European Union Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht said on Monday that the EU was close to reaching a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Mercosur. De Gucht is currently on a diplomatic trip to Paraguay and Uruguay—both members of Mercosur. The commissioner’s statement that “the moment has come” for a trade relationship came shortly after a meeting with Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in Asunción.
De Gucht’s remarks were strategically timed. March and May will see two bilateral meetings in Brussels. There is also a Mercosur summit in Asunción scheduled for June. In his comments, de Gucht mentioned that the EU has earmarked 130 Euros (US$177) for development until 2013 to facilitate trade and exchanges, with Mercosur being the top priority.
FTA talks between the EU and Mercosur were suspended for six years starting in 2004, but resumed in May 2010 due to the FTA’s potential to help both regions recovery from the global economic crisis. One issue that remains unresolved—and could further hold up the signing of an agreement—is competition between European and South American farmers and animal breeders. Mercosur currently has FTAs with Colombia (2005), Israel (2007) and Egypt (2010).
An unfortunate series of events last week turned my last blog post (Colombia’s Readiness for the Mining Industry) into a warning that has now become reality.
On February 1, five miners were killed in an explosion at La Escondida coalmine, near Sutatausa, a small town north of Bogotá. According to official reports, the explosion was caused by the accumulation of gases—mainly methane—in the tunnels. Floresmiro Olaya, the only survivor of the explosion, said to a local newspaper that the mine lacked proper ventilation, the tunnels didn’t have shelters in case of a collapse (like the one that saved the 33 Chilean miners) and no inspection was conducted by authorities. The families of the killed miners announced they will sue the government for poorly enforcing safety measures in the mine.
This tragedy came only a week after another explosion killed 21 miners in a coalmine in Sardinata, Santander, in the northeast of Colombia. It, too, was apparently caused by a buildup of methane gas.
The passing of Verónica Viviana Medina, who died last Thursday from burn wounds, is part of Argentina’s troubling trend of female deaths after being lit on fire by their partners. Since February 2010, 14 women have been murdered through such extreme acts of domestic violence. Ms. Medina, 32, passed away in a Buenos Aires hospital after over 60 percent of her body was burned three weeks ago.
Police reports say that Medina began an argument with her husband in front of their two children that escalated quickly. Medina’s husband then doused her in alcohol and set her ablaze. Medina was able to run onto the street shouting for help from her neighbors. She identified her husband, Daniel Fernando Rodríguez, 32, as the perpetrator. This was considered rare as most of the 14 women were not able to escape their attackers and notify the public.
Ms. Medina’s death was one of three that have already occurred in 2011, with many additional hospitalizations. In another incident last week, Vanesa Barrera, 21, was lit on fire by her 22-year-old boyfriend in the La Matanza district of Buenos Aires. She remains hospitalized with 80 percent of Barrera’s body having suffered serious burns.
With all the news out of Egypt last week in every major paper and streaming in live, the casual observer would easily be forgiven for overlooking a comparatively benign—but still marked—story: Wednesday’s global celebrations in commemoration of the 12th anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. In fact, it’s possible I would have overlooked the occasion too had we not received (from some mysterious email address) an invitation to attend the official celebration in New York at Venezuela’s consulate general on 51st street in Manhattan.
I almost deleted it upon receipt, but there it was, a day or two later, still sitting in my inbox and curiosity took hold. I called Venezuela home for nearly two years at the very outset of Hugo Chávez’ presidency and still have many Venezuelan friends both in and out of the country. What would it be like, I thought? What would they celebrate?
So I slogged down Fifth Avenue through New York’s ubiquitous icy slush and puddles to satisfy a nagging curiosity and observe the Bolivarian revolutionary revelry. The event was open to the public—no sign-in sheets or security checks—and only a few minutes after the 6 p.m. start time the crowd was already getting big. The celebrants were clearly mostly Venezuelan and it seemed like many of the early arrivals knew the consulate staff, but there was also a pretty diverse gringo crowd sporting patriotic Venezuelan hats and flags and bright red t-shirts.
If you happened to forget yours at home: “no problem!” There was a table of giveaway flags and apparel, and even hard-copy-bound books (in English) with select writings by el libertador himself.
This week marked the annual feast of the Candelaria (Candlemas), a religious event celebrated across Mexico that got its name from the fact that candles were brought to the church to be blessed. Marking the ritual presentation of baby Jesus, the occasion involves first making the necessary repairs to plaster statues in street side markets. These statues—elaborately dressed Niños Jesus that are then brought to local churches—are chronicled in my video below.
You’ll see that Mexicans have developed a devotional cult around the Niño Jesus and there are an infinite number of manifestations of the figure. The Football Niño, the Punk Niño, the Indigenous Niño, and the Doctor Niño are but a few that are popular. The day usually ends with a meal of tamales—the traditional tamalada—the responsibility of the person whose slice of rosca (round, sugary bread) contained a small, plastic figure of the baby Jesus.
Watch a piece I composed on the elaborate preparations involved in the ritual:
Keith Dannemiller is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a photographer based in Mexico City.
In early January, three Argentine pilots of a private modern jet were arrested in Barcelona, Spain, for transporting nearly a ton of cocaine. The episode is embarrassing for the Argentinean government since Spanish investigators have proof that the cocaine was loaded onto the plane from an Argentinean military airbase. Moreover, this was the last and biggest of a series of three carefully planned trips. The Spanish authorities chose to watch the first two smaller shipments and wait to seize this larger shipment. They also chose not to reveal any information about the nearly year-long operation to Argentinean authorities.
