Likely top stories this week: The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) announce a ceasefire; Venezuelans vote in municipal elections; the Mexican Congress debates energy reform; Police strikes across Argentina continue; Bill Clinton visits Rio de Janeiro for the Clinton Global Initiative Latin America meeting.
FARC Rebels Announce a Ceasefire: In a statement on Sunday, Colombia's Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) announced a 30-day ceasefire that is scheduled to begin on December 15. The announcement was made a day after nine people died in a FARC firebomb attack at a police station in the town of Inza in the province of Cauca. Peace talks continued on Sunday, but the Colombian government said it would not stop fighting the rebels until a peace accord is signed.
Venezuelans Vote in Municipal Elections: Venezuelans went to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors and city councilmembers in municipal elections that many saw as a critical test for the government of President Nicolás Maduro. On Monday, with nearly all polling stations reporting, the National Electoral Council announced that the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party—PSUV) captured a majority of the votes nationwide, but the opposition won in Venezuela’s biggest cities, including Caracas, Maracaibo, and Barinas—the birthplace of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Mexican Congress to Debate Energy Bill: Mexican Senate committees are debating a controversial energy reform bill that would allow private companies to invest in Mexican state oil company PEMEX through new production-sharing contracts. As protesters gathered outside the Senate on Sunday, lawmakers reviewed the bill, which is expected to move to the full Senate and lower house this week. The Senate resumed debate of the bill on Monday, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto hopes to pass the legislation by Christmas.
Police Strikes in Argentina Lead to Violence: Violence continues in Argentina after police in Córdoba went on strike last week to demand higher wages, leading to a collapse in security and rule of law. Police forces in at least eight other provinces followed suit, leading to looting and violence in which at least three people died. Though violence continues in several provinces, strikes in the Argentine provinces of Neuquén, Santa Fe, San Juan and Catamarca appear to be drawing to a close after government officials agreed to raise wages. Police are demanding higher wages to combat Argentina’s estimated 26 percent inflation.
Bill Clinton Visits Rio: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday for the start of the Clinton Global Initiative Latin America meeting in Rio de Janeiro, which will gather together business leaders, politicians and members of civil society for three days. On Sunday, Clinton met with Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, and Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sérgio Cabral. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is expected to attend the meeting on Monday.
The United Nations is urging the Dominican Republic to restore nationality to individuals affected by a September 23 Constitutional Court ruling that stripped thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, rendering them stateless. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday that international legal standards require that the government restore citizenship taken away from approximately 200,000 individuals affected by the ruling and grant them valid identity documents.
According to a press release published on Thursday, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) has a mandate from the General Assembly to reduce statelessness and protect stateless persons, prompting the urgency of their request. The Constitutional Court ruling reinterpreted the requirements for Dominican nationality as it applied to children of “in transit” migrants. As a result, individuals born in the Dominican Republic to migrant parents after 1929 no longer met Dominican nationality criteria and could have their citizenship revoked retroactively. On November 30, the Dominican Republic announced a plan to put the ruling into motion, giving 18 months to those affected to request Dominican citizenship starting on June 2014, but not giving details as to the requirements for naturalization.
UNHCR’s emphasis of this ruling as a human rights issue comes after more than 100 Dominicans of Haitian descent were deported in November following a fatal attack against an elderly couple near the Haitian border. Migrant advocates said many were deported or left the country voluntarily in fear after a mob retaliated for the attack by killing a Haitian man.
Fast-food workers across the United States began a 24-hour strike in nearly 100 cities on Thursday to protest low wages. The employees are calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
The current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, set in 2009, amounts to only $15,000 a year for a full-time fast food worker—seen by many as less than a living wage.
Nearly 100 protesters gathered in a McDonald’s in New York City this morning chanting “we can’t survive on $7.25,” before being removed by police. According to a Burger King employee, managers warned their employees that those participating in Thursday’s protests would be denied work shifts. The National Restaurant Association has meanwhile dismissed the protests as a “campaign engineered by national labor groups.”
President Barack Obama has indicated that he would support a Senate measure to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, which could come up for a vote later this month. However, such a bill would face substantial opposition from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The fast food industry has faced increased scrutiny this year, given rising income inequality in the U.S. and the fact that part-time work has constituted most of the job growth in the restaurant sector since the global recession. Some employers intentionally limit employees’ work hours because they would be required to provide health care for full-time employees under the Affordable Care Act.
While fast food workers are not typically unionized, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has strongly supported the effort to increase the federal minimum wage over the last year.
The Mexican Senate approved a bill on electoral reform early this morning with a vote of 106-15 and one abstention. The bill, which would strengthen the legislative branch and includes constitutional amendments to eliminate term limits for legislators and mayors while curbing the power of the executive branch, was championed by the conservative Partido Acción Nacional—National Action Party (PAN) as a precondition to moving forward with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ambitious energy reform plan.
The electoral reform bill, which also allows the president to opt for a coalition government, passed its first hurdle in the Senate committees on Tuesday before the overwhelming vote on the floor in the early hours this morning. It allows for Senators and Deputies to serve for up to 12 years—Senators terms are six years while Deputies are three—and eliminates the barriers to direct reelection beginning in 2018; it is expected to pass in the lower chamber this week.
The passage of electoral reform was seen as a necessary step to shore up support amongst PAN legislators, allies on of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional—Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on energy reform, after the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática—Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) pulled out of the cross-party pact that led to the passage of President Peña Nieto’s economic reforms last year.
The proposed energy reform, which aims to reverse declining crude output and boost economic growth, would open up the Mexican oil sector to private investment, and would allow for investors to share profits of oil exploration and production with Pemex, the state-owned oil monopoly. The reform bill would also affect the telecommunications and banking sectors.
The lower chamber is expected to vote on energy reform on December 15 before Congress breaks for recess.
In the latest in power outage to hit Venezuela this year, a blackout on Monday night left a large portion of Caracas in the dark, with other parts of the country affected as well. Outages were also reported in the states of Vargas, Aragua, Miranda, Lara, Zulia, Carabobo, and Falcón.
For many in Caracas, the power outage lasted only 10 minutes, while other parts of the country endured the blackout for over an hour and a half, according to Energy Minister Jesse Chacón. The outage occurred just after 8 p.m. local time, as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was speaking on television.
