This Week in Latin America: Protests Follow Killing of Mexican Journalist—Haiti's Elections—Petrobras Scandal Widens—Guyana-Venezuela Border Dispute
August 3, 2015Read More Tags: This Week in Latin America
Here's a look at some of the stories we're following this week:
Outrage after Killing of Mexican Journalist: Protests are expected to continue today after Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist for the Mexican weekly Proceso, was found dead in an apartment building in Mexico City on Friday. Espinosa, whose body was found along with those of four other individuals, fled his home state of Veracruz in June because he feared for his life. He is the seventh journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, and the fourth from Veracruz. Protesters, many of them journalists, are calling for the resignation of the state’s governor, Javier Duarte. Duarte previously claimed that journalists in the state were not under threat, and that high levels of violence there mainly affect those “involved in one way or another with criminal groups.”
Haitians (Finally) Go to the Polls: Haitians will vote in parliamentary and local elections on Sunday, more than three years later than originally planned. The extended delay is the result of a political dispute between President Michel Martelly and the legislature over the implementation of electoral laws. Martelly has essentially ruled Haiti by decree since January, when the country’s parliament was dissolved after failing to come to an agreement with the executive on extending legislative term limits. A first-round vote to replace Martelly, who is term limited, will take place in October.
International Implications of the Petrobras Scandal: Peru’s attorney general will send prosecutors to Brazil to investigate allegations that firms there paid bribes to Peruvian officials in relation to a trans-Amazonian highway infrastructure project. The investigation comes as the corruption scandal involving Brazilian state oil company Petrobras—as well as many of the country’s leading construction firms—continues to grow. Peru’s decision to investigate possible bribes to its own state officials highlights the international reach of the turmoil in Brazil; development contracts in Colombia, Ecuador, the United States and elsewhere could also be affected.
Venezuela-Guyana Border Dispute: UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will send secretariat staffers to Venezuela and Guyana to try to settle a border dispute between the two countries. Previous UN attempts to mediate the crisis have failed. At issue is the location of a maritime border near the mouth of the Essequibo River, where ExxonMobil recently discovered a significant oil deposit. Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro asserted his country’s claims on the area shortly after the find; Guyana demurred, and a war of words ensued between Maduro and Guyana’s president, David Granger. Both men have signaled a willingness to discuss the matter outside the UN General Assembly next month, but have balked at the idea of giving any ground.
Latin American Economies in Brief
More Currency Pressure: Several Latin American currencies continue to lose value on foreign exchange markets amid low global commodity prices and a strong dollar. Colombia’s peso is particularly vulnerable. This time last year, it stood at 1,872 to the dollar; today, it opened trading at 2,879 to one.
Effects of Cheap Oil: The continued decline in crude prices signals a tough road ahead for the region’s exporters. Mexico has already postponed an auction of deepwater oil and gas blocks that had been set to begin this month, while the price of Venezuelan crude fell below $46/barrel for the first time since March.
Puerto Rico's Debt Payments: The government in Puerto Rico is expected to miss a $58 million bond payment today, as the territory struggles with a long-burning debt crisis. The island’s government made a separate payment, on debts incurred by a state development bank, before a Saturday deadline, but Governor Alejandro García Padilla is still calling for restructuring of the territory’s $72 billion debt.
July 30, 2015Tags: U.S.-Cuba, human trafficking
Today, the UN Office of Drugs & Crime marked the first World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, an effort to raise awareness around the $150 billion global human trafficking industry. The event comes just days after the U.S. State Department drew criticism for its decision to remove Cuba from a list of countries that have failed to respond adequately to the issue.
The decision to upgrade Cuba’s status was included in an annual State Department report on human trafficking, a publication that has been used largely as a diplomatic tool since 2001. Coming amid a climate of improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba, however, the decision led some observers to wonder if the report had been unduly politicized.
But just how the warming in U.S.-Cuba relations affected the report is open to debate. Improved relations may have, in fact, made conducting an objective assessment of Cuba’s efforts to combat human trafficking more feasible.
“There was always a question around the extent to which Cuba’s persistently bad rating was a reflection of broader U.S. policy,” said human trafficking expert Anne Gallagher. ”Cuba’s sudden upgrade, coming as it does during a period of historic rapprochement with the U.S., appears to settle that question once and for all.”
In its rationale for the decision, the State Department says worked closely with the Cuban government and has seen significant efforts at improvement in transparency, victim protection and prosecuting traffickers. While reaction to the department’s decision has thus far been mixed, if closer ties between the two countries do indeed lead to greater cooperation on regional issues such as human trafficking—a growing problem that affects as many as 1.8 million people in the region—the consequences can only be positive.
July 29, 2015Read More Tags: Mexico, Gender violence, Women's rights
The often overlooked struggle to address violence against women in Mexico may have reached a turning point this week, after the country’s secretary of the interior approved “gender violence alerts” for 11 municipalities in Mexico state. The alerts, which some local governments have been requesting for several years, provide municipalities with federal funding and technical assistance to implement programs to combat gender-based violence.
The murder of women because of their gender, known as femicide, is an all-too-common occurrence in Mexico. But homicide cases involving women in the country are seldom classified as femicides; a study released earlier this year by the National Citizen Observatory on Femicide (OCNF) in Mexico found that, of the 3,892 women killed between 2012 and 2013, less than 16 percent were investigated by authorities under the classification.
While the alerts are a step forward in the government’s efforts to tackle the issue, some human rights advocates say that more must be done in a country where six women are murdered every day, by some estimates. It is also unclear how much federal funding will be dedicated to preventing violence against women as a result of this week’s announcement.
Still, some observers see cause for optimism. In an interview with SinEmbargo, María de la Luz Estrada, director of the OCNF, expressed hope that this week’s approval would signal a change in the government’s attitude toward gender violence, and called Mexico state governor Eruviel Avila’s push for the gender alerts an “acknowledgement of the existence of structural and systematic gender violence that has worsened with disappearances and femicides."
There may also be signs that the approval of the alerts reflects a broader change to how gender violence is understood in Mexico. On Tuesday, a prosecutor in the northern state of Chihuahua sentenced five men each to 697 years behind bars for the trafficking and murder of six women, a sentence that Telesur called “an unprecedented move in a country where the systematic killing of women often goes unpunished.”
July 28, 2015Tags: Colombia, armed conflict, Disappearances
On Monday, a team of Colombian officials began an excavation of what some believe may be the "world’s largest urban mass grave" in La Escombrera, a landfill in Medellín's Comuna 13 slum. As many as 300 people are thought to have been buried there between 1999 and 2004, a period when the surrounding neighborhood was plagued by violence among paramilitary groups, leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Many in the city hope the excavation will uncover the remains of missing loved ones, a small portion of the thousands of men, women and children who have “disappeared” during Colombia's five-decade long internal conflict.
Forced disappearances are not unknown to Latin America, and have served as a means of creating fear and stifling opposition in civilian populations at various times in the region's history, perhaps most notably in Argentina during that country's "Dirty War." But nowhere has the tactic been more prevalent than in Colombia. Since the beginning of Colombia's internal conflict, more than 60,000 people have disappeared, a number that continues to grow. Few disappearance cases are thoroughly investigated, and fewer still are successfully prosecuted, making closure for victims' families hard to come by.
"The truth is buried there. We haven't had any help from the state until now,” said Luz Elena Galeano, a wife of a disappeared in Medellín, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We've been fighting to get justice and find out the truth."
The Colombian government has taken steps to combat forced disappearances through legislation, including Law 589 and the Justice and Peace Law, but progress has been slow. Observers hope the move to excavate La Escombrera will mark a shift in the government's approach to investigating disappearance cases.
“The Colombian government’s recent efforts to search for the disappeared, and to conduct exhumations and return remains to victims’ families, are commendable," said Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the non-profit Latin America Working Group Education Fund. “But far more must be done to achieve justice in these cases, as well to expand the search for the disappeared, and most important, to end the practice of disappearing.”
This Week in Latin America: Puerto Rico's Debt Deadline—Montt on Trial—Ayotzinapa Protest—Press Freedom in the Americas
July 27, 2015Read More Tags: This Week in Latin America
Here's a look at some of the stories we're following this week:
Puerto Rico's Debt Deadline: Puerto Rico, which is struggling to meet its obligations to international creditors, faces a deadline on two debt payments Saturday. The government there will have to pay down $169.9 million on debts assumed by the Government Development Bank, and another for $93.7 million on bonds sold through its Public Finance Corporation. These are the first payments to come due since Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, announced last month that the island’s debts were “not payable.” The territory has already missed its first deposit deadline, though the government is reportedly working on ways to increase liquidity and service its debts before August 1. Even if successful, Moody's, a credit rating agency, predicts that Puerto Rico will default on at least some of its debt; its total obligation is around $72 billion, and García Padilla says that, without restructuring, the territory will have to default.
