President Obama signed a bill yesterday authorizing sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of protesters in the South American country earlier this year. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the measure, tweeting, “I reject the insolent measures taken against Venezuela by the Imperial Elite of the Unites States; Bolivar’s Fatherland is to be Respected.”
Under the sanctions, Venezuelans accused of being involved in the repression of anti-government protesters in protests earlier this year could see their assets frozen or visas denied or revoked. According to an unnamed U.S. embassy official, ”These sanctions are not against the Venezuelan people, or against the Venezuelan government as a whole, but against individuals accused of violations.”
Analysts point out that the sanctions may offer Maduro a convenient scapegoat. Invoking the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said “The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function. It’s a way of deflecting attention form the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”
In a statement published on one of its official websites Wednesday, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) declared an indefinite, unilateral cease fire and end to hostilities in Colombia, on the condition that the rebels are not attacked by government forces. The announcement was made as part of the peace talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration in Havana, and it marks the first time the guerrilla group has declared an indefinite halt to the fighting.
However, Santos has so far refused to reciprocate the gesture, saying that a bilateral ceasefire could potentially allow the FARC to regroup and attack, as they did during the failed peace negotiations that took place from 1999-2002. The president’s wariness also stems from an incident this September that nearly foiled accords again, when the FARC took General Ruben Dario Alzate and two of his traveling companions hostage in September, along with two others in a separate incident. All the hostages were released in November in order to continue the peace negotiations.
Currently, the Colombian government and FARC negotiators have reached agreements on three points of the original five-point peace agenda, but have stalled on the fourth point of restitution for victims. The Colombian government and FARC leaders have been engaging in peace talks in Havana since 2012. That same year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed a temporary Christmas truce proposed by the FARC by saying, “The sooner we get to a peace agreement, the sooner we will silence the guns.”
Over 200,000 people have been killed since the internal war began between the guerillas and the government began in 1964. The FARC ceasefire will go into effect this Saturday, December 20.
Read more in AQ’s Fall 2014 issue on Cuba and Colombia.
Follow ongoing developments in Cuba here.
Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
Paulo López, a Paraguayan journalist who reported being mistreated by police nearly a year ago, was arrested on Sunday upon returning to his country from Argentina for the holidays. In January 2014, police arrested López in Asunción while he reported for media outlet E’a on detained citizens who had been protesting transportation price hikes. López said that he was arrested arbitrarily and tortured, and that his camera was confiscated. He later filed a complaint over the mistreatment by the police with the Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights.
However, a few months later, the precinct supplied a medical report showing that one of the police involved in his January arrest had a “light swelling in his cheek,” and charged López with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer in September. Santiago Ortíz of the Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay (Paraguayan Journalists’ Union—SPP) affirmed that neither López nor his lawyers were notified of the charge. In October, López was declared in contempt of court, though he was in Argentina studying for a master’s program at the time.
The Coordinator for Human Rights in Paraguay (Codehupy) and the Paraguayan Union of Journalists (SPP) intervened after López was detained at the border on Sunday, ensuring that his hearing took place on Sunday night in the Palace of Justice. He was released after the hearing, but López is not allowed to leave the country or change his address, and must appear before prosecutor Emilio Fúster every month until his case is settled.
Ortíz of the SPP asserted that the charge against López is meant to “intimidate my colleague to desist from his complaint. We qualify (the arrest) as a violation of human rights and a new outrage from the government on the exercise of journalism.” On Thursday, the SPP is planning a festival for freedom of expression in honor of López.
This week's likely top stories: Colombians march against possible amnesty for FARC; Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe steps down; Chinese railroad company wins $275 million in orders from Argentina; Venezuela seeks to expand PetroCaribe despite its fragile economic situation; Thousands gather across the U.S. in anti-police brutality protests.
Uribe Leads Protest Against Possible FARC Amnesty: Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s Centro Democrático party and the Colombia Quiere movement led marches across the country on Saturday to protest a possible amnesty for the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in peace talks between the rebels and Colombian government in Havana. Currently, the government and the rebels are meeting to determine how to disarm FARC combatants and whether to prosecute them for crimes. Protesters across Colombia said that the FARC should face justice, and expressed concern that the peace talks would grant the guerrillas amnesty after 50 years of armed conflict. Further inflaming tempers, seven people—including two children—were shot to death on Friday in the department of Antioquia, in what appears to have been an execution. However, it is unclear whether the shooting involved members of the FARC, the ELN, or members of criminal gangs in the area.
Haiti in Turmoil over Long-Postponed Elections: Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamonthe stepped down on Sunday in an effort to quell protests over government corruption and delayed elections that have roiled the Caribbean nation since December 5. Lamonthe, who began his term in 2012, is the third prime minister to resign since President Michel Martelly took office in 2011. Despite international support for Lamonthe’s efforts to attract investment to Haiti, a commission appointed by Martelly last week called for the resignation of the prime minister, the head of the Supreme Court and the current members of the Provisional Electoral Council. Meanwhile, Haiti has yet to hold legislative and local elections that were scheduled for 2011, leaving 10 out of 30 Senate seats unoccupied. Martelly has blamed the stalled elections on opposition senators who refuse to pass his election law. If Haiti fails to hold elections, the parliament will be dissolved in mid-January and President Martelly will rule by decree. The president announced that negotiations to resolve the political crisis would begin today.
Chinese Railroad Company Brings in $275 million from Argentina: In another strong display of “railroad diplomacy,” state-owned China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation Ltd. (CSR) confirmed this morning that it received a $275 million order from Argentina for Chinese locomotive products. The 80 locomotives and more than 2,000 freight cars from China will be used to populate Argentina’s Belgrano Cargas line once a $2.1 billion railway rehabilitation project—contracted to China Machinery Engineering Corp (CMEC)—is complete. The project will be financed by a supplemental loan agreement finalized by Presidents Xi Jinping and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in July. CSR, which has been supplying trains and other railway products to Argentina since 2006, is currently considering a merger with its principal domestic rival, China CNR Corp Ltd, which would make it competitive with multinational railroad behemoths Siemens and Bombardier.
Venezuela to Expand PetroCaribe Despite Oil Glut: On Sunday, at a summit in Havana marking the 10th anniversary of the leftist Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas—ALBA), Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro revealed his intentions to expand the already frail PetroCaribe oil subsidy program, which has been providing Caribbean countries with oil at low interest rates and a favorable long-term payment plan since 2005. In light of the fact that PetroCaribe shipments fell 11 percent in 2013, which forced beneficiaries to diversify their energy portfolios, Maduro insisted that, “Petrocaribe, what it must do at this stage, is consolidate, strengthen, grow and deploy itself.” However, Venezuela’s capacity to deliver on its promise remains questionable, considering the impact of the severe global drop in oil prices on Venezuela’s economy, with inflation already hovering around 60 percent. In order to finance the expansion, Venezuela is considering a plan to sell billions of dollars of PetroCaribe debt to Wall Street.
Tens of Thousands March in U.S. to Protest Police Killings: Tens of thousands of Americans marched on Saturday in the largest anti-police violence protests since Michael Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this August. Marches took place in Boston, Chicago, New York City, Oakland, San Antonio, San Diego, and Washington DC in memory of victims of police shootings and to denounce the racial injustice and police impunity. No arrests were made at the Millions March in NYC—by far the largest event—which drew approximately 30,000 participants in a procession that ended at the NYC Police Department’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan. An estimated 25,000 people rallied in the nation’s capital, including the families and relatives of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford.