In September, a power failure caused 70 percent of the country to lose power. That incident, as well as the one last night, originated from the same power substation west of Caracas. In both incidents, President Maduro suggested that sabotage was involved, but was unable to provide evidence.
Corpoelec, Venezuela’s state-run power company, was working late into Monday night to restore power across the country, and by 9:30 p.m. had successfully gotten about 85 percent of the greater Caracas area back on the grid. Venezuelan authorities said they would begin an investigation to determine the cause of the blackout.
Likely top stories this week: Xiomara Castro leads her supporters in protest against last Sunday’s election results; Juan Manuel Santos visits the United States; petroleum exploitation moves ahead in Ecuador; Mexicans protest as President Peña Nieto completes his first year in office; a fire engulfs the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo.
Honduran Election Result Sparks Demonstrations: Thousands of Hondurans marched in Tegucigalpa on Sunday after the country’s electoral authority declared Juan Orlando Hernández the winner of last Sunday's presidential elections. Challenger Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who is demanding a vote-by-vote recount at all Honduran polling places and an investigation of the elections by the attorney general, called on her supporters to march peacefully to protest the results. Salvador Nasralla, another candidate, is also challenging the results. On Sunday evening, Honduras’ election tribunal said it would be willing to let LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation party—Liberdad y Refundación) review the electoral record but declined to say whether it would consider a full recount.
Santos Visits the United States: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in the United States on Sunday for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Santos will also make an appearance at the University of Miami on Monday before traveling to Washington D.C. for visits with Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and a meeting at the OAS, among other activities. The purpose of Santos' trip is to encourage additional U.S. investment in Colombia and to discuss Colombia's peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
Correa Announces Petroleum Exploitation in Ecuadorian Amazon: Despite major protests by Indigenous and environmental groups, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced Saturday that Ecuador would permit the exploitation of 13 petroleum blocks in the Ecuadorian Amazon near the border with Peru and on the edge of Yasuni National Park. Correa said that Chilean Ambassador Juan Carlos Lira and a businessman were injured in the protests last Tuesday. Ecuadorian Minister for Non-Renewable Natural Resources Pedro Merizalde said that the first three blocks up for action could hold as much as 1.5 billion barrels. So far, Spain's Repsol YPF, Chile's ENAP, Belarus’ Belorusneft, and China's Andes Petroleum have presented offers for four of the petroleum blocks.
Protests as Peña Nieto Completes First Year of Presidency: Thousands of Mexicans protested in the streets of Mexico City on Sunday as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto celebrated the completion of his first year as president. Protesting teachers, union workers, and self-declared anarchists marched in opposition to Peña Nieto's recent education, tax and energy reforms. According to a poll released Sunday by Reforma newspaper, 48 percent of respondents disapproved of the president's job performance—up from 30 percent in April.
Fire Latest Accident to Hit São Paulo: Less than a week after a construction crane collapsed at São Paulo's Itaquerão stadium and killed two workers, the city's iconic Latin America Memorial—a landmark building which hosts an art gallery, an auditorium and other facilities— was engulfed by a fire on Saturday. The memorial and cultural center was built in 1989 by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died last year at age 104. It is still unclear how the fire started, but it appears no members of the public have been injured in the blaze. Meanwhile, construction workers returned to Itaquerão stadium on Monday to address the damages caused by last week’s accident.
The Cuban Mission to the United States halted nearly all consular services on Tuesday after its primary bank severed its client relationship with the political institution. According to the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, consular services including passport and visa processes will be shut down in the U.S. until the Cuban Mission can find a new bank, though humanitarian cases will continue to be processed.
M&T Bank, which formerly managed the Cuban Mission’s accounts, informed clients in in July that it would stop providing services to all foreign missions. The Interests Section blamed the Mission’s difficulty in finding a new bank on restrictions stemming from the U.S. economic embargo. It also warned that the suspension could have a negative impact on cultural and family visits to the island, as well as on Cubans who are not U.S. citizens but live in the U.S. and need to update their passports regularly through the Mission.
The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and has maintained the embargo on Cuba since the early 1960s. Tuesday’s news comes only one week after U.S. Secretary of State Kerry implored Havana to do more to foster personal freedoms on the island in a speech to the Organization of American States. Sec. Kerry added that the U.S. is “committed to human interchange,” referring to the people-to-people exchanges allowed under 2010 policy reforms.
Approximately 100 people were deported from the Dominican Republic to Haiti this week following a fatal attack against an elderly Dominican couple near the Haitian border. Activists say the figure brings the total number of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent deported from the Dominican Republic since September to 354.
Josue Michel, spokesman for the Groupe d'Appui Aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés (Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees—GARR), said the deportations came after a burglary in the Southwestern Dominican town of Neiba. Many of the deportees had gone to a Dominican police station to report the crime and seek refuge from indiscriminant mob violence, but were then rounded up in the street by police officers. Others fled the country voluntarily in fear of continued violence. Dominican authorities insist the deported individuals were not expelled and that they requested for the police to escort them safely to the border.
The deportations of Haitians began after the Tribunal Constitucional de República Dominicana (Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic) ruled on September 23 that anyone born in the Dominican Republic to non-Dominican parents after 1929 is not eligible for Dominican citizenship. The Open Society Justice Initiative estimates that the decision has subsequently rendered over 200,000 people “stateless,” or without any claim to legal citizenship.
Likely top stories this week: Honduras’ election results are still pending; the Dominican Republic deports Haitian immigrants after violence in a border town; Henrique Capriles urges the Venezuelan opposition to vote on December 8; a new report says that most Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; Juan Manuel Santos and Rafael Correa meet in Colombia to discuss bilateral ties.
Honduran Elections: With a little over half of precincts reporting in Honduras’ presidential election on Sunday, the ruling National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández reportedly has a slight lead over Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party—LIBRE) candidate Xiomara Castro, who led the polls just a month ago and is the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 coup. The Honduran electoral tribunal said last night that Hernández had secured approximately 34 percent of the votes, versus Castro’s 29 percent. However, both candidates have claimed victory in the election that saw a record turnout. The electoral authority is expected to release an update on the election tally this afternoon.
The Dominican Republic Deports Haitians After Killings: As of Sunday, at least 244 Haitians have been deported from the Dominican Republic, a spokesman for the Group for Repatriates and Refugees said on Monday. The deportations were sparked after mob violence in a town in the southwestern Dominican Republican led many Haitian immigrants to seek refuge. The violence began when a bungled burglary led to the killing of a Dominican couple near the Haitian border and an enraged mob retaliated by killing a Haitian man. Anti-Haitian sentiments in the Dominican Republic have grown after a September ruling that threatened to strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship. Advocates say some of the deported have sought refuge, fearing further violence.
