With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights.
Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”
The companies being investigated by Brazil's Federal Public Ministry include large banks such as Santander, as well some of Brazil’s largest public and private enterprises, among them Embraer and the country’s embattled state-run oil giant, Petrobras. The companies are suspected of paying bribes to members of Brazil’s Conselho Administrativo de Recursos Fiscais (Administrative Council of Tax Appeals—CARF), a body within the Finance Ministry that deals with tax disputes, in order to reduce or avoid fines for tax evasion.
The federal investigation, called Operação Zelotes (Operation Zealots), began in 2013 but exploded into the public consciousness last Thursday, when federal police raided CARF headquarters and the offices of several of the companies and individuals believed to be involved in the scheme. While no arrests were made, authorities seized 1.3 million reais in cash (about $400,000), as well as reams of documents. Investigators have shown that the scheme has cost government coffers $1.8 billion, but believe that the real number could be as high as $5.9 billion.
Several companies, including Brasil Foods (BRF) and Marcopolo, have released statements denying any wrongdoing. In a press release, BRF stated that it will “take all measures necessary to protect its interests.” Others have taken a different tack. Federico Paiva, one of the prosecutors leading the investigation, indicated yesterday that several of the companies under investigation have signaled their willingness to enter into a plea bargain. The Federal Public Ministry has reportedly begun to analyze those proposals today.
This week’s likely top stories: Bolivia holds local elections; Cuba and the U.S. to discuss human rights; Caribbean Bitcoin exchange launches; UNASUR head urges closing of U.S. military bases in the region; Chile rejects Bolivian aid for flood victims.
Bolivia’s MAS Party Loses La Paz in Local Elections: Bolivian citizens elected local government leaders on Sunday, with President Evo Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) winning most governments, according to unofficial results. MAS won four out of nine provinces (Pando, Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba) outright, and led in two other provinces that will now advance to a second round of votes on May 3, due to a close race. However, MAS lost La Paz, as well as Santa Cruz and Tarija provinces. Félix Patzi, from the Solidaridad y Libertad party (Solidarity and Liberty) secured approximately 52 percent of the votes for the governorship of La Paz. Official results are expected later on Monday.
U.S. Confirms Human Rights Meeting with Cuba: On Friday, a U.S. government spokesperson confirmed that U.S. and Cuban officials will meet on Tuesday, March 31 in Washington, DC for a preliminary discussion on human rights. The undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, will lead the U.S. delegation. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said that the Cuban delegation will detail the country’s current and past successes in the area of human rights. This will be the fourth round of talks since the re-establishment of ties between the two countries. U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to re-open embassies before the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.
Caribbean Bitcoin Exchange Launched: The Caribbean Bitcoin exchange “Bitt,” which is based in Barbados, was launched on Monday. Bitt, powered by digital currency exchange software company AlphaPoint, will be operating after confirming $1.5 million in seed funding from venture capital group Avatar Capital. The exchange will allow customers to trade in 11 fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro. CEO Gabriel Abed praised the positive impact that Bitt will have. “By facilitating trade between traditional and digital currency markets, Bitt is creating the platform for very low-cost international commerce and remittance between the people who need it most—the millions of unbanked and underbanked citizens in the Caribbean,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov culminated a four-country tour of Latin America on Thursday in what was widely seen as Moscow’s latest bid to counteract Western sanctions over Russia’s policies in Ukraine and Crimea. Earlier this week, Lavrov met with heads of state Raúl Castro in Cuba, Juan Manual Santos in Colombia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Lavrov ended his trip Thursday after visiting Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and meeting top officials at the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Guatemala City to discuss Russia's relationship with Central America.
This is the second visit the foreign minister has paid to the region within the last year—in April 2014, barely a month after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he traveled to Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile, and Peru. Several months later, in July 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin also made stops in Argentina, Cuba and Nicaragua prior to attending the BRICS international conference in Brazil.
