruption, impunity, deteriorating security, and the revival of the ghost of presidential re-election covered newspaper headlines throughout the isthmus.

    The news coming out of the region comes at a time when the diplomatic offensive from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala intensifies as the countries seek quick approval and funding for the Alliance for Prosperity from the United States.

    El Salvador’s spike in homicides has illustrated the urgent need to address the structural causes of violence. After a failed gang truce brokered by the Catholic Church and the Salvadoran government with the country’s main gangs failed, murder rates increased dramatically. In the first four months of 2015, street gangs murdered over 20 police officers and the targeted murder of members of the Armed Forces also increased.

    Facing growing pressure from citizens, the government initially flip-flopped in their policy response. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Defense Minister General Munguía Payes first blamed the surge in violence on the media; arguing that “media coverage of violence does more harm than the attacks on police precincts.” The push-back from media and ordinary citizens living under the shadows of extortion and other crimes didn’t wait. Citizens were further infuriated by reports of plasma televisions and video game consoles, among other illegal items, being discovered within the country’s prisons.

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    Tags: El Salvador, Citizen Security, Northern Triangle, Alliance for Prosperity

  • Peruvian President Humala Ends Conflict With Chile Over Espionage

    April 29, 2015

    by AQ Online

    After more than two months of diplomatic tension between Peru and Chile over accusations that Peruvian naval officials had sold secrets to Chilean intelligence, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced yesterday that the countries have resolved the dispute.

    Humala said that he “recognizes the constructive attitude and dialogue of President Michelle Bachelet’s government in deploring these acts in the spirit of advancing the continued cooperation and integration of our peoples.”

    Peru first accused Chile of espionage on February 19, calling on the neighboring country to investigate the accusations and press charges against those responsible. According to the Peruvian government, there was evidence that three Peruvian non-commissioned navy officials (NCOs) had shared confidential information with Chilean intelligence between 2005 and 2012. The naval officers allegedly stole classified military documents and passed them on to their Chilean handlers in secret meetings held in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in exchange for money. These officers first came under suspicion in 2014, when their superiors suspected that the officers could not finance those trips on their salaries alone.

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    Tags: Chile, Peru, President Ollanta Humala

  • Mexico and the United States: Crude Oil Swap?

    April 28, 2015

    by Christian Gómez, Jr.

    On April 24, a bipartisan group of five U.S. congressmen, led by Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX), submitted a letter to President Barack Obama urging the president to exempt Mexico from U.S. crude oil export restrictions. This House letter follows the February bipartisan letter from 21 U.S. senators to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker encouraging the Commerce Department to lift restrictions.

    Lifting of crude oil export restrictions would open the door towards a proposed “oil swap” between Mexico and the United States. Mexico would supply heavy crude oil in exchange for U.S. light sweet crude oil. The two types of oil are complementary, as Mexico’s refineries are built for light oil, while the opposite is true in the United States.

    Petroleos Méxicanos, or Pemex, would like to import some 100,000 barrels per day of light oil. The rationale is that the light oil may be mixed with Mexico’s heavier oil, allowing for refineries to produce more diesel and gasoline per barrel. In fact, Pemex already sends 700,000 barrels per day of crude oil to the United States, but the proposed deal is in fact a swap of light crude for heavier crude, not a net import of U.S. oil.

    Pemex submitted the request in August of 2014 and is expecting an answer from the U.S. Commerce Department very soon. The approval of this oil swap would represent a huge step forward in removing all restrictions on crude oil exports, which have been banned for over 40 years, in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

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    Tags: Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Trade, oil, NAFTA

  • Sole Survivor of Brazilian Torture Site Dies

    April 28, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Inês Etienne Romeu, a former political prisoner and the only person to survive the infamous Casa da Morte (House of Death), a clandestine torture site in Petrópolis used by Brazil’s military dictatorship, died in her sleep yesterday morning. She was 72.

    Romeu, who had been a member of the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard) during Brazil´s period of military rule, was committed to speaking out about her experience at the Casa da Morte. As the sole survivor of the torture site, her accounts were key to identifying several of her torturers.  Notably, her accounts led to the identification of Amílcar Lobo, a medical doctor who allegedly was responsible of keeping victims of the Casa da Morte alive during their torture. Lobo’s medical license was subsequently revoked.

    Romeu also provided important testimony to Brazil´s National Truth Commission, which published its official report late last year. The report unequivocally established that “under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers.”

    Following her release from the Casa da Morte in 1971, Romeu’s family and lawyers decided that she should turn herself into the state and be formally imprisoned to escape future torture. After eight years, she was released under the terms of Brazil’s Amnesty Law. According the National Truth Commission, the same law that freed Romeu is one of the final obstacles impeding the prosecution of the country’s 191 alleged perpetrators of human rights violations.

    Tags: Casa da Morte, Brazil's National Truth Commission, Brazilian dictatorship

  • Monday Memo: U.S.-Colombia Talks—Guatemala Protests—Buenos Aires Primaries—Puerto Rico Downgrade—Texas Delegation in Cuba

    April 27, 2015

    by AQ Online

    This week’s likely top stories: U.S.-Colombia Fifth Annual Bilateral Meeting; Protesters denounce corruption in Guatemala; Primaries for local elections held in Buenos Aires; S&P downgrades Puerto Rico; and Texas trade delegation visits Havana.