Guatemalan ex-president on trial: A state medical examiner will review whether former president of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, can be considered fit to stand trial for war crimes, further delaying an ongoing legal effort against the one-time army general. In 2013, Montt was found guilty of overseeing the genocide of indigenous Ixil Mayans while serving as president from 1982-83, though the conviction was later overturned on procedural grounds. A retrial, set for January of this year, was delayed after the presiding judge was forced to recuse himself for having taken a position on the genocide as a graduate student. According to his lawyers, Montt, now 89 and battling illness, is mentally incompetent for trial, and lacks the necessary faculties to understand the charges against him.
Relatives in ‘Ayotzinapa case’ stage protest march: The parents of 43 students kidnapped and presumed killed last September in the restive state of Guerrero, Mexico will begin a cross-country protest march on Thursday to demand answers in what they deem has been an unsatisfactory investigation of the incident. Over the course of their investigation, officials have uncovered the remains of 129 people in the area surrounding the town of Iguala, where the young people were last seen, though none belonging to the missing students. Investigators claim the missing remains were burned and dispersed in a nearby river, though a representative from the National Commission for Human Rights in Mexico, Luis Raúl González Pérez, said last week that the investigation was “incomplete” and should not be closed. The parents of the students say they will march in two “caravans,” one beginning in the north of Mexico and the other in the south, and stage demonstrations in towns and cities throughout the country.
Press freedom in the Americas: On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will hear testimony on threats to press freedom in the Americas. The hearing comes as both censorship and violent threats to journalists remain endemic in the region. According to Reporters without Borders, an advocacy group, Mexico is the worst place in Latin America for journalists, followed closely by Venezuela and Honduras. The climate for press freedom has also deteriorated in Ecuador, according to the group, following the implementation of a new regulatory framework promoted by the government, meant to define how news and information should be provided by the media. Wednesday’s hearing will feature testimony from Nicolás Pérez Lapentti, the co-director of El Universo in Ecuador, and Carlos Ponce, the director of the Latin America Program for Freedom House, among others.
July 24, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, Candelária Massacre
On this day in 1783, one of Latin America’s most significant figures, Simón Bolívar, was born in Caracas. While many in the region will celebrate the occasion, today also marks the anniversary of a more chilling episode in Latin American history. Shortly after midnight on July 24, 1993, nine hooded men, including several off-duty police officers, opened fire on a group of homeless youth sleeping on the steps of Rio de Janeiro’s historic Candelária church. Eight young people between the ages of 11 and 20 were killed in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.
Although the incident gained international attention, the Brazilian government at the time did little to stem the tide of extrajudicial killings in the country. Only three of the officers involved in the incident were charged with any crime.
Today, despite attempts at reform, the frequency of police related killings in Brazil can be jarring. Deaths at the hands of law enforcement average around 2,000 annually. State violence in the country disproportionately affects Afro-Brazilians and the urban poor, as evidenced in the pacificação (pacification) process of Rio’s favelas throughout last year’s World Cup.
Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil, said on the massacre's 20th anniversary in 2013, “Our police still have blood on their hands, and are allowed to act with impunity as extra-judicial killings remain rife in Brazil’s major cities.”
State violence may be more pronounced in Brazil than elsewhere in the region, but citizen insecurity continues to pose a challenge throughout Latin America in part due to negative perceptions of police. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution report, “only 7.5% of the Latin American population express[ed] a lot of confidence in the police.” In the United States, too, confrontations between police and residents in predominantly black communities have left many questioning whether police departments are effectively serving the citizens they are tasked to protect.
Despite the challenges, governments in the region are trying to address the issue. Efforts to cooperate in professionalizing police forces and offering technical assistance to prosecutors, investigators and judges are underway. But more needs to be done, and until criminal justice reforms are effectively implemented, the legacy of the Candelária massacre will remain unsettled.
July 22, 2015Read More Tags: Health care, Indigenous Rights, Latin America
Colombia’s National Health Superintendant fined six health care providers over $1 million each, last week, after finding that their failure to provide adequate medical and vaccination services to Indigenous communities in the northern department of La Guajira contributed to the 2013 deaths from malnutrition of 12 Wayuu children.
La Guajira is home to the largest population of Indigenous peoples in Colombia. Over the past eight years, hundreds of children in the region have died from treatable diseases and malnutrition, in part as the result of poor sanitation and irregular access to health services.
The case highlights how different—and often inferior—health services for Indigenous communities in Colombia can be when compared to the general population. And the country isn't alone. Though several Latin American governments have created agencies specifically to oversee care in Indigenous communities, health outcomes for these communities are often well below national averages.
According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, infant mortality among Indigenous communities in the region is 60 percent greater than for non-indigenous populations (48 per one thousand births compared to 30 per one thousand). Malnutrition is twice as common among Indigenous children as it is among non-Indigenous children.
This Week in Latin America: U.S. and Cuba Establish Ties—Venezuela's Opposition Blocked—Another FARC Ceasefire—Argentina's Elections
July 20, 2015Tags: This Week in Latin America
Here's a look at some of the stories we're following this week:
U.S. and Cuba Establish Ties: The U.S. and Cuba re-established official diplomatic relations today for the first time since 1961. Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba's foreign minister, is in Washington DC to mark the occasion, and will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry following the inauguration of Cuba's embassy there. Kerry will travel to Cuba later this summer for the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. While historic, the degree to which the diplomatic breakthrough will improve relations between the two countries is open to debate. Several prominent members of the U.S. Congress have expressed opposition to the opening, and Cuban President Raul Castro reiterated to state media last week that the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, which remains in place, is causing “damage and hardships for [the Cuban] people.”
FARC Ceasefire Takes Effect: A unilateral ceasefire by Colombia’s FARC guerilla group went into effect this morning, after a series of violent confrontations with government forces threatened to bring ongoing peace talks to a halt. President Juan Manuel Santos says the government will draw down operations against the group in response. The ceasefire—the sixth since talks began in 2012—comes at a critical time for negotiations. Santos has broached the possibility of a deadline to resolve outstanding issues, and says he will evaluate the process in November. Public support is dwindling. Earlier this month, a gallup poll showed that, for the first time since negotiations began, more Colombians favor a military solution to the conflict (46%) than prefer a negotiated settlement with the group (45%). Thorny issues, such as the question of transitional justice, have yet to be resolved. Still, Santos and the FARC leadership will be hoping that the ceasefire leads to a breakthrough—this may be the last chance for the two sides to come to an accord.
Venezuelan Opposition Blocked: The Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition in Venezuela said it plans to hold protests this week after a third politician in 10 days was barred from holding public office. Pablo Pérez, a former state governor, says he was disqualified from government service for 10 years by the state prosecutor's office. The grounds for the decision are unclear. Pérez said the move was the latest attempt by President Nicolas Maduro to weaken the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6, which polls suggest Maduro's United Socialist Party may lose. Pérez was not running in the December elections, but the two other opposition members who have been barred in recent days, Maria Corina Machado and Vicencio Scarano, planned to seek office. They were both banned for 12 months.
Argentina Election a Mixed Bag for Opposition: Horacio Rodríguez Larreta of the center-right PRO party won a narrow victory in mayoral elections in Buenos Aires, Sunday. Larreta, the former cabinet chief to outgoing mayor Mauricio Macri, defeated his rival Martin Losteau by three points. Buenos Aires has long been an electoral strongold for the PRO, and the vote was closer than many expected. That could spell trouble for Macri, who will run in presidential elections this fall. Early polling shows Daniel Scioli, a former vice-president and vocal member of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s ruling coalition, as the comfortable favorite. Still, with several months to go before the first round of voting in October, and amid growing dissatisfaction with Fernández de Kirchner's management of the economy, there's plenty of time for Macri to make a move.
July 17, 2015Read More Tags: uber, DF, smartphones
Two months ago, hundreds of frustrated taxi drivers blocked traffic in Mexico City to call for government regulation of mobile-based car services like Uber. On Wednesday, those regulations arrived, as the city announced a slew of new rules to regulate the rapidly-growing industry.