Capriles Urges Venezuelan Opposition to Vote: As Venezuela’s December 8 municipal elections approach, opposition leader Henrique Capriles told his supporters on Saturday that they should go to the polls to express their discontent with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Thousands of members of the Venezuelan opposition marched through the streets on Saturday, several days after the National Assembly gave Maduro powers to rule by decree for the next 12 months. The president says the new powers will allow him to fight corruption, and claims that his enemies are using “economic sabotage” to discredit his administration.
Majority of Americans Favor Pathway to Citizenship, Report Says: A Public Religion Research Institute report published Monday says 63 percent of Americans favor legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants living in the United States to become citizens. Though the U.S. Congress appears to have abandoned legislation that would offer a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, 60 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of independents and 73 percent of Democrats said that they supported some form of legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens, according to the report. A full 71 percent of respondents said that they would support citizenship for undocumented immigrants who met requirements like paying back taxes and learning English.
Santos and Correa Meet: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa are meeting in the Colombian border town of Ipiales on Monday to discuss bilateral relations and to inaugurate a new bridge between the two countries. Relations between Ecuador and Correa were reestablished in 2010 after the two countries broke off relations when Colombia bombed a FARC encampment in Ecuador without the authorization of the Ecuadorian government in 2008. Ministers from both countries are expected to meet today to discuss security and defense as well as shared commercial interests.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced his intentions to run for reelection this Thursday, just four days before the legal deadline required to submit a candidacy. Santos said his campaign will be founded upon ideals of “peace and prosperity,” directly referencing his continued—although increasingly unpopular—efforts to reach a peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
A poll conducted by Invamer-Gallup predicts a second-round run-off between Santos and opposition candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga of the Uribe Centro Democrático (Uribe Democratic Center) party. Specifically, the poll estimates that 27 percent of voters would support Santos, followed by 15 percent for Zuluaga, a former finance minister. Despite his considerable lead, Santos faces a difficult task of acquiring the 51 percent or more of votes required to win the Colombian presidency.
Political analysts believe the race will be characterized by strong ideological divisions between Santos and his more conservative leaning opponent. During his announcement, Santos said, “There are still great challenges ahead of us, but I am convinced that the way to confront them is not only through blood and gunfire.” In contrast, Zuluaga has vowed to immediately cease peace talks if elected. Following Santos’ announcement, he replied, “We will not accept that our soldiers and police keep being murdered or unjustly persecuted while terrorists, kidnappers and murderers walk freely on the beaches in Havana."
An overhaul of Mexico’s private-sector lending system was approved by four key Senate committees on Wednesday, moving President Enrique Peña Nieto’s financial reform one step closer to passage. The housing, public credit, justice, and legislative studies committees all voted to pass the bill, following its passage in the Chamber of Deputies. The full Senate will discuss the 70 provisions of the bill today, with an expected vote on Tuesday. If any major changes are introduced, the bill would go back to a lower chamber for approval. Otherwise, it will go to President Peña Nieto to sign into law.
The bill, part of the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) reforms agreed upon by President Pena Nieto's Partido Institucional Revolucionaria (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) and the country's main opposition parties, would increase lending among Mexico’s banks, lower interest rates on loans and make credit more accessible to small and medium enterprises. The governor of Mexico’s Central Bank, Augustín Carstens, said in May that the proposed reform could help grow the economy by 0.5 percent over the next two to three years.
President Peña Nieto, who will reach his one year anniversary in office next month, has staked significant political capital in the Pacto por México reforms, ranging from education and energy to security and telecommunications. The most controversial reform thus far has been the proposed privatization of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned petroleum company to help attract investment and technology to Mexico’s ailing energy sector.
Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe plans to do a tour of Silicon Valley companies and universities today in an attempt to attract investment to the Caribbean nation. Lamothe has meetings scheduled with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, as well as executives from Google, Apple and other top executives about opportunities for technological innovation in Haiti.
A mere .02 percent of Haitians have regular access to the Internet, and limited infrastructure and frequent blackouts have hampered efforts to increase connectivity. The 2010 earthquake exacerbated these conditions, though part of the millions of dollars in recovery aid has been spent trying to get the long impoverished country wired, including a $3.9 million program launched this fall to deploy 65 miles of optical fiber in the country's southern region.
At a tech conference in San Francisco yesterday, Lamothe said the Haitian government’s top priority is lifting people out of extreme poverty, and “the best way to do it is through technology.” He went on to say that the country could overcome its infrastructural challenges by storing data in digital clouds, and that the government could partner with business on the effort. Lamothe’s trip to California comes only two days after violent anti-government demonstrations erupted Haiti, where protesters opposed corruption and the high cost of living and demanded that President Michele Martelly step down.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced this Monday that the Monroe Doctrine—a policy that has defined U.S.-Latin American relations for nearly two centuries—has come to an end. During his speech at the Organization of American States (OAS), Kerry emphasized that the era of U.S. interventionism in the region was a matter of the past, and that the present administration values its partnerships and cooperation with its southern neighbors.
“The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It's about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues and adhering not to doctrine but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share," Kerry said.
A stronger push toward multilateral diplomacy in the region began under the Bush administration and has continued with the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the announcement was well received in Latin America, where a growing middle class and dynamic economic growth have made countries in the region into increasingly attractive economic partners for the U.S. The statement was also seen as a welcome change from moments of tension earlier this year when Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from Bolivia after Secretary Kerry referred to Latin America as U.S.’ backyard, and when Brazilian President Rousseff criticized U.S. surveillance programs during her address to the UN General Assembly.
Likely top stories this week: Venezuela’s National Assembly is increasing presidential powers for President Nicolás Maduro; Demand for U.S. oil grows in Latin America; Michelle Bachelet enters second round of presidential elections in Chile; Arrest warrants are issued for bankers and politicians involved in Brazil’s biggest corruption trial; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returns to office.
Presidential Powers in Venezuela: Venezuela’s National Assembly gave initial approval to a bill last week that would grant President Nicolás Maduro decree powers for 12 months. Maduro says he plans to use the new authorities to combat corruption and the country’s ongoing economic crisis, yet critics fear it will be used to suppress the opposition. The bill still requires final approval from a special commission, but is unlikely to undergo substantial changes.
