January 28, 2015Read More Tags: India-Latin America relations, India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi
All eyes have been on U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent state visit to India, where he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met amidst the excitement and pageantry of the country’s annual Republic Day. The two, who have met twice since Modi’s arrival in office in May of last year, announced a deal on civilian nuclear projects, progress on tackling climate change and cooperation in defense, as well as a $4 billion commitment from the United States in trade and investment promotion.
While the U.S.-India relationship appears to be blossoming, it is also important to look at India’s global role and positioning vis-à-vis the Western Hemisphere. Prime Minister Modi has only made one trip to Latin America and the Caribbean since entering office. He visited Brazil last summer for the 6th BRICS Summit, but unlike the leaders of China and Japan, who took multi-country whirlwind tours and promised to invest billions throughout the region, Modi did not venture outside of Brazil. Nor has one Latin American leader visited India on an official state visit over the past two years.
Modi has been working tirelessly to change India’s global image by tackling hygiene, fighting corruption, and revamping state-level systems to promote exports in order to turn around the faltering economy. India’s GDP growth has been stalled around 5 percent for the past few years, but recent projections by the World Bank estimate a GDP growth rate of 6.4 percent in 2015, possibly outpacing Chinese growth in two years.
Latin America has the ability to play an important role in this economic and political transformation for India. Trade, energy and geopolitical relations are key areas for strategic cooperation between the two regions.
January 27, 2015Read More Tags: Caribbean, green energy, Caribbean energy
On January 26, the Council of the Americas and the Atlantic Council co-hosted the Caribbean Energy Security Summit. The summit, convened by Vice President Joseph Biden, brought together Caribbean leaders, multilateral banks, private sector representatives, and U.S. government officials in order to address the critical issue of energy security in the Caribbean basin.
The summit demonstrated that there is high-level attention being given to the Caribbean in the U.S. government, which is willing to work with the region in order to take on the fiscal, energy, and environmental challenges currently present.
Caribbean nations are suffering from high energy costs and a dependence on fuel oil. They are indebted to countries such as Venezuela, through the Petrocaribe program. Because countries are receiving oil from Venezuela on preferential financing terms, there is very little incentive to diversify the energy matrix towards cleaner sources of energy such as natural gas and renewables. In a sense, the Caribbean is addicted to cheap oil—but this is not sustainable, given the declining state of the Venezuelan economy.
Furthermore, energy costs are affecting the region’s economic growth. According to the IDB, electricity rates in the Caribbean are up to four times more expensive than in Florida. The Caribbean’s economy is primarily driven by tourism, and electricity represents up to 50 percent of operating costs in hotels.
Moreover, the high dependency on imported fossil fuels is exacerbated by governance systems that are outdated. The obstacles to energy reform include high upfront costs, fiscally constrained governments, weak regulations, and lack of regional coordination.
January 27, 2015Read More Tags: Ollanta Humala, Labor Law, PeruFollowing a fifth round of student-lead protests, the Peruvian Congress voted this Monday to overturn a labor law that would have stripped young workers of many benefits and rights. The final count was an overwhelming majority of 91 votes to overturn the law against 18, with five abstentions.The bill, which passed in December, would have affected workers between 18 and 24 years of age by halving their vacation time, eliminating bonuses, and interfering with severance pay and insurance. Students lead the protests against the law, along with labor unions and cultural groups, who organized across all of Lima.President Ollanta Humala addressed the law on Friday, defending it in a national speech. According to the president, the law aimed to bring two million workers out of the informal sector and into the formal economy. However, those against the law claimed it to be discriminatory and unconstitutional.Lawmakers argue that the overturning of the law marks a significant loss of control for the Humala administration. This Sunday, Sergio Tejada, who was a member of the president’s Gana Peru political party, quit the party in protest of the labor law, resulting in Gana Peru losing its majority in Congress to the main opposition party, Fuerza Popular. Humala’s approval rating dropped five points in January to a dismal 25 percent.
January 26, 2015Tags: Venezuela Opposition, Petrocaribe, Haiti elections, Mexican telecommunications, 2016 Olympic Games
This week's likely top stories: Venezuelan opposition leaders halt protests in Caracas; Haiti swears in its nine-member Provisional Electoral Council; the U.S. hosts the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit; AT&T acquires Nextel Mexico; Rio’s environment secretary announces that Guanabara Bay will not be clean in time for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Opposition Curbs Protests in Caracas: Protests in Caracas—against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, chronic consumer staple shortages and a 64 percent increase in consumer prices—were called to an abrupt end by student opposition leaders over the weekend. Coming nearly a year after the violent demonstrations that led to 40 deaths and the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo López, the protests were quickly disbanded after several protestors clashed with police. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles canceled his speech and organizers emphasized safety, encouraging protestors to go home. A day earlier, in a nationally televised addressed, Maduro held his opponents responsible for Venezuela’s economic troubles, accusing them of organizing an “economic coup,” and criticizing an attempt by former presidents Felipe Calderón of Mexico, Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison.
Election Council Selected in Haiti: Haiti swore in a nine-member Provisional Electoral Council on Friday, in a step towards holding legislative and local elections that had been scheduled for 2011. Haitian parliament was dissolved and President Michel Martelly has been ruing by decree since January 12 due to the stalled elections. The electoral council was sworn in shortly before a United Nations Security Council arrived in Haiti, coming after nearly eight weeks of violent protests calling for Martelly’s resignation. Presidential elections are expected this year.
U.S. Hosts Summit to Discuss Alternatives to PetroCaribe: Caribbean leaders are gathering in Washington today—with the exception of Cuba—for the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit to brainstorm regional alternatives to the Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil subsidy program. The program has kept cash-strapped Caribbean governments afloat with $28 billion worth of oil on favorable financing terms since 2005. Although this perennial petroleum pipeline has been a lifeline in the region, its members owe a combined $12 billion to Venezuela. As the economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate with the declining price of oil, PetroCaribe’s 17 members are now seeking alternative energy sources. Capitalizing on this opportunity to wrest back regional energy influence, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is hosting today’s summit—along with the Council of the Americas and representatives from the EU, UN, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and other organizations—to advise Caribbean leaders on financing opportunities and regulatory changes that would allow them to incorporate natural gas and renewable sources into their national energy grids.
AT&T Acquires Nextel Mexico for $1.9 Billion: AT&T Inc., the second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier, purchased NII Holdings Inc.’s (Nextel) Mexican wireless assets today for $1.9 billion. The acquisition of Nextel Mexico’s network of 76 million people, its license and its high-paying monthly subscribers will strengthen AT&T’s strategic initiative of providing its first cross-border service between the U.S. and Mexico. This is the Dallas-based company’s third major expansion south of the border in the past year, after its takeover of DirecTV Mexico and Grupo Iusacell SA.