Lavrov said that one of his main objectives in Havana on Tuesday was to discuss U.S. trade policies with the island. While he remarked that the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations is viewed positively by Russia , he also called for an immediate end to the U.S. trade embargo. Lavrov also declared Washington’s policies “totally inconsistent,” comparing the U.S. détente with Cuba to its tense relationship with Venezuela.
“Even as the U.S. was taking this step with Cuba, it was simultaneously pressuring Venezuela, declaring it a threat to U.S. national security. We would like the United States to stop looking for enemies in its geographical surroundings and listen to a unanimous voice of Latin America and the Caribbean Basin,” he stated.
Despite recent speculation that Nicaragua and Russia intend to re-establish military ties through Nicaragua’s purchase of Russian fighter jets, reports from the meeting in Managua on Wednesday did not include specifics about such negotiations. Instead, Ortega voiced a desire to collaborate on projects related to agriculture, transportation infrastructure, civil aviation, satellite navigation, and the pharmaceutical industry.
On March 25, Chile’s Interior Ministry declared a state of emergency for cities in the country’s northern Atacama and Antofogasta regions after flash flooding from the worst rains in two decades left at least four people dead and 22 missing. Meanwhile, high temperatures and strong winds in southern Chile are making it harder for authorities to fight forest fires that have raged for weeks and have affected over 11,000 acres in three protected areas.
Overflowing rivers in northern Chile forced residents out of their homes and onto roofs, while mudslides cut off road access to several small towns. Approximately 1,500 people had to take refuge into shelters. On Wednesday evening, 48,000 people were without drinking water and 38,500 were without electricity.
In response to the flooding, President Michelle Bachelet traveled to Copiapó in Atacama on Wednesday evening after authorizing the armed forces to assist in rescue operations.
On Monday night, Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Nin Novoa announced that Uruguay will no longer offer asylum to additional Guantanamo prisoners, amid reports that one of the ex-prisoners currently living in Montevideo is threating to go on a hunger strike.
Novoa said in a press conference that the decision by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez’ administration to not receive any more ex-prisoners from Guantánamo Prison was “definitive.” The minister also added that Uruguay would postpone the arrival of refugees from Syria until the end of the year due to “cultural and infrastructural shortcomings” and a need to better plan “these kinds of operations.” Forty-two Syrian refugees arrived in Uruguay last October after the government admitted them on humanitarian grounds.
Minister Novoa’s announcement marks a departure from the foreign policy agenda of former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who received a total of six released prisoners from Guantánamo on December 7, 2014, making Uruguay the second country, after El Salvador in 2012, to receive detainees from the U.S. prison in Cuba. This February, prior to his departure from office, Mujica visited five of the six former prisoners in their home and encouraged them to learn Spanish as quickly as possible so they can go back to work and restart their lives. Four of the former prisoners are from Syria, one is Palestinian, and another is Tunisian.
Former prisoner Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab, 43, reportedly said that he would begin a hunger strike and chain himself outside the walls of the U.S. embassy in Montevideo in order to demand that the U.S. offer compensation for the years of torture and imprisonment he has suffered. However, Dhiab’s lawyer told the press in Uruguay that Dhiab has no such plans.
Brazil’s economy is expected to contract by 0.83 percent this year and inflation to climb to 8.12 percent, according to the Brazilian Central Bank’s weekly survey of financial experts, which was released yesterday. The growth forecast for 2016 was also lowered from 1.3 percent last week to 1.2 percent this week. According to Bruno Rovai, an analyst at Barclays, “[…] incoming data supported our view that Brazil will face a recession this year, and that any strong recovery will be hard to achieve next year.”
Yesterday’s survey marks the 12th consecutive week of worsening forecasts on the Brazilian economy, and come at a tense time for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is dealing with an escalating corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company, Petrobras. Rousseff has also received criticism, including from traditional allies, for austerity measures that her government has introduced to manage Brazil’s deficit and inflation woes.
“We do not discard the possibility that political risks could increase in the next few weeks, given Petrobras’ audit result deadline or corruption investigations escalating further,” said Rovai. Petrobras is due to publish its audited fourth quarter results at the end of the month.
