The most controversial outcome of last month’s second CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) summit in Santiago, following close on the heels of the first EU-CELAC meeting, was the decision in Santiago to appoint Cuban President Raúl Castro to the chairmanship of the 33-member regional body.
Castro, who will be splitting the two-year term with his Costa Rican counterpart, Laura Chinchilla, could not resist several pointed remarks aimed at the United States. He decried the presence of multinational companies in the region and the U.S.’ continued possession of Puerto Rico. The 81-year-old leader’s message was clear, however:
“We are building the ideal of a diverse Latin American and Caribbean region united in a common space of political independence and sovereignty over our enormous natural resources to advance toward sustainable development [and] regional integration,” Castro said.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos described Cuba’s leadership of CELAC as a “very significant political development with special symbolism.” Though absent from the summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez wrote in a letter that the act told “the U.S., with a single voice, that all the attempts to isolate Cuba have failed and will fail.”
Chile’s Mapuche population has long struggled for greater rights. So many warmly greeted President Sebastián Piñera’s recent promise to give “top priority and urgency” to finding a constitutional solution that will recognize Chile’s Indigenous Mapuche people, a 700,000-person strong minority group that constitutes 6 percent of Chile’s population. His reaction comes after a month of increased tension in the southern Araucanía region, where the majority of the Mapuche live.
After a mid-January summit was held in Temuco, Araucanía’s main city, Piñera has promised to set up a council for Indigenous peoples that is “truly representative of the community’s history, tradition and culture.” This is a positive first step in trying to integrate the Mapuche into the political process since they currently do not have any representation in Congress. At the same time, demands by the Mapuche for an independent state were ignored. The Indigenous group’s main struggle is for the return of what its members claim are their ancestral lands.
It is a positive sign that Piñera and the Chilean government seem to be trying hard to quell violence within the Araucanía region and are beginning to open up dialogue and negotiations with the Mapuche.
But efforts toward reconciliation are being viewed in an increasingly cynical manner by both sides.
The dismissal of Walter Ramirez, a policeman who killed Mapuche leader Matias Catrileo in January 2008, has been called tactical by Ramirez’ lawyer Gaspar Calderon. Calderon told CNN Chile that his client is a victim of "popular justice” and suggested that the decision was made merely to give Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick something to offer the Mapuche ahead of the Temuco summit.
As Chileans wake up tomorrow for municipal elections throughout the country, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has urged his citizens to investigate their local candidates online before arriving to the polling stations.
If his advice is heeded, it may well be a first in a day of many firsts. Given that a center-right government is in place for the first time in two decades, dark tales from the Augusto Pinochet-era dictatorship have appeared in the press smearing some prominent politicians from the center-right—including Cristián Labbé, former mayor of the Providencia commune in Santiago and a current candidate in this year’s elections.
A profile of Labbé published in El Mostrador just days ago is a reminder that, while Chile may now have a functioning democracy, many of its politicians, laws and constitution still survive from the dictatorship.
Chile has embraced extractive industries as a tool for sustained economic growth, but this relationship does not come without controversy. At the beginning of this month, only one week after the government had announced the winner of its lithium contract, the concession had been scrapped and Sub-Secretary of Mining Pablo Wagner had resigned.
Chile is the world’s biggest lithium producer, generating 30 percent of the world’s profits on the sale of raw lithium and sitting on an estimated 23 percent of global lithium reserves—second only to neighboring Bolivia.
The latest controversy began on September 24 when a 20-year Contrato Especial de Operación de Litio (Special Lithium Operation Contract—CEOL) was awarded to Chilean company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A. (SQM). SQM was one of three companies whose bids to explore Chile’s lithium potential had been accepted by the government.
SQM currently produces 24 percent of the world's lithium and is only one of two lithium producers operating in Chile. The concession, which was sold to SQM for around $40.6 million, would have allowed the company to begin mining a further 100,000 tons of lithium from the government-owned Salar salt flats in the northern Atacama Desert.
Just like the cueca (Chile’s national dance that will be on full display during Independence Day celebrations this weekend) Chilean politicians were running round in circles last week over controversial tax reform legislation to overhaul its protested education system.
The bill, which will increase education-allocated government revenue by $1.23 billion, originally did not clear the Senate—where it was rejected on August 28 by a vote of 6 yeas, 19 nays and 7 abstentions.
The legislation had included a welcomed increase of the top corporate tax rate to 20 percent. But it also included controversial measures, including a 2-to-5-percent tax decrease—compared to 2011—for the top income-earners in Chile as well as incentives for children in private subsidized schools.
Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber from the Partido para Democracia (Party for Democracy—PPD) opposed the hefty tax cuts for the country’s most wealthy—or about 81,000 Chileans that fall within the top two tax brackets, earning between $7,142 and $12,040 per month.
It’s not just Olympic athletes who live in fear of a drug test ruining their career. Chilean politicians are being threatened with the revival of a bill that would remove politicians from public office if caught using illegal drugs.
The legislative hype began last month when Chilean Senator Fulvio Rossi admitted in an interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera that he smokes marijuana “two or three times a month”—a revelation that shocked his colleagues and delighted a nation of thousands of cannabis users.
In spite of the threat of this new law, Rossi, a Socialist Party politician, has chosen to stand by his personal admission. What’s more, Rossi has used his confession as a launching pad for a public debate about the legal status of the drug in Chile.
On the Chilean Sunday television program Tolerancia Cero (“Zero Tolerance”), Rossi called for an “intelligent” discussion about the drug—saying that legalizing the “auto-cultivation of marijuana breaks the business of drug-trafficking,” is less harmful to one’s health than either alcohol or tobacco, and is an individual human right.
“This is private behavior that occurs in the privacy of the home and doesn’t offend public morality or harm others,” Senator Rossi, who also has a degree in medicine, said on the show. “The state can’t interfere. This is guaranteed in the Chilean constitution and in international treaties that Chile has signed.”
While opposition politicians have branded Rossi as “seriously irresponsible” for publicly admitting his consumption, other Chileans like Sebastián Binfa, Director of Revista Cáñamo (Hemp Magazine) and owner of a café in Santiago that sells cannabis-seed smoothies and other marijuana merchandise, called the act “courageous” and applauded Rossi’s attempt to “normalize the issue.”
Senator Rossi has been keen to point out that Chile “must adapt its legislation to social reality,” and has introduced a bill of his own that would decriminalize the home cultivation of marijuana for personal or therapeutic use. The proposal also suggested legalizing the transportation of small, regulated quantities of the drug.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.