But despite a list of regulations that includes new permit fees and a 1.5 percent tax on revenue (which will be shared with conventional taxi companies), it appears that Uber has come out ahead – for now.
Taxi collectives say the city failed to take into account their demands and that the terms of the new guidelines don’t match up with drafts they were shown beforehand. Ruben Alcántara, a taxi union leader, told Reuters that he would continue pushing for a cap on the number of Uber cars permitted to operate in the city; that a limit was not set forth is a major victory for the car service.
Nor is Mexico City the end of the line for the $40 billion company. Uber representatives said in a statement that the agreement was “forward thinking” and hoped that it would “encourage similar progress in cities around the world.” Mexico City is the first Latin American city and the largest worldwide to regulate the service. But elsewhere in the region, governments have been less inclined to come to terms with the reality of private car services.
In Colombia, Uber has faced considerable resistance from taxi unions, and some drivers have even reported violent confrontations with conventional taxi drivers. The platform’s legal status there is blurry: last November, Colombia’s transportation ministry banned the hiring of non-registered taxis using smartphone applications, but Uber continues to operate in the country’s largest cities.
In Brazil, the State Court of São Paulo temporarily suspended Uber’s operations last April on the grounds that it violates taxi regulations, but the company never complied. Brasilia and São Paulo’s city governments have both pushed through legislation to ban the app. Again, the company has not ceased operations there despite protests and the government’s seizing of over 20 vehicles since August 2014.
The ultimate effect that Mexico City’s new regulations have on the local taxi industry—and on Uber’s bottom line—could determine how municipal authorities throughout the region deal with the car service. If the outcry following Wednesday’s announcement is any indication, it could be a bumpy ride.
July 16, 2015Read More Tags: Music, Brazil, Women's rights
Boom CHA-CHA, de boom CHA-CHA, the sound of funk carioca can be heard reverberating loudly throughout Brazil. Unapologetic, brazen and controversial, the music’s percussion-heavy sound forms the backdrop to life in the favelas. But while the genre is sometimes written off as lewd or “cheap,” funk carioca often reflects the harsh reality of life in Brazil’s marginalized communities.
That reality was brought into focus on Wednesday with the release of a groundbreaking report on child marriage in Brazil by Plan International, Brazil's Federal University of Pará and Instituto Promundo. According to the report, Brazil ranks fourth in the number of girls living with or married to a partner by age 15, and child marriage is “very normalized and accepted” in the country.
As with many social norms, the acceptance of relations with underage girls is reflected in funk music, particularly a newly popular sub-genre called funk putaria (literally "fornication/prostitution funk"). Novinhas, slang for attractive, specifically teenage girls, are often the focus of funk putaria songs. One example from MC R1 begins "novinha você tá na minha mira (novinha, I've got my eye on you)." Most funk songs about these novinhas are written by older men (MC R1 is 29).
But while funk artists continue to make music that refers to young girls and reinforces the norm of youth marriage, an emerging feminist movement has sought to reclaim funk carioca as its own. An increasing number of funkeiras (female MCs) have taken language traditionally used pejoratively to describe women (such as puta, or whore) and instead started using it to describe themselves and confront gender biases. Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, feminists and co-founders of Soapbox Inc., explain that "for years, these words have been used against women. Now, by singing these songs themselves, the funk artists demonstrate that they are in control."
Whether these new artists can have an impact on the prevalence of underage relationships in the favelas remains to be seen. But one way or another, as a platform for highlighting the social issues facing Brazil today, funk carioca deserves a listen.
July 15, 2015Read More Tags: Mexico, oil, Latin American oil
Mexico welcomed international oil companies back into its borders for the first time in 77 years, today, with the announcement of winning bids for rights to explore 14 shallow-water oil blocks in the Gulf of Mexico. Though just two of the available blocks garnered successful bids, the auction was an early step in what will be years-long opening of the country's oil and gas sector—part of a historic energy reform package that president Enrique Peña Nieto hopes will bolster foreign investment and spur growth in the country’s lackluster economy.
But an oversupply of oil and gas in international markets and sustained low prices for crude have made gauging investor interest—and the ultimate impact of reforms—more difficult. Mexico faces tough competition from other oil producing countries in the region, like Brazil and Colombia. The recent deal reached on the Iran nuclear program could also challenge Mexico with the possibility of a glut of new oil entering global markets.
Still, while the downward trend in oil prices limited entrants in the first round of bidding (even Pemex pulled out to focus on later auctions), there remains significant international interest in Mexican oil, especially the deep-water blocks in the Perdido Fold Belt that will be auctioned off in the coming weeks.
“What has been gratifying is that, despite the low oil price environment, we are seeing a lot of interest,” said the head of Mexico’s National Hydrocarbon Commission (CNH), Juan Carlos Zepeda, in an interview with Bloomberg Business. “The number of companies interested is moving with dynamism and has increased significantly.”
July 14, 2015Read More Tags: Immigration, public policyFor progressive supporters of immigration reform, recent developments in national politics must undoubtedly seem grim. While two key elements of President Barack Obama’s sweeping executive actions on immigration appear to be headed towards defeat before the Firth Circuit Court of Appeals, House Speaker John Boehner continues to blame those actions for Congress’ inability to pass immigration reform.
Behind the scenes, however, a growing number of states are working to fill the gap left by federal inaction in this area. At least 20 states have passed bills granting in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants, and over a dozen have legalized driver licenses for this group. A bill currently making its way through the California legislature, along with similar legislation introduced in Texas and on the books in Utah, seeks to push the limits of what states can do in terms of immigration policy, by authorizing state-issued worker permits for undocumented farmworker families who are already in the state.“We have a large population of people who came here to work, not to be any kind of security threat to anybody. And they came to work in an industry that needs them badly,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy at the California Farm Bureau Association.Despite the polarization of the immigration debate at the federal level, the bill, introduced by democratic state assembly member Luis Alejo, has met with bipartisan support in California. It passed the state assembly with only two "no" votes, and is supported by both farmer and farm labor organizations.The greatest challenge to Alejo’s initiative, however, could come after its passage. The bill would require federal approval by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the worker permit program. According to the Los Angeles Times, a work authorization program passed by Utah in 2011 has yet to be implemented for lack of federal support.Yet supporters of the California bill remain undaunted. “The federal government, particularly members of Congress, are reluctant to allow individual states to conjure up 50 different immigration plans,” said Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, adding, “but if they are unable to create a solution, then don’t stop us from doing it.”
This Week in Latin America: 'El Chapo' Escapes—Oil Bidding in Mexico—Buenos Aires Mayoral Election—Pan-American Games
July 13, 2015Read More Tags: This Week in Latin America
Here's a look at some of the stories we're following this week:
'El Chapo' Escapes: Law enforcement officials from throughout the region continue their search for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, after the drug kingpin and leader of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel escaped from a maximum security prison outside Mexico City on Saturday. Authorities have heightened surveillance along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has pledged American support in tracking down the fugitive. Until his arrest in February 2014, Guzmán was one of the most sought after criminals on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border; his escape is sure renew calls for high-profile cartel leaders to be extradited to the U.S. upon capture, rather than remain in Mexico. The jailbreak marks another low point for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, following a series of scandals that have dented the administration's reputation both at home and abroad. "This will cause a regression of the image of [Mexico's] federal government in the world," Miguel Barbosa, the president of Mexico's senate, told El Universal.
Mexico's Oil Opening: On Wednesday, Mexico will announce the winning bids for the rights to 14 shallow-water oil and gas blocks in the Gulf of Mexico. The bids come as part of a historic opening of the country's energy sector, and mark the first time that oil companies will be able to explore and develop Mexico's abundant oil and gas resources since the country nationalized its hydrocarbons industry in 1938. While the auctions process is expected to last several years, the opening round comes as international oil prices sit around half the $100/barrel numbers reached last summer, when Mexico's energy bill passed the legislature. The International Energy Agency expects prices to remain low well into 2016, casting doubt over the prospects for Mexico's reform agenda. As one international energy official told the Financial Times, "the decline in the oil price significantly hinders positive effects of the reform, especially in the short term."