This week's likely top stories: Intelligence chiefs to be replaced in Peru; Citigroup is permitted to process Argentine debt payment; Costa Rica sets global clean energy record; former Spanish PM to defend Venezuelan opposition leaders; Ayotzinapa victims’ families visit Amnesty International.
Peruvian Intelligence Chiefs Fired amid Spying Allegations: The Peruvian Presidency of the Council of Ministers issued two resolutions that were published on Sunday, announcing the dismissal of Ivan Kamisaki, the executive director of the National Directorate of Intelligence (DINI), and accepting the resignation of Javier Briceño, the national intelligence director. Kamisaki and Briceño were accused of spying and misconduct after media outlets published information allegedly gathered by DINI on citizens, including former President Alejandro Toledo and current Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano. In February, Prime Minister Ana Jara announced that DINI would be temporarily closed for restructuring in response to complaints that it had spied on opposition politicians.
U.S. Judge Authorizes Citigroup to Process Argentine Debt Payments: Citigroup announced in a statement on Saturday that U.S. judge Thomas Griesa has authorized the bank to resume processing interest payments for Argentine bonds, with payments now scheduled for March 31 and possibly June 30, 2015. The bank had been caught in the middle of the dispute between the Argentine government and U.S. “holdout” creditors who refused to restructure their debt, leading Argentina to go into default for the second time in 13 years in August 2014. Previously, Griesa had permitted Argentina to pay restructured bond holders, but later decided that Argentina could not pay those creditors until it had paid holdouts. NML Capital, one of the holdouts, said it had reached an agreement with Citibank on Sunday to allow the interest payments to resume. The bank recently said it could lose its banking license in Argentina if it is not allowed to make interest payments.
Costa Rica Sets Renewable Energy Record: On Sunday, Costa Rica set a global record for renewable energy use, cementing its status as a world leader in clean energy. The Central American nation has experienced heavy rainfall in recent months, and on Sunday, the country set a record by going 75 days in a row using 100 percent renewable energy. Costa Rica relies on four hydroelectric dams to supply its energy needs, has not used fossil fuels since December 2014. Renewable energy expert Jake Richardson warned that the country should make sure to diversify its renewable sources, as the availability of hydro power can vary widely with the seasons, and hydroelectric dams can harm river ecosystems.
Former Spanish Prime Minister to Defend Venezuelan Opposition Leaders: Felipe González Márquez, Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister from 1982 to 1996, will join the defense team of imprisoned Venezuelan politicians Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, announced his spokesperson Joaquín Tagar on Monday. González, a lawyer by profession, has expressed concern about the current political and economic crisis in Venezuela. López has been incarcerated since February 2014 and Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, was arrested in February 2015 for an alleged plot against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Families of Missing Mexican Students Appeal to Amnesty International: Felipe de la Cruz, the father of one of the survivors of the tragic attack on students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico in September 2014, spoke to the U.S. branch of Amnesty International on Saturday in New York City. The families of the students went to Amnesty International to present their case in hopes of receiving recommendations from the human rights organization on how to advance their cause. The families also aim to visit the United Nations, but a meeting has not yet been confirmed. Saturday’s presentation was part of “Caravana 43,” a tour of 43 cities across the U.S. to boost support for an independent investigation into the victims’ fates.
On Thursday, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced new measures to curb corruption in Chile’s public sector. Speaking from the government palace La Moneda in Santiago, Bachelet declared that all public sector officials will be required to annually submit a declaration of financial assets, with the first submission deadline set for April 30, 2015. Bachelet also plans to amend the constitution to mandate that former presidents continue to file the declaration of assets even after they have left office. Bachelet asserted that she will make the first move by declaring her own assets.
While outlining the plan, Bachelet remarked that “solutions must be at the institutional level to keep our democracy strong. The Chilean state is based on public trust, respect for institutions and that pact of trust must be renewed.”
The declaration comes amid a series of political scandals that have troubled the country in recent months, including a case involving Bachelet’s son, Sebastián Dávalos. Dávalos resigned from his position as socio-cultural director of the presidency in February following allegations that his family received preferential treatment for a private-sector bank loan they sought to purchase land. In a separate high-profile case, several political figures that founded the financial company Penta Group were detained earlier this month on charges of tax fraud and bribery. A third recent case of corruption involves the Chilean fertilizer group SQM, which is accused of illicit campaign financing.