A group of lawyers representing Ecuadorian villagers asked Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday to try their decades-long case against Chevron in Canadian courts. The lawyers, led by primary attorney Steven Donzinger, are seeking compensation of about $9.5 billion dollars, granted by a judge in Ecuador for environmental damages in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Whether or not Canadian courts will take on the case relies on a juridical technicality called “corporate veil.” Although Chevron has subsidiaries with billions of dollars in assets in Canada, the corporate veil principal distinguishes subsidiaries from their parent companies and establishes that they are not responsible for the actions of their parents, thus making it difficult for Canadian courts to have claims to the case.
The lawsuit was originally filed against Texaco in 1993 for environmental damages caused between 1964 and 1990 by the company’s disposal of billions of gallons of oil sludge into local tributaries, in what has been called the “worst oil-related pollution problem on the planet.” After a $40 million dollar cleanup, Ecuador and Texaco signed a contract releasing the company from further charges. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and in 2003, Donzinger filed a suit against Chevron that in 2011 resulted in $19 billion dollars awarded in favor of Ecuadorian villagers. That amount was later reduced to $9.5 billion, which the oil powerhouse has refused to pay.
After more than two years of research, Brazil’s Comissão Nacional de Verdade (National Truth Comission—CNV) delivered its official report yesterday on human rights violations committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988—with a focus on the country’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.
According to the report, “Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers.” The report increased to 434 the proven number of the dead or disappeared during the period of military rule, and calls for a revision of the country’s controversial 1979 amnesty law, which shields those accused of dictatorship-era human rights abuses from prosecution.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff—who was herself a victim of torture—broke into tears while delivering a statement on the report. “We who believe in the truth, hope that this report helps make it so the ghosts of a sad and painful past can no longer find shelter in the shadows of silence and omission,” she said.
In addition to documenting cases of human rights violations, the report names 377 perpetrators responsible for deaths and disappearances during the country’s dictatorship. According to the Spanish daily El País, 191 of these alleged perpetrators are still alive.
The CNV has no prosecutorial power, but the report’s non-binding recommendations posit that the amnesty law does not apply in cases of crimes against humanity. Despite President Rousseff’s pledge to “consider the commission’s recommendations” and take all necessary actions based on the proposals, it is not yet clear whether she will push for any change in the amnesty law.
The U.S. Senate approved a bill on Monday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials found responsible for violating demonstrators’ rights during anti-government protests that left more than 40 dead and 800 injured since February. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act authorizes sanctions that would freeze assets and ban visas of individuals that authorized, directed or otherwise assisted the government in infringing on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly” of protesters.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill, which was passed by a voice vote. “For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” said Menendez. The House passed a similar bill in May with a broader number of targets, but the Obama administration insisted sanctions would interfere with negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Earlier this month, White House officials signaled they would be willing to move forward with additional sanctions.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the “insolent imperialist sanctions” and accused the U.S. of meddling in his country’s affairs. The Maduro government has already faced international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations. In May, the United Nations condemned the violence and called for the government to adhere to its human rights obligations.
The new U.S. Senate bill comes as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continues to be held in prison, while Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was recently accused of plotting to overthrow the Maduro administration. The Senate’s version of the bill must now be passed in the House, and signed by President Obama for it to become law.
The leaders of Latin American and Iberian countries were on hand for the opening of the 24th Cumbre Iberoamericana (Ibero-American Summit) in Veracruz, Mexico yesterday. Just as notable as who was present, however, was the long list of absences. A block of six presidents—representing Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba—snubbed the two-day summit, which Bolivian President Evo Morales dismissed as a platform for “Spain’s monarchs [to discuss] their own interests.” The president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, reportedly had to withdraw from the summit to due health issues.
The summit’s focus—“Education, Culture and Innovation”—was reportedly calculated to avoid ideologically charged territory. Yet the summit has faced flagging interest in the face of newer regional fora such as the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR). As a result, after this year, the summit will transition towards a biyearly schedule.
Nonetheless, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo qualified the summit as a success. “We are reflecting on a renewed relationship between Latin American and the Ibero-American countries […] we are achieving concrete results, and we are creating important synergies,” he said.
By the end of the first session, the attendees had reportedly reached five agreements due to be included in summit’s concluding declaration. Among them are an agreement to share information and present a more united front in international fora such as the G20 or the OECD, an agreement on arbitration practices for small and medium-sized enterprises, and an agreement to foster increased talent mobility among the participating nations.
This week's likely top stories: Brazilian prosecutor plans to indict at least 11 in the Petrobras scandal; Haitian protestors in Port-au-Prince demand long-overdue elections; Latin American currencies drop as U.S. job growth surges in November; U.S. releases six Guantánamo prisoners to Uruguay; Meixcan government identifies the remains of one of 43 missing students.
Brazilian Prosecutor to Indict 11 in Petrobras Scandal: On Saturday night, Brazilian Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot announced his plans to indict at least 11 construction company executives arrested in mid-November on charges of bribery and money laundering in connection with the Petrobras graft scandal. “We are following the money and we will reach all of these perpetrators,” Janot said. The historic scandal has rocked the nation since former Petrobras executive Paulo Roberto Costa exposed the wrongdoing in a plea bargain after his arrest in March. An opinion survey released on Sunday by Datafolha showed that 68 percent of Brazilians hold President Dilma Rousseff, the former energy minister and Petrobras board chairwoman, responsible to some degree for the bribery scandal. In a country plagued by political corruption and impunity, Janot will be arguing at the helm of a landmark case that has the potential to inject much-needed accountability into Brazilian governance.
Haitians Turn Out in Strong Numbers to Demand Elections: On Friday, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets in Port-au-Prince to demand that President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resign from office. Haitians are enraged by President Martelly’s continuous postponement of midterm and senatorial and municipal elections since 2011—a stalemate allegedly caused by political differences between the ruling party and a group of opposition senators. Protestors called for the long-overdue elections to be held without delay as they clashed with police in Haiti’s capital. The last major demonstration took place in late October, when the National Assembly failed to pass an electoral law in time for the scheduled election date.
Latin American Currencies Remain Weak after November U.S. Job Surge: The United States’ surprisingly robust addition of 321,000 jobs in November has set the U.S. economy on its fastest pace of job creation since the Clinton administration. However, this positive job growth in the U.S. has had a decidedly negative impact on Latin American currencies, since the Federal Reserve is likely to respond to November’s labor boost by raising interest rates sooner than expected. As a result of this possibility, the Mexican, Chilean, Argentine and Colombian pesos and Brazilian real stagnated at the week’s end, and are likely to remain weak against the U.S. dollar for the visible future. Analysts will not be able to fully assess the scale of short-term losses for Latin American economies until a scheduled release of a report on Friday that will evaluate the United States’ 2014 Producer Price Index for the 2014 fiscal year.