Mayoral Run-off in Argentina: Elections will be held Sunday to select the mayor of Buenos Aires, two weeks after the top two candidates failed to garner the 50 percent of first-round votes needed to avoid a run-off. Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, the cabinet chief to outgoing mayor Mauricio Macri, is expected to prevail over rival Martín Lousteau in Sunday's vote, according to polls. Though Lousteau served in Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's first administration, both he and Rodríguez come from parties in opposition to Fernández's Frente para la Victoria (FpV). Whoever wins on Sunday, the results should prove a boon to Macri, who will run in presidential elections in later this year. Mariano Recalde, the FpV representative who finished third in first-round voting and thus will not take part in the runoff, refused to endorse either of the remaining candidates, saying that they were both part of the same political force. "If we vote for Rodríguez Larreta, Macri wins, but if we vote for Lousteau, Macri also wins," said Recalde.
Pan-American Games: The Pan-American Games are underway in Toronto, with host Canada taking an early in the medal count over the United States, Colombia and other challengers. The games are viewed by many as a tune-up for the Olympics, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro next year. Still, not everything on offer in Toronto is quite up to Olympic standards: baseball, water-skiing and bowling are all part of the Pan-American lineup, but are not Olympic sports. The games come as the wisdom of hosting international sporting events has come into question, especially in the developing world. If the Pan-American Games' reception in Toronto is any indication, officials in Rio de Janeiro should start tempering expectations—as of the inaugural ceremony last week, only 800,00 of the 1.4 million tickets had been sold.
July 10, 2015Tags: Pope Francis, Paraguay, LGBT Rights
A revolutionary. A reformer. The most progressive Catholic leader in history. All have been used to describe Pope Francis, the Argentine pontiff who has shown a willingness to embrace change in the Catholic Church and reenergize his flock in places like Latin America, where the share of adults identifying as Catholic has fallen precipitously over the last 50 years.
But are Latin America’s Catholics ready for a progressive leader? And will Francis be willing to extend his more liberal discourse on economics and the environment into contentious social issues like gay rights and abortion? The outcome of his trips to Bolivia and Ecuador, earlier this week, and a visit to Paraguay, now underway, may help answer those questions.
The region’s renewed enthusiasm for the pope is certainly beyond debate. At least 550,000 people attended a mass on Monday in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil. On Tuesday, a reported one million people packed a park in Quito, the capital, to hear the pope speak. In Bolivia, news outlets have compared Francis to a rock star.
So far, the pope’s messages during the trip have focused on poverty, inequality and environmental protection—popular themes for audiences whose presidents identify as socialists and have codified respect for the environment in national constitutions. On Wednesday, Francis met with President Evo Morales—historically a critic of the Church—and lauded Bolivia’s efforts at economic inclusion and wealth redistribution.
But on Saturday, he is scheduled to participate in a civil society roundtable that will include Simón Cazal, a gay activist and executive director of SomosGay, a Paraguayan LGBT rights group. Cazal hopes Francis will take the opportunity to advocate for the civil rights of gay people in Paraguay. This is a less comfortable topic in the region, especially in Paraguay: the country is one of Latin America’s least gay-friendly countries, tying for second to last for LGBT rights in Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index. Eighty percent of the country’s citizens oppose gay marriage.
Meanwhile, Paraguay’s national police reportedly banned signs referencing same-sex marriage and abortion while Francis is in the country, a signal that authorities don’t exactly want social issues in the spotlight. An abortion case in Paraguay made international headlines this year when doctors denied the procedure to a 10-year-old rape survivor because it wasn’t deemed necessary to save her life—the only case in which abortion is legal in Paraguay. Reproductive rights advocates will be listening to hear whether Francis addresses the topic during his visit.
In focusing on economic justice and environmental conservation, Francis is on solid ground with Latin American audiences. How much he is willing to engage Catholics in the region on more contentious social issues may determine whether or not the honeymoon continues.
July 8, 2015Read More Tags: Brazil, women's health, Latin America
On Monday, Brazil introduced new rules aimed at curbing the country’s unusually high rate of caesarean sections. The rules will require doctors to inform women about the risks of C-sections and ask them to sign a consent form prior to the procedure. Doctors will also have to sign a form justifying the C-section.
This is not the first time that the Brazilian government has sought to decrease the country’s high caesarean birth rates. For years, Brazil’s federal government has been promoting the benefits of natural childbirth through various programs and legislation. A 2005 law even guarantees women the right to give birth naturally if they so choose, though it is not usually respected.
Yet Brazil is not alone in the region in dealing with high levels of caesarean births. In fact, the Western Hemisphere has the highest rate of C-section operations in the world. The World Health Organization claims that the ideal rate for caesarean sections is between 10 and 15 percent. The rate in the Americas was about 38 percent last year, with particularly high rates in Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic.
“It´s very worrisome that almost four out of every 10 births in the region are by C-section," said Suzanne Serruya, director of the Latin American Center for Perinatology, Women, and Reproductive Health of the Pan American Health Organization. "Doctors, midwives, obstetric nurses, those responsible for health policies, mothers and fathers, and society as a whole should work together to reduce this number and use caesarean sections only when it´s needed for medical reasons."
July 7, 2015Tags: NSA spying, Dilma Rousseff, Hacking Team
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff recently concluded her first state visit to the U.S. after abruptly canceling a trip scheduled for October 2013 due to allegations that the NSA had spied on her. While in the U.S., President Rousseff responded to questions about the spying issue, saying, “Some things have changed […] I believe President Obama.” But fresh information about the scope of U.S. surveillance could imperil the rapprochement.
The Intercept has reported that National Security Agency documents released by WikiLeaks show the NSA's list of targets in Brazil was broader than previously known. In addition to close members of President Rousseff’s team, such as her secretary and chief of staff, the NSA targeted a number of top figures in Rousseff’s government, including high-level officials in the ministries of finance and economics and the country’s central bank.
Meanwhile, an attack on the Italian surveillance software firm, Hacking Team, raised concerns that Latin Americans across the region may be increasingly vulnerable to digital snooping by their own governments. After being hacked on Monday, Hacking Team’s Twitter account began directing readers to 400GB of the company’s internal documents. In addition to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and several governments with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, a number of Latin American countries are reported to have been Hacking Team customers, among them Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, and Panama.
Hacking Team’s software allows users to remotely control targets’ computers, record digital communications and even activate the cameras on infected computers.
According to a tweet by the Mexican digital rights group, Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights Defense Network—R3D), Mexico was Hacking Team’s highest paying client country. Up to 14 Mexican institutions may have purchased surveillance and hacking software from the company, including the federal police, national intelligence service (CISEN), defense ministry, and several state governments. So far, there are no reports regarding if and how these organizations deployed Hacking Team’s products, or the legal framework for their use.
This Week in Latin America: Immunity in Guatemala—the Pope Visits—Pipeline Attacks in Colombia—Debt Crisis' Wide Reach
July 6, 2015Tags: This Week in Latin America
Here’s a look at some of the stories we’ll be following this week:
Corruption Scandals in Central America: Guatemala’s legislature will vote this week on whether to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of presidential immunity. The vote may open the door to prosecution as part of an ongoing corruption investigation involving the country’s customs authority and figures in the Pérez administration. The scandal has already led to the resignation of the country’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Meanwhile, in Honduras, protests calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation entered their sixth straight week. Hernández continues to resist calls to step down, despite the arrest on Thursday of the vice president of the legislature—a member of Hernández’s ruling party—in connection with a scheme to defraud the country’s public health system.
Pope Francis Returns to Latin America: Pope Francis arrived in Ecuador on Sunday to begin a three-day tour of South America that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay. It is the first time that Francis, an Argentine, has visited Spanish-speaking Latin America since becoming pope in 2013 (he visited Brazil shortly thereafter). Despite the lingering chatter around Francis’ papal encyclical on climate change, he is expected to focus on poverty and on the well-being of marginalized communities during this trip. He will visit indigenous groups, tour a prison in Bolivia and meet with residents of a shantytown in Paraguay. Still, should Francis choose to follow up on his comments on the environment, he couldn’t pick a better stage: Ecuador, though one of the smallest countries in South America, is among the most biologically diverse nations on the planet.
Oil and Gas Infrastructure a Target in Colombia: Colombia’s state oil company, Ecopetrol, reported bombings at two of its oil wells over the weekend—the latest in a string of attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure. Last month, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a guerilla group, blew up a section of the country’s second-largest oil pipeline, spilling thousands of gallons of crude into local water supplies. The FARC and the smaller Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) guerilla group have also intercepted oil tankers and destroyed power transmission lines in recent weeks. The attacks have cast further doubt on ongoing peace talks in Havana between government officials and FARC representatives. Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator, signaled that the administration’s confidence in reaching a deal may be fraying, saying in an interview with El Tiempo on Sunday that negotiations were coming to an end “for better or for worse.”