Rio Opts for Damage Control Over Sewage Treatment: The latest chapter in Brazil’s water troubles is Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games’ sailing and windsurfing competitions. With just over one and a half years to go before the opening ceremony, the new state environment secretary, Andre Correa, announced on Friday that the city will not be able to deliver on its pledge to cut the flow of raw sewage and garbage into Guanabara Bay by 80 percent. Correa estimated that diverting sewage from the bay and extending it to the entire metropolitan area would require an investment overhaul of $3.8 billion, and there is no known financing timetable in place. Cleaning Guanabara Bay by cutting the flow of pollutants to the trash-lined bay was supposed to be one of the game’s enduring civic legacies. The cleanup failure could potentially endanger the health of Olympic athletes, but the real losers are the residents of the surrounding favelas.
January 23, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, Paraguay, Itaipu Dam, Brazil Drought
On the border of Brazil and Paraguay, David Rodrigues Krug is chasing a unicorn.
That’s how he describes his work at the massive Itaipu Dam on the Paraná River, which forms a natural border between the South American neighbors. In three decades of operation, the five-mile-wide, 65-story dam has come close to generating 100 billion kilowatt hours (KWh) in a single year—but has never quite reached that goal.
“This is like our unicorn,” says Krug, chief of staff for Itaipu Binacional, the quasi-private company that owns and operates the hydropower plant. “We want to do it, but it has to be the perfect year in terms of water, in terms of the system. It would be our exceptional year.”
But the unicorn is getting more elusive amid a major drought that is depleting hydropower reservoirs across Brazil and tipping the nation into an energy crisis—underscoring its over-dependence on hydropower and the urgency to shift to other alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar. Brazil relies on hydropower for about three-fourths of its electricity, but across the southeastern and midwestern regions, dam levels are at one-fifth capacity, leading to electricity rationing and rolling blackouts across Brazil, including in the most populous state of São Paulo. This month, Brazil had to import electricity for the first time in five years.
The blackouts are due in part to Itaipu, which opened in 1984 and is now the second-largest hydropower plant in the world. Itaipu’s electricity generation fell 11 percent last year to 87.8 billion KWh— down from 98.6 billion KWh in 2013—causing it to lose its title of world’s largest hydropower generator to the Three Gorges Dam in China, which generated 98.8 billion KWh in 2014. (The Hoover Dam, by comparison, generates 4 billion KWh per year).
January 23, 2015Tags: arms sales, Guerrero, SEDENA
According to reports in German and Mexican news media, Mexico’s Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Secretariat of National Defense—SEDENA) has been implicated in the illegal sale of German arms in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in cooperation with a representative from German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch.
Guerrero is one of four Mexican states to which the German government forbids the sale of arms, due to the determination that the weapons could be used to perpetrate human rights violations. Reports of illegal arms sales by Heckler & Koch to Guerrero and other embargoed Mexican states have circulated in Germany since 2010, and the company admitted in 2013 that it had illegally sold thousands of weapons in Mexico.
Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifles were reportedly among the arms seized in the aftermath of an attack on student teachers in the Mexican state of Guerrero last September. Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade neither confirmed nor denied that German arms were found in Iguala.
The accusations against SEDENA were first reported by the German daily Taz, and were later picked up by the Mexican news site sinembargo.mx. According to these reports, a letter from Germany’s Bundeswirtschaftsministeriums (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy—BMWi) to German green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele alleges that defense ministry officials provided false information about the final destination of arms shipments in export documents.
“Mexico has violated the political principles of the federal German government with regard to the exportation of military weaponry and equipment,” said Ströbele.
Mexican officials have yet to respond to the accusation.
January 23, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, Human Rights, Pedro García Arredondo
Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty on Monday of murder, crimes against humanity, and attempted murder—and sentenced to 90 years in prison for his involvement in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire in Guatemala City.
On January 31, 1980, 37 people lost their lives during the fire, set by Guatemalan police after Indigenous campesinos took refuge in the embassy after traveling to Guatemala City to protest against state repression in Quiché during the country’s civil war. Arredondo was head of Commando VI, the now defunct Special Investigations Unit (Sección de Investigaciones Especiales) of the national police. After security forces cut power and communication to the embassy, they stormed the residence, ignoring pleas from the Spanish government, ambassador and protesters. Soon after, a fire started in the ambassador’s office. Red Cross nurse Odette de Arzú heard on the police radio, “Get them out by any means!” Other witnesses testified to hearing, “Let there be no one left alive!”
In the aftermath of the massacre, one of the two known survivors of the fire, Gregorio Yuja Xuna, was kidnapped from a private hospital room. He was tortured and killed; his body was dumped outside of the rectory at Universidad de San Carlos (University of San Carlos—USAC). A note was found in one of his pockets saying, “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Then, on February 2, during preparations for the mass funeral of the fire’s victims, two students were killed in a shootout at USAC’s auditorium with police.
On Monday, Arredondo was convicted of crimes for his involvement in all three incidents. In her summary, Judge Sara Yoc said, “The defendant executed orders from superiors—the order to kill everyone in the embassy. He was responsible ordering the burning of the embassy.”
January 22, 2015Tags: Venezuela, Venezuelan economy, Nicolás Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, defending his government’s socialist economic model and accusing the Venezuelan political opposition of waging an “economic war” that has led to the country’s current financial crisis.
That crisis has worsened in recent weeks as global oil prices have plummeted and the price of Venezuelan crude, the country's chief export, fell from $98 per barrel in 2013 to just $39 per barrel this week. Venezuela’s inflation rate, which Maduro estimated at more than 64 percent last year, is currently the highest in the Americas. The IMF’s Alejandro Werner predicted on Wednesday that Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent in 2015, and Maduro said in his speech that the economy had contracted 2.8 percent in 2014.
Maduro was expected to announce possible cuts to social spending and a devaluation of the bolivar during his speech. However, while Maduro said he was willing to consider raising the price of gasoline and restructuring the country’s three-tiered exchange rate system, he rejected the idea of a currency devaluation and instead announced that social spending would continue, promising to wage raises and pensions by 15 percent and build more low-income housing.
Supporters of Maduro’s government are expected to rally on Friday, prior to a planned opposition protest march on Saturday.
January 21, 2015Read More Tags: Barack Obama, State of the Union
If there is one thing consistent about President Barack Obama, it’s his ability to defy the odds. His nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and his eventual election as president made history. His seventh State of the Union speech, delivered on Tuesday, clearly showed his intention to resist any lame-duck status as he enters the final stretch of his presidency.
The State of the Union speech is an occasion for the president to tout his achievements and outline a path for the coming year. It is an ambitious wish list coupled with the hope—and maybe the possibility—of actually getting things done. This year’s speech was no exception.