Guantánamo Prisoners Granted Refugee Status: Six prisoners—four Syrians, one Tunisian and one Palestinian—were released this weekend from the U.S. Guantánamo Bay detention center after 12 years, bringing the total number of detainees transferred from the prison in 2014 up to 16. The six arrived in Uruguay after President José Mujuica agreed to patriate the prisoners on humanitarian grounds in March, calling their detention for their alleged ties to Al Qaeda “an atrocious kidnapping.” There are currently 126 inmates eligible for transfer at the Cuban-based detention center who have not been released, due to instability in their home countries. The six detainees, now considered refugees in Uruguay, were never charged with a crime. Uruguay is the second Latin American country to receive former detainees from Guantánamo; El Salvador accepted two Chinese Muslim refugees in 2012.
DNA Links Charred Remains to One of Mexico’s Missing Students: Despite calls for caution from forensic experts, the Mexican government on Friday hailed the identification of the charred remains of Alexander Mora Venancio as confirmation that the 43 students abducted on September 26 after clashing with municipal police in Iguala were incinerated in a Cocula landfill by the Guerreros Unidos gang. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team insisted that the search for the missing students continue, stating that the evidence linking the site of the massacre with the site where the remains were found was largely based on witness testimony. The parents of the remaining missing students pledged to continue protesting until all of their sons have been found. Meanwhile, embattled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled a plan to disband municipal police forces, putting them under federal control through constitutional reforms late last month.
Human rights experts from the United Nations on Friday called for a review of U.S. laws permitting police to use lethal force, in light of the failure of grand juries to indict two police officers for killing unarmed black citizens in separate cases.
The failure of a grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, stirred mass protests on November 24. Just days later, on December 3, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that put Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, in a fatal chokehold in July 2014.
This second case set off another wave of protests across the country, with thousands of angry citizens demanding an end to impunity. On Thursday in New York City, the Holland Tunnel, Manhattan Bridge and the Westside Highway were temporarily closed, and police reported arresting over 200 protesters during a second night of demonstrations.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a civil rights investigation into the Michael Brown case, but human rights experts are still concerned over the decisions not to bring the officers to trial. UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Rita Izsak said on Friday, "the decisions [of the grand juries] leave many with legitimate concerns relating to a pattern of impunity when the victims of excessive use of force come from African-American or other minority communities." UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary executions Christof Heyns criticized the lenient state laws governing the use of lethal force by law enforcement in the United States.
Experts not only urged a complete review of police procedures, but also demanded an end to racial profiling by U.S. police. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed the U.S. to do “anything possible to respond to demands of greater accountability.”
The Venezuelan state prosecutor’s office formally charged former Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado with treason and conspiracy for allegedly plotting to kill President Nicolas Maduro this Wednesday.
The indictment comes after a chain of emails plotting to start a coup to overthrow the Maduro administration surfaced in May, allegedly between U.S. officials and Machado, an opposition leader who was kicked out of the National Assembly in March after she publically supported the protests against the government earlier this year. In one email Machado reportedly wrote, “I believe the time has come to join forces, make the necessary calls, and obtain the financing to annihilate Maduro […] and the rest will come falling down.”
Venezuela’s most publically known opposition leader, Leopoldo López, has been in jail since February, despite pleas for his release from international organizations, including The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), who declared his detention illegal and ordered his immediate release. Arrest orders for conspiracy against the government were also ordered for opposition figures Henrique Salas Romer, Diego Arria, Ricardo Emilio Koesling, Gustavo Tarre Briceño, Pedro Mario Burelli, and Robert Alonso.
The public prosecutor’s office released a statement threatening to punish anyone “from inside or outside national territory” with jail time should they seek to “conspire to destroy the nation’s republican political style.” If Machado is found guilty, she could face eight to 16 years in jail.
Haitian national police confirmed on Monday that nearly three dozen detainees escaped from a prison in the provincial city of Saint-Marc, 100 km (60 miles) north of Port-au-Prince. According to reports, the detainees sawed through a cell window and jumped out. The five guards on duty at the time have been detained on suspicion of aiding the escape, and one guard has been arrested.
Police Commissioner Berson Soljour said four of the escapees had been recaptured and security measures around the city have been put in place in efforts to find the others. Authorities in the Dominican Republic have been working with Haitian police to prevent the fugitives from crossing the border.
Similar prison breaks have occurred across Haiti in recent years. In August, 329 inmates escaped from a prison in Croix-des-Bouquets using weapons allegedly smuggled in by guards. Following the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, nearly all 4,000 inmates held in the National Penitentiary escaped. Many remain on the run.
Prisons in Haiti, like most in Latin America and the Caribbean, are notoriously overcrowded. The Saint-Marc prison held nearly 500 prisoners, with 36 prisoners occupying a cell designed to hold eight. Many inmates, including those that escaped, spend years in jail awaiting trial. In Haiti, 67.7 percent of the total prison population is pre-trial detainees, one of the highest percentages in the Americas.
The Colombian government announced on Monday initial agreements to combat illegal mining in Cauca province, four days after Afro-Colombian women from the region took over the Interior Ministry to protest illegal mining operations in their communities.
In recent years, there has been an increase in illegal gold mining in Cauca, which is controlled by gangs and guerrilla fighters. Protester Marilyn Mancilla said that she and other demonstrators were protesting the “over 200 backhoe excavators that are damaging our land, the mines that are contaminating our rivers with cyanide and mercury, and the death threats against leaders that denounce this.”
Last week, over 100 women walked from Cauca province in southwestern Colombia to the Interior Ministry in Bogotá, a distance of approximately 400 kilometers (about 250 miles). On November 27, 22 women locked themselves in a room in the Interior Ministry and refused to leave until the government addressed their concerns about illegal mining and guaranteed their protection.
Yesterday, the government announced that it will “take actions” to end illegal mining, including the creation of a subcommittee to evaluate immediate measures that can be put in place. The national ombudsman’s office, the Catholic Church and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will act as guarantors, along with various senators and representatives from Indigenous groups.
This week's likely top stories: Global leaders gather in Lima for the COP20 Climate Summit; Tabaré Vázquez wins the runoff presidential election in Uruguay; With FARC hostages released, Colombian peace talks are set to resume in Havana; Venezuela braces for impact as oil prices hit rock bottom; Cuba misses the mark on economic growth in 2014.
Global Leaders Gather for COP20 Climate Summit in Lima: Thousands of government officials and environmental advocates will gather in Lima this week and next for the annual UN Climate Change Conference. The 20th annual session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP20, opens today and will conclude on December 12, bringing together delegates from 195 countries to draft an international agreement on reducing carbon emissions and global warming. Last month in Beijing, both China and the U.S. agreed to cut emissions by 2030, which could help advance the talks. If the talks in Lima succeed, a climate change agreement could be signed in Paris in late 2015.
Tabaré Vázquez Wins Uruguayan Election: Former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez will return to the presidency after he easily defeated challenger Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional (National Party—PN) in Sunday’s runoff election. Vázquez, of the governing Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) earned 52.8 percent of the vote to Lacalle Pou’s 41 percent. Vázquez pledged to continue outgoing President José Mujica’s controversial marijuana legalization policy, and to focus on education reform and crime reduction, two major concerns of Uruguayan voters. The Frente Amplio has been in power since 2005, when Vázquez was elected to his first presidency; it won a narrow majority in Congress in October’s elections.