Greek Debt Affects LAC's Emerging Markets: Developing economies in Latin America and elsewhere may be affected by a debt crisis in Greece, after results of a referendum Sunday suggested the country would not accept the terms of a debt relief package from international creditors. With oil prices low and U.S. interest rates expected to rise, investors are already pulling away from high-yield bonds in favor of more secure debt from the U.S. and other low-risk economies. The Greek referendum may further that trend. Mexico’s currency, the peso, fell to a historic low in foreign exchange trading Monday morning, though the governor of the country's central bank, Agustín Carstens, expects the Greek crisis' effect on the peso to be "transitory."
July 3, 2015Read More Tags: Chile, copa america, FIFA
When Chile takes the field against Argentina in this Saturday's final of the Copa América football competition, they can do more than just win. They can redeem a "golden generation" that went before them, and make good on decades of missed opportunity.
It was a 1989 World Cup qualifying match in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium and things were not looking good for Chile. Down 1-0 to Brazil, the team known as La Roja had to win in order to qualify for the World Cup set to take place the following year.
“The game was slipping away,” Chile’s goalkeeper Roberto “Condor” Rojas told The New York Times four years later. “I was waiting for the right opportunity.”
With 20 minutes left to play, Rojas spotted his chance, and what followed would change Chilean soccer for a generation.
July 2, 2015Tags: Cuba, Healthcare, HIV/AIDS
Lost in the fanfare surrounding President Obama’s plans to re-open the U.S. embassy in Cuba was an announcement that may prove even more significant for the island’s inhabitants.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that Cuba had become the first country to successfully eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and Syphilis. By the WHO’s standards, that means that transmission levels are low enough not to constitute a risk to public health.
In a statement, WHO Director General Margaret Chan said that "eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible," and that Cuba’s efforts marked a "major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections."
While remarkable, Cuba’s feat shouldn’t be surprising. The country already boasts the lowest HIV rate in the hemisphere, tied with Costa Rica and Nicaragua at just 0.2 percent of the adult population. One key to that success is a cost-free healthcare system that ensures expectant mothers access to essential care.
In 2014, 100 percent of pregnant Cuban women—both those who knew their HIV status and those who did not—received the WHO’s recommended minimum of four prenatal care visits, according to the organization’s 2015 World Health Statistics report. Globally, only 64 percent received at least four visits.
Early access to prenatal care, along with concurrent HIV testing and treatment, has been a pillar of Cuba’s collaboration with the World Health Organization. In 2013 and 2014, more than 95 percent of pregnant women in Cuba knew their HIV status and more than 95 percent of those who were HIV-positive received antiretroviral drugs. In 2013, only two babies in Cuba were born with HIV.
"Cuba’s success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV," said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the UN’s Pan American Health Organization.
Still, despite progress fighting HIV, the country’s universal healthcare system is not without its drawbacks. After a raise last year, doctors in Cuba only make about $60 a month, and many have used the country’s medical missions program as a way to immigrate to other countries. In 2013, roughly 1,300 Cuban medical professionals defected to the U.S.
As Cuba’s economy and its relationship with the U.S. changes, its healthcare outcomes may change as well. Cubans—and the world—will be watching to see if their small country can hold on to this year’s big accomplishment.
July 1, 2015Tags: U.S.-Cuba relations, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, John Kerry
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in their respective capitals on July 20, officially restoring diplomatic ties between the two countries. The opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in over 54 years would be the most tangible sign of progress in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement since Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations in December 2014.
Wednesday’s news came after months of bilateral talks between Cuban and U.S. delegations, both in Havana and, most recently, in Washington on May 21 and 22. The U.S. cleared its biggest hurdle to opening an embassy in Cuba when it removed the country from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list on May 29.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to working with the Cuban government and moving beyond what he called a “policy of isolation” that “hasn’t worked for fifty years.”
“American engagement,” he said, “...is the best way to advance our interests and support human rights."
While significant, the reopening of embassies is only a step in what will be a bumpy road to reestablishing functional ties between Washington and Havana. The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba remains codified in U.S. law and can only be lifted by Congress. In light of the President’s announcement, the Cuban government said Wednesday that ending the embargo was “indispensable for the normalization of relations” between the neighboring countries.
While a majority of Americans favor normalizing their country’s relationship with Cuba, some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the process. Hard-line politicians who feel the President’s agenda wrongly legitimizes the Castro government, such as Cuban-American senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, have promised to block the confirmation of any potential ambassador to Cuba. Others have introduced legislation that would restrict the funding of an embassy in Havana.
Americas Quarterly publisher Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) welcomed the decision to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana. “The overwhelming support that this new course has received from leaders and people around the hemisphere and the world confirm that the Obama administration is moving in the right direction,” said AS/COA's President and CEO Susan Segal. “We look forward to seeing Congress further the goals of these new policies to bring positive tangible benefits to the people and businesses of the U.S., Cuba and the region."
June 30, 2015Tags: Women in Latin America, Afro-descendent communities
Artist and activist Bree Newsome became an internet sensation, this weekend, after she briefly took down the Confederate flag that stands on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol. Many viewed her act as an important statement about racial equality in the United States. But it was also a reminder of how Afro-descendant women are taking the lead advancing civil rights in the Americas as a whole.
Indeed, at the same time Newsome was scaling a flagpole in Columbia, Afro-descendant women from throughout the region were meeting in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, to discuss their own plans for advancing social justice at the First Summit Meeting of Female Leaders of African Descent of the Americas (Primera Cumbre de Lideresas Afrodescendientes de las Américas).
The summit, held June 26-28, brought together 250 women from 22 countries to develop strategies for combatting racial exclusion and ensure the enforcement of treaties, laws and international conventions pertaining to Afro-descendant women’s rights. The result was the Political Declaration of Managua, a list comprising 17 demands related to reducing racial and gender-based discrimination in the Americas. The list covers issues from violence and anti-poverty programs to visibility in national statistics and reproductive rights.
According to Dorotea Wilson, General Coordinator of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women (RMAAD), the declaration “is not an expression of good intentions; it is an official document demanding the implementation of public policies in all countries of the Americas…to start once and for all to recognize and give their rightful place to black populations on the continent.”
The coalition will present their demands to the Organization of American States, as well as in participants’ home countries. Their aim is to see their objectives fulfilled before the end of the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent, which began in January of this year. The UN considers the 200 million self-identified African-descendants in the Americas as among the region's most vulnerable, particularly to acts of violence. Changing that was a priority for the Afro-descendant leaders campaigners at the summit.
“Hate crimes in the United States make the international headlines,” says Wilson, “but because the population of African descent is invisible in Latin America, racially-motivated killings in the region do not come to public attention.”
This Week in Latin America: Dilma visits U.S.—DR defends immigration policy—Honduras protests—Colombia false positives
June 29, 2015Tags: Dilma, DR deportations, Honduras protests, Colombia Peace Talks
Here’s a look at some of the stories we’ll be following this week:
Dilma and Obama Meet on Climate, Trade: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff travels to Washington, DC today to meet with President Barack Obama. The trip, partly the product of a yearlong charm offensive by Vice President Joe Biden, is a sign of warming relations between the U.S. and Brazil. Revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on members of the Brazilian government led Rousseff to cancel a previous state visit in 2013. Obama and Rousseff are expected to focus on areas of mutual interest, particularly trade, defense and efforts to build support for a global agreement on climate change.
Domican Immigration Policy Under Scrutiny: On Tuesday, the Dominican Republic’s foreign minister, Andrés Navarro, will appear before the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States in Washington, DC. He is expected to respond to recent, widespread criticism of changes to his country’s immigration policies, particularly regarding the potential deportation of thousands of Haitian immigrants and their children. In a speech on Thursday at a Central American Integration System (SICA) summit in Guatemala, Dominican President Danilo Medina addressed critics, saying that the country’s policies were respectful of both Dominican law and human rights. “If in the United States, with all its resources, it’s difficult to properly document immigrants, it’s logical that it would be a challenge for us as well,” he added. Meanwhile, Haiti's prime minister last Thursday warned of a humanitarian crisis, saying that 14,000 people had crossed into Haiti in the space of a week.