Bachelet’s plan received mixed responses. Opposition leaders said the plan did not go far enough to fight corruption. Eduardo Engel, president of Chile’s anti-corruption board, argued that while the plan sends a strong signal, it would not be the end of the corruption battle. “This is a very powerful first step […] but it must only be seen as the first step and not as something that completely solves the problem.”
On Monday, a lawyer for the Indigenous Rama people in Nicaragua told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that there could be serious repercussions for the Rama if Nicaragua’s $50 billion canal project is allowed to continue.
Rama leader Becky McCray, the lawyer for the tribe, said that the Rama were likely to lose their language along with their land if the group is displaced by the canal. Currently, the Rama language is only spoken by several dozen people in the world. Fifty-two percent of the route of the Grand Canal passes through lands belonging to the Indigenous Rama and the nearby Afro-descendant Kriol community.
In December 2014, in Brito, Nicaragua, government officials and the Hong-Kong based HKND Group inaugurated the construction of a 186-mile-long (300-kilometer-long) canal that would connect the Pacific to the Caribbean, rivalling the Panama Canal. Despite the Nicaraguan government’s enthusiasm for the project and promises that it will lift more than 400,000 people out of poverty by 2018, the canal is the center of heated controversy.
Carmen Aristegui, perhaps Mexico’s most well-known journalist, was fired Sunday night after a brief but public spat with her broadcaster, MVS Noticias. The clash began last week, and is allegedly related to Aristegui and her team’s involvement in the launch of MéxicoLeaks, an online platform meant to facilitate anonymous leaks relating to government wrongdoing.
MVS has claimed that Aristegui and her team improperly used the MVS brand in connection to the site without “express authorization,” making it seem that the broadcaster was a sponsor of the platform. After running ads disavowing any connection to the site, MVS fired two members of Aristegui’s investigative unit, Daniel Lizárraga and Irving Huerta, on Thursday.
In her Friday broadcast, Aristegui condemned the move, saying, “Instead of firing them, they should be given prizes.” The journalists had unearthed some of the biggest stories in Mexico last year, such as the “casa blanca” scandal, which exposed an alleged conflict of interest involving a multimillion dollar mansion reportedly designed for Mexico’s presidential family, and owned by a contractor doing business with the government. Aristegui made Lizárraga’s and Huerta’s reinstatement a condition for her continued collaboration with MVS. By Sunday, the broadcaster had announced her removal. “MVS Radio does not accept Carmen Aristegui’s ultimatum,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
The move was met with dismay, both on social media and outside MVS headquarters in Mexico City, where over 500 people gathered to protest last night. There is widespread speculation that the firing was politically motivated. “This is as if the Washington Post fired [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein in the 1970s,” Mexican political scientist Sergio Aguayo told the Los Angeles Times.
Appearing outside MVS headquarters on Monday, Aristegui vowed to fight the decision. “Our lawyers tell us that they don’t have the right to do what they are doing, our lawyers tell us that we are going to fight, that this is a blow to freedom of expression,” she said.
This week’s likely top stories: Opposition alarmed by President Maduro’s power of decree; U.S. and Cuba continue talks; Brazilian citizens protest corruption; Bolivia and Brazil to sign energy agreement; Cuba allows first public wi-fi center.
President Maduro Given Power to Rule by Decree: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was given the power to rule by decree on issues of defense and public security after new legislation was passed by the National Assembly on Sunday. Maduro asserted that the Enabling Law gives him the power “to defend peace and sovereignty” in the country. The legislation was passed in response to new U.S. sanctions last week on Venezuelan officials. Maduro claimed that the decree, which lasts through December 31, 2015, will help him fight the threat posed by U.S. imperialism. The measure spurred new fears among the opposition about government abuses. On Saturday, UNASUR nations called on the U.S. to retract its recent measures against Venezuela.