Hostages Safely Home and Delegation Returns to Havana: With three FARC hostages released on Sunday, the Colombian government delegation will return to Havana, Cuba to meet with delegates from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) to discuss the resumption of peace talks. Pastor Alape, a FARC negotiator, traveled from Cuba to personally coordinate the release of General Ruben Dario Alzate Mora, as well as his two companions, who were kidnapped in mid-November. The release “contributed to restoring a climate conducive to continuing the talks” said Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. A two-day meeting in Havana to evaluate recent events will begin Tuesday. Santos ordered the suspension of the peace talks on November 17, shortly after the kidnappings took place.
Oil Plummets to $65 Per Barrel, Rocking Caracas: The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) decision last week to maintain its current production ceiling of 30 million barrels per day caused oil prices to plummet to $65 per barrel—the lowest level since the global recession in 2008. Venezuela will be among those hit hardest by the recent price drop: according to an International Monetary Fund assessment, the country can only hope to break even with oil priced at about $120 per barrel. Already plagued by failing political and economic policies, Venezuela might be forced to avoid a default by pursuing any number of difficult choices: devaluing its currency, seeking a bailout from the Chinese, cutting imports, raising domestic energy prices, scaling back petroleum subsidies to PetroCaribe member nations, or even cutting the popular chavista social welfare programs. The decline in oil prices also dragged down other commodities, which sank to a five-year low as China’s demand for fuel and metals slows. The larger trend of stagnating commodity prices will cause stress on many national economies in Latin America which remain dependent on commodity exports.
Cuban Economy Hoping for Substantial Growth in 2015: In spite of the economic reforms instituted by President Raul Castro in 2014, the Cuban economy failed to reach its projected levels of growth this fiscal year. Before presenting Cuba’s budget and economic plan for 2015 at a cabinet meeting on Friday, Vice President and Minister of Economy Marino Murillo Jorge announced that the Cuban economy will grow by 1.3 percent instead of the state’s initial estimate of 2.2 percent. According to Murillo, the nation’s underperforming sugar and manufacturing sectors are responsible for the reduction in projected growth. By increasing capital investment in renewable energy production, infrastructure projects and food imports, and continuing to pave the way for expansion of its burgeoning non-state sector, the Cuban government is maintaining its optimistic estimate that GDP will grow 4 percent in 2015.
Happy Thanksgiving! The AQ team is on vacation for Thanksgiving and will return on Monday, December 1. Until then, readers eager for analysis on the region can always catch up on our recent Fall 2014 issue.
The United Nations kicked off its 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign on Tuesday with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The campaign—which includes a marathon in Mexico City and the “Orange Your Neighborhood” initiative, asking supporters to wear and display the color orange to raise awareness of violence against women—culminates on December 10 with Human Rights Day.
According to UN Women, approximately one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and in Latin America, the numbers are stark. The World Health Organization found that between 17 and 53 percent of women in 12 Latin American countries have been the victims of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.
Guatemala registered 4,104 cases of gender-based violence in 2014 alone, 532 of which were homicides. In Colombia, 74 percent of women reported experiencing some type of violence, with 37 percent reporting physical violence in the 2010 Census. “Together, we must end this global disgrace,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was established in 1999 to commemorate Patria, Minerva and María Teresa Mirabal, three activist sisters who were assassinated on November 25, 1960 for opposing the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
FARC delegates in Havana released two hostages today in an apparent effort to revive peace talks suspended since last week. The two soldiers, Paulo César Rivera and Jonathan Andrés Díaz, were captured on November 9 in Arauca department and were released to the Colombian army this morning.
The FARC has said that it plans to release General Rubén Darío Alzate and two other hostages on Thursday, although the rebels warned earlier this week that the release could be cancelled due to the significant military presence in the region where the hostages are being held. General Alzate was captured along with corporal Jorge Rodríguez and lawyer Gloria Urrego on November 16 while travelling unarmed and without bodyguards in Chocó. Alzate and his companions are allegedly still there.
The November 16 kidnapping led President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend peace talks in Havana, ongoing since 2012. There is some controversy as to how a general could have stumbled on to FARC territory without any security, but the talks will remain suspended until Alzate, Rodríguez and Urrego are released.
On Sunday, the defense ministry announced the temporary cessation of operations in part of the northeast of Colombia in order to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the area where Rivera and Díaz were being held to assist with the process.
As of yet, President Santos has denied the FARC’s offers for a ceasefire.
This week's likely top stories: Colombia to resume peace talks with FARC once hostages are released; Mercosur and Pacific Alliance convene to discuss regional cooperation; Uruguayans return to polls on Sunday to elect president; Panama courts Walmart for its regional distribution center; Goldcorp to inaugurate Cerro Negro mine in Argentina.
Hostages Released and Peace Talks to be Resumed: Peace talks between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- FARC) will resume after the two parties reached an agreement to free hostages kidnapped by the FARC over a week ago. The FARC will release a total of five hostages, including General Ruben Dario Alzate Mora, the highest-ranking military captive ever taken by the FARC. The Colombian delegation will return to Havana and resume peace talks as soon as the captives are liberated and the humanitarian operations by the Red Cross to return the captives home are underway. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the suspension of the peace talks on November 17, just after the kidnappings took place.
MERCOSUR and Pacific Alliance Meet in Santiago: Chilean President Michelle Bachelet inaugurated a meeting today in Santiago between Latin America’s prominent regional integration blocs, the Alianza del Pacífico (Pacific Alliance)—comprising Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru—and the Mercado Común del Sur (Southern Common Market—Mercosur)—which represents Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela. The meeting, a follow up to Chilean Foreign Relations Minister Heraldo Muñoz’s proposal last February to design a formal trade alliance between the entities, brings together representatives from both sides, including trade officials, academics, union members, and business leaders, in order to dialogue about opportunities for cooperation on climate change, infrastructural development, public health, tourism, and the export of manufactured goods. In her opening statement, Bachelet said, “We are hoping that this historic meeting sets us on our first steps down the shared path of developing our Latin America and each one of our countries.”
Uruguayans Vote for President on Sunday: Uruguayan voters will return to the polls this Sunday, November 30, to elect the country’s next president in a runoff vote. Former president and Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) candidate Tabaré Vázquez is almost assured a victory after a November 12 Cifra poll showed that 52 percent of eligible voters plan to elect Vázquez, compared with the 35 percent of voters who plan to vote for challenger Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional (National Party—PN). Other polls have made similar predictions, and Lacalle Pou recently said that he fully expects to be defeated by Vázquez in the second round. Vázquez just missed an outright victory after he won 47.8 percent of votes during Uruguay’s first round election on October 26, falling short of the 50 percent plus one required to avoid a runoff. Vázquez served as Uruguay’s president from 2005 to 2010.
Panama Courts Walmart to Host Distribution Center: Panamanian business leaders have asked U.S. multinational Walmart to build a Latin American distribution center in Panama’s free trade zone, the Zona Libre de Colón (ZLC). ZLC Manager Surse Pierpoint said that Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela has sent a letter to Walmart executives asking them to consider the proposal, which Pierpoint said will “elevate the status and image of the ZLC” and attract additional companies to Panama. Pierpoint and other business leaders, including the head of the Consejo Empresarial Logístico (Business Logistics Council) and the Cámara Marítima (Maritime Chamber) are seeking a meeting with Walmart executives, expected to take place in December or January, to pitch the proposal.