Demand for U.S. oil grows in Latin America: Demand for U.S. fuels has doubled in Latin America during the past five years and continues to grow. The increased demand is due to economic growth and outdated Latin American refineries that have been unable to sustain production at levels comparable with market demands.
Bachelet Enters Second Round Presidential Elections in Chile: Michelle Bachelet won nearly twice as many votes as her second-place opponent, Evelyn Matthei, in the first round presidential elections in Chile. Bachelet won 47 percent of votes and Matthei won 25 percent, leading the two into a final and second round which will be Chile’s first in which both candidates were women. Bachelet’s center-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition failed to win a super-majority in Congress, posing a challenge to the candidate’s proposed social and economic reforms.
Supreme Court Issues Arrest Warrants in Brazil Corruption Trial: Brazil’s Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Federal Tribunal—STF) issued arrest warrants on Friday for 12 of the 25 convicted politicians, businessmen and bankers involved in the country’s Mensalão (monthly allowance) corruption scandal. Several prominent politicians—including José Genoino, the former president of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT), and José Dirceu, former chief-of-staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—immediately turned themselves into federal authorities.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner Returns to Office: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returned to office Monday after taking a six-week medical leave and undergoing surgery to stop internal bleeding caused by head trauma. Following her doctors’ recommendation, Kirchner remained on leave for a week longer than she had originally planned.
Bipartisan opposition grew to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty on Thursday as members of U.S. Congress who oppose the talks sent numerous letters to President Barack Obama and a secret 95-page draft chapter on intellectual property rights was published by WikiLeaks. TPP negotiations have included representatives from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, and Brunei, but have been closed to the public. According to The Guardian, the document dated on August 30 includes provisions on patentability, online privacy and copyright protections that would be included in a final TPP treaty.
Opponents of the treaty have been critical of the potential damages it may cause to online privacy and intellectual property standards. The Electronic Frontier Foundation—a lead proponent of digital freedoms and government transparency—said that the provisions leaked this week would have “extensive negative ramifications for users' freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples' abilities to innovate.” Critics also warn of the effects the treaty would hold on medicine, noting that its wide-reaching protections for pharmaceutical companies and surgical patents could lead to a rise in drug prices and related medical expenses.
TPP supporters remain optimistic and note that, upon approval, the treaty would create the world’s largest free-trade area. In a 2011 speech, Obama said, “The TPP will boost our economies, lowering barriers to trade and investment, increasing exports and creating more jobs for our people, which is my number-one priority.” Enactment of the treaty would dramatically reduce transaction costs between key trade partners in Asia and the Americas, while also serving to create a formidable trading bloc to compete with the growing economic influence of China.
Read more about the TPP in “The Next Big Thing” by Barbara Kotschwar and Jeffrey Schott from the Spring 2013 issue of Americas Quarterly.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner announced Wednesday that the Republican-led House of Representatives would not vote on comprehensive immigration reform before next year. Specifically, Speaker Boehner said that the House would not vote on the bipartisan Senate bill passed earlier this year, saying: “I'll make clear we have no intention ever of going to conference on the Senate bill.” The announcement follows a statement last week from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to immigration reform proponents that there would not be enough time for a House vote to take place this year.
Political analysts believe Boehner’s decision to call off the vote was meant to signal that he would not be willing to consider the issue of citizenship. The Senate bill proposed offering a pathway to citizenship to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., to be acquired through a multi-year legal application process and payment of fees and back taxes. The pathway would only be made available following implementation of new security measures along the U.S.-Mexico border. Boehner has said repeatedly that he will attempt to pass reforms “in a common sense way,” referring to committee deliberations that have focused on specific aspects of legislation, but that have not been scheduled for a full House vote. Only three Republican representatives have come out in support of H.R. 15, the House version of the comprehensive Senate bill.
The decision poses a considerable challenge to Republicans’ efforts to reach out to Latino voters since their loss in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney trailed behind President Obama by 44 percent among Latino voters. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus noted his concerns regarding the effects of immigration reform on the Republican Party, stating, “Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”
The Colombian Government on Tuesday accused the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) of plotting to kill former President Álvaro Uribe. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said he had met with Uribe to inform him of “the detection of a plan by the FARC's Teofilo Forero Mobile Column to make an attempt on his life."
The plot was revealed amid tense peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC that have been taking place in Havana since last November. Uribe, who waged a fierce war against the FARC during his presidency from 2002 to 2010 and reduced the rebel group’s ranks by half, has been an outspoken critic of the talks. Minister Pinzón said that Uribe and his family would receive whatever security they needed in addition to their standard 300-person detail.
The news comes less than a week after the government and the FARC reached a key point in peace negotiations by agreeing on a framework for the creation of new political parties to represent disarmed rebel groups. The other four items to be on the agenda include disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims and peace deal implementation. The president of the Colombian Congress, Juan Fernando Cristo, said that if the plot is confirmed, “we have to demand that the [FARC] negotiators in Havana explain it to the country.”
On Monday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro redoubled his efforts to lobby the National Assembly for special powers to govern by decree under the Ley Habilitante (Enabling Law). Just days before the legislature is expected to vote on the measure, President Maduro vowed to extend Venezuela’s ineffective price controls to all consumer goods.
In an act reminiscent of his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez, President Maduro ordered the National Guard to seize several popular electronic shops on Saturday for allegedly selling goods at inflated prices. Despite an inflation rate of 54.3 percent and an artificially low exchange rate, the Maduro blamed increased prices for goods on corporate greed and now five managers from Daka, JVG and Krash stores face prosecution for price hikes.
President Maduro first petitioned the National Assembly for expanded powers at the beginning of October in order to fight corruption and “capitalist logic.” Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost the general election in April, has accused the government of scaring “away investments that would create employment,” and of worsening the economic crisis in the OPEC country.
While hundreds of customers lined up outside the retailers for the reduced priced goods, many Venezuelans saw the tactic as a way of ensuring votes in the upcoming December 8 municipal elections in light of the president’s decreased popularity.
Likely top stories this week: Chilean voters go to the polls; El Salvador and Honduras face off over Isla Conejo; the Venezuelan government seizes the electronic chain Daka; Chilean forensic experts conclude that Pablo Neruda was not poisoned; the Argentine president is cleared to start working.