Anti-Corruption Proposal Rejected by Protestors: Protests continue to swell in Honduras, as thousands of marchers took to the streets on Friday in a fresh rejection of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government. The protests marked the fifth straight Friday that marchers have gathered in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and came just days after Hernández presented a proposal for combatting corruption, a chief concern among protesters. The proposal calls for the creation of a new, “integrated system” against impunity and corruption. According to government officials, it is intended to spur dialogue among diverse sectors of the population who have been calling for Hernández’s resignation. James Nealon, U.S. ambassador to Honduras, responded to the proposal via Twitter writing that, while it is not the U.S.’ job to dictate how Central American countries deal with corruption, Hernandez’s ideas were “worthy of serious study.”
False Positives Increase Pressure on Santos: Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos may have to weather another blow to peace talks with the FARC after a report released by Human Rights Watch implicated high-ranking members of the Colombian army in the false positive killings of the early 2000s. The report argues that several members of the military’s top brass knew about and may have even ordered these acts, in which civilians were killed by the military and falsely identified as guerrillas. Support for the negotiations is slipping and there are calls for the imposition of a deadline on the talks. Many wonder whether any peace deal can be negotiated without first renewing the ceasefire agreement with the FARC, which broke down in April.
June 26, 2015Read More Tags: Manuel Noriega, Panama, Military Dictatorship
It was thanks in part to rock and roll hits from bands such as The Doors and Guns N’ Roses that Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, fell from grace. In December 1989, with Noriega holed up at the Vatican embassy in Panama, the U.S. military installed a line of stereo speakers around the building blaring songs such as “Dead Man’s Party” and “All I Want Is You,” a sort of psychological warfare meant to force the notorious strongman to give himself up. On January 3, 1990, Noriega surrendered, and the man commonly ridiculed as "old pineapple face" has been sitting in court rooms and jail cells ever since.
Yesterday, in his first interview since 1996, a softened Noriega appeared on local television to plead forgiveness from the Panamanian people for atrocities committed under his regime. Speaking from a jailhouse in Panama with Telemetro, the now 81-year-old ex-dictator's hands trembled as he read a statement saying he wanted "to close the cycle of the military era as the last commander of that group asking for forgiveness.”
Noriega has spent the last 21 years in custody for a long list of crimes that include money laundering in France, murder, corruption, embezzlement and crimes against humanity in Panama, and drug smuggling and racketeering in the United States. In the interview, Noriega claimed to be "totally at peace" with himself, and said he decided to break his 19 year silence after a period of reflection with church members and family, denying any motivation of personal interests.
But many family members of the victims of Noriega's regime were unsatisfied with his apology. Karina Ortega, whose father was a sergeant killed during a failed 1989 coup attempt, did not believe Noriega's words to be sincere. KIlmara Mendizabal, whose brother was disappeared under military rule, thought the ex-dictator's apology was significant but that he should "say where the remains are of every person disappeared under the dictatorship.” Noriega's statement, addressed to those “offended, affected, injured or humiliated” by the actions of his superiors and subordinates, did not mention any specific abuses.
While his apology may be a step toward closure on Panama’s dark, painful past, the motivations of a man alleged to have faithfully worn red underwear to ward off the evil eye will likely remain a mystery. According to RM Koster, a biographer, “the problem with Noriega is you can never distinguish between what’s true or not.”
June 25, 2015Read More Tags: Panama, Social Inclusion Index
Over the past decade, Panama has often been in the international spotlight thanks to robust economic growth rates that consistently outrank those of its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. On Wednesday, the country received a different kind of attention after taking the top spot in the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index for the second year in a row.
The index, which uses public surveys to assess factors such as health and sense of community, found that 53 percent of Panamanians were thriving in three or more of five key areas (social, financial, physical, community and purpose), and were more likely to have positive perceptions of purpose and physical well-being than the residents of any other country.
Amid talk of a potential "economic miracle," Panama's position on the list offers a different perspective of the country’s success. But is there a connection between the country's economic achievements and the satisfaction Panamanians feel in their daily lives? Indeed, Panama’s broad economic gains over the past several years—the country averaged an annual growth rate of eight percent from 2003 to 2013—may suggest a correlation between its citizens’ sense of well-being and economic prosperity.
High levels of investment, notably in infrastructure projects like the Panama Canal expansion and Panama City’s metro rail, a first for Central America, may affect residents' sense of where their country is headed. Panama attracts the highest level of foreign direct investment (FDI) among Latin America’s smaller economies and ranks first in the region in FDI as a proportion of GDP. This type of growth means a greater likelihood that the government will spend more on social programs, healthcare and education.
Still, the extent to which Panama’s high level of well-being is driven by this economic success is difficult to ascertain, and there may well be other explanations. One is the neighborhood: countries from the Americas took 11 of the top 20 spots in Gallup-Healthways index, and according to Gallup, the "residents of many Latin American countries are among the most likely in the world to report daily positive experiences such as smiling and laughing, feeling enjoyment and feeling treated with respect each day.”
Whatever the cause, the country certainly has room for improvement. Panama ranked ninth out of 17 countries in Americas Quarterly’s 2014 Social Inclusion Index, losing points for the government’s lack of efforts to report on socio-economic indicators and leaving it tied for last in protecting LGBT rights. Corruption remains a stumbling block, as does a large income gap. After a focus on economic growth under the previous administration, President Juan Carlos Varela, who was elected last year, has promised to make improving social inclusion a priority. If he follows through, one can expect Panama to see even more success in the well-being of its citizens.
June 24, 2015Read More Tags: Venezuela, Elections, Leopoldo Lopez
“Very soon, we will have a free and democratic Venezuela!” That was the promise from opposition leader Leopoldo López as he stood in front of thousands of supporters in the Chacaíto neighborhood of Caracas on February 18, 2014. With chants of “¡Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) echoing from the crowd and a Venezuelan flag in hand, López then turned himself over to authorities, pledging to stay in the country and carry on the fight for democracy in Venezuela.
More than a year later, López is still in prison on charges of inciting violence during anti-government protests that February. But news this week suggests he may finally be closer to seeing his promise fulfilled. López ended a month-long hunger strike on Tuesday after the government met one of his demands by setting a date for congressional elections. According to the head of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, official campaigning to choose all 167 members of the National Assembly will take place from November 13 to December 4, with elections set for December 6.
As the country continues to suffer from high rates of inflation, widespread violence and chronic shortages of basic goods under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of opposition parties, may be sensing an opportunity. Maduro's approval ratings fell to 25 percent in May, and some, like Venezuelan human rights activist Tamara Suju, think it's likely that the opposition will win a majority of the vote when elections are held.
"The upcoming parliamentary elections are the last chance Venezuelans have to preserve the democratic spaces from which to fight in order to restore the state of law in [their] country,” Suju told AQ.
Still, despite the prospect of change, the democratic Venezuela that López and many like him envision is not yet in hand. For one, Maduro remains confident about his chances in the elections. (On his Twitter account, he implored Venezuelans to "...unite all the forces of the people of Bolívar and Chávez to guarantee a battle and an admirable victory.”) Many fear the government may decide to postpone or cancel the elections to spare themselves an embarrassing defeat.
Even if the elections go ahead as planned, some believe that an opposition majority in the assembly may not be enough to bring about significant change. “The elections won’t necessarily do much in terms of changing the regime or the policies,” Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst from the Washington-based consultancy Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg Business. “If the opposition does well, I think the government will either tweak the results or shift power away from the National Assembly,” which would further destabilize the country, according to Grais-Targow.
Despite these concerns, the possibility of elections represents a critical opportunity for Venezuela's democracy. That's precisely why López insisted on them. In a Washington Post op-ed published last month, he called for the international community to focus its attention on Venezuela. As the December 6 election date approaches, that will surely be the case.
June 23, 2015Read More Tags: Mexico, Health policy, Economic Policy
Nearly a year after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-soda efforts fell flat in New York City, makers of sugary beverages still have plenty to worry about. In March, the first so-called soda tax in the U.S. went into effect in Berkeley, California, earning the city $116,000 in the first month alone. Legislation to tax sweetened beverages is reportedly coursing its way through statehouses in Connecticut, Illinois, Vermont and Hawaii. And while San Francisco voters rejected a soda tax in November, earlier this month the city's Board of Supervisors approved measures restricting soda advertising and barring the use of city funds to purchase sweetened drinks.