    High-level Colombia-U.S. Talks on Mutual Cooperation: The U.S. and Colombia will hold high-level bilateral talks today in Bogotá, Colombia at the office of the Ministry of Foreign Relations. In the fifth annual bilateral meeting of its kind, discussions will be led by Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Agenda items include security, the environment, energy, education, trade and human rights. Alongside the meeting, over 100 officials from both countries will convene for a session of the steering committee of the U.S-Colombia Action Plan for Racial and Ethnic Equality, in which they will discuss democracy, culture and economic opportunities including innovation, academic exchange and immigration.

    Protesters Demand Resignation of Guatemalan President: On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters met in Guatemala City to denounce the government and demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti after a corruption scandal surfaced last week. An investigation into the “La Linea” case has implicated various officials from the Guatemalan Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (Superintendency of Tax Administration—SAT) for accepting bribes for reduced customs costs. The alleged leader of the corruption scheme is Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas, a former aide to Baldetti. Demonstrators claim that President Molina and Vice President Baldetti were aware of the corruption. More demonstrations are planned for coming days.

    Primary Elections Held in Buenos Aires: On Sunday, the primary for the upcoming local government elections was held in Buenos Aires. This election marks the first time that porteños can vote to select the primary candidates following a 2009 electoral reform.  According to exit polls, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta was nominated for the Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal—PRO) party, Mariano Recalde for the Frente Para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) party, and Martin Lousteau was nominated to lead the Energía Ciudadana Organizada (Organized Citizen’s Energy Coalition—ECO). Citizens will vote for the mayor of Buenos Aires in July 2015.

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    Tags: Standard & Poor's, President Otto Pérez Molina, Roxana Baldetti, Maria Ángela Holguín

  • The Experience Advantage for Harper and Clinton

    April 24, 2015

    by John Parisella

    Canada is about to face an intense political season, with the general election slated for October 19, 2015.  Polls indicate the possibility of a minority government with the ruling Conservatives showing some momentum in recent surveys.

    This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented his 2015-2016 budget, with a lot of goodies for seniors, families, and business.  With security very much a concern, the Tories continued their discourse about making Canada safer.

    Harper was first elected in 2006.  Normally, nine years in office results in a tendency towards incumbent fatigue.  Last summer, it seemed that the Harper government was facing the distinct possibility of losing its grip on power. 

    Enter the debate on the ISIS (or ISIL) resolution to join the international coalition, add two homegrown terrorist incidents, and the game changed.  While the official opposition under Tom Mulcair has been effective, and the Liberals have been re-energized under new leader Justin Trudeau, it seems that the complexity of governing has given Harper a decidedly new life.   Experience may be his best trump card to overcome the fatigue. Mulcair and Trudeau promise change, but will it be enough?

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    Tags: Stephen Harper, Hillary Clinton, Canada

  • Mine Protests in Peru Turn Fatal

    April 24, 2015

    by AQ Online

    Months-long protests against a copper mining project in Peru’s Arequipa region continued yesterday in the city of Mollendo, as close to 150 mourners— some carrying signs that read “farming yes, mines no”— joined the funeral procession of Victoriano Huayna Mina. The 61-year-old farmer was killed on Wednesday after police shot into a crowd of about 500 farmers protesting the Tía María mining project.

    A forensic examination proved that Huayna Mina died of a bullet wound, countering initial claims by local police chief Enrique Blanco that a fall had caused the farmer’s death. Local health director Walter Vera confirmed that 12 other protesters were wounded in the clash after being hit by shotgun pellets.The police reported that 11 officers also were hurt during Wednesday’s confrontation with demonstrators.

    After visiting a local hospital on Thursday where victims were being treated, Interior Minister José Luis Pérez Guadalupe announced that officers had orders prohibiting the use of lethal force against the protesters. He added that police involved in the confrontation had been placed on administrative leave while their actions are investigated. The minister also called for renewed dialogue with the protesters, saying “no one wants more deaths.”

    Farmers, anti-mining activists and local leaders who oppose the $1.4 billion open-pit mine worry that it will contaminate irrigation water in the fertile lands of Peru’s Tambo Valley. Southern Copper Corporation, the Mexican group that owns the project, said the mine would use desalinated ocean water that would never touch local waterways, and that dust from the mine would also be controlled. Peru’s Minister of Environment, Manual Pulgar-Vidal supported the claims, saying the mine was “safe for the environment.”

    The Peruvian government supports the mine, saying it would yield 10,000 tons of copper over 18 years. Minister of Agriculture Juan Manuel Benites, who has been holding dialogues with the protesters, said Thursday that the protests have not only put the mining project at risk, but have alsoendangered “Peru’s reputation as a country that can attract investment in a responsible manner.”

    The Tía María mining project has attracted controversy for years. In 2011, the project was temporarily halted after the deaths of 3 protesters. Last month, Southern Copper Corporation threatened to cancelthe project due to protests, but confirmed on April 15 that the project would continue.

    Mining accounts for nearly 62 percent of Peru’s export earnings, bringing in $8.6 billion in total investment last year.

    Tags: mining, Environment, police brutality

  • Spain Recalls Ambassador from Venezuela as Relations Sour

    April 23, 2015

    by AQ Online

    On Wednesday, Spain recalled its ambassador to Venezuela for consultations, citing “insults, calumnies, and threats" from the Venezuela government. The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward Spain after the country passed a resolution last week calling on Venezuela to release jailed opposition figures.

    Since the motion, Maduro has accused the Spanish government of “supporting terrorism” and of being party to an “international conspiracy” to overthrow his presidency. Maduro took aim at Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whom he called a “racist” whose government was a “group of corrupt [leaders], bandits and thieves.”

    In a press release, Rajoy called the accusations of supporting terrorism “particularly offensive,” due to Spain’s history of suffering terrorist attacks.

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    Tags: Leopoldo Lopez, Felipe Gonzalez, Spain

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