The lack of Spanish cooperation with the Argentinean authorities reveals an absence of trust and makes an outside observer wonder about the possibility of government complicity. Indeed, there are government connections from previous administrations. Two of those arrested are brothers Gustavo and Eduardo Juliá, sons of Brigadier José Juliá who was head of Argentina's Airforce when Carlos Menem was president. The third, Matías Miret, is also the son of a former Airforce official in command during the country's dictatorship (1976-1983). The modern jet plane used in the last flight, a Challenger 604, was supposedly rented from the company Medical Jet based in Miami, which claims it was leased to the Argentines by an outsourced group. Spanish authorities have revealed evidence that the 944 kilos of cocaine confiscated from the jet originated from the Valle Cartel in Colombia and passed through Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, for processing before making its way to Argentina.
The recent episode is not only uncomfortable for the Argentinean government; it highlights the country's growing role in the international drug trade and the government's weak control over trafficking. At first, President Cristina Fernández´s administration wouldn't admit that the drugs were loaded on the Argentinean airbase, but evidence forced the new Security Minister (former Minister of Defense) Nilda Garré to concede that it was possible and that “some controls have relaxed a little.” Accordingly, Ms. Garré has begun calling for increased regulations for private aircrafts. This sounds like a good idea considering the private jet loaded with a ton of cocaine at a military airbase even passed through Argentinean customs before taking off for Spain.
According to a researcher from the University of Buenos Aires, there is significant drug trafficking throughout Argentina, but mostly taking place by sea. This Juliá brother case is unique because of the large quantity of cocaine transported by air. There is also evidence, however, that Argentina is not just a transit point. It is also a drug producing and consuming country. The exponential growth of the use of Paco, a cheap cocaine derivative often made from production leftovers, makes specialists believe that there is significant production taking place in the country. Around the year 2000, the combination of Plan Colombia cracking down on drug producing countries up north and Argentinean’s economic meltdown made sending cocaine paste directly to Argentina for processing a viable, economic alternative. As a result, consumption has risen among the poor and the use of cheap drugs by young slum dwellers is leading to increasing acts of random gun violence in Buenos Aires.
Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced yesterday morning that government party candidate Jude Célestin is not eligible to run against frontrunner and former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the March 20 national presidential runoff elections. The long-awaited decisions means that Haitian pop singer Michel Martelly, who placed second in November’s first round voting will proceed to the second round.
The announcement mirrors recommendations made by the Organization of American States (OAS), which found evidence of widespread fraud, missing votes and altered tallies in favor of government-backed candidate Célestin. To many observers, the decision is a sign of progress in a country that witnessed a surge of violence and voter ballot confusion during the first round elections in November. Other tumultuous events such as the onset of an ongoing cholera epidemic and the recent return of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier on January 16 have raised the overall uncertainty regarding the election.
Support for the decision from international observers was immediate with Farhan Haq, a United Nations spokesperson, saying, "it is of capital importance for Haiti to have a new democratically elected government, to work on the pressing issues of reconstruction and the fight against cholera." The OAS also supports the decision and says it will send a new team of observers for the presidential runoff, as has been requested by the Haitian government.
The results of the runoff will be announced on April 16. Follow AQ Online for more updates and coverage.
According to new estimates, the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States remained steady between 2009 and 2010, following a two-year period of decline that began in 2007. A study released Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center found that as of March 2010, there were approximately 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., compared with 11.1 million a year earlier and a peak of 12 million in 2007. Similarly, the number of undocumented immigrants in the nation’s workforce remained steady at 8 million in the 2009-2010 period, compared to 8.4 million in 2007. The decline was notable particularly in Colorado, Florida, New York, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.
Although the Pew report was not designed to answer why these changes occurred, Pew Hispanic Center director Paul Taylor said “common sense” suggests that the economic recession and slow recovery from it in the U.S., as well as tougher border enforcement, are contributing factors. Senior demographer and co-author of the report Jeffrey S. Passel told Reuters that, in the past, immigration inflows have been tied to the state of the U.S. economy, particularly in the case of Mexico. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico account for 58 percent of the total and appear to be a primary source of the decline.
Despite stricter border enforcement and record numbers of deportations under the Obama administration (392,000 in 2010), the report did not find that a large number of undocumented immigrants were leaving the country. This may yet again prove the failure behind state-by-state “attrition through enforcement,” a strategy in which states adopt tough, anti-immigration laws. Although the anti-immigrant SB 1070 law passed in Arizona in 2010 is currently on hold pending court appeals, at least 15 other states have proposed similar legislation in 2011.
The Pew analysis, which is based on U.S. census data, also reports that 350,000 children had at least one undocumented-immigrant parent in 2009. This represents about 8 percent of the newborn population and is on par with figures from 2008. Conservative lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures have proposed initiatives to deny automatic citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, and in December 2010, a Senate filibuster blocked passage of the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would have provided children of undocumented immigrants permanent residency conditioned upon completion of two years of higher education or military service. Birthright citizenship is currently guaranteed by the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution.
From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Sec Clinton Pushes OAS Recommendations in Haiti
On an official visit to Haiti, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated U.S. support for the OAS recommendation to remove Jude Célestin—the governing party’s pick—from the second round of presidential elections. Clinton said she would discuss with Haitian leaders how to move forward with the delayed runoff election, and she denied rumors that the U.S. would suspend aid to Haiti if the government did not follow the OAS recommendation.
Last week, the Haitian government set March 20 as the date for the runoff election.
Haiti to Issue Passport to Aristide
The Haitian government agreed to issue ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide a diplomatic passport, his lawyer Ira Kurzban said Monday. Haitian President René Préval has refused to approve Aristide’s passport requests for years, but General Secretary for the Presidency Fritz Longchamp told Reuters that Préval and the Council of Ministers decided to change their position. Aristide’s party, the Fanmi Lavalas, is the largest in the country but is banned by electoral authorities.
Haitians Question Role of NGOs
The nongovernmental organizations that have flocked to Haiti by the hundreds continue to face scrutiny from the country’s leaders, according to a feature report in The Washington Post. Even the groups themselves have criticized the high turnover and lack of coordination and transparency that has characterized charitable groups operating in Haiti, the report says. Foreign donors continue to prefer donating to NGOs rather than the government, however, due to Haiti’s reputation for corruption.