U.S. and Cuba to Continue Negotiations: United States Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson traveled to Havana on Sunday to begin the third round of talks between Cuba and the U.S. to discuss the re-opening of embassies in the context of renewed diplomatic relations. Jacobson will meet with Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator on U.S. issues. Talks began on Monday and may continue through Wednesday. The U.S. hopes to come to an agreement before the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11. Despite progress, there are still difficult issues to work through, such as Cuba’s desire to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the U.S. request for unrestricted travel for diplomats on the island.
Mass Protests against President Rousseff in Brazil: Protests against President Dilma Rousseff erupted across Brazil on Sunday. In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of citizens participated in the demonstrations against Rousseff and the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). Many protesters called for the president’s impeachment, claiming that she must have been aware of the corruption in the state oil company, Petrobras. Rousseff’s popularity has plunged recently, though she denies any involvement in the scandal. The largest demonstration took place in São Paulo, with over 200,000 participants, according to polling agency Datafolha. On Monday, the government sent a package of anti-corruption laws to Congress for consideration.
Bolivia and Brazil to Sign Memorandum on Hydroelectric Project: Bolivian Hydrocarbons and Energy Minister Luis Alberto Sánchez announced on Sunday that Brazil and Bolivia will soon sign a memorandum of understanding on two hydroelectric power projects, with the goal of increasing electricity generation as well as promoting energy exchanges between the two countries. Sánchez visited Brazil last week and held discussions with Eletrobras officials and Brazilian Mines and Energy Minister Eduardo Braga. The executives are expected to finish up negotiations in Bolivia this week. The planned agreement aims to strengthen the capabilities of the Rio Madera and Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric projects.
Cuba Allows First Public Wi-fi Center in Havana: Etecsa, Cuba’s state telecommunications agency, has authorized Cuban sculptor Kcho to provide the island’s first public wireless Internet access at his cultural center in Havana. Kcho has strong connections to the Cuban government. Kcho is paying out of his own pocket to run the public Internet service, which is expected to cost him roughly $900 a month. Approximately 5 percent of Cubans currently have Internet access due to prohibitively high costs.
U.S.-based IDT Domestic Telecom, Inc. and the state-run telecommunications compnay Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. (Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise, S.A.—ETECSA) have re-established a direct telephone link between the two countries. ETESCA announced the connection via a press release on Wednesday, but did not specify when the service went into effect. “The re-establishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba will help offer greater ease and quality of communications between the people of both nations,” the statement said.
This marks the first commercial agreement between the two countries since the Obama administration announced in December 2014 that it would allow telecoms to operate in Cuba as part of its broader rapprochement with the island. However, IDT’s efforts to re-establish direct calls to Cuba precede these changes. “We had conversation for a period of years hoping there would be interest and nothing happened,” said Bill Ulrey, IDT’s Vice-President of Investor Relations, according to the Miami Herald. “But then we submitted it to them again last year and we began to negotiate it but it’s not clear whether their willingness was a part of the ongoing negotiations.”
Previously, calls between the U.S. and Cuba needed to be routed through a third country, elevating costs. IDT has not yet announced new rates for international calls.
After a nearly four hour debate, the Peruvian Comisión de Justicia y Derechos Humanos del Congreso (Congressional Committee on Justice and Human Rights) voted against a proposal for legalizing same-sex civil unions Tuesday night. The final vote count was four in favor, seven against, and two abstentions.
“Today, you have seen which lawmakers are backwards, those that want to deny the rights of others, who feel superior and consider that there are second-class Peruvians. We are on the right side of history, and we are sure this is going to be approved,” said Congressman Carlos Bruce, the leader of the same-sex civil union proposal.
The bill has been controversial across Peru. A march in Lima this weekend brought together 500 people advocating for approval of same-sex civil unions. However, many in the Catholic-dominated country have aggressively spoken out against the proposed bill, including Congressman Julio Rosas, who lauded the vote for “defending the natural family,” and Luis Bambarén, the Bishop emeritus of Chimbote, who publically used a derogatory, homophobic term to speak about Bruce, who is gay. Bambarén later issued a written apology.