The latest bit of bad news (for soda makers) comes out of Mexico, which passed the world’s first soda tax in late 2013. According to a study released by the University of North Carolina and the Mexican National Public Health Institute (INSP), the nation’s one peso per liter tax on sodas caused an average decline in purchases of 6 percent over the course of 2014.
Contrary to earlier suggestions by Mexican bottling giant Coca-Cola FEMSA that the tax’s effect had waned over the course of the year, the report found that the decline in sales had accelerated over time. The tax especially influenced the country’s poorer households, which cut purchases of sugary drinks by an average of 9 percent.
This week in Latin America: the Pope on climate change—teacher evaluations in Mexico—Brazil's corruption scandal—the beautiful game
June 22, 2015Tags: Daily Focus
Here’s a look at some of the stories we’re following this week:
Religious Leaders Respond to Pope Francis' Climate Views: Reaction was swift and loud following the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Friday. While his sweeping indictment of the global response to climate change inspired some to question the pontiff's understanding of economic policy, the reception in Latin America was more positive. Catholic leaders from Mexico to Peru echoed Francis' call for action in their own climate-related sermons on Sunday. The publication of the encyclical comes just weeks ahead of the pope’s trip to Bolivia and Ecuador, two countries with complicated histories when it comes to the environment, and Paraguay, where the government has positioned itself as an important player in UN climate negotiations, as Guy Edwards and Timmons Roberts argue this week in an AQ Online exclusive.
Education Reform Stunted in Mexico: An instructor evaluation program that began over the weekend was marked by low participation and protests by teachers groups. More than 17 percent of teachers who had been scheduled to take evaluation exams failed to show up. Emilio Chuayffet, Mexico's public education secretary, must now negotiate terms with the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), a powerful and sometimes violent teachers union, whose opposition to reform contributed to low turnout and led to the outright suspension of evaluations in Oaxaca and Michoacan states. The difficulty in advancing even modest reform underscores a dramatic drop in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s political capital. After successfully pushing through changes to the country’s stiffly regulated energy sector last year, a series of scandals and increasing levels of violence have disrupted the president’s agenda. This week, responsibility for righting the ship lies largely with Mr. Chuayffet.
Brazilian Construction Execs Arrested: An ongoing corruption scandal in Brazil reached new heights on Friday with the arrests of Marcelo Odebrecht and Otávio Marques, two high-level construction executives. The arrests came as part of Operation Carwash, a federal police investigation into decades of graft and bribery at the state-run oil company, Petrobras. The scandal has already lead to the indictment of dozens of government and business officials in the country, and weakened President Dilma Rousseff’s standing among a frustrated populace, though she has not been implicated directly. Still, the accusations may be getting a bit too close for the president’s comfort, and just how far the effects of the scandal will reach is an open question.
Soccer Tournaments Near Conclusion: Finally, the beautiful game will be on display this week, as the Copa America (South America’s most important national soccer tournament) and the Women’s World Cup both enter their decisive knockout stages. The Copa America’s round of sixteen gets underway on Wednesday, with tournament host Chile taking on Uruguay. Despite student protests in the lead up to the tournament, drama on the field has captured most of the attention thus far. Meanwhile, three countries from the hemisphere are still competing at the Women’s World Cup. Canada has already locked down its place in the tournament’s final eight, but the other two regional players, the United States and Colombia, will go head-to-head tonight to determine who will progress.
June 19, 2015Read More Tags: Cuba, U.S.-Cuba relations, Internet in Cuba
Cuba still lags far behind its Latin American counterparts on internet access, despite this week’s announcement that the government will provide Wi-Fi access to 35 state-run computer centers. Since the country’s first, humble 64kbit/s connection was established in 1996, not much has changed. Only 3.4 percent of Cuban households are connected, and a mere five percent of the population has occasional access to the Web, thanks largely to state agencies, foreign embassies and black market deals. As a result, it’s no surprise that the country continues to rank as having one of the world’s most repressive climates for information and communication technologies.
Internet usage has increased by over 100 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2008, where 44 percent of the population enjoyed regular internet access in 2014 (figures that align with worldwide trends in connectivity). In Cuba, however, the government’s telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, strictly regulates citizens’ network access. The majority of Cubans are only allowed to see a kind of intranet, which mostly comprises a Cuban encyclopedia, Cuban websites, a national email network and foreign websites that support the Cuban government.
Barriers to internet access in Cuba are not only a question of political will and weak infrastructure, but also of affordability. Thursday’s announcement revealed that, in July, the hourly price of internet access will be reduced from $4.50 to $2–a price that remains highly unaffordable for most on the island.
June 17, 2015Read More Tags: corruption, Scandals, Central America
In his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez spoke of the conflict and violence plaguing Latin America, including El Salvador’s 12 year civil war and Argentina’s Dirty War. “There have been five wars and seventeen military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in God's name, the first Latin American ethnocide of our time,” he stated in his speech.
Nearly 30 years later, Latin America is much more stable—most countries in the region are democratic, there is high voter turnout in elections, significant advances have been made in technology and innovation, and the region has experienced greater economic growth than before. While “Gabo” would be glad to see the progress in Latin America today, he might have been shocked by the new trend that is taking hold as protests, corruption scandals and political instability are burgeoning across the region, and an emboldened middle class is pushing back.
Every Saturday for nearly two months thousands of protesters have filled the Constitution Square outside Guatemala’s City Palacio Nacional de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) demanding the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina amid a customs corruption scandal. In Honduras, protesters are calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation after he was accused of accepting illegal funds from the Honduran Social Security Institute to help finance his presidential campaign in 2013. Dissention in both countries is arising from the middle class and is being led by social media and grass roots organizations.
Similarly in Peru, President Ollanta Humala’s approval rating has fallen to a new low according to a report by Ipsos published Sunday in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio. The newspaper claimed that several factors are contributing to Humala’s declining approval rating, including the recent allegations of corruption against his wife, Nadine Heredia, over a money-laundering operation. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa also faces low approval rates due largely to his new plans to raise taxes on inheritances and real estate profits, spurring nationwide protests.
June 16, 2015Tags: Colombia Peace Talks, child soldiers, FARC
The use of child soldiers by armed groups is one of the most regrettable aspects of Colombia’s long-running internal conflict, and is a sticking point in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that began in November 2012. Human rights organizations have accused the rebel group of forcibly recruiting children, and the Colombian military reports that the FARC have trained children for dangerous combat duties such as using grenades and planting mines.
FARC representatives have vacillated between downplaying and justifying the presence of children among their ranks. In an interview with AQ published last fall, Andrés París, a negotiator for the FARC in Havana asserted that the forces practices adhered to international humanitarian law. “We are the people’s army, so all people have the right to participate: children, women and adults,” París said, adding, “we don’t have 10-year-old kids carrying AK-47s.”
No one knows for certain how many children currently remained mired in the conflict. While the Colombian government estimates that the FARC alone retains 2,000 underage combatants, FARC negotiator Iván Márquez stated in an interview last February that the guerrilla had determined that only 13 fighters younger than 15 are among its ranks.
In a hopeful sign, FARC negotiators announced yesterday that they expect to reach an agreement for the “handover” of children under the age of 15 who are within their ranks. According to a statement, the guerrilla’s negotiators hope to “finalize, together with the government delegation, the protocols needed to make good on this promise during the course of” the next round of peace talks, which begin tomorrow.
The FARC announced in February that it would put an end to the recruitment of individuals younger than 17 years old. After the announcement was criticized for not going far enough, the guerilla organization declared for the first time that it would work to discharge children younger than 15.
Speaking from Stockholm, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, “Let’s hope it’s true. That would be a step in the right direction.”
The announcement comes at a time of increasing tension in the peace process. While the two sides reached an agreement to establish an independent truth commission to look into human rights violations perpetrated over the course of the conflict, talks have been strained by a resumption of violence since the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in December, including a ground attack by the FARC on April 15. In his remarks from Stockholm, President Santos said of the attacks, “They are completely irrational acts that undermine people’s confidence in the peace process.”