Feeling Egyptian in Latin America
Global Voices aggregates opinions from various blogs and newspapers about whether protests in Egypt could spark uprisings in Latin America. Bloggings by Boz suggests that “democracy is the expectation rather than the exception” in Latin America while Central American Politics suggests Bolivia and Ecuador would be the countries most likely to face protests. Two Weeks Notice compares and contrasts Egypt with Nicaragua.
The auditing firm Ernst & Young recently surprised all of Mexico (and possibly the world) with the results published in their “Winning in a polycentric world” report, which ranks economies based on their level of globalization.
In this ranking, which EY coordinates with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) think tank, Mexico is placed in a very respectable #36, surpassing China (39) Japan (42) and Brazil (46) among others as “most globalized.” Hong Kong, Ireland and Singapore rank at the top of the index. The United States does not fare are well as one would expect, placed as #28, only 8 slots from its neighbor to the south.
Why does the Ernst & Young report throw out these unexpected figures and why is it so important? Granted, there are many types of studies and rankings that provide different lists. However, what makes “Winning in a polycentric world” a very relevant report and an important piece to further study, is the fact that this is one of the few reports that measures globalization in relative terms, linked to the size of the economy measured by GDP. This is done to some extent, in order to level the playing field.
The report has 20 indicators grouped under five broad categories: movement of goods and services, movement of capital and finance, exchange of technology and ideas, movement of labor and cultural integration. Thanks mostly to strengthened economic ties (mostly fueled by NAFTA) and improvements in our financial and banking systems, Mexico gets high points for trade and movement of capital. If these were the only variables to analyze, the report would paint a profitable future for Mexico. However, the category in which the country gets its lowest grades is technology and innovation and that is very bad news.
In the book As the Future Catches You, Juan Enriquez Cabot makes a strong case for the importance of innovation and harvesting ideas as opposed to relying on commodities and primary resources to boost an economy. He looks at where most of the added value in the supply chain lies in answering the question “how can countries rich in natural resources get so poor during this century?”. Enriquez wrote the book more than 10 years ago but we can prove he was right when we see Hong Kong, Ireland and Singapore at the top of Ernst & Young’s rankings mostly due to their ability to turn a profit without large natural resources.
With just over two months to go before voting in Peru’s presidential elections on April 10, candidates are now devoting their attention to a social concern that has not been a front-and-center issue in national politics. The focus on same-sex marriage comes on the heels of disparaging remarks made on January 24 by Bishop Emeritus of Chimbote Luis Bambarén that were directed at the gay community. He also stated that discussion on “useless things like gay marriage” was a ploy by politicians to garner more votes.
Currently leading in polls, former president Alejandro Toledo of the Perú Posible party has made statements suggesting that he is open to civil unions and working “toward an inclusive society.” Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Alianza por el Gran Cambio and Keiko Fujimori of Fuerza 2011 have both declared themselves in favor of civil unions as well. According to recent CPI and Datum polls, Toledo is in the lead by only a few percentage points over Luis Castañeda of Solidaridad Nacional with Keiko Fujimori in third place. Similar statements have been made by Manuel Rodríguez Cuadros of Fuerza Social. Mr. Cuadros has declared that he is in favor of reforming Peru’s laws to allow for same-sex marriages. Other candidates have not gone as far. Among them, Catañeda has proposed inheritance benefits while calling changing current laws to permit same-sex unions “a crazy… idea.”
Political analysts in Peru note that the gay vote played a key role in the recent election of Susana Villarán as mayor of Lima and so will now play a similar role in the presidential election. According to Fernando Vivas of BBC Mundo, the increasing role of the gay vote in Peru has helped to raise the issue of gay rights above other topics like illiteracy and poverty eradication in the election debate.
The unexpected arrival of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier has incited another plot twist in the tragic-comedy known as Haitian politics. Duvalier’s reasons and/or ambitions for this return has elicited endless speculation from the moment his Air France flight touched down in Port-au-Prince. One of the first writers to solve this mystery was Huge Desrameaux. Writing in the Miami Herald, Desrameaux revealed that Duvalier had returned to Haiti in a quixotic attempt to reclaim what’s left of his ill-gotten fortune, which is currently being withheld by Swiss authorities. These fortunes will now be easier for the Haitian authorities to reclaim after the Duvalier Law—a Swiss law that eases the ability of a country to retrieve ill-gotten gains—went into effect today.
In spite of Duvalier’s efforts at arguing that his motives are more benevolent (he’s allegedly returned to help with earthquake relief and to donate his remaining bounty to the Red Cross) the audacity of returning to the island that he and his father plundered requires a voluminous amount of hubris. After all, did Duvalier seriously believe he could return home to Haiti and everyone would turn the other cheek?
Duvalier’s impromptu homecoming also offers another opportunity to debate the efficacy of President René Préval’s tenure in office. “Baby Doc” may be the spectacle du jour, but the real question that Haitians must address at this moment is, what is its post-Préval future?
Havana Provincial Court sentenced Wilfredo Castillo Donate, the director of Havana Psychiatric Hospital, to 15 years in prison on Monday for negligence in the deaths of 26 patients during a cold spell last year. Twelve other staff members of Cuba’s largest mental health institution also received sentences ranging from 5 to 14 years in prison.
The 26 patients died of hypothermia and other ailments last January during a spell of cold winter weather that dipped as low as 38 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius)—unusual for Cuba’s tropical climate. The prosecutor argued that despite the hospitals dilapidated condition, the staff had sufficient resources in its possession, such as extra blankets and available warmer rooms, to prevent the deaths.