Despite the outcome of the Peruvian vote, same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage are becoming more of a norm in South America, and those in favor of the bill think it will eventually be passed in Congress’ next session. Mauricio Mulder, one of the four legislators who voted in favor of the civil union bill, has already submitted a request for reconsideration of the bill.
After a January 28 vote, Chile now allows same-sex civil unions, along with Colombia and Ecuador. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow same-sex marriage.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed a new law on Monday that sets harsher penalties for gender-based killings of women and girls. The new legislation gives a legal definition for femicide under Brazil’s criminal code as any murder that involves domestic violence, contempt or discrimination against women. Convicted offenders will now face jail sentences of 12 to 30 years, with even longer jail terms for crimes committed against pregnant women, girls under 14, women over 60, and people with disabilities.
The new legislation expands on a previous domestic violence law known as the Maria da Penha Law, enacted in 2006 by Rousseff’s predecessor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Maria da Penha is a women’s rights activist who became paraplegic after her ex-husband beat her for 14 years and attempted to murder her twice. The 2006 legislation had three main components: it prevented aggressors from being punished with alternative sentences, increased the maximum sentence for domestic violence to three years, and mandated that abusers distance themselves from the women they had attacked.
After Rousseff signed the most recent law, she enumerated statistics about the violence women face in her country—15 women are killed daily in Brazil, many through domestic violence, and an estimated 500,000 Brazilian women and girls are raped annually, but only 10 percent of survivors report the crimes.
On the BBC radio show “World Have Your Say” on Tuesday, women’s rights activists lauded the new law as a victory for women’s rights, but also cautioned the audience not to overestimate the law’s potential to eradicate gender-based violence, due to the difficulty of convicting criminals in the first place. Julia Pá, a filmmaker based in Brasília and a guest on the program, remarked that misogyny “is so ingrained in Brazilian society, and even in the judicial system itself, that you’re going to need to instruct judges and[…] people working with this on women’s issues and the importance of protecting women.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) opened its 58th session on the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) on Monday in Vienna, Austria, with several Latin American countries—Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay and Bolivia—lobbying for a reform of global counternarcotic strategy. The CND special opening session will meet until March 13 to prepare for the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem, with the annual session continuing until March 17.
The last UNGASS on drugs was held in 1998 with the goal of creating “A Drug Free World” by eliminating the illicit production of coca, cannabis and opium and reducing large scale demand by 2008. In 2009, the new Political Declaration and Action Plan of Action largely echoed the 1998 document and set the next UNGASS for 2019. But in September 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico called for a conference on drug policy reform. With support from 95 other countries, the global drug policy summit meeting was set for 2016 to discuss drug use from a public health perspective.
Latin America is one of the most drug-stricken regions of the world. According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Central America has seen an increase in the production and consumption of drugs since 2009. A UN study reported less 200 million drug users worldwide in 2005, but more than 250 million in 2012.
“[Current] drug policies are not producing the expected results and, as such, cannot continue without modifications,” said Yesid Reyes, Colombia’s minister of justice. He advocated for a thorough review of international policy to make it “more humane and efficient.” Mexican Under Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo echoed the sentiment: “[The world cannot] repeat actions from the past and expect different results,” he said.
This week’s likely top stories: Colombia and FARC agree to clear landmines; Peru recalls ambassador to Chile; Citigroup to sell Central American entities; Puerto Rico debates possible VAT; Chilean officials charged with corruption.
Colombia and FARC to Remove Landmines: The Colombian and the FARC guerrilla group reached an agreement on Saturday to work together to clear the country of landmines and explosive devices. Their joint statement was read by Cuba and Norway, the two guarantor countries for the peace process, and the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) will assist in the de-mining efforts. This weekend’s agreement marked important progress in the negotiations; for the first time, high-level military commanders were present, and the removal of mines and explosives is a major step toward disarmament. Over 11,000 Colombians have been hurt or killed by landmines in the last 15 years.