Goldcorp to Open New Mines in Argentina: Today, the Argentinian Secretary of Mining, Jorge Mayoral, announced in a memo following an on-site meeting with Goldcorp’s Vice President and COO of Central and South America, Eduardo Villacorta, that the company’s Cerro Negro mine will be inaugurated in February 2015. In 2010, Canadian gold giant Goldcorp acquired the Cerro Negro mine, located in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina, and invested $1.67 million in its reconstruction. Cerro Negro is expected to forge between 130,000 and 180,000 ounces of gold before the end of 2014, and once fully operational, the mine will maintain a production capacity of 4,000 tons per day of concerted gold and silver throughout its 23 year lifespan. Cerro Negro marks the Vancouver-based miner’s second Argentinian venture, after its 37.5 percent share of the Alumbrera copper mine in Catamarca.
In a primetime address to the nation last night, President Obama announced sweeping executive action on immigration. The president’s plans include a new deferred action program that will reportedly protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. “Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it,” Obama said.
The announcement belatedly fulfills the president’s promise to issue executive orders on immigration in the face of Congress’s failure to pass a comprehensive reform bill. “I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law. But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as president,” Obama said.
According to statements by the Republican congressional leadership, the president’s action may have put Congress’s stalled efforts to pass a bipartisan, comprehensive bill into deep-freeze. “With this action, the president has chosen to deliberately sabotage any chance of enacting bipartisan reforms that he claims to seek,” said John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House.
The action expands the scope of “administrative relief” first offered in June 2012 through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—an action that gave temporary legal status to 1.2 million undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children. Protection from deportation will now also include the parents of U.S. citizen children and legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, and expands eligibility of DACA by not including an age limit of those eligible, as long as they came to the U.S. before the age of 15. In addition to deferred action, Obama outlined plans to beef up border security efforts, recalibrate law-enforcement strategies around immigration violations, and reform specific authorizations and benefits associated with existing visa programs.
The president is due to attend an event at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada on Friday afternoon to build support for his initiative. Obama unveiled plans for comprehensive immigration reform at Del Sol nearly two years ago.
The United States Treasury accused Medellin-based soccer club Envigado of laundering money for a drug trafficking group this Wednesday. According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the soccer club, owned by Juan Pablo Upegui Gallego, worked together with the crime syndicate Oficina de Envigado to cover up drug trafficking money through the club’s balance sheets.
The Treasury’s announcement comes after ten years of investigations, including the collection of testimonies from paramilitaries and narco-traffickers, to collect the necessary evidence against the soccer team, Upegui Gallego and others involved. The club and its associates have been placed on the U.S. "kingpin list," which prohibits any financial transaction with U.S. citizens and freezes the assets of those involved. A total of eight members of the syndicate, which was founded by Pablo Escobar, were blacklisted.
“The Oficina de Envigado has played a significant role in large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering activities, and this action […] will strike at the financial core of this violent criminal network and impede its efforts to operate in the legitimate financial system,” said Adam Szubin, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Envigado is not the first soccer club to be blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury. In 1999, the club America de Cali was listed.
Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader and founder of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, appeared in court on Tuesday for the first time since the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found his detention illegal and called for his immediate release on October 9. He had refused to appear until presiding judge Susana Barreiro ruled on the recommendation.
Judge Barreiro rejected the WGAD recommendation last week, saying that it was not binding. Using the same argument as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Barreiro argued that Venezuela is a sovereign nation and rejects international interference. López’ lawyers have appealed Judge Barreiro’s decision in the Court of Appeals.
López has been in pre-trial detention since he was arrested on February 18 for his alleged involvement in inciting violence during widespread protests. President Maduro has said that he believes that López is “responsible for crimes, violence, destruction, (loss of) human lives,” and that “he has to pay, and he's going to pay.”
Various high-profile world leaders have called for the release of López and the other political prisoners arrested during Venezuela’s tumultuous protests in February, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis I, and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. On Monday, Socialist International joined the growing lists of international groups and human rights organizations calling for López’ release.
The Argentine government published a decree on Monday that establishes the Unidad de Seguimiento y Trazabilidad de las Operaciones de Comercio Exterior (Tracking and Tracing of Foreign Trade Transactions Unit), which will monitor the flow of goods, services, and currency into and out of the country. According to Decree 2103/2014, the new agency will operate under Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers Jorge Capitanich, and will be made up of representatives from the Central Bank, the Economy Ministry, the AFIP tax bureau, the Financial Information Unit, the Bureau for Economic Crimes and Money Laundering (Procelac), and the National Securities Commission (CNV).
According to the government, the new agency is meant to “assure macroeconomic stability,” yet the decree also notes that it was created because of an increase in foreign trade as well as illegal operations like tax evasion. The government claims there have been 9,600 cases of suspected Criminal Foreign Exchange Regime violations. The regulatory body will monitor trade and currency flows in order to prevent tax evasion, especially by companies earning money on imports.
In recent months, tax employees have carried out a number of raids in Buenos Aires and across Argentina due to a prosperous black market for U.S. dollars. The informal market started to flourish in 2011, when the Kirchner administration made it difficult for Argentines to get dollars through legal means in response to the alarming decrease in international reserves. After a devaluation of the peso in January 2014, the “blue” dollar exploded.
Alejandro Vanoli, who took over as head of the Central Bank in October 2014, has been imposing measures to limit the fall in the Central Bank’s reserves, including raiding cuevas, the informal currency exchange houses, and arbolitos, people who sell dollars illegally on the street. At Tuesday’s Central Bank conference, Vanoli noted that Argentina’s reserves grew by $800 million in the last month and stressed that the government would continue to fight tax evasion and money laundering.
This week's likely top stories: Colombia’s peace talks suspended over kidnapping; U.S. will grant refugee status to select minors from Central America; Brazilian police arrest 27 in Petrobras corruption scandal; Cruise ship tourism is booming in Cuba; Pemex invests millions in hydrocarbon production and exploration.
Kidnapping Halts Colombian Peace Talks: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has suspended peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) after the rebel group kidnapped a Colombian army general this weekend. General Rubén Darío Alzate Mora—who was apparently dressed as a civilian when captured—and two other people were reportedly abducted on Sunday by the FARC’s 34th front in the western department of Chocó, making General Alzate the first general ever to be kidnapped by the guerrillas. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón deployed hundreds of troops to the area on Sunday. On Santos’ orders, Colombian government peace negotiators will not travel to Havana today to participate in the second round of the two-year-old peace talks with the FARC.
Some Central American Minors to Receive Refugee Status: Vice President Joe Biden announced on Friday that the U.S. government will grant refugee status to minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador if their parent is a legal U.S. resident. The program, to be launched next month, will permit immigrant parents to request refugee status for any children under age 21 living in any one of the three Northern Triangle countries. Upon arrival, the children will be eligible to work and will eventually be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship. Currently, a maximum of 4,000 Latin American immigrants per year from Colombia and Cuba only are eligible for refugee status in the United States. Biden’s announcement comes amid growing concerns about the surge of unaccompanied Central American migrant youth who entered the U.S. illegally this year. The Obama administration is expected to announce further reforms to the immigration system in the coming weeks.