Critics of the government claim that the patient deaths expose shortcomings in Cuba’s free health care system, which has been a point of pride for the Castro regime. Members of the convicted hospital staff have 10 days to appeal their sentences.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Port-au-Prince yesterday to meet with Haitian politicians regarding the ongoing presidential elections. She met with incumbent president René Préval and the three leading candidates after the November 2010 vote: former first lady Mirlande Manigat, construction executive Jude Célestin and popular musician Michel Martelly.
The preliminary results were originally contested when Martelly—long expected to advance to a second round—lost out to Célestin to advance to the runoff. After much international pressure, the Organization of American States (OAS) conducted an investigation, and issued a report recommending that Martelly be included in the runoff instead of Célestin. Secretary Clinton said yesterday that the Obama administration supports the OAS’ findings. Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council is expected to issue its final ruling on Wednesday.
Although the presidential runoff is scheduled for March 20, with results to be announced on April 16, Préval is constitutionally required to leave office on February 7. However, an emergency bill passed by Haiti’s parliament last year allows Préval to stay in office until May 14. Célestin, a member of Préval’s Inité party and widely viewed as his political protégé, has in recent days rebuffed Préval’s calls to withdraw from the race.
In addition, a Department of State press release noted that Secretary Clinton visited a cholera treatment clinic to monitor ongoing reconstruction efforts after last year’s earthquake.
In the last two months, the world has witnessed a wave of diplomatic support for a Palestinian state from a region that is continuing to extend its foreign policy imprint: Latin America. But will this trend yield any measurable progress toward a two-state Palestinian-Israeli agreement—or produce a negligible effect on Palestine’s quest for full autonomy and sovereignty?
Although Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela fully recognized a sovereign Palestinian state before the end of last year, Brazil’s decision to throw its diplomatic weight behind Palestine in December 2010 initiated a chain reaction through the region. Given Brazil’s economic prominence, its South American neighbors likely saw low political risks in following Brasília’s lead. For instance, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sent a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas only five days after then-Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did so. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Uruguay have since issued similar statements.
After Chile formally recognized a Palestinian state earlier this month, Palestinian officials suggested Paraguay and Peru would shortly follow suit—the latter of which acquiesced this week. Peru was widely expected to acknowledge a Palestinian state in anticipation of the third Summit of South American-Arab Countries (Cumbre América del Sur-Países Árabes), which will be hosted in Lima beginning February 12.
This domino effect begs the question: Why now? The Palestine Liberation Organization was established back in 1964 and Abbas has been the PA president for over six years—so there has not been a recent regime change. Most likely, it appears that Latin America was simply fed up with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Despite the optimism that persisted in September 2010 with the re-launching of the first direct talks since the 2007 Annapolis Conference, those negotiations quickly broke off—resulting in the present stasis.
Following President Obama’s call for the U.S. to “pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia” in his State of the Union address this week, Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón said in Washington DC that he is convinced there is a majority in Congress to approve the deal. "We hope and we stress that 2011 is the year the U.S. Congress approves the pact…there is no middle road on this,” according to Garzón.
The renewed focus on passage of the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement—originally signed in November 2006—is a high priority for U.S.-Colombian relations. It is also imperative for job creation in the United States. As noted by Eric Farnsworth in the newly published AQ, “the refusal of the U.S. to pass its own bilateral agreement with Colombia were the primary causes of the sharp drop in U.S. agricultural exports to Colombia.” He further warns of this continuing once the Colombia-Canada agreement comes into force.
An AQ interactive analysis also highlights the correlation, or lack of it, behind how members of Congress vote on free-trade agreements and the resulting increase in export benefits seen by the state due to passage. It presents state-by-state export values to Colombia, showing why passage of this agreement can help to boost local economies.
Currently, over 90 percent of U.S. imports from Colombia enter duty-free, but U.S. exports to Colombia face tariffs up to 35 percent.
By all accounts, 2010 was a challenging time for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the foreign policy front.
The low point came when Canada failed to win a non-permanent seat in a secret vote at the United Nations Security Council in October, the first time since 1948. Canada had held the prestigious two-year position virtually nonstop every 10 years or so since the early days of the United Nations.
As expected, Germany easily one of two Western Bloc regional seats but most observers had not seen the duel shaping up between Canada and Portugal for the second seat. To avoid a humiliating defeat, Canada withdrew from the race after the second ballot.
The outcome sent shockwaves across the nation.
Opposition parties labelled the loss a blow to Canada’s international reputation. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff attributed the rebuke to the Harper government’s ideological positions, incompetence and neglect of African issues. He reminded the government 80 percent of the Security Council’s work is focused on Africa.
In what some are suggesting was a strategic move to keep a party out of power, a candidate in the race for governor in Mexico’s Guerrero state has dropped out and endorsed his opponent. On Wednesday, Marcos Parra Gomez of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) announced that he would instead encourage his followers to support Ángel Aguirre of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). Aguirre is in a close race with Manuel Anorve, the mayor of Acapulco and member of the previously-dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Elections will be held on Sunday, January 30.
In Guerrero, Acapulco is the major port for automobile exports to the Pacific region and critical for Mexico’s ability to take full advantage of the “over 25 trade and investment agreements signed from 1985 to 2009,” as noted by Eva Paus in the Winter AQ (released today). Improving security will be a priority for the new governor.
In his announcement—just five days before the election—Parra said he “seeks the best thing for the people of Guerrero.” The decision was made in conjunction with the PAN’s National Executive Committee, whose officials have often emphasized the need to prevent the PRI from returning to power and who last year forged coalitions with the PRD in other states to this end.
Responding to the announcement in a press conference, a representative from the PRI’s Executive National Committee said the new alliance “goes beyond the ambition for power for power’s sake.” Spokesman Roberto Padilla Márquez said the state of Guerrero should not be seen “as a piece in a game of chess” to ultimately win the presidency of the Republic of Mexico.