The difference between this year’s speech and Obama’s earlier addresses was the president’s tone and passion. For many of Obama’s early supporters, the passion seemed to have dissipated since his 2012 re-election. The 2014 mid-term election drubbing to the Republicans indicated that the presidency was about to enter the predictable lame-duck status. Many referred to Obama’s last SOTU address as accomplishing very little in terms of concrete actions.
Just like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is now facing a Congress led by the opposition party in his final two years in office. By the midterms, all the talk about legacy was beginning to be relegated to the verdict of the historians, with the presidential sweepstakes soon to begin. While the usual post-election platitudes were uttered by both the president and the Republican leadership about compromise and cooperation, no serious observer took them seriously. Lame-duck status had arrived.
Then a series of events in November and December occurred, and Obama began to sound like the Obama of 2008. On immigration, he chose to use an ambitious executive order to grant relief to some undocumented immigrants. He also concluded a climate change agreement with China, making it possible for the world’s two largest economies to agree on something vital. His sanctions strategy regarding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine was beginning to have an impact. Finally, Obama used skillful diplomacy to reinstate diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the hope that someday, the 50-plus-year trade embargo would come to an end.
January 21, 2015Read More Tags: democracy, Elections, Costa Rica, Uruguay
Only two countries in Latin America—Costa Rica and Uruguay—can be considered “full democracies,” according to an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study commissioned by BBC for Democracy Day on January 20. The report says that a majority of Latin American countries hold “free and fair” elections and are better ranked than their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, but democracy in the region has stagnated. The governments of Cuba and Haiti are the lowest-ranked in Latin America and are classified as authoritarian regimes.
The study assesses a total of six factors, including access to the polls, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functionality of the government, political participation and political culture. Each country is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 10 and classified into one of four categories: full democracy, imperfect democracy, hybrid and authoritarian regime.
Nine countries (Chile, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay) are considered imperfect democracies, while six are classified as hybrids (Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Imperfect democracies are characterized by weaknesses in governability, low levels of political participation and an undeveloped political culture. The division between “imperfect” and “hybrid” regimes isn’t clear, says London School of Economics professor Francisco Panizza, but hybrids are generally described as having substantial irregularities in elections, oppression of opposition parties and greater weakness in governance.
January 21, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, Climate change, heat wave
In last night's State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about climate change (among many other things) and challengd climate change skeptics who "try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists."
"Well, I’m not a scientist, either,” Obama said. “But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe."
The comments come after NOAA's National Climatic Data Center released its annual State of the Climate report last week, showing 2014 was the hottest on record.
According to the report: "The December 2014 globally-averaged temperature across land and ocean surfaces was 0.77°C (1.39°F) above the 20th century average of 12.2°C (54.0°F), the highest on record for December since records began in 1880, surpassing the previous record set in 2006 by 0.02°C (0.04°F). This is the 10th consecutive month (since March 2014) with a global monthly temperature ranking among the seven highest for its respective month. December also marks the sixth month of 2014 to set a new monthly high temperature record."
Anyone who has been in southeastern Brazil for the past month can confirm that January will most likely surpass these records.
January 20, 2015Tags: Cuba Reforms, Senator Patrick Leahy, U.S.-Cuba relations
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
January 16, 2015Read More Tags: Haitian cuisine, 2010 Haiti earthquake, Cookbook
When’s that last time you talked about Haitian cuisine? When people talk about Haiti, they often focus on the grim figures. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Three-quarters of Haitians live on less than US$2 per day, and half of the population earns less that US$1 per day. The country ranks 161st out of 187 countries in the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index. And this week marked the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that leveled much of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Yet the country is home to rich culinary traditions, as varied as the Republic’s ten departments. So why is hunger the only story we tell about Haiti?
In her recently published recipe book, Haiti Uncovered: A Regional Adventure into the Art of Haitian Cuisine, Nadege Fleurimond reframes this narrative. Fleurimond showcases Haiti’s strong culinary heritage through scores of colorful photos and wonderful, kitchen-tested recipes.
January 16, 2015Tags: U.S. Department of the Treasury, Cuba Embargo, Cuba travel restrictions
Today, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments published their revised regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba, following President Barack Obama’s historic December announcement of restored diplomatic relations with the island after over half a century of hostilities. Effective January 16, these changes mark the first practical steps in delivering on Obama’s executive action.
In a Fact Sheet, the U.S. Department of the Treasury spelled out each regulatory amendment to the Cuba sanctions. While U.S. tourism on the island remains illegal, travelers will no longer need to seek advanced authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for their trips, so long as they can certify that they are traveling under one of the 12 existing authorized categories, including journalistic, humanitarian, religious, and educational activities. U.S. citizens will also be allowed to use their U.S. credit and debit cards and to import up to $400 worth of goods acquired on the island for personal use (limited to no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products).
Notably, telecommunications companies will be authorized provide “efficient and adequate” services necessary to connect Cuba to the world under a new general OFAC license. Additionally, U.S. airlines will be permitted to schedule regular flights to Cuba without specific OFAC licenses, pending a U.S.-Cuba agreement on aviation standards. United Airlines has already announced its intentions to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas. American Airlines, which already operates charter flights from Miami and Tampa, Florida, will likely look to expand its services as well.
Although these measures are intended to usher in a new era of contact between Americans and Cubans, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate boom in tourism, which continues to be restricted. The economic embargo is still in effect, and most trade remains illegal. According to Robert L. Muse, a Washington DC-based lawyer who wrote a blueprint for normalizing relations with Cuba via executive action in the Fall 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly, “A couple cannot go to Cuba to educate themselves on a subject like Cuban music. They can only go under the auspices of an organization that arranges a structured educational trip.” Moreover, travelers will still have to acquire visas from the Cuban government and will be constrained by what the island’s meager tourism infrastructure can offer.
January 15, 2015Tags: Haiti elections, Michel Martelly, Evans Paul
Evans Paul took office yesterday as Haiti’s new prime minister amid continued political uncertainty after Parliament was dissolved on Tuesday. Paul, a former journalist, former mayor of Port-au-Prince and presidential candidate, was nominated by Haitian President Michel Martelly to replace Laurent Lamothe, who stepped down as the country’s prime minister in December. Florence Duperval Guillaume had been serving as interim prime minister since Lamothe’s departure.
Paul, 59, has not been confirmed by the Haitian Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, he was able to become prime minister automatically because legislators could not come to an agreement over a disputed electoral law before their mandates expired on Monday, leading to the dissolution of Parliament. Martelly said on Sunday that he was on the verge of reaching a deal with the political opposition, but the negotiations collapsed, and Martelly can now rule by decree until new elections take place.