Chilean Presidential Elections: Chilean voters will go to the polls on Sunday to elect their next president, with former President Michelle Bachelet heavily favored to win. Bachelet may forgo a presidential runoff with the second-place candidate if she is able to win more than 50 percent of the vote; polls thus far predict she will do so by winning a first-round majority. However, this is the first presidential election in Chile in which voting is no longer compulsory but in which all eligible voters are automatically registered; the new system may have some impact on the vote.
El Salvador Appeals to UN Over Isla Conejo: Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes announced on Sunday that his government would send a letter to the UN and OAS regarding its diplomatic dispute with Honduras over Isla Conejo, which is claimed by both countries. The Honduran military has occupied Isla Conejo since the 1980s, but El Salvador's recent purchase of ten A-37 fighter planes from Chile has made the Honduran government uneasy, with the Honduran government calling the purchase "an open threat." Funes denied the claims on Sunday and said that El Salvador was a peaceful nation and was not planning to go to war.
Government Seizes Venezuelan Electronics Chain: As the Christmas season and Venezuela's December 8 municipal elections approach, the Venezuelan government on Friday ordered the seizure of the electronics chain Daka, saying that prices of goods like plasma TVs were overpriced by as much as 1000 percent. After the government instituted a rapid price reduction of Daka's goods, Venezuelan customers lined up for hours to take advantage of the new prices. Shortages of basic goods have plagued the Venezuelan economy and inflation is estimated at 54 percent. Maduro says he is cracking down on unscrupulous businesspeople and has instituted a number of strategies—including kicking off Christmas celebrations in the first week of November—to shore up support ahead of the elections.
Neruda Not Poisoned, Experts Say: Experts from the Chilean Forensic Service said on Friday that no evidence of poison was found in the remains of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who was exhumed earlier this year and whose body underwent six months of test by a team comprised of 15 Chilean and foreign forensic scientists. Neruda apparently died of prostate cancer just days before the coup of General Augusto Pinochet in September 1973. Neruda's driver, Manuel Araya, maintained for decades that the poet was poisoned after entering the hospital. Chile's Communist Party, of which Neruda was a member, has called for further studies.
Fernández de Kirchner to Resume Duties: A month after undergoing emergency surgery due to a blood clot in her brain, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been given medical clearance to resume presidential duties starting on Monday. She will undergo more tests next month and is not allowed to fly for another 30 days. Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou was formally in charge of the government during Fernández de Kirchner’s recovery.
President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) met at the White House on Thursday afternoon to discuss “a broad range of issues,” including strategies for moving immigration reform forward in Congress. While a bipartisan reform bill passed the Senate in June, the House of Representatives has yet to schedule a vote on its comprehensive reform bill, H.R 15.
Senator McCain, a long-time advocate for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that crafted, and ultimately ensured the passage of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act in the senate. Once political opponents, the President and Sen. McCain have become unlikely allies on issues ranging from immigration to gun control. The two were expected to discuss how to garner more support from conservatives in the House, after three Republican representatives pledged their support for H.R. 15 last week.
With increasing pressure from conservative groups including businesses, evangelical Christians, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there is renewed optimism that the House may take up immigration reform before the end of the year. While five piecemeal bills on issues such as boarder security and mandatory use of the E-Verify system have passed their committees, none have been brought to the floor for a vote. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has not set a timetable for a full House vote. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have both endorsed the House’s piecemeal approach as the most likely to yield passable reform legislation this year.
The Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) reached a key point in peace negotiations this Wednesday, as the two parties agreed upon a framework for the creation of new political parties to represent disarmed rebel groups. The issue of political integration was previously highlighted by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as a primary goal for the negotiations, which he hopes to conclude by the end of this year.
The talks began in Havana last November, and have stalled numerous times as the parties have sought to reach an agreement to end the country’s fifty-year-old armed conflict. According to the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (National Center for Historical Memory), the conflict has killed 220,000 people and has displaced hundreds of thousands more. Political experts believe the integration agreement will boost public support for the negotiations, which has declined in recent months due to increasing criticisms from opposition parties ahead of the 2014 presidential elections.
Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator for the Colombian government, said the talks will lead to a “new democratic opening,” adding, “Never again politics and weapons together.” Chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez also voiced his support for Wednesday’s development, saying it was “an important step in the right direction to end the conflict and to achieve a real democracy in Colombia.” In addition to agreements on land reform and political integration, the parties hope to conclude negotiations by the end of 2013 on the remaining issues of disarmament, drug reform, reparations for victims, and peace plan implementation.
The Rio de Janeiro state government announced on Tuesday night that it would cancel this year’s Soccerex Global Convention, the premier business event for the international soccer community, citing a financial dispute over the use of public funds. But Soccerex CEO Duncan Revie rebuffed the government’s claim, saying instead that “ongoing civil unrest” in Rio is to blame for the convention’s cancellation.
The decision to cancel Soccerex is a blow to World Cup organizers, who are trying to demonstrate that Brazil is ready to host the global tournament and the 2016 Olympics following widespread protests in the Spring against World Cup-related investment.
Soccerex was scheduled to take place in Rio’s newly refurbished Maracanã stadium from November 30 to December 5. It would have been attended by 4,500 of "football's leading decision-makers," including many of the executives, coaches and functionaries—FIFA President Sepp Blatter among them—who then planned to travel on to the World Cup draw on December 6.
The news was announced as the Brazil 2014 organizing committee was in London to visit a tourism trade fair. Speaking to reporters in London, FIFA's marketing director, Thierry Weil, said, "We are as surprised as anybody at this change of plans but we do not believe it will have any influence on the hosting of the World Cup.”
Next year, Soccerex moves its convention to Manchester in the United Kingdom, which has been the host of Soccerex Europe since 2010.
Clarín Group, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, announced plans Monday to divide its operations into six subsidiary companies, in compliance with the country’s Ley de Medios (Media Law). The anti-monopoly law was upheld by the Argentine Supreme Court last week after four years of legal disputes between Clarín and the federal government. Clarín representatives said the company had only agreed to implement the changes after the decision was “forced upon" them, but they did not rule out the possibility of appealing the decision to international tribunals.