From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
SOTU: Obama Announces LatAm Trip
During Tuesday night’s annual State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador in March. “[T]his will be an important opportunity to recharge and reset U.S. relations with the hemisphere,” writes COA’s Eric Farnsworth in the Americas Quarterly blog, noting that immigration and trade were the two other regional issues Obama touched on. Despite the fact that the president suggested he would “pursue agreements” with Colombia and Panama, observers noted that Obama did not spell out a timetable to win congressional approval of the two free-trade deals.
Visit AmericasQuarterly.org January 27 to access the Winter 2011 issue covering free trade and market access.
SecClinton Travels to Mexico for Bilateral Boost
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Guanajuato, Mexico, January 24 for a meeting with Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa. According to the press conference held after the meeting, the two secretaries hit on a range of topics—from Mexico’s leadership on climate issues to bilateral economic ties to Haiti. Inevitably, the subject of Clinton’s comments on Mexico’s violent drug war attracted the greatest press attention. The secretary voiced support for the Calderón government’s offensive against organized crime, noted a $500 million commitment from Washington this year to support Mexico’s efforts, and compared Mexico’s struggle with crime to New York’s two decades ago. The Christian Science Monitor focused in particular on Clinton’s praise for Mexico’s efforts toward judicial reform.
Read an AS/COA Online analysis on Clinton’s latest trip to Mexico.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address last night plans to travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this coming March “to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas.” Obama is scheduled to arrive in El Salvador on March 23 after first visiting Brazil and then Chile. The March trip will be the first visit to South America by a sitting U.S. President since George W. Bush visited Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico in March 2007.
This will mark the president’s first trip to South America as either a private citizen or head of state. However, Obama did travel to Trinidad and Tobago to attend the 34-nation Summit of the Americas in 2009 where he pledged to re-engage the region. Of the three countries Obama plans to visit, he last met with President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador in March in Washington DC where the two expressed a desire to work together to combat organized crime and drug trafficking.
The decision to visit these countries is timely given the recent presidential elections in both Brazil and Chile and their roles as economic leaders in the region, writes Eric Farnsworth in the AQ blog. Both Brazil and Chile have elected new presidents in the last 12 months.
The visit also comes as the newly sworn-in 112th U.S. Congress recently appointed Connie Mack as Chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Western Hemisphere. But his seeming unwillingness to engage Latin America on its terms poses a challenge to the administration’s desire to re-engage with the region, writes Christopher Sabatini in the AQ blog.
The president spoke at least three times this evening during his State of the Union on issues of importance to the Western Hemisphere: immigration, trade and his desire to travel to Latin America in March.
He was strong on immigration, saying he is willing to work with anyone to address immigration issues comprehensively as a priority. That's good news and shows that immigration reform isn't dead despite the failure of the Dream Act in the lame duck congressional session late last year. Hopefully Republicans will take him up on it, or else they risk losing Hispanics politically for at least a generation, perhaps more. 2011 could finally be the year, if republicans will play ball.
On trade, the president spoke of working with Panama and Colombia to get an agreement that supports U.S. workers. We already have such agreements, though, since the agreements as drafted would open markets to us in the same way ours is already open to them. It’s a matter of fairness, and also the ability to export more, consistent with the president’s goal of doubling exports by 2014.
Siete, dicen, es el número cabalístico que marca la primera crisis matrimonial seria, de esas que acaban en ruptura definitiva. Pero dado que el tiempo es hoy una categoría tan relativa y de cada vez menos duración, las crisis conyugales suelen comenzar bastante antes. Eso parece haber sucedido en Bolivia con el matrimonio de Evo y el pueblo a cinco años de iniciado su gobierno. La luna de miel se ha acabado de la peor manera: con el mayor gasolinazo de la historia reciente como regalo de Navidad. Digamos, una torpeza.
La reacción del pueblo fue entonces furibunda. Evo no se lo esperaba, confiado, cómo no, en ese 67 por ciento de respaldo popular que en 2008 lo ratificó en la Presidencia y luego lo reeligió por cinco años más en diciembre de 2009. Digamos que esa pareja -Evo y el pueblo- confiaba uno en el amor del otro. Así, llegada esta Navidad ni el pueblo esperaba un gasolinazo del 80 por ciento ni Evo que quemaran su vivo retrato en las calles y quisieran echarlo a patadas de la casa como hicieron con Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada en 2003 y encima ¡esos mismos actores!: la ciudad de El Alto pero además, Oruro, Potosí y el Chapare. Es decir, sus mayores plazas electorales de donde salen gran parte de los llamados “movimientos sociales”, en su mayoría indígenas y sectores populares del occidente del país. Digamos sus amadas.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is in Paris this week before heading to the World Economic Forum and at the top of his agenda is expanding trade and investment ties with France and the European Union as a whole. Today, prior to meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday, Santos met with French business leaders to discuss commerce opportunities. The Colombian president called attention to Colombia’s economic growth and the importance of expanded trade opportunities: "For us, Europe is still fundamental. We have negotiated a free trade agreement with Europe, and I take this opportunity to ask everyone to help us so that this treaty will get adopted as soon as possible by the European Parliament and the parliaments of each country."
He later had lunch with French Senate President Gerarch Larcher and spoke about plans to "further expand [bilateral] cooperation." Santos is also scheduled to visit a ship-building yard in Saint-Nazaire.
In comments that will likely be echoed during a speech later this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Colombian president noted to French business leaders that "ten years ago Colombia was a country that many catalogued as a failed state" but "the country has changed 180 degrees.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is traveling today to the central Mexican city of Guanajuato for one day of bilateral talks with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. According to a Department of State press release, the main discussion points will cover joint efforts in the areas of organized crime, economic collaboration, border security, and climate change reform post-COP 16 in Cancún. Following her discussions with Minister Espinosa, Secretary Clinton will meet President Felipe Calderón in Mexico City.