On Wednesday, Paul said that he would appoint a new electoral council to organize long-delayed legislative elections in 2015. Elections were originally slated for 2011, and their postponement has led to widespread protests across Haiti, with many Haitians demanding that Martelly resign. A presidential commission that Martelly set up in December to resolve the political crisis recommended that then-Prime Minister Lamothe resign. Paul is now the fourth prime minister that Martelly has appointed since taking office as president in 2011.
January 14, 2015Read More Tags: Canada Elections, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau
Shortly after winning his first majority government in 2011 (he won two minority governments in 2006 and 2008), Conservative Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper passed legislation to set the next election date no later than October 19, 2015. In a pre-holiday interview, Harper reiterated his commitment to holding the next general election on that date.
Unlike the United States, we in Canada have no tradition of a fixed-date national election. This has led many in political and media circles to speculate about a spring election following the government’s 2015-2016 budget. The probability that the Harper government will present some new anti-terrorism legislation could result in a wedge issue, thereby prompting an earlier election call. Clearly, the opposition partiesthe New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—are planning accordingly. One thing is certain: 2015 is an election year in Canada.
Just a year ago, the Liberals were coasting in the polls, following the election of a new leader, Justin Trudeau. In the past year, Trudeau has continued to lead the polls, and his party has performed well in by-elections and in provincial elections. It is fair to say that the Liberal brand, which was on a decline for nearly a decade, has rebounded. However, in the weeks prior to the holidays, the gap between the Liberals and the governing Conservatives narrowed substantially in the polls.
While the Conservative government has had its share of difficulties in 2013 (referred to as “annus horribilis” because of a Senate scandal), the government seems to have gained a more solid footing in 2014. The House of Commons debate in September on a resolution to support the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS (the radical Islamist terrorist group) in Iraq and Syria provided the Harper government with an opportunity to set the agenda. The two lone-wolf terrorist acts on Canadian soil (both in Ottawa and St-Jean, Québec) also presented a backdrop for Harper to show aplomb and compassion. The face-to-face confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, where Harper bluntly told the Russian leader to get out of the Ukraine, only added to the perception of the government’s surefootedness.
January 14, 2015Tags: Danilo Medina, Alejandro García Padilla, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic
Dominican President Danilo Medina arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday to meet with Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla in a series of meetings aimed at creating stronger ties between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, as well as improving relations in Latin America and the Caribbean. New agreements were also aimed specifically at expanding the job market and increasing trade through both imports and exports.
President Medina was joined by a delegation of thirteen Dominican government officials, the largest group of Dominican officials to visit the Puerto Rico on business. While the topic of the economy dominated the conversation, the two leaders also discussed other pressing topics, signing a historic agreement divided into 10 sections—three on education, two on the environment, two on trade, two on security, and one on taxes.
Although Puerto Rico remains a territory of the U.S., the accords will allow for greater strategic collaboration with other neighboring countries and territories. They will also give the Dominican Republic easier access to the U.S. market through Puerto Rico, while at the same time creating greater unity in the Caribbean.
“We firmly believe that our foreign relations should start with strengthening relationships with our neighboring [countries and territories] that will make us all successful,” said President Medina.
January 13, 2015Read More Tags: Freedom of the press, violence against journalists, Charlie Hebdo
As the sun set in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, beachgoers dotted the sands of Ipanema beach under the sweltering heat. At the base of the Arpoador rock, the neighborhood’s famous lookout point, a group gathered with French flags and paper signs reading, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”) in both Portuguese and French. In the middle of the crowd, a man held a surfboard with the same motto spray-painted in red ink.
The Brazilian city joined hundreds of others around the world that stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo magazine, the satirical publication where twelve people were killed last Wednesday, following an ambush by two gunmen. The victims included editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, as well as Jean “Cabu” Cabut and Georges Wolinski, two of the country’s top political cartoonists.
Nearly five hundred French nationals and Brazilians paraded down Ipanema’s Viera Souto Avenue, holding pencils in the air and singing France’s “Le Marseillaise” anthem.
“I think it is essential for us to defend freedom of speech and a free press,” Matthieu Romancant, a French architect living in Rio, said. “These are values that exist at the core of my country and that are universal.”
January 13, 2015Tags: Ayotzinapa, Mexican protests, Iguala
Protesters and family members of the 43 student protesters who disappeared last September in Iguala, Mexico tried to enter an army base in Iguala on Monday.
The families of the missing students and their supporters allege that the Mexican government has failed to examine the role of the military in the tragedy. Participants in the demonstrations tried to force entry into the Mexican Army’s 27th Battalion in order to look for the missing students. They also threw beer bottles at security forces stationed outside of the base. In a statement released on Tuesday, protesters reported six injuries due to tear gas and rocks thrown by the military.
Various witnesses claim that back in September, soldiers saw conflict between the students and the police right before the students’ disappearance, and said that the soldiers refused to intervene. Relatives and other students have called for investigations into the military and their actions on the night of the disappearance. Family members continue to reiterate that they will not rest until the authorities provide evidence of the deaths of their loved ones.
Since the disappearance of the students, citizens across Mexico have come together in mass protests against corruption and apparent links between criminal organizations and political authorities in the country.
January 12, 2015Tags: Governance in Haiti, U.S. Cuba policy, Pemex, Gay Marriage, China and Latin America
This week's likely top stories: Haiti attempts to negotiate its way out of political deadlock; Cuba frees 53 political prisoners, holding up its end of the rapprochement deal with U.S.; Mexico cuts funding to PEMEX causing major oil sector layoffs; the U.S. Supreme court declines to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban; China and CELAC hammer out the details of increased economic partnership.
Haitian Lawmakers to Vote on Electoral Law to End Political Deadlock: On the eve of the five-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitian President Michel Martelly reported on Sunday that he had come to an agreement with the opposition to hold long overdue elections by the end of 2015. Martelly announced that he’d reached a deal with 20 opposition politicians, although the leftist party Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), a major instigator of anti-government protests, was not involved in the deal. The agreement commits to organizing elections for two-thirds of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies by the end of the year, in addition to presidential elections. It also attempts to lend legitimacy to the political system by creating a nine-member electoral council made up of church, union and media representatives, but excluding political delegates. The current legislature’s mandate will elapse at midnight today, and if legislators do not approve the deal by then, President Martelly will rule by decree, a situation that opposition politicians claim that he has deliberately planned.
Cuba Frees 53 Political Prisoners: Cuba upheld its promise to release 53 political prisoners this weekend as part of December’s historic agreement with the United States to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. Working with Cuban activists and human rights groups, the U.S. presented the Cuban government last spring with a list of prisoners to be released, and the Cuban government agreed to release 53 of those prisoners. Cuban dissidents said on Sunday that they only knew of 39 people who had been freed since December 17, but the U.S. Interests Section in Havana confirmed that all of the prisoners have now been released. The White House is expected to provide the names of the freed prisoners to Congress, which will then make the prisoners’ identities public.