Martín Sabbatella, president of the Autoridad Federal de Comunicación Audiovisual (Federal Audiovisual Communications Authority—AFSCA) and Argentina’s top broadcast regulator, welcomed the company’s decision to comply with the law and said his agency would review Clarín’s breakup proposal within 120 days. In the first meeting held between government representatives and Clarín executives since last week’s Supreme Court decision, Sabatella said he would ensure that the reform process causes the company “as little damage as possible.”
The Supreme Court said it found “no evidence in the case that there is a violation of freedom of expression derived from the law." Nevertheless, the Court also informed the government that companies surrendering licenses under the new law must be duly compensated, with oversight from an independent regulatory authority and equal distribution of government subsidies. The law will reduce the number of radio and television licenses that a single company can hold, and pending government review of the company’s proposal, may require Clarín to sell one or more of its newly created subsidiaries.
Read about Argentina's 2009 media reforms in the Fall 2013 issue of AQ, which focuses on freedom of expression.
Likely top stories this week: Brazil will reduce lending by 20 percent next year; Argentina wins a stay on its $1.33 billion payment; Tropical Storm Sonia Hits Mexico; Honduras’ police chief denies abuses; Brazilian delegation opposes Uruguayan marijuana legalization.
Brazil to Reduce Lending Due to Budget Deficit: Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said Friday that Brazilian development bank BNDES will reduce lending by 20 percent next year, down to about 150 billion reais ($66.6 billion) from this year's estimated 190 billion reais. The announcement came after an Oct. 31 report showed Brazil’s budget deficit widened to 3.3 percent of gross domestic product, the most since November 2009. Some experts speculate that Brazil's credit rating could be cut.
U.S. Court Upholds Stay on Argentine Debt Payment: The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Argentina on Friday by denying a motion that would have forced the country to start paying $1.33 billion to holdout bondholders. Friday’s decision will permit Argentina to make a second appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before it is forced to pay the $1.33 billion to NML Capital Ltd and other holdout bondholders who did not accept a debt swap in 2005 and 2010.
Tropical Storm Sonia Hits Mexican Coast: Tropical Storm Sonia hit Mexico's Pacific Coast on Monday morning near the city of El Dorado in Sinaloa. By the time the storm made landfall, it was downgraded to a tropical depression and winds had decreased to about 35 mph. Though the storm is weakening, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could still cause floods and landslides in the region. Mexican authorities issued storm warnings from Mazatlan north to Altata on Sunday, and the government of Sinaloa state canceled classes on Monday in five municipalities.
Honduran General Denies Role in Police Abuses: In an interview, Honduran general and police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla denied knowledge or involvement in a wave of police abuses this year in which at least seven detainees have gone missing or been killed in police custody. He also said that he was not involved in setting up death squads starting in 1998, as reported by the police department's internal affairs section in 2002.
Brazilian Delegation Concerned About Uruguayan Marijuana: Brazilian political leaders from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul will travel to neighboring Uruguay this Tuesday to oppose Uruguayan legislation that will legalize marijuana sale and consumption in the country. The Brazilian delegation will testify before the Uruguayan Senate's health committee in an attempt to prevent the country from moving ahead with legalization.
Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining company and the world’s largest gold producer, announced Thursday that it has temporarily halted operations at its Pascua-Lama gold mine in the Andean border region between Argentina and Chile. Production was scheduled to begin by early 2014, but environmental regulations, depreciating gold prices and declining company profits led to a decision to indefinitely suspend construction at the mine. Barrick said it has already spent over $5 billion of the total estimated project cost of $8.5 billion. The company told investors in a quarterly earnings statement that the postponement would provide capital savings of up to $1 billion in 2014.
Barrick’s stock prices fell 8.65 percent in April when a Chilean appeals court announced that it would block operations at Pascua-Lama due to “environmental irregularities.” The announcement came after members of Diaguita Indigenous communities filed a complaint that the mine had polluted glacial deposits and contaminated scarce water resources in the Atacama Desert. Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick welcomed the April announcement and said he hoped the company would be able to address the court’s concerns and conduct environmentally sound operations. The Chilean government has not announced plans to revise or lift the restrictions.
Officials voiced greater concern in Argentina, where operations were not discontinued until the company’s recent announcement. On the Argentine side of the mine, Barrick operations provide thousands of jobs and accounts for a third of San Juan province’s economy. Officials there have advocated repeatedly for the project, and it remains unclear how the closure will affect the region’s economy. Nevertheless, Guillermo Calo, Barrick’s top official in Argentina, said the company still plans to invest $400 million there next year.
A Representative from California became the third Republican in the House of Representatives to pledge support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation proposed by House Democrats. Rep. David Valdadao of California’s twenty-first congressional district joins Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in publicly supporting H.R. 15 this week, the House version of the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June.
Similar to the Senate version, H.R. 15 includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but includes a distinct border security measure approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in May. "By supporting H.R. 15 I am strengthening my message: addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait," said Rep. Valadao, who represents a largely Latino district and was targeted in an online ad campaign last week highlighting that public opinion in his district overwhelming favors comprehensive reform. The bill currently has 190 cosponsors, short of the 218 needed to get a majority in the House. So far, Speaker of the House John Boehner has declined to allow a vote on the Senate bill or H.R. 15, unless a majority of his Republicans colleagues support it.
Rep. Valadao’s announcement comes on the heels of a “fly-in” on Capitol Hill on Tuesday by 600 advocates, including conservatives, evangelicals, and business leaders who lobbied their representatives in support of immigration reform. While the chances of comprehensive reform passing the House this year still appear slim, the fallout from the government shutdown may make it more politically difficult for House Republicans to opt for inaction on the issue.
Clarín Group, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, will have to sell off part of its holdings due to a Supreme Court ruling handed down on Tuesday. The high court declared constitutional the four articles of the Ley de Medios (Media Law), Argentina’s anti-monopoly broadcast law that congress passed four years ago but has stalled in the courts since.
The 2009 law reduces the number of radio and television licenses that a single owner could hold from 24 to 10, which the government has said is necessary to reduce market concentration. But Clarín Group sees it as an attempt by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to stifle opposition voices, saying in a statement that it “laments the ruling, which doesn't take into account the value of journalistic independence as a precursor for freedom of speech.” In its ruling, the Supreme Court found “no evidence in the case that there is a violation of freedom of expression derived from the law."