The timing of Secretary Clinton’s visit is critical as Mexico continues to suffer from drug cartel-related violence throughout the country. More than 34,000 people have died in the last four years due to organized crime. President Calderón has mounted an aggressive government effort to stave off narco-violence, despite nearly 16,000 of the 34,000 deaths having occurred in 2010 alone.
In light of this, the Colombian army has begun training Mexican police officers to contain drug gangs. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos notes that: “Mexico has what we had some years ago, which are very powerful cartels. What we can provide is the experience that we have had dismantling those cartels, training intelligence officers, [and] training judicial police.”
Minister Rodrigo Rivera has announced that in the first week of February he will travel to Washington DC to consult his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on Colombia’s U.S.-backed efforts to combat drug trafficking.
During his visit, Mr. Rivera’s discussions will focus on violence sparked by nacrotrafficking organizations. The administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been retooling its counternarcotics strategies since the beginning the year when two students from a prestigious Bogotá university were found murdered by suspected drug traffickers near a beach on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Mr. Rivera’s U.S. trip will follow his visit next week to Venezuela, where he will hold meetings with Venezuelan Defense Minister Jose Mata Figueroa to discuss border security and the possible intensification of military border operations to fight illegal armed groups.
In Mexico, most medium-size and large companies provide their employees vales de despensa, or grocery coupons, as part of their monthly benefits to workers. These were originally instituted to provide tax breaks to both businesses and individuals. The value of grocery coupons is not declared as part of one’s personal income (so it is not taxed) but in most cases, it does account for a significant amount of money. Vales de despensa are an accepted form of currency in supermarkets, gas stations and even restaurants.
Now, this week, the Diario de la Federación (Official government gazette) announced that our Federal Congress published yet more proof of their nearsightedness by issuing a new law regulating the use of vales de despensa, the Ley de Ayuda Alimentaria para los Trabajadores. As part of its undeclared war on big business (proof of which is in every recent tax reform), Congress decided to restrict the use of vales de despensa and prohibit the purchase of alcohol and tobacco with this currency (Article 12, section II).
For people with a small cash flow, this inherently means that government is making it even harder for them to exercise their free will and purchase what they please in a grocery store. Government already has a special tax for alcohol and tobacco, which came into effect on January 1, 2011, and forced price increases in these products (transfering the tax imposition directly to customers). In cigarettes for example, this new tax implied a 25 percent price increase from one day to the next. It is self-explanatory that the intention is for government to try to squeeze the most it can from its captive tax contributors (as opposed to actually doing something about the other 90 percent of the people who evade taxes and/or are part of the informal economy).
The “healthy diet” excuse does not hold ground, at least in the case of alcohol. Countless studies (here’s one) from international scientists have proven time and time again that in moderation, alcohol can actually make your heart stronger and improve your memory. Obesity, caused by lack of exercise and the ingestion of junk food, and not alcohol, is Mexico’s top health concern today. If Congress wanted to be logical about it, they would have taxed certain food products including maize and corn tortillas (which by the way are part of our subsidized foods). A better physical education program in public schools would also do a lot more in favor of combating obesity than further restricting the purchase of a bottle of red wine.
Real concerns about government debt and deficits are bringing politicians to a moment of truth. Whether you are a recently elected member of Congress or a finance minister in Canada or in a Canadian province about to deliver the next budget, you know the exercise will be painful and the road arduous. Earlier this month I attended Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Address and it was clear that the efforts to reduce the budget deficit will require a sustained commitment over a number of years. This message is being repeated across the land and we can expect President Obama to present essentially the same approach at the State of the Union Address next week.
Despite the well deserved praise by observers of Canada’s performance in the Great Recession, Canadian political leaders are facing similar obligations. After over a decade of balanced and surplus budgets allowing for the reduction of the public debt, governments at both the federal and provincial levels are facing significant deficits. While the ratio of debt to GDP is more favourable in Canada than in the U.S., the problem remains the same—an increasing gap between lower revenue coming in and increased spending in entitlement programs.
Remedies in both jurisdictions vary from a call to reductions in spending to increasing revenues without affecting economic activity. With economic recovery modest in both Canada and the U.S., political leaders are reluctant to stifle demand from consumers by raising taxes and seem to be turning increasingly their attention to cutting spending. In the U.S., a presidential commission headed by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson has proposed a combination of massive cuts and a need for tax reform. In Canada, social programs are coming under greater scrutiny. The caveat is the risk to confuse cutting waste, eliminating inefficient or outmoded programs, or reforming existing programs with stopping investment in future and necessary infrastructures projects needed for a competitive economy in the future. Countries like China and Brazil are investing massively in building roads, high speed rail, energy related projects. China itself spent 9 percent of GDP in infrastructure building in 2009. The temptation to balance the books can lead to a failure to invest in necessary public goods and it represents the biggest danger to our long term prosperity.
Investing in high speed rail in the U.S., building our energy potential in Canada, rebuilding roads, improving airports, revamping seaports, and building transmission lines should be considered as vital to future generations. It is my belief that it is possible to rein in government spending, invest in public goods and build for a more prosperous future. History is on our side.
Consider our case in Québec. After close to a decade of balanced budgets, the Québec budget was back in deficit territory by 2007-2008. What has the Québec government chosen to do? It decided to invest in rebuilding the infrastructure networks as it anticipated the economic slowdown in 2007. It then produced a five-year plan to return to a balanced budget while continuing to invest massively in developing hydroelectric power plants in northern Québec. In the coming months, it will announce the North Plan aimed at developing 72 percent of its land mass (nearly twice the size of Texas!), north of the 49° with investments in mining, energy and sustainable tourism. The approximate cost of the project over the next 25 years will be $50 billion.
Currently, Québec’s economy is among the most performing in North America with an unemployment rate two percentage points below the U.S. and for the first time in decades it is lower than the Canadian national average and the neighbouring province of Ontario. Granted, Québec is not unique in this approach, but the fiscal hawks would have advised otherwise. Québec’s economic outlook remains promising, but more important, Québec continues to invest in its economic infrastructure in the firm belief that prosperity for future generations is best achieved by finding the balance between fiscal management and creating wealth.