Brazilian Police Arrest 27 in Petrobras Corruption Scandal: In response to mounting political pressure to resolve the Petrobras corruption scandal, Brazilian police made 27 arrests on Friday in connection with the investigation by order of federal prosecutors at the Ministério Público Federal (Federal Public MInistry). Those arrested included Renato Duque, the former director of engineering and services at the state-owned oil company, as well as nine executives from construction firms who signed fraudulent contracts with Petrobras. Authorities also froze $277 million in assets belonging to 36 suspects and three unnamed companies. Former Petrobras director Paulo Roberto Costa, arrested in March, first disclosed the details of the company’s alleged decade-long, $3.8 billion dollar kickback scheme to buy influence among the members of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). Responding to the arrests, President Dilma Rousseff, who chaired the board of Petrobras from 2003-2010 while serving as energy minister, commented that “This will change forever the relationship between Brazilian society, the Brazilian state and private companies.” Following Petrobras’ statement that it would delay the release of its third quarter earnings, the company’s stock fell five percent on the IBOVESPA exchange.
Hike in Cruise Ship Tourism Projected in Cuba: The state-run Cuban tourism agency, Cubatur, announced late last week that it is expecting the arrival of more the 200 cruise ships at ports throughout the island during the upcoming winter season, which ranges from late November to April. Tourism is the nation’s second largest source of income (after technical and medical expertise), and it brought 2.85 million visitors to the island in 2013. The resurgence of cruise ship tourism reflects the Cuban government’s attempt to diversify its tourist offerings. The cruise ship industry had been all but abandoned in Cuba since the Spanish firm Pullmantur was acquired by the U.S.-owned Royal Caribbean cruises in 2006 and subsequently shut down all operations to the island. The Cuban government has rejuvenated the cruise ship tourism sector by establishing joint operations with international companies. This was made possible by the Foreign Investment Law, inaugurated in 2014, which aims to attract foreign investment through concessions such as new tax breaks, more flexible labor policies, and a reinforcement of the offer of allowing 100 percent ownership.
Pemex to Invest Millions in Upstream Oil Industry: Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) announced to investors today that it is planning to invest up to $161.7 million between 2015 and 2019—or 78 percent of its available capital—to its upstream search for potential underground and underwater sources of hydrocarbons. Pemex’s investment may cover shale gas extraction from the Agua Nueva deposit in the Tampico-Misantla Basin and deep-water drilling across the Perdido Fold Belt in the Western Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, only $34.4 million will be rerouted back into downstream activities—such as refining, marketing and distribution—to increase the efficiency of oil refineries like the complexes in Tula, Salmanca, and Salina Cruz. Since peaking in 2004, Pemex’s crude oil production has fallen by nearly one million barrels a day. Moreover, this past October, the state-owned oil company posted its eighth consecutive quarterly loss. Against this grim background, the redistribution of capital resources into upstream projects represents Pemex’s long term objective of achieving national energy security by diversifying the national energy portfolio.
Beyond seeking to deepen trade links with Asia, the leaders of Chile, Peru and Mexico—the three Latin American member states of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)—used their time in Beijing to push for greater Chinese investment in their countries. The three leaders also backed a Chinese-led proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).
Peruvian President and Ollanta Humala and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet met with President Xi separately on Wednesday. In his meeting with Ollanta, the Chinese leader is reported to have proposed a bilateral trade agreement with Peru. The two leaders also reportedly signed a memorandum supporting the creation of a trilateral group with Brazil to plan the construction of a rail link between Peru and Brazil.
While Bachelet left China empty handed in terms of signed agreements, she made her objectives clear. “We have a high level of trade, but we have not made any progress in investments,” she said at a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Monday. However, both Xi and Bachelet expressed confidence that the establishment of a Chilean branch of the China Construction Bank next year will spur future Chinese investment in Chile.
In a sign that the relationship between China and Mexico may not have been seriously damaged by Mexico’s recent cancellation of a bid awarded to a Chinese consortium for the construction of a high-speed rail link, the Chinese leader and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed 14 separate agreements and investment contracts at a meeting yesterday. Peña Nieto also announced plans to create a joint fund between three Chinese companies and the Mexican oil company Pemex, with the goal of raising up to US $5 billion for energy projects in Mexico.
Today, U.S. officials said that President Barack Obama is planning to announce a broad overhaul of the national immigration enforcement system to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
The official announcement could come as early as next week, and Obama’s actions will be manifold. First, an enforcement memorandum would direct federal law enforcement and judicial agencies to deprioritize the deportation of undocumented immigrants with strong family ties and no criminal history. Another component of the executive order would allow many parents of children who are American citizens or have legal status to obtain legal work documents, thus quelling fears of family separation.
Depending on the strictness of the White House’s final resolution, these protections would be extended to at least 2.5 million of these parents who have been in the country for at least 10 years—and potentially to 3.3 million more who have been in the country for 5 years, plus the 1 million unauthorized immigrant youth. Lastly, Obama’s executive order would expand opportunities for immigrants with high-tech skills, reroute security resources to the border, and revive the immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities.
Demonstrations in Mexico intensified on Tuesday as protesters in Guerrero state took a police chief prisoner and set fire to the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) state headquarters in two separate protests related to the disappearance of 43 students missing since September.
Protests have escalated after last week’s announcement that Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) drug cartel members had confessed to killing the students after they were handed over to the cartel by municipal police in the southern city of Iguala. On Monday, thousands of protestors clashed with police and blocked access to Acapulco’s airport.
Yesterday, the families of the missing students met with Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong and Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam for two hours to discuss the latest developments in the investigation. The presumed remains of the students have been sent to a specialized lab in Austria for identification. However, because the remains were burned for 14 hours, Murillo says that the chances for positive identification are slim. The parents of the students have repeatedly stated that they will presume their children alive until conclusive tests prove otherwise.
The students’ disappearance has intensified the debate over the effectiveness of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security strategy in the country. Both the UN and international human rights organizations have expressed concern over the government’s response to the crisis.
São Paulo Governor Gerardo Alckmin presented a $1.4 billion plan for eight infrastructure projects to mitigate the state’s drought crisis in a meeting with President Dilma Rousseff in Brasília yesterday.
The meeting took place at the Palácio do Planalto between Rousseff, Alckmin, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira and Planning Minister Miriam Belchior, with Belchior voicing concern over how the projects would be implemented. Some of the projects will not be done until the end of 2015, and others will take up to three years to complete. Governor Alckmin acknowledged that the projects do not create an immediate solution to the drought, but will alleviate water shortages in the longer-term.
Brazil is currently experiencing its worst drought in over 80 years. In São Paulo, the Cantareira reservoir system, which provides water for many of the city’s approximately 20 million inhabitants, had fallen to below 11.3 percent of its usual capacity as of November 9. Critics have complained that the presidential elections only served to deepen the crisis, as São Paulo’s opposition politicians were afraid to advocate for fines and regulations regarding water use for fear of losing votes. Given that Brazil produces 12 percent of the world’s fresh water, a lack of planning is a key source of the problem.
The federal government indicated that it was willing to assist the São Paulo state financially with the drought crisis, but is awaiting further details before approving the payments. Next Monday, November 17, a new working group will meet to further discuss the projects and define how many people each project aims to benefit.
Not only have residents had trouble getting water for personal consumption, but the economy is also starting to feel the adverse effects, with industrial as well as agricultural production dropping. Scientist Antonio Nobre has warned that deforestation of the Amazon is related to the current drought and said that continued deforestation could cause an even worse crisis. He has urged the country to act now to stop deforestation.