Budget Cuts at PEMEX Lead to Major Layoffs: About 10,000 oil service workers were laid off at the end of last week as state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (Mexican Petroleums—PEMEX) cancelled contracts due to budget cuts stemming from the global oil slump. Against a backdrop of a 10-year decrease in oil output at Pemex—the world’s ninth largest oil producer—and the price collapse of oil to nearly $46 per barrel, the Mexican Finance Ministry decided to withhold 50 billion pesos from Pemex in the interest of streamlining the management of public sector finances. PEMEX responded by terminating exploratory rig contracts, which may clear the way for foreign drillers to fill the gap in accordance with Mexico’s 2013 energy reform. Job losses could reach 50,000, according to Gonzalo Hernández of the Economic Development Chamber in Ciudad del Carmen, where many oil service companies are based.
U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Challenge to Gay Marriage Ban: The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban on Monday, and took no action on four similar cases in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee—though it may act on those cases this week. The decision was not surprising, since a challenge to the ban is still being decided in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and that court has not yet ruled. However, lawyers for the Louisiana plaintiffs opposed to the ban sought Supreme Court review because they said there is a “pressing need” for the court to definitively review the marriage bans as soon as possible. Gay marriage is now legal in 36 U.S. states, and if the Supreme Court strikes down one or more of bans in the 14 states that still prohibit gay marriage, all remaining bans could be overturned.
China and Latin America Hammer Out Increased Economic Partnership: At the close of last week’s first ministerial meeting of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged on Thursday to invest $250 billion dollars in Latin America over the next five years. The framework for cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and technological innovation is expected to include an increase of two-way trade to total up to $500 billion over 10 years—about twice its current level of $275 billion. Together, China and the countries represented by CELAC—which excludes the U.S. and Canada—account for one fifth of global land area, one third of world population and one eighth of the world’s total economic aggregate. Meanwhile, China is expected to surpass the European Union by 2016 to become the second-largest trading partner of most South American countries, after the United States.
January 9, 2015Read More Tags: Mexico-U.S. Relations, Enrique Peña Nieto, Barack Obama
More than Christmas, Three Kings Day on Tuesday was the holiday to celebrate if you come from Latin America. Starting in Mexico and going south, the holiday—the Dia de los Reyes Magos—commemorates the New Testament story in Matthew that describes the visit of three wise men to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus. Each one bears a gift for the Christ child. It is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
So I wondered whether Tuesday's meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto bestowed anything more than symbolic gifts during this first official visit by Mexico's leader to the United States.
Can Peña Nieto's offer to prevent a surge of illegal immigration from Mexico actually be implemented? The Obama administration fears that with the president's recently signed executive action, many Mexicans may be falsely lured into thinking that they can now enter illegally and get a work permit. Did Obama's offer to help Mexico with a new public relations campaign to protect its southern border from migrants from El Salvador and Honduras symbolize another gift on Three Kings Day? Did both leaders promise to help finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement that presents economic opportunities for both nations? The answer to all these questions is yes. They are important steps forward in the bilateral relationship with our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
But the real gifts that Mexico needed on this holiday of giving were not in hand, in spite of the willingness of both countries to work together to improve economic gains and better cross-border relations. The gift of democratic governance is something that cannot be bestowed from the outside. This is something that the United States has learned the hard way, from Iraq to Afghanistan to other parts of the world where we have been generous with our assistance but more often disappointed by the results.
January 9, 2015Tags: Mexico, violence against journalists, Moisés Sánchez Cerezo
Thirteen police officers in the Mexican city of Medellín de Bravo in the state of Veracruz were detained on Thursday as part of the investigation into the kidnapping of the journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo.
Sánchez Cerezo, the director and editor of the small, local publication La Unión, was abducted last Friday, January 2 by unidentified assailants, who also took his cell phone, camera and work computer with all of his archives. Earlier this week, the full police squad of 38 officers was brought in for questioning.
Sánchez Cerezo, who supported La Unión through money he earned as a taxi driver, had received a number of threats in the past over his publication, including some allegedly from Medellín de Bravo Mayor Omar Cruz, although Cruz denies the allegations. Currently, DNA tests are being carried out on two bodies that were found after Sánchez Cerezo’s disappearance.
Mexico has gained a reputation for being the most violent place in the hemisphere for journalists, in large part due to drug trafficking and organized crime. Over 100 journalists have been murdered since the year 2000, and within Mexico, the state of Veracruz is considered to be the most dangerous state for journalists.
Yesterday, a group of journalists protested the abduction of Sánchez Cerezo at the state congress in Xalapa. In addition to protests against the government for Sánchez Cerezo’s kidnapping, the Peña Nieto administration is facing ongoing protests over the disappearance of 43 students in September of last year.
January 8, 2015Tags: Colombia, ELN, Colombia Peace Talks
In a video statement released yesterday, Colombia’s Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army—ELN) reaffirmed its willingness to join formalized peace talks with the Colombian government and announced that it would consider a ceasefire.
In the video, ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez said, “The government […] has called the insurgents to the table. We will attend this dialogue to examine the will of the government and the Colombian State. If we conclude that arms are no longer necessary, we will consider quitting using them.”
For two years, the Colombian government has been conducting formal peace talks with the country’s largest rebel movement, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia—FARC). On December 20, 2014, the FARC declared a unilateral, indefinite ceasefire, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently said that he had instructed government peace negotiators to “accelerate” the talks with the FARC.
Last June, Santos revealed that his government and the ELN had begun separate preliminary peace talks in January 2014. Until now, little was known about the progress of those talks. The two sides recently concluded a “spiritual retreat” in the Colombian city of Cartagena, after which the President Santos urged the ELN to consider a ceasefire.
“We have given much thought to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire, in this regard with must recognize that the FARC have delivered. We want to invite the ELN to join the initiative and to reach an agreement as soon as possible regarding the issues we have been discussing for some time,” Santos said.
Read more about the Colombian peace negotiations here.
January 7, 2015Read More Tags: Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, genocide
The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”
January 7, 2015Tags: Honduras, ATIC, Crime, Impunity
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández launched a new investigative body on Tuesday in an effort to reduce violent crime and impunity in the world’s most violent country. The Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal (Technical Criminal Investigation Agency—ATIC) is a new branch of the Public Ministry of Honduras charged with “investigating serious crimes with strong social impact.”