Creating wealth provides economic development and stimulus for economic activity. Both Canada and the U.S. have acted in that direction following other difficult economic slowdowns. This will be the challenge facing decision makers in the 2011-2012 budget cycle.
Meeting on Wednesday at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, Presidents Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Alan García of Peru agreed to respect the ruling of the International Court of Justice regarding their dispute over maritime borders and to focus on greater economic integration. Appearing before reporters in a lengthy meeting and treating each other as friends, the leaders said their two nations are currently experiencing their “best period” in bilateral relations and that the lawsuit must not hinder their achievement of common goals, such as economic development and the protection of natural resources.
Piñera’s stance of separating the maritime dispute from the rest of Chile’s relations with Peru signals a departure from predecessor Michelle Bachelet’s approach. For his part, García praised Chile’s economic model and pointed out Peru’s own 9 percent growth and 2 percent inflation in 2010. Both he and Piñera said competition between the two countries on economic development and employment generation served as a healthy incentive for growth.
Economic partnership featured heavily in the meeting between the two leaders. Chile, whose investors have poured $9 billion into Peru since 1990, is the latter’s largest foreign investor and third-largest trading partner, after the United States and China. In 2010, trade between Chile and Peru reached $3 billion, up nearly 50 percent from the previous year. President Garcia said he was confident the economic alliance with Chile would have “enormous significance” for gross domestic product growth and employment generation in both countries.
Also during the meeting, the two heads of state signed a memorandum of understanding to carry out anti-drug measures and a second one to implement an integrated control policy for border traffic.
When songwriter Billy Joel penned this classic song about New York City, it had a big nostalgic overtone. In short, it is very hard to be away from New York City for long. The new Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has sounded a similar tone about New York State and its past leadership role among the 50 states—a time when the Empire State was the “go-to” state and not a “move-from” state.
With statistics at hand, the Governor pointed a somber picture of where New York State is and convincingly argued that the state was at a crossroads. Lagging behind in economic development, healthcare performance, education results on a national level and along with the highest taxation in the nation, he has argued for reinventing, reorganizing and redesigning the state and its government. He has also promised to make the necessary cuts—about $10 billion—in the next budget, due within a few weeks. Finally, he has sounded a realistic tone that clearly indicated that his program and agenda were not a short term, quick fix approach. Rather, it would require an effort over the long haul and would involve both the executive and legislative branches of the government.
It is heady stuff. Using impressive technological support and an unconventional venue, Cuomo demonstrated to his audience at his swearing-in ceremony a command of the situation, and more importantly, he engaged his most crucial partners, Assembly Speaker and fellow Democrat, Sheldon Silver, and new Senate Republican Majority Leader, Dean Skelos in the exercise. The message was clear: we are all on the same ship sailing in one direction.
At the swearing in, both Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Skelos struck a tone of cooperation and promised to work together looking for common solutions, encouraging bipartisanship, and displaying a firm commitment to work beyond the partisan divide. The bar will be high and there will be many difficult choices ahead, but for the over 2,000 people present in the Albany State Convention Center, it marked a new beginning and indicated new opportunities to turn things around.
Cuomo closed his first remarks as governor by reminding the audience that New York State was once the beacon for problem solving and innovation. This was his “New York state of mind” moment. While it is too early to predict how all this will turn out, it was a moment of attention and encouragement that New Yorkers seem to have longed for many years. Just that in itself makes it a good start for the new administration and legislature, and a moment to savor for our New York friends.
*John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec's Delegate General in New York, the province's top ranking position in the United States.
From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Baby Doc Faces Corruption Charges in Haiti
Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti on Sunday 25 years after going into exile. He was arrested Tuesday. The former dictator, accused of presiding over the killing and torturing of thousands of Haitians, now faces embezzlement and corruption charges. International human rights defenders have also called for the Haitian courts to prosecute Duvalier over the allegations of violence committed during his dictatorship. Duvalier’s sudden return sparked rumors that the U.S. and French governments might somehow be involved (both deny the claims) and fueled unsubstantiated speculation that ousted leftist president Jean Aristide may also be planning to come back to Haiti.
Death Toll Rises above 700 in Brazilian Floods
Heavy rains outside Rio de Janeiro devastated hilltop communities, killed more than 700 people, and left another 14,000 homeless. The floods struck on the anniversary of the January 12 Haitian earthquake, raising debates and comparisons about response. President Dilma Rousseff and Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sérgio Cabral said lax enforcement of housing codes worsened the destruction. The World Band committed to lending Brazil $485 million in to aid relief efforts and the Rousseff administration has moved ahead with plans to create a national disaster alert system. O Globo offers a photo gallery of the areas affected by the catastrophe.
Rousseff Reassesses Jet Deal
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appears to be rethinking the purchase of 36 Rafale jet fighters from French company Dassault—a deal nearly concluded by her predecessor Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Rousseff’s decision to reevaluate the finalists for the $4 billion defense contract put the U.S. company Boeing back in the running, though Rousseff reportedly wants Boeing to provide additional technology-transfer guarantees.
The Secretaría de Educación Pública or SEP (Ministry of Education) in Mexico has traditionally been known for being slow, over-bureaucratized and square-minded. Low quality levels are reflected year after year through a series of international comparative studies. One need only consult the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) to see in disgust how Mexico’s constant is to come up last in the OCDE countries year after year.
Vidal Garza, a friend and editorialist for a major newspaper in Mexico, writes that the problem is even more apparent when you look at the amount of money we spend on our public schools: “Mexico invests 5 percent of its GDP on public education. The average annual expense per student in elementary school is $1,604, yet we fare deficiently in PISA. We do worse than Uruguay, Chile and China, which actually spend a lot less per student.”