As a result, in addition to reducing the number of licenses it holds, the Clarín Group will likely have to break up its Cablevisión-Fibertel holding, the largest cable and internet operator in Argentina, and sell off its Canal 13 television network. The ruling was seen as a victory for the embattled administration of President Kirchner whose party suffered a setback in Sunday’s midterm elections. Clarín Group has not ruled out appealing the law in international courts.
Uruguayan President José Mujica announced at the Council of Ministers on Monday his decision to withdraw Uruguayan troops from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The Mission was installed by the UN Security Council in 2004 following the coup d’état against former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and was reinforced in early 2010 when a devastating earthquake resulted in more than 220,000 deaths, according to government figures.
The UN has encouraged a progressive reduction of MINUSTAH’s troops as the peacekeeping mission’s mandate is coming to an end in June 2014. The latest Security Council resolution established that troops must be reduced to 5,021 soldiers and 2,601 police agents—down from the 8,690 officials who are currently on the island.
According to Uruguayan Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, Mujica ordered the early withdrawal of the Uruguayan troops, which must be done in coordination with the Security Council and other countries from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The president stated that the process should not be postponed any further, since other countries like Brazil have already decided to leave.
With 950 officials in Haiti, Uruguay is second only to Brazil as the country that provides the greatest number of military officials to MINUSTAH. Besides Uruguay, other nations with peacekeeping troops in Haiti include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru.
The presence of peacekeepers has been the target of popular protests and a source of controversy in Haiti because of the peacekeepers’ role in re-introducing cholera to the country, numerous cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving MINUSTAH personnel—including the sexual assault of a young Haitian man by Uruguayan troops—and other abuses.
Likely top stories this week: Argentine opposition gains influence in midterms; Brazil and Germany lead a UN anti-spying initiative; lobbyists push for U.S. immigration reform; Paraguay to represent Mercosur in negotiations with EU; hostage Kevin Scott Sutay is released by the FARC.
Argentines Vote in Midterm Elections: With 72 percent of the votes counted in Argentina's Sunday midterm elections, the governing party of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner retains a narrow majority in Congress, but Fernández de Kirchner’s chance of running for a third presidential term appears to be gone. In the face of rising consumer prices and a weakening currency, the opposition has won a key House of Deputies race in Buenos Aires province, with a convincing victory by opposition leader Sergio Massa, the former mayor of Tigre. Massa is seen as a potential presidential contender in 2015. Sunday’s elections also marked the first time that 16 and 17 year-old Argentines were allowed to vote.
21 Countries On Board for UN Anti-Spying Resolution: Twenty-one countries, led by Brazil and Germany, have agreed to meet for talks to draft a UN resolution that would condemn and monitor electronic surveillance. Brazil and Germany proposed the resolution last week after leaked reports that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on heads of state, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House ordered an end to the eavesdropping on foreign leaders this summer after a wiretapping program targeting about 35 leaders was disclosed to the White House. The NSA said Sunday that its director never notified Obama about the program. On Monday, El Mundo reported that the NSA monitored 60 million Spanish phone calls in one month.
Immigration Lobbying Intensifies in Washington DC: A major lobbying effort is expected to intensify in Washington DC this week, targeting Republican members of Congress to take action on immigration reform. Approximately 600 business, religious and agricultural leaders—most of them conservative—are expected to put added pressure on 80 Republicans from the House of Representatives to pass one of four immigration reform measures approved by the House Judiciary Committee. The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June.
Paraguay to Represent Mercosur in Brussels: Paraguay appears to have made progress in its quest to rejoin Mercosur after a meeting between Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes and Uruguayan President José Mujica on Friday in Montevideo. Upon returning to Asunción this weekend, Cartes said that Paraguay was prepared to represent Mercosur in negotiations with the European Union in December, though the country has not yet officially rejoined the trade bloc after being suspended in June 2012 following the controversial impeachment of former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.
FARC Releases U.S. Citizen: The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) released former U.S. soldier Kevin Scott Sutay on Sunday after he was kidnapped by the rebels in late June. Scott appeared to be in good health after he was released to the International Committee of the Red Cross and representatives from Colombia, Cuba and Norway.
A Washington, DC-based advocacy organization began running pro-immigration reform advertisements on the websites of local newspapers in Republican Congressional representatives’ districts on Thursday. In order to pressure the House of Representatives to vote on pending immigration reform legislation, Americas Voice’s web ads target news outlets in Republican members’ districts that, according to recent polling data, overwhelmingly support such reform.
Ads ran on the two California papers’ websites—the Fresno Bee and the Modesto Bee—highlighting data from a poll conducted by Magellan Strategies showing that the majority of voters in the state’s congressional districts 10, 21, and 22 support immigration reform along the lines of bill proposed by House Democrats on October 2. The bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15), is similar to a bi-partisan bill passed in the Senate in June and includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
The ads implore the Republican representatives from these districts—Representatives Jeff Denham, David Valadao, and Devin Nunes, respectively—to vote for H.R. 15. Similar ads will be run in local newspapers in Nevada and Colorado next week targeting Republican Representatives Mike Coffman (CO-6) and Joe Heck (NV-3), whose constituents similarly polled to show overwhelmingly support reform. Seventy-four percent of likely voters support legislation along the lines of H.R. 15, including 71 percent of Republicans in both Representative Coffman and Hoff’s districts.
In a televised speech on Thursday, President Obama urged House Republicans to vote for a comprehensive overhaul that includes a path to citizenship, noting that “anyone still standing in the way of this bipartisan reform should at least explain why.”
Mexico’s ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) announced its support on Wednesday for an opposition proposal to increase the 5 percent tax on junk food set out in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s fiscal reform plan. The tax would be applied to purchases of high-calorie foods including chocolates, sweets, puddings, potato chips and ice cream, but would not be applied to hamburgers or tacos.
Last week, the lower house of Congress approved the fiscal reform package with a 5 percent tax on junk food, and Armando Rios Piter, a Senate finance expert from the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution Party—PRD), proposed increasing the tax to 8 percent. On Wednesday, PRI Senate leader Emilio Gamboa said that his party would “undoubtedly support” the tax increase. If Piter’s plan is formally adopted, the reform bill would go back to the lower house, before being sent to the Senate for a final vote.
If the bill is passed by both chambers with the 8 percent tax provision included, the reform will contribute nearly 2.7 percent of GDP to government coffers by 2018 according to Deputy Finance Minister for Revenue Miguel Messmacher. The tax reform bill is a key part of the President Peña Nieto’s Pacto por México, a series of reforms agreed upon by Mexico’s three main political parties in 2012 that range from education and energy to security and telecommunications.