This week's likely top stories: Brazil’s military launches training operation in Amazon; Mexico cancels high-speed rail contract to Chinese-led consortium; Indigenous court in Colombia convicts seven FARC members; AT&T purchases Iusacell; Mexico erupts in protests over reported discovery of remains of the 43 missing students.
Brazilian Military Trains in the Amazon: According to the chief of Brazil’s Amazon Military Command, Gen. Guilherme Cals Theophilo Gaspar de Oliveira, today Brazil will launch Operation Machifaro, a five-day training exercise simulating a foreign invasion of the Amazon by a superior force, in an attempt to “consolidate a doctrine of jungle combat.” The exercise consists of 550 troops who will conduct drills in Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city, and other regional outposts. Despite the peaceful relations that Brazil maintains with its smaller neighbors and the unlikelihood of a foreign invasion, the defense of the Amazon and protection of its resources has been a top concern of Brazilian national security historically.
Mexico Cancels High-Speed Rail Contract with China: Only three days after awarding a $4.3 billion contract for Mexico’s first high-speed rail project to a consortium led by China Railway Construction Corp., Mexico rescinded the contract last Thursday and will re-open the auction to new bids for six months. Given Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s diplomatic mission to Beijing this week, the cancellation comes as a surprise, but Peña Nieto’s administration said the move represents an attempt to increase government transparency. The China Railway group—which plans to bid again in the new round—was the only consortium to submit a proposal for the project in the first round. After the original decision had been announced, the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) had accused the government of favoritism, arguing that the sole bid was too expensive. On Sunday, the website Aristegui Noticias revealed that the president’s private home was built by a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, one of the companies belonging to the China Railway-led consortium.
Colombian Indigenous Community Convicts FARC: Members of the Nasa tribe in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department have convicted seven FARC guerrillas for the murder of two members of the Nasa’s unarmed Indigenous Guard, which patrols and protects tribal territory. Manuel Antonio Tumiñá Jenbuel, 42, and Daniel Coicué Julicue, 63, who had asked the guerrillas to leave their land, were shot and killed by members of the FARC on November 5 after they started to take down signs that the FARC had posted in their community. Thousands of people participated in a tribal assembly in Toribio to sentence the rebels, deliberating for hours before sentencing five of the defendants to between 40 and 60 years in prison and destroying the guerrilla’s weapons. Two teenagers received a lighter sentence of 20 lashes each. Colombian Indigenous authorities have jurisdiction over their own territories under Colombian law. The FARC’s Iván Márquez addressed the community on Sunday, tweeting “we regret what happened with the Nasa community of Toribio.”
AT&T Buys Mobile Carrier Iusacell from Grupo Salinas: This weekend, U.S. mobile phone carrier AT&T Inc. purchased Iusacell SA, the third-largest Mexican mobile phone carrier, from billionaire Ricardo Salinas for $2.5 billion. AT&T will absorb Iusacell’s 8.6 million subscribers onto its regional 3G network as well as the company’s $800 million of outstanding debt. The acquisition of Iusacell enters AT&T in tough competition against Carlos Slim’s mobile carrier, América Móvil SAB. Remarking on President Peña Nieto’s business friendly policies that paved the way for this deal, Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, said that the “acquisition of Iusacell is a direct result of the reforms put in place … to encourage more competition and more investment in Mexico.” In light of its purchase of DirecTV for $48.5 billion earlier this year, AT&T has solidified its expansion into the Latin American telecommunications market.
Mexico Outraged By Massacre of 43 Missing Students: Mexico erupted in protests this weekend after Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo said on Friday that 43 students who disappeared six weeks ago in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, were massacred and their remains incinerated shortly after a protest on September 26. Murillo said that corrupt police in Iguala arrested the students on orders from the town’s former mayor, and handed them over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang, which carried out the killings. Members of the gang have confirmed that they participated in the murders, but relatives of the missing students have said they will not allow the government to close the case until there is concrete proof of the students’ fate. More than 70 people, including the former mayor of Iguala and his wife, have been arrested in connection with the murders. Protesters took to the streets and to social media this weekend, using the hashtag “YaMeCanse” to decry violence, corruption, and the federal government’s failure to stop the murders.
This Saturday, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will formally launch a reparation program for communities affected by the repression and violence surrounding the construction of the Chixoy Dam in the 1980s, according to the Asociación para el Desarrollo Integral de las Víctimas de la Violencia en las Verapaces Maya Achí (Association for the Integral Development of the Victims of Violence in the Verapaces, Maya Achi—ADIVIMA).
The Chixoy hydroelectric dam was built in the early 1980s with money from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Opposition to its construction by members of the communities facing displacement was met with a fierce military crackdown. In 1982, more than 400 people were killed in a series of massacres. Many more were displaced or otherwise victimized.
Facing pressure by victims’ families and the international community, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina signed an agreement on October 14 with the Coordinadora de Comunidades Afectadas por la Construcción de la Hidroeléctrica Chixoy (Coordinator of Communities Affected by the Construction of the Chixoy Hidroelectic Dam—COCACICH), and approved a reparation policy. That agreement was officially published on Thursday, and will benefit 33 Indigenous communities who will receive an investment of 1.2 billion quetzales (about $153 million) between 2015 and 2029.
The agreement is the latest development in affected communities’ struggle for recognition of and reparations for the atrocities of 1982. Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an appropriations bill that effectively instructed the U.S. directors of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development bank, which co-financed construction of the dam, to take steps to implement an earlier reparation plan. The bill also suspended U.S. military aid to Guatemala until “the Secretary of State certifies that the Government of Guatemala is taking credible steps to implement the Reparations Plan.”
Thousands of Mexicans from across the country took to the streets yesterday to demand answers about the fate of 43 students who are still missing after they disappeared in the city of Iguala in late September.
The protest is part of a 72 hour strike staged by nearly 100 universities throughout Mexico and also includes family members of the missing students, as well as fellow students from their teaching training school in Ayotzinapa. In Mexico City, demonstrators marched from Los Pinos, the official residence of the president, to the Zócalo, demanding that the students be returned, dead or alive.
The former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, were arrested on Tuesday in Mexico City for their alleged roles in the students’ disappearance. Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo accused Abarca of ordering police to attack the students to prevent them from disrupting a speech being given by his wife.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has addressed the disappearances by deploying federal police to Iguala in mid-October and by meeting with relatives of the missing students last week. Although Mexico’s homicide rate has decreased over the past two years, protests have intensified as enraged Mexicans cite a lack of institutional accountability for the more than 20,000 people that have gone missing in Mexico over the past decade.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will travel to Colombia today for a two-day meeting with Colombian government officials, businesses and civil society organizations to discuss security, trade and human trafficking, his office said Tuesday.
Senator Rubio will be traveling to the South American nation in his capacity as a member of the Senate’s intelligence and foreign relations committees. “Colombia is a key U.S. ally, and Florida has also benefited from all of the security and economic gains they have made in recent decades,” said Rubio, who represents the state with the largest Colombian immigrant community in the United States. Rubio’s trip comes on the heels of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ securing financial aid from the European Union to continue the peace process.
While the details on the amount of funding provided by the EU is yet to be determined, German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her support of the peace process and Germany’s state-owned development bank pledged $100 million over the next two years to support projects born from the peace negotiations.