Peru Recalls Ambassador to Chile: On Saturday, Peru recalled its ambassador to Chile over spying accusations. Last month, the Peruvian government announced that three Peruvian naval employees were being investigated for allegedly disclosing military information to Chile. On February 20, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala sent Chile a diplomatic note requesting an answer regarding the claims, although Peru has not yet received a response. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz stated that Chile “does not promote or accept acts of espionage in other states or its own territory.” Peruvian Prime Minister Ana Jara claimed that Peru will not send its ambassador back to Chile until the issue is addressed. Chile and Peru have long harbored tensions over their borders.
Citigroup Inc. to Sell Central American Operations: Citigroup Inc. may soon sell its Central American retail units to Banco Popular Español S.A., which is based in Madrid, Spain. According to a source’s comments on Saturday, Citigroup aims to sell its retail operations in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama in an effort to leave markets yielding low revenues and to streamline operations. Citigroup hopes to sell for $1.5 billion. The deal is not yet finalized and is subject to change. Spokesmen for both banks declined comment on the matter.
Puerto Rico Proposes Plan to Combat Tax Evasion: Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla is supporting a new plan to impose a 16 percent value-added tax (VAT), in an effort to reduce the territory’s $73 billion public debt. The plan, which is currently being considered by lawmakers, would replace Puerto Rico’s current tax rate of 7 percent and would curb tax evasion on the island. Pending approval, producers would pay the VAT on raw materials, and include it in the price given to retailers, and the VAT would eventually be paid by consumers. Charging the VAT at each stage in the sales process would ensure proper collection. Currently, Puerto Rico’s informal economy is estimated to be worth $16 billion, a figure representing approximately 25 percent of the GDP. García Padilla is expected to make an announcement regarding the plan today.
Chilean Corruption Scandal Racks Opposition Party: After court hearings last week, a tax auditor, a former government official and four executives from the Penta Group, one of Chile’s largest financial groups, were jailed on Saturday for tax fraud, bribery and money laundering. Ten defendants were implicated in the scandal, including two tax officials and two politicians from the Unión Demócrata Independiente (Independent Democratic Union—UDI) opposition party. In a public declaration on Monday, La Superintendencia de Bancos e Instituciones Financieras (Superintendency of Banks and Financial Institutions—SBIF) announced that the Penta executives, including owners Carlos Délano y Carlos Eugenio Lavín, would be unable to maintain their positions as shareholders in the company.
On Thursday, for the first time since talks began in Havana in November 2012, a delegation of high-ranking military Colombian military officials joined ongoing peace talks between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
The delegation and FARC negotiators will meet as part of the talks’ End of the Conflict Subcommittee, and are scheduled to continue talks through Saturday. On Thursday, Colombian Foreign Minister Margia Angela Holguin said, “We’re looking at it, analyzing the possibility of a bilateral cease-fire. That’s why these generals are going to that subcommittee.”
The meetings, which an anonymous spokesperson for the Colombian government called “historic,” come at a time when Colombians appear to be warming to the talks. According to a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of Colombians are in favor of the talks and 26 percent are opposed. As recently as December, only 62 percent were reported to be in favor, while 36 percent of Colombians were opposed. The same poll found that 53 percent of Colombians believe that the talks will lead to a peace accord.
Luisa Ortega, the Venezuelan Attorney General, declared Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ineligible to run for parliament as a candidate for the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) until 2017. Ortega’s announcement followed a Uníon Radio interview with Jesús “Chúo” Torrealaba, executive secretary of MUD, who had received a letter from three imprisoned opposition leaders—López, former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos—on Tuesday night requesting consideration of López’ candidacy for the election.
“It’s not that it’s a null candidacy, rather that he cannot run,” said Ortega, alluding to an earlier court ruling against López. As mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas in 2005, López was banned from running for any public office, after he was accused of receiving money from the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Petroleum of Venezuela—PDVSA). Despite a hearing held by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that overturned the ruling in 2011, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the original decision.
López has been imprisoned since February 18, 2014, accused of acts against the government, including damage to public property, public incitement and unlawful assembly. An investigation is still underway for Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, who has been imprisoned since last month for his connection to two young people accused of conspiracy against the government. In both the case of Ledezma as well as Ceballos, Ortega was unable to say whether the two would be eligible for the MUD elections.