Cuba approved a plan to gradually unify its dual monetary system, a statement carried by official newspaper Granma revealed yesterday. The measure is part of a set of reforms adopted by the Communist Party in 2011 aimed at introducing market mechanisms and decentralizing the Cuban economy. "(Unification) is imperative to guarantee the reestablishment of the Cuban peso's value and its role as money, that is as a unit of accounting, means of payment and savings," the official statement said.
Cuba has had two currencies since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994 when the country introduced the U.S. dollar as its second currency. Cuba's monetary system currently consists of the peso (CUP)—in which most wages are paid and local goods are priced—and the convertible peso (CUC), used in the tourism industry and foreign trade. Introduced in 2004, the CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar and is currently valued at 25 pesos at exchange offices. However, companies must exchange dollars and CUCs with the government at the official exchange rate of one peso.
Last July, Cuban President Raúl Castro recognized that the dual currency is one of the “greatest obstacles for the country’s progress.” The system greatly complicates accounting, the evaluation of performance, and trade in the island. It is also very unpopular as sought-after imported goods—such as toothpaste and cooking oil—are far from reach to those who earn their salaries in pesos.
According to Cuban economists, the unification of the two currencies will take up to 18 months, and will involve devaluing the CUC and slightly revaluing the peso. The government has not provided a timetable for the reforms, but it has already begun adjusting the official exchange rate by allowing some companies to exchange dollars earned abroad for up to 12 pesos instead of one. The Cuban central bank has pledged it will back both currencies during the process to give Cubans enough time to convert their savings.
Likely top stories this week: Protesters clash with Brazilian police forces in Rio de Janeiro; A commuter train crash injures 30 in Buenos Aires; Hurricane Raymond builds strength near Mexico’s Pacific coast; Michele Bachelet leads the polls in next month’s presidential elections in Chile; Newly leaked documents reveal that the U.S. spied on former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
Violent Clashes Between Police and Protesters Ahead of Brazilian Oil Auction: 300 protesters clashed with national police forces today outside a state auction for offshore oil exploration rights of the Libra oil field, near Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff requested heavy security for the event after mass protests erupted last week in support of teachers’ strikes in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Media reports said a small group of protesters tried to set a car on fire, and that the police fired tear gas and stun grenades onto a nearby beach with tourist onlookers.
Commuter Train Crashes in Buenos Aires: 30 passengers were injured in a Buenos Aires train crash this Saturday. The accident took place at Terminal Once, the same station where a crash killed 51 people and injured over 700 others last year. Last year’s crash reduced public support for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and analysts expect her popularity to be damaged once again ahead of the upcoming Congressional elections scheduled for October 27. The crash comes amidst growing concerns over the quality of the Argentine capital’s rail system and a recent proposal by the federal government to seize administrative control of the city’s commuter rail operations.
Hurricane Raymond Builds Strength Near Mexico: Hurricane Raymond was upgraded to a category three hurricane by the Mexican Comisión Nacional del Agua (Mexican Water Commission—CONAGUA) today. Meteorologists said the storm currently reports sustained winds of 195 km/h (120mph), and that it would be the first category three storm to hit Mexico this year. Public officials say they are still recovering from the damage left by Ingrid and Manuel, two tropical storms that simultaneously affected Mexico’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts last month. The storms killed over 150 civilians and resulted in billions of dollars in damage.
Michelle Bachelet Leads Polls in Chile: A new poll by Universidad Diego Portales finds that former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is expected to win 37.7 percent of votes in the country’s November 17 presidential election. Bachelet served as Chile’s first woman president from 2006 to 2010 and returns to her home country following her role as the first executive director of UN Women. A runoff is expected between Bachelet and one of the eight other presidential candidates. Bachelet polls far ahead of even the second-place candidate, Evelyn Matthei, who received 12.3 percent of expected votes in the poll.
New Revelations on U.S. Surveillance in Mexico: Newly released documents revealed that U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) secretly spied on former Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The documents state that the agency acquired access to the former president’s email communications with cabinet members. The Mexican Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Relations—SRE)— which modestly criticized revelations in September that the U.S. had spied on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during his campaign—said more forcefully yesterday that U.S. surveillance in Mexico was “unacceptable, unlawful and contrary to Mexican law and international law.”
Thirty million people live in modern slave-like conditions according to a report published by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation yesterday, titled the Global Slavery Index. An estimated 3.73 percent of the 29.6 millions of people in modern slavery—defined as those exposed to a range of practices, including forced and bonded labor, human trafficking, forced marriages, and the use of children in the military—are in the Americas.
Of the 162 countries ranked in the index, Haiti scored second with 210,000 slaves out of a population of 10.1 million. The report estimates that one in 10 Haitian children are trapped in an exploitative system of child labor, known as restavek, and that the number increased after the 2010 earthquake devastated the already poor Caribbean nation. Mauritania came in first with 151 thousand slaves out of a total population of 3.8 million. In the Americas, Peru was ranked 65 with 82,000 slaves out of a total population of 30 million, followed by Uruguay at 72 and Colombia at 73.
In absolute terms, India, China, Pakistan and Nigeria have the highest numbers of people enslaved. The Walk Free Foundation report was supported by global leaders such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. Clinton said, "I urge leaders around the world to view this index as a call to action, and to stay focused on the work of responding to this crime."
Six people were reported dead after a massive gas explosion at a natural gas storage plant near Puebla, Mexico yesterday. Over 100 local residents were immediately evacuated from the surrounding areas and a major highway connecting Mexico City and Veracruz was closed for over four hours. Officials have not yet confirmed what caused the two containers holding approximately 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of natural gas to combust at the plant, owned by Gas Tomza.
Experts from the Secretaría de Energía (National Department of Energy) arrived at the site of the explosion yesterday to assist in investigations. Puebla State Governor Rafael Moreno Valle also visited the site. State authorities later stated, “Once the investigation has concluded, we will be able to hold the company and [individuals]” responsible for the explosion accountable.
Major gas explosions are not uncommon in Mexico, where limited oversight of safety protocol remains a challenge. Over 20 people were killed in May when a truck carrying gas tanks exploded on a highway outside Mexico City. In September 2012, an additional 26 people died in at a plant in Reynosa, owned by the state energy company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Mexican Petroleum—PEMEX).