Creation of the new, 60 million lempiras ($2.8 million) investigative branch was approved in January 2014 by the National Congress as part of reforms to the Law of the Public Ministry. ATIC graduated the first 97 agents specialized in criminal investigations on Monday, and hopes to have 250 agents by the end of 2015. The investigative unit will operate from two of the largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
ATIC is a hybrid technical-military police force whose primary task is investigations and prosecutions, not arrests. “[We told the agents,] your main weapon is not a rifle or pistol but your mind and knowledge,” said Attorney General Óscar Fernando Chinchilla.
The ATIC agents—39 women and 58 men—underwent three months of intensive instruction in law, criminology, forensic sciences, and investigative techniques, as well as physical and tactical training. The investigative body is divided into four units: crimes against life and sexual liberty, organized crime, public administration, and a technical-scientific department.
According to the Alliance for Peace and Justice in Honduras, 96 percent of homicide cases between 2010 and 2013 remained unsolved.
January 6, 2015Read More Tags: Mario Cuomo, Canada, New York
The phrase “campaigning in poetry and governing in prose” was coined by the late and former New York governor, Mario Cuomo. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been an admirer of Mario Cuomo ever since he gave the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Since he passed away on January 1, the media have been replaying this landmark speech.
Cuomo’s later address at the University of Notre Dame in September 1984 on the Catholic politician and pluralism was also a classic. It has been considered a model for governance in a diverse and pluralistic society. He was quite the orator.
The DNC speech was meant to be the Democratic response to the so-called Reagan Revolution and the conservative vision of Republican politics back then. While President Reagan spoke of the “shining city on the hill,” Governor Cuomo countered with his version of the “tale of two cities.” It was a call for greater equality and more social justice. It explored how government can help provide opportunities for jobs, fight to reduce poverty, and contribute to the overall prosperity of American society. Above all, the Cuomo speech may have been the last hurrah of the liberal, progressive vision of America.
To some, the speech may be an eloquent expression of another time in history, and that its message is no longer as relevant or as electorally viable today. To those who believe this, it may be worthwhile to give it another listen. If anything, economic inequality has risen and poverty levels remain unacceptably high in developed societies. Cuomo spoke of America then, but he might also be speaking about America today. As a Canadian, I believed his message transcended the U.S. border, with relevance for Canada then and now.
January 6, 2015Tags: Heraldo Munoz, Evo Morales, border dispute
Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz said yesterday in a press conference that the country rejected any possible mediation from the Pope in a dispute with Bolivia over sovereign access through Chile to the Pacific Ocean that dates back to the nineteenth century.
Muñoz’s comments came after Bolivian President Evo Morales’ statement on Sunday that Pope Francis had requested documentation about the border dispute. On Monday, after a meeting with the advisory committee for the legal case, Muñoz said, “Chile has not accepted in the past, does not accept and will not accept any mediation in a matter that is absolutely bilateral, that concerns only Chile and Bolivia. Chile will never consider, does not accept nor will accept ceding territory under pressure or through any form of mediation. This is crystal clear for us, even more so as there is a case in The Hague.”
Bolivia decided to bring its case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on April 24, 2013, with the goal of forcing Chile to negotiate a point of sovereign access to the ocean—which Bolivia lost after the War of the Pacific, when it signed a peace treaty with Chile in 1904 that Morales says was forcefully imposed on his country. On July 15, 2014, Chile filed a preliminary objection to the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the matter. In November 2014, Bolivia filed a declaration claiming that the ICJ did have jurisdiction to rule on the case.
There have been heightened tensions recently regarding the longstanding conflict, with Morales asserting at the end of December 2014 that Bolivia would recover its access to the sea. Meanwhile, Muñoz published a piece in the Brazilian publication Folha de São Paulo entitled “What the Bolivian Lawsuit is Hiding.”
Monday Memo: Panama Canal – Venezuela Diplomacy – 114th U.S. Congress – Guatemala Trial – Uruguay Elections
January 5, 2015Tags: Panama Canal, Nicolás Maduro, U.S. Congress, Guatemala civil war, Lucia Topolansky
This week's likely top stories: the Panama Canal gears up to expand its Pacific coast facilities; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels to China and OPEC countries; the 114th U.S. Congress starts its session on Tuesday with a Republican majority and plenty of hot button issues for the Americas; the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide resumes; Uruguayan First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirms she will run for mayor of Montevideo in 2015.
Panama Prepares to Expand its Pacific Canal Facilities: On Saturday, the Panama Canal Authority approved the development of a new transshipment port in the Corozal region, the canal’s entrance to the Pacific Ocean. This two-phased expansion project will improve the port’s capacity on the Pacific side from five to eight million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) by 2020 through the construction of a 2,081 linear-meter dock, a container yard, offices and warehouse facilities within a 120-hectare area. The new terminal will also include port facilities capable of accommodating mid-size cargo ships that can pass through the canal. Aware of impending competition from Nicaragua, which inaugurated the construction of its own canal megaproject on the Pacific Coast just before Christmas, Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge Luis Quijano said, “This new facility will increase inter-oceanic cargo traffic, consolidating Panama’s position as an international logistics and maritime hub.” The Panama National Assembly will review the bill for final approval this week before issuing a call for bids from construction companies for a twenty year contract.
Maduro Packs His Bags for an Economic Relief World Tour: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro left Caracas on Sunday night to commence an urgent diplomatic mission to China and several as-yet-unspecified Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations in pursuit of assistance to lift Venezuela out of recession. China, Maduro’s first stop on his economic tour, is Venezuela’s principal foreign lender and is keeping Venezuelan state welfare projects afloat through an $8 billion oil-for-loan agreement. Maduro is expected to discuss financing options with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would help Venezuela meet its debt obligations and tamp down inflation. Since Venezuela’s economy has suffered from OPEC’s decision in November not to curtail oil output despite the price drop, Maduro will visit OPEC countries in the second leg of his trip with the hopes of establishing “a strategy for recovering the price [of oil] and strengthening the organization.” Venezuela’s oil basket has fallen nearly 50 percent, to about $47 dollars per barrel since the summer, with each dollar drop in oil prices costing the government an estimated $700 million per year in revenue.
Republican-controlled U.S. Congress Convenes: The 114th U.S. Congress will start its session in Washington DC on Tuesday, with a Republican majority set to take over the Senate and continue control of the House of Representatives. The new Congress is expected to clash with President Barack Obama over policy on Cuba-U.S. relations, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to win approval in Congress last year. In November, Obama announced executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba in mid-December after more than five decades. However, Cuban authorities’ arrest of dissidents at the end of the year has amplified concerns about the state of human rights on the island, and some members of Congress who have opposed improved relations have suggested that the Senate may refuse to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Meanwhile, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that a bill approving the Keystone pipeline will be an early priority for Republican lawmakers, though it could still be vetoed by Obama.