To make things worse, The SEP (and Mexico as a whole) is in a constant battle with the SNTE, Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, a corrupt teacher’s union that promotes strikes and teacher absenteeism as a the means to advance a political agenda. SNTE has filled our public schools with undedicated, unqualified and mediocre people who should not even have the honor of being called “teacher.” Granted, this is a generalization but a real one. I have met a couple of very good teachers in the public system; unfortunately today they are a rare breed.
It is no secret that we need to improve productivity in terms of education in Mexico. That’s why I was pleased to see a spark of progressive thinking on the part of SEP when I learned that they will be instituting a program to identify overachievers and children with higher intellectual proficiency in elementary schools with the intent to “credit, promote and advance them” in an accelerated manner. For example, if a child in 3rd grade shows the intellectual capacity of a 6th grader, the program will identify, prepare and eventually advance him/her to a 6th grade classroom. SEP estimates that around 10 percent to 15 percent of kids could benefit from this program.
Argentina’s wine exports to the United States increased 12 percent in the 2009-2010 period, overtaking Chile as the fourth-largest wine supplier to the U.S. market. Italy, France and Australia hold the top three spots. Total exports exceeded $222 million in 2010 compared to $210 million for U.S.-directed Chilean exports. Total foreign sales of Argentine wine topped $860 million in 2010 overcoming poor numbers in 2009 when a low harvest blamed on bad weather forced Argentina to import Chilean wine to meet domestic demand.
The increase in sales has been largely attributed to the economic conditions in the U.S., which have forced consumers to look for alternatives to more expensive European wines. Top among them is Argentina’s Malbec variety according to vintner Jose Zuccardi. Further hurting Chilean wine exporters is the appreciation of the Chilean peso.
Argentina is now the world’s fifth-largest wine producer, ninth-largest exporter and the seventh-largest consumer. In fact, Argentines consume more than three-quarters of their total domestic wine production which contributes US$2.63 billion—an industry that yields $2.63 billion in sales and employs nearly 400,000 people.
Political institutions tend to respond slowly in adapting to challenges. Longstanding problems typically arise and evolve long before policymakers and government officials are able to identify them. And when they do, they are generally ill-equipped to devise proposals to solving these problems. One of the more telling examples is happening in Colombia—where not only the mining industry is impacted but strategic assets like water are being put at risk.
Colombia is the largest coal producer in Latin America, and after Venezuela and Brazil, the third-largest for crude oil. The exploitation of gold, silver and rare earth minerals such as coltan (a combination of columbite and tantalite) is growing exponentially. Must of this activity is driven by foreign direct investment (FDI); between 2008 and 2009 alone, the percentage of investments in mining projects out of all FDI skyrocketed from 17 percent to 43 percent—from $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion. The figure is expected to further increase in 2010.
But environmentalists are concerned about the booming mining sector. “Mining is a high-risk industry growing in Colombia at an exorbitant rate while national environmental institutions that are meant to regulate it are in their weakest shape in 15 years,” notes Guillermo Rudas, a researcher at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. Rudas’ study maps the evolution of land with mining titles and land requested for mining in the last 20 years. He notes that from 2002-2010 areas with mining titles boomed from 2.8 million acres to 21 million acres. Despite this trend, Rudas notes that the budget relative to GDP for Colombia’s environmental agencies was three times larger in 1994 than in 2010.
This fiscal disconnect takes a serious and unique toll. Despite its relatively small size, Colombia is ranked among the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Its rich ecosystems range from tropical rainforests to high-altitude moorlands to the open sabana valley of ponds and wetlands. This means that the success of the mining industry has a lasting imprint on Colombia’s ecology. Mining involves heavy machinery, enormous need of water, extensive soil removal and tree removal, massive usage of toxic chemicals, and opening new roads in naturally-protected areas. It also poses unprecedented health risks to workers and local populations.
Colombia needs clear legal frameworks, reliable information, strong regulations, and well-financed environmental institutions. But none of these seem to be happening.
No member of “The Worst of the Worst”—a list put together by George Ayittey for Foreign Policy—would be expected to address the legislature of his country with an open attitude and with calls for democratic dialogue. “The Worst of the Worst” is a list of the world's tyrants, autocrats and dictators. Prominent members include, among others, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (indicted by the International Criminal Court), Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe's last and only dictator.
But just recently, while addressing Venezuela's National Assembly, President Hugo Chávez, a member of the list, spoke with a tone of reconciliation, made repeated calls for dialogue with the opposition and even pledged to end in five months the 18-month special decree powers conferred to him by the Assembly in December 2010.
What does this say about the nature of Chávez' regime? Ayittey included Chávez in the list for having “...jailed opposition leaders, extended term limits indefinitely, and closed independent media.” All of that is true. But at the same time, it's true that all this has been done in a way that makes Chávez quite different from most members of the list.
While it's true that opposition leaders have been persecuted, it's also true that opposition parties are permitted in Venezuela, and are in fact very vocal and active. It's true that Chávez sought (and got) indefinite re-election. But at the same time, it's true that he has won a number of elections that are presumed fair, since no credible evidence of fraud has ever been presented. Chávez did even allow international observation at some of these elections.
Talks between government officials and local leaders on Monday failed to end protests over an increase in natural gas prices in the south of Chile. Chile's Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne travelled to the regional capital of Punta Arenas to offer a limit on the price increase to 3 percent, an improvement from the 17 percent originally estimated, and to continue subsidies for poor families. But the concessions were not sufficient to appease the demonstrators.
The protests began last week when Chile's state-owned national petroleum company (Enap) decided to reduce local subsidies beginning in February, causing the spike in gas prices. Gas is of particular concern to the residents of southern Chile, where the artic temperatures require more household heating than in other regions of the country.
Demonstrators have been blocking roads and ports, leaving hundreds of tourists stranded last week, though many have since managed to leave the region. The Chilean government is considering using state security if protests continue.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.