The recently released issue of Americas Quarterly has demonstrated that experts are divided on whether or not the peace talks, which began in October 2012 in Oslo, will be successful in ending the 50-year conflict between the Colombian government and the guerilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). In the past, Senator Rubio has expressed his skepticism that negotiations will be enough to deter the FARC.
President Santos will be in Europe during Senator Rubio’s visit.
Bolivian Ombudsman Rolando Villena voiced his alarm yesterday at the recent uptick in sexual violence against women, and particularly young girls, in the wake of the rape and murder of a four-year-old girl last week in the town of Palos Blancos. This attack follows the death of a five-year-old girl in the Cochabamba region who was raped in a medical center, allegedly by a nurse. Villena noted that not only has there been an increase in attacks against girls in Bolivia, but also in the brutality of the violence.
The ombudsman’s statement reported that 14,000 cases of rape are recorded annually in Bolivia, and 34 percent of minors have been sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 18. A Pan American Health Organization report from 2013 found that Bolivia had the most gender violence of the 12 Latin American countries surveyed.
Villella criticized both local and national governments for failing to adequately protect girls, and denounced the “complacency” of authorities in the face of increased attacks. “We don’t know how many attacks it will take before the government accepts that we’re facing an unsustainable situation of violence against women, and especially girls,” he said. The ombudsman announced that his office would establish a committee to travel to Palos Blancos to investigate the murder and report on the spike in rapes and feminicides in the area so that Bolivian authorities and organizations can work together to address the violence.
In October 2014, the Bolivian government enacted a new law to fight violence against women that establishes shelters for victims and the strengthens the Special Forces Against Violence, a police force formed in 2013 to combat sexual assault and domestic abuse.
This week's likely top stories: Ecuador's National Assembly dismisses referendum on controversial constitutional amendments; Argentina suspends Proctor & Gamble for fiscal fraud; Brazil grants contracts for 31 new solar parks; U.S. gears up for midterm elections and immigration reform; Colombian court sentences AUC paramilitary leader to 8 years.
Ecuador’s National Assembly Strikes Down Referendum on Amendments: On Friday, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court dismissed the proposal for a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments sponsored by President Rafael Correa’s ruling party, Alianza País (Country Alliance—AP). Instead, the decision will be passed on to the National Assembly, where parliamentary approval of the amendments is virtually guaranteed given the AP’s two-thirds majority. The most contentious of the reforms would allow for the indefinite re-election of public officials, which would effectively permit Correa, who is currently serving his third and last term as president, to run again in 2017. Despite Correa’s high approval rating, a September poll found that 73 percent of Ecuadorians supported the referendum, which was called by Guillermo Lasso, a former presidential candidate and leader of the opposition party Creando Oportunidades (Creating Opportunities—CREO).
Argentina Bars P&G from Business for Tax Fraud: The Argentinian tax bureau, Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos (Federal Administration of Public Revenue—AFIP), announced on Sunday that it has suspended the operations of multinational consumer products corporation Proctor & Gamble for alleged fiscal fraud and capital flight. AFIP stripped P&G of its importers/exporters registration upon discovering that the company evaded paying duties totaling up to $138 million on hygiene products imported from Brazil by billing through a Swiss subsidiary. P&G, which has been operating in Argentina since 1991, will be allowed to resume business once it has paid its tax bill and fines accordingly. In asking Argentine courts to place travel restrictions on top officials at the local P&G affiliate, AFIP chief Ricardo Echegaray commented, “Our main goal is for P&G to repay the Central Bank the stolen currency as well as the customs sanctions and the income tax that has been evaded.” P&G responded by announcing that it is working to understand and resolve the allegations.
Brazil Grants Contracts for 31 New Solar Parks: As the output from key hydroelectric plants in Brazil has decreased substantially amidst the worst drought in 80 years, the country has kickstarted the solar power industry by granting contracts for the construction of 31 solar parks on Friday. Brazil’s energy regulator brought the country’s first solar energy auction to a lucrative close on Friday by signing 20-year energy supply contacts with companies to invest $1.67 billion to begin powering the national grid by 2017. The parks, which are the first large-scale projects of their kind in Brazil, will have a combined capacity of 1,048 megawatts (MW), and at a price of $89 per megawatt-hour, the Brazilian government has earned itself one of the lowest rates in world. Brasília has been a latecomer to the photovoltaic industry—which currently supplies a meager 1 percent of the country’s electricity—because the government levies high tariffs on imported solar panels.
U.S. Midterm Elections and Immigration: U.S. voters will go to the polls on Tuesday in midterm elections that will be crucial for the future of immigration reform in the United States. Recent polls suggest that the Republican candidates are outperforming Democrats in several key states, and thus the GOP could pick up six new seats to take control of the Senate. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on Sunday that if Republicans win the Senate, comprehensive immigration reform will be a top priority. Last year, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to bring a bipartisan immigration bill passed in the Senate to a vote. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is expected to use his executive authority to overhaul immigration rules shortly after Tuesday’s elections.
Sentenced AUC Leader Says Colombian Military Collaborated: In sentencing Colombian paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso to a maximum sentence of eight years on Friday, Judge Alexandra Valencia said that “the military and the army were institutionally responsible” for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in northern Colombia. Mancuso, who led the Colombian paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia—AUC) between 2004 and 2006 and was later extradited to the U.S., said that the Colombian army was complicit in the AUC’s military offensives in the late 1990s that led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. As part of a plea bargain with Colombia’s special Justice and Peace prosecution unit, Mancuso admitted to leading four massacres and committing hundreds of crimes. According to Mancuso, the Colombian military gave him special access, trained paramilitaries, and had informants in both the police force and the regional prosecutor’s office to warn paramilitaries of investigations or raids. “Without the action or inaction of the State, we wouldn’t have been able to grow the way we did,” he said.
Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies passed a bill yesterday that updates the country’s 47-year-old hydrocarbon law. The bill, which has President Christina Fernández de Kirchner’s support and has already been approved by the Senate, would ease foreign investment in energy exploration and production. Significantly, it includes regulations for off-shore and shale gas production—categories that were not included in the 1967 law.
The bill provoked significant debate along party lines, and passed largely on the strength of President Fernández de Kirchner’s Frente Para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) representation in Congress.
Argentina’s energy deficit is estimated to reach $7 billion this year. The new bill is part of an attempt to set the country on a course towards energy independence by ramping up domestic production—especially in the country’s Vaca Muerta region, which is considered one of the largest reserves of shale oil and gas in the world. Faced with dwindling foreign reserves and access to credit, the government has looked to increased foreign investment. To do attract investment, the bill would lower the level of investment needed for companies to avoid export taxes and foreign exchange control to $250 million from $1 billion. “The desired horizon for Argentina is only possible if there are investments,” said Mario Metaza, a deputy for the FPV.
Opposition lawmakers have accused the government of steam-rolling provincial interests and selling off strategic resources. “They are ratifying the concept of hydrocarbons as a commodity and not as a strategic resource and a common good,” said Claudio Lozano, a deputy for the Frente Amplio Progresista (Broad Progressive Front—FAP). Outside observers have also raised questions about the current administration’s ability to manage any potential windfall derived from the energy reform, pointing to the mismanagement of the country’s wealth during the economic boom of 2003-2008.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.