Genocide Trial Resumes for Guatemala’s Ríos Montt: After 14 months, the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges—for his alleged role in ordering 15 massacres of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Maya from 1982 to 1983 during Guatemala’s Civil War—resumes today. While the former president was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison in May 2013, Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) upheld a measure that annulled the verdict and required that the trial resume where it stood on April 19, 2013, claiming that the general had been denied due process. Ríos Montt will not appear at his trial proceedings, which begin today and will presided over by Tribunal President Janeth Valdez, due to his health. At 88, he remains under military house arrest in an upscale neighborhood of Guatemala City.
Uruguayan First Lady to Run for Mayor of Montevideo: Uruguayan Senator and First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirmed she will run for mayor of Montevideo in the May 2015 elections. Topolansky, who is married to outgoing Uruguayan President José Mujica, is a member of the Movimiento de Participación Popular (Movement of Popular Participation—MPP) political party, the largest voting bloc within the ruling left-wing Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front—FA). The Uruguayan first lady accepted the candidacy on some conditions, including a respectful campaign against Daniel Martínez, another FA candidate from the Uruguayan Socialist Party who is competing in the mayoral race. With Topolansky as mayor, the MPP would control Uruguay’s main electoral region and add to the FA’s absolute majority in the legislature.
December 31, 2014Tags: Cuban dissidents, Antonio Rodiles, Tania Bruguera
Americas Quarterly was saddened to hear that one of its former Innovators, Antonio Rodiles, was among the democratic activists detained this week in Cuba. Antonio and others were heading to a peaceful rally organized by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at Havana’s Revolution Square. The event, titled #YoTambiénExijo (I Also Demand), was planned to be a series of open-mic presentations by independent activists about their view of Cuba’s future. Other dissidents, such as Reinaldo Escobar, were also detained—and Reinaldo’s wife, Yoani Sánchez (featured in the Fall 2014 Americas Quarterly), was prevented from leaving her house to attend. Our thoughts and prayers are with Antonio and the other dissidents who have been detained.
December 24, 2014Tags: happy holidays, Americas Quarterly
Happy Holidays! The AQ team is on vacation until January 5. Until then, readers eager for analysis on the region can always catch up on our print issues and remember to give the gift of AQ to their loved ones for the holidays.
December 23, 2014Read More Tags: Cuba-U.S. relations, Cuban Revolution
"There's a complicated history between the United States and Cuba," President Obama acknowledged in his December 17 announcement of a new opening to Cuba. He couched the new approach to relations in terms of the need to abandon the failed policy of the last 54 years.
A longer look at the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, however, suggests that much of the newly opened debate over future engagement rests on some of the same assumptions that shaped previous relations in the decades before the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). In jettisoning one failed policy, the U.S. government—and the people of Cuba—should be wary of resurrecting the habits of an earlier, equally dysfunctional relationship. It is a history about which Cubans are constantly reminded, but which most Americans all too easily forget.
As Spanish control weakened throughout the nineteenth century, American policymakers assumed that Cuba would pass from the Spanish to the American orbit—a danger that José Martí, Cuba's liberation hero, warned against before perishing in the War of Independence in 1895. With nationalist insurgents poised to win independence in 1898, the U.S. intervened and occupied Cuba in a bid to dictate the island's future.
In 1902, Cuba became a nominally independent republic, but one in which the Platt Amendment to Cuba's Constitution reserved Washington the right to intervene for "the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." U.S. troops landed on the island three more times in the next 20 years. U.S. ambassadors mediated among Cuban political factions, whose power could rest as much on the State Department's blessing as on support among Cubans.
December 23, 2014Tags: Nicolás Maduro, President Raul Castro, oil prices
Ernesto Villegas, director de propaganda del Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), aseguró hace dos semanas que si el petróleo venezolano llegase a cotizarse a 7 dólares por barril, la “revolución bolivariana no caería, se fortalecería”. La afirmación parece aventurada, incluso para los dirigentes del chavismo, acostumbrados a permear la realidad nacional con desconexos jingles publicitarios.
Entre noviembre y diciembre, el dólar paralelo en Venezuela pasó de 95 BsF a 165 BsF, valor que aumenta a tanta velocidad, que ha sido necesario actualizar la cifra tres veces para estas líneas. El Banco Central reportó en septiembre una inflación anual de 63,4%, y aunque no hay balances más recientes, la expectativa es que llegue a los tres dígitos en 2015. No hay números oficiales sobre la escasez de alimentos y productos durante el último trimestre, pero las filas en los mercados dan una idea de la disparidad entre oferta y demanda.
Es en ese contexto que Villegas opina sobre la caída del precio del barril de petróleo venezolano, que la semana pasada cerró en 51,26 dólares, casi 40 por debajo de los 90,19 dólares registrados a comienzos de septiembre, cuando comenzó un desplome en la cotización del crudo que no ocurría desde 2008.
La desvalorización del principal producto de exportación nacional—que costea 95% de los dólares que ingresan al país—ha venido a dificultar aún más las cosas para la comprometida gestión de Nicolás Maduro, elegido en abril de 2013 para un período de seis años. Al contrario de Villegas, el heredero político de Hugo Chávez no ha desestimado radicalmente la gravedad de la situación: “30% (de desvalorización) no es poca cosa”, llegó a reconocer el mandatario en un acto público dos semanas atrás.
Con el desplome petrolero, la primera medida del gobierno fue enviar al canciller—y antiguo ministro de Petróleo y Minería—Rafael Ramírez, a una gira por la Organización de Países Exportadores de Petróleo (OPEP), para convencer a sus socios de la necesidad de reducir la producción para aumentar los precios. El saldo fue negativo: a pesar del urgente pedido venezolano, prevaleció la decisión de mantener las cuotas inalterables.
El actual escenario ha dejado a Maduro pocas alternativas y la promesa de un 2015 difícil. Una de las decisiones que parece inevitable es el aumento de la gasolina, cuyo precio congelado hace 15 años ha creado una desigualdad tan absurda que con el costo de medio litro de agua mineral, es posible comprar el combustible para abastecer seis carros familiares.
Acabar con el subsidio—que le cuesta al Estado 12.500 millones de dólares por año—implica un doble desafío: por años, Chávez evitó el tema por temor a repetir el estallido social que selló la suerte de Carlos Andrés Pérez en 1989, por lo que Maduro, además de tener que tomar una medida que golpea un punto de honor para la sociedad, golpeando su ya menguada popularidad, reconocería de forma tácita que la economía venezolana enfrenta su peor momento en muchos años.
La reducción de ingresos también podría obligar al gobierno a realizar ajustes económicos para 2015—entre ellos una devaluación de la moneda, cuya cotización oficial—a 6,30 BsF, 12 BsF y 55 BsF—se mantiene alejada del cambio negro que determina el mercado nacional. Un estudio del Bank of America Merrill Lynch afirma que “por cada dólar de caída en los precios del petróleo, el sector público pierde 770 millones de dólares en ingresos netos”, y advierte que de continuar la tendencia, el Estado venezolano necesitaría un financiamiento adicional de 12 mil millones de dólares.