Monday Memo: Mexican Same-Sex Marriage—Haitian Deportation—U.S. and Venezuela Meeting—Nicaraguan Protest—ELN Leader Death
June 15, 2015Read More Tags: Dominican Republic-Haiti relations, Same-Sex Marriage, John Kerry, Nicaragua Canal, Ejército de Liberación Nacional
This week’s likely news stories: Dominican Republic set to deport individuals of Haitian descent; Mexican high court paves way for full marriage equality; U.S. and Venezuelan officials meet in Haiti, address strained relations; Nicaraguans protest Chinese-funded canal project; top ELN commander killed in Colombia
Dominican Republic to Deport Dominicans of Haitian Descent: The Dominican Republic will proceed as planned on Wednesday with the mass deportation of over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent who have not been regularized under the Plan Nacional de Regularización (National Regularization Plan). These individuals, many of whom were born in the Dominican Republic and have never been to Haiti, will be rendered stateless. According to the Nation, police trucks have begun nightly limpiezas (cleanings) in poorer neighborhoods, detaining “Haitian[s] or dark-skinned Dominicans with Haitian facial features.” Created following the passage of Sentencia 168-13 in September 2013, the Plan Nacional retracts citizenship from anyone born to undocumented parents residing in the country. It has received widespread criticism and has failed in the eyes of human rights organizations—many have been unable to register due to the government’s failure to provide residents with the necessary government identification documents to apply.
Mexico’s Supreme Court Deems State Laws Banning Same-Sex Marriage Unconstitutional: Mexico’s Supreme Court quietly opened to the door to the nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage on Friday. The court ordered the publication of a jurisprudential thesis in which it declares that any state-level law that defines marriage’s purpose as “procreation, and/or defines [marriage] as being celebrated between a man and a woman is unconstitutional.” The finding does not overturn state laws, but obligates the country’s district judges to grant injunctions to individual couples claiming that their marriage rights have been denied. “What has to happen is that the state laws have to be reformed so that couples have the same rights and they don’t have to spend time and money,” said José Luis Caballero, a constitutional scholar at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. “A couple with resources can get married. A couple without resources can't.”
June 12, 2015Tags: police brutality, U.S., Black Lives Matter
In Thursday’s ruling, Judge Ronald Adrine found probable cause to prosecute Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann with murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide and dereliction of duty for the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The Cleveland municipal judge also announced grounds to prosecute Officer Frank Garmback, Loehmann’s partner, who was at the scene, with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty. Judge Adrine wrote that he was “still thunderstruck by how quickly this event turned deadly,” after reviewing the surveillance video.
After waiting nearly seven months for a decision, the Rice family considered the ruling a victory. “We are very much relieved and it is a step towards procedural justice and people having access to their government,” said Walter Madison, one of the Tamir family’s attorneys, to the Guardian. Madison said the ruling communicates that “the police are public servants and not the public’s master.”
However, arrests cannot be made until the county prosecutor for the case, Timothy J. McGinty, files a complaint. While Madison said on Thursday that he could not foresee any justifiable obstacle to a prosecution, McGinty released a statement the same day indicating hesitation to rush filing a criminal complaint. “This case, as with all other fatal-use-of-deadly-force cases involving law enforcement officers, will go to the grand jury,” he stated. “That has been the policy of this office since I was elected. Ultimately, the grand jury decides whether police officers are charged or not charged.”
Rice was fatally shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann on November 22 after his pellet gun was mistaken for a firearm. He was with his 14-year-old sister when a 911 caller reported Tamir waving his air-soft gun, emphasizing that the gun was “probably fake.” Somehow this information was not relayed to responding officers Loehmann and Garmback. Within two seconds of arriving at the scene, Loehmann fired two shots, fatally hitting Rice in the torso. Tamir’s sister ran to him, but was forced to the ground, handcuffed and placed in the police car. The officers stood beside Tamir’s body for at least four minutes without giving first aid and it took the ambulance eight minutes to arrive.
Tamir’s death came at a time of serial shootings of unarmed black individuals by law enforcement, sparking protests across the country calling for reforms in race relations and police use of force. This movement, coined Black Lives Matter, has prompted national dialogues on police brutality—an occurrence that is also widespread throughout other countries in the hemisphere. In 2013, Brazilian police officers killed at least 2,212 people in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, compared to 461 deaths caused by police in the United States the same year. Brazil’s pacificação (pacification) processes, police occupation of favelas, have also coincided with increasing violence against women in Rio. Protestors from Mexico’s movement for the Ayotzinapa 43 stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement during New York City’s Million’s March last December, calling for an end to state repression.
June 11, 2015Tags: copa america, Chile student protests, Education reform
In an environment of international soccer scandal and domestic frustration, Chile will kick off its run as host of the Copa América today when it takes on Ecuador in the first match of the three-week tournament. Chilean President Michele Bachelet will help inaugurate the tournament Thursday as student protesters try to draw attention to the country’s education system.
A wave of student protests marked the lead-up to the event, beginning in the country’s capital of Santiago on Monday. Protestors have promised to continue demonstrations throughout Copa América’s duration. Students are protesting the country’s education system, which many say continues to foster inequality and diminish student autonomy.
In May, Bachelet responded to years of student protests by signing into law a bill that bans for-profit universities and aims to progressively end family co-pays for schools that receive public funding. While the bill addresses key student demands, activists have called the move insufficient, and protests have revamped as the president’s approval rating has fallen to historical lows in the midst of political scandals and a cabinet reshuffle.
The Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (Confederation of Chilean Students —Confech), the country’s leading coalition of university students, estimated that 200,000 “students, professors, workers, and citizens” attended a march it led in Santiago on Wednesday.
"We are seeing the support from Chilean society for our demands, which are essential for change and the transformation of education in Chile,” Confech spokesperson Nicolás Fernández told reporters. On Thursday, high school students and striking teachers marched through Santiago’s main thoroughfare.
Meanwhile, a year after Latin America’s impressive collective success at the 2014 World Cup, the Copa América will determine a winner from 12 teams from South America’s Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, along with Jamaica. Competition is expected to be tough, with Argentina, Brazil and defending champions Uruguay the favorites to take the title. Colombia and Chile, which is looking to end a nearly 100-year losing streak, are considered dark horses. The tournament will conclude on July 4.
June 10, 2015Read More Tags: Dilma Rousseff, Brazil, Infrastructure Investment in Brazil
On Tuesday, the Brazilian government unveiled a 198.4 billion reais ($64 billion) infrastructure plan aimed at restoring economic growth through private investments in the country’s depleted roads, rail and ports. “The increase of investments in the Brazilian economy must be done by the private sector,” said Brazilian Planning Minister Nelson Barbosa. “There is a huge demand for better infrastructure in Brazil.”
Battered by high inflation, rising unemployment and a corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras, Brazil is on the brink of a recession that is expected to be the worst in 25 years. During a ceremony to announce the spending plan on Tuesday, President Dilma Rousseff said the government plans to use market-friendly procedures to calculate the return rate on projects such as roads, where concessions will go to bidders that offer the lowest toll rate.
The government also aims to reduce its role in infrastructure projects, as the planned concessions will feature reduced subsidized funding from the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (National Social and Economic Development Bank—BNDES).
“Our model of concessions will guarantee that consumers get quality services at fair prices and companies get an adequate return on their investments,” said Rousseff during the ceremony. The concessions include about 2, 715 miles of highways, expansion of existing freight railways and even a railway linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean via Peru. Repairing the roads will allow Brazil to get its commodities like soy beans to the market.
June 9, 2015Tags: Colombia, LGBT Rights, Transgender
Ten transgender Colombians will today be the first people to take advantage of new rules that simplify the process by which individuals can legally change their gender. The decree, which was signed by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior and went into effect last Friday, eliminates the need for psychiatric or physical examinations to prove an individual’s gender identity.
Under the new rules, individuals need only submit a copy of their civil registry form, a copy of the identification card and a sworn declaration expressing their wish to change their gender identity in the civil registry to a notary public. The notary public has five business days to complete the procedure. Any subsequent change to one’s legal gender identity can only be made after ten years, and an individual can only change his or her gender identity twice.
According to a statement released by the Ministry of Justice yesterday, the rules will have “positive consequences for [Colombia’s] trans population, which, until now, has been subjected to tedious judicial procedures.”
The ministers of justice and the interior, Yesid Reyes and Juan Fernando Cristo, along with representatives from various transgender rights organizations, will attend proceedings today at a notary public in Bogotá to publicly present the decree.
“Judges used to order bodily inspections to determine if people had physically changed their sex, or demanded a psychiatric exam to know if the applicant had gender dysphoria,” Reyes said. “Both exams were profoundly invasive of privacy rights and were rooted in unacceptable prejudice. The construction of sexual and gender identity is an issue that doesn’t depend on biology.”
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