En 2013, cuando el precio del barril petrolero superaba los 100 dólares, el Congreso sancionó un presupuesto nacional calculado con una tasa de 60 dólares por barril. El objetivo era tener un margen de acción en caso de que los precios disminuyeran. En aquella época, el entonces ministro de finanzas sostuvo que los retos para el país eran aumentar la producción nacional y controlar el dólar paralelo, en aras de evitar un mayor incremento inflacionario. No sólo no se alcanzaron los objetivos, sino que además el país no consiguió tirar provecho de la diferencia de precios que por años le fue favorable.
El reciente anuncio del restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas entre Cuba y los Estados Unidos es una señal aún más clara de que el futuro de Venezuela es desalentador. Raúl Castro, en un gesto sin precedentes, ha dejado a la deriva a su benefactor, aislando a la “revolución bolivariana” en su momento más crítico.
La Habana parece haber aprendido la lección: la caída de los precios del petróleo a finales de la década de los 80 fue uno de los factores que contribuyó al fin de la Unión Soviética, entonces colaboradora de la isla. A finales de los 90, la ayuda de Hugo Chávez sirvió para minimizar los estragos ocasionados por el declive de Moscú. Durante casi una década, Venezuela ha enviado diariamente 100 mil barriles de petróleo a la isla, a cambio de asistencia médica, académica y deportiva.
De nuevo frente al ocaso de un gran aliado, y apenas dos meses después de la muerte de Hugo Chávez, Castro emprendió una negociación osada que salvase a su gobierno de atravesar por otro “período especial”. Las varias décadas en la senda revolucionaria parecen pesar, y es que mientras Cuba abraza a los Estados Unidos, Venezuela abraza al vacío.
December 23, 2014Tags: CIA torture, Human Rights, September 11
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Monday asked the U.S. Justice Department to designate a special prosecutor to examine the CIA’s use of torture as well as other illegal measures when questioning terrorism suspects.
Just two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report about the use of torture by the CIA when interrogating criminal suspects in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In light of these new findings, the ACLU and HRW wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, requesting further investigation and denouncing the “vast criminal conspiracy, under color of law, to commit torture and other serious crimes.”
However, officials reported that the U.S. Justice Department does not intend to reopen investigations into CIA interrogators, as investigations have already been carried out and the Justice Department did not find sufficient evidence for prosecutions.
Various human rights workers and politicians have called for further examination of officials that were involved in the CIA’s interrogations. On Sunday, a The New York Times called for an investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, former CIA Director George Tenet, CIA employee Jose Rodriguez Jr., and a number of other Bush administration employees.
December 23, 2014Read More Tags: Sustainable energy, geothermal development facility, alternative energy
Debates about renewable energy rarely focus on geothermal energy, despite its impressive potential. However, this may be changing: on December 8, the Geothermal Development Facility (GDF) was launched during the UN climate change talks in Lima, Peru, mobilizing $1 billion towards geothermal development across Latin America.
Geothermal reservoirs are located on tectonic plate boundaries or in areas of past or present volcanism—for example, the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” which includes Southeast Asia and the west coast of Latin America. Conventional geothermal harnesses energy from hot fluid and steam, obtained by drilling into the reservoir and used to spin turbines and generate power.
Geothermal energy has numerous benefits. It is a clean, renewable and cheap source of base load power, with minute greenhouse gas emissions and a relatively low electricity cost. In seven countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Iceland, Kenya, New Zealand, Nicaragua, and the Philippines—geothermal represents more than 10 percent of total electricity generation. As of August 2013, 24 countries had geothermal power plants with a combined power of 11,765 MW.
However, geothermal also requires high up-front cost. Exploration is expensive, and drilling is risky—an unsuccessful drill hole can cost millions of dollars. The World Bank notes that the total cost of drilling in a geothermal field ranges from $15 to $25 million, and revenue isn’t generated for five to eight years. Developed nations rely on the public sector to leverage risk for geothermal, but public financing is simply not enough to fund geothermal projects in developing nations: innovative financing mechanisms are necessary.
This is where the Geothermal Development Facility could have a large impact.
December 22, 2014Read More Tags: Colombia Peace Talks, FARC, Ceasefire
Los entusiastas de los diálogos recibimos con optimismo—y siempre cautela—las noticias de la última semana: la Unión Europea reconoció a Palestina como Estado, Cuba y EEUU restablecieron sus relaciones diplomáticas después de 55 años de “guerra fría,” y las Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) declararon un cese al fuego unilateral e indefinido.
Decisiones audaces y polémicas, que siempre necesitan veeduría, pero que envuelven ánimos de ensayar nuevos métodos a la hora de solucionar diferencias. Desde que el gobierno de Colombia se embarcó en los diálogos con las FARC hace casi dos años y medio, muchas decisiones han sido controversiales, comenzando por el proceso de paz mismo—que tiene enconados contradictores, como el senador y ex presidente, Álvaro Uribe. Cada año que comienza—o cerca de cada elección—el presidente Juan Manuel Santos promete una firma de paz inminente. ¿Será que el 2015 le da la razón?
El año pasado también hubo una tregua de las FARC, aunque limitada a un mes durante las fiestas de fin de año. Según la Defensoría del Pueblo, fue entonces violada en tres ocasiones con ataques a la fuerza pública. Y ese es el meollo del asunto: las concesiones de las FARC en el terreno militar se reducen al ataque, no a la posibilidad de “legítima defensa.” Una tregua no es un desarme, ni una concentración de combatientes en una zona desmilitarizada (vieja fórmula de los diálogos del Caguán durante el gobierno del presidente Andrés Pastrana). Si no es decididamente bilateral, no obliga a la otra parte a no usar las armas; y el gobierno colombiano ha sido clarísimo en que nunca renunciará a su deber de defender a los ciudadanos. Y finalmente, necesita verificación, la que también es generalmente implementada en medio de un armisticio.
La víspera de la tregua (19 de diciembre), las FARC mataron a cinco militares en el departamento del Cauca y todavía el Ejército sigue buscando a un soldado desaparecido. Es la vieja táctica de la guerrilla: mostrar poder militar antes de mostrar voluntad de paz. En adelante, si las fuerzas militares aprovechan esa concesión de las FARC para atacarlas, la tregua será violada en instantes, y con ello vendrá toda la crítica de sectores opuestos al diálogo. ¿Hay una fórmula exitosa? Si no hay desarme, el escenario bélico es una bomba de tiempo; un desarme es el fin último de los diálogos—aunque no sabemos qué tan cerca estamos.