Nearly 100 protesters rallied at a city council meeting in Grapevine, Texas on Tuesday night to demand justice for Rubén García Villalpando, a 31-year-old Mexican national who was killed by a police officer in Euless, Texas on February 20. Police officer Robert Clark shot García Villalpando after a brief car chase that started at a business where police were investigating a burglar alarm. Police contend that García Villalpando was unarmed, but did not follow officer Clark’s orders.
Also on Tuesday, the family of 27-year-old Ernesto Javier Canepa Díaz held a press conference in Santa Ana, California to addressDíaz’ death on February 27 after police shot him during a robbery investigation. Police have not released details of the incident, but said that Díaz was identified as a suspect in the robbery.
A third police shooting of a Mexican national occurred February 10 in Pasco, Washington, when three police officers gunned down 35-year-old Antonio Zambrano Montes. Police officers said that Zambrano Montes had thrown rocks at them. A video of the shootingshows Zambrano-Montes running from police officers before they fired seventeen shots at him.
Officers involved in all three shootings have been placed on administrative leave as local officials investigate the incidents.
Mexico’s consuls in California, Texas and Washington State have voiced concerns to local authorities about the excessive use of lethal force by police. On Monday, the Mexican government called for the United States Justice Department to monitor theinvestigations of the shootings.
“Because these incidents cannot be seen as isolated cases, the Mexican government has called the Justice Department of the United States to follow the investigations of these cases through its Civil Rights Division and provide assurances that they are conducted with transparency and if necessary, that civil and criminal responsibilities are established,” said the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs on Monday.
El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced on Monday that the preliminary count of votes in municipal and legislative elections would be skipped, due to system error.
On Sunday, Salvadoran citizens voted for all 84 seats in Congress, 262 mayors, approximately 3,000 municipal council members, and 20 representatives for the Central American Parliament. It was the first time that voters were allowed to choose individual candidates from different political parties instead of having to vote for one single party with a predetermined list of candidates.
The TSE confirmed yesterday that the initial count would not be disclosed, due to system failure experienced by the firm hired to digitize the results. They will instead continue straight to the final count, which will be conducted manually and could take 12 days. This election also marked the first time since the TSE was founded that the preliminary count is not made public.
Despite the fact that 60 observers from the OAS were present to monitor the elections, citizens are concerned about potential fraud. According to a representative from the Junta de Vigilancia Electoral (Electoral Vigilance Board—JVE), the situation “generates an atmosphere of unease, insecurity, of worry and distrust, not having a base that is showing us how the results of the election are developing.”
The legislative elections are highly divisive, with the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (National Republican Alliance—ARENA) and the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front—FMLN) fighting for congressional seats. With the elections, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén hopes to gain wider support in his endeavors to combat gang violence in the country.
This week’s likely top stories:U.S.-Cuba talks promising; New delegation for FARC peace talks; Dollar strengthens against Latin American currencies; Tabaré Vázquez takes office; Peruvian businesses to learn from Costa Rican ecotourism.
U.S.-Cuba Normalization Talks Promising: After two rounds of talks—one in Havana last month and the second in Washington DC on Friday—the U.S. and Cuba announced that the re-opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana before the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas is not out of the question. While U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and her counterpart—Joséfina Vidal Ferreiro, the director for United States Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba—agreed that the talks were productive, Cuba remains on the State Departments Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC remains unbanked. While not a precondition for further normalization, Vidal emphasized that the removal of Cuba from the terrorism list was a top priority. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that the terrorism list was an issue separate from the negotiations, and that the review of Cuba’s position on the list would go through Congress. In simultaneous addresses on December 17, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the re-establishment of relations after Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds and the U.S. released the three remaining “Cuban Five.”
Colombian President Announces New Delegation for FARC Peace Talks: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday that a new delegation of negotiators will be sent to Havana, Cuba on Tuesday to join the ongoing peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The emissaries—five active generals and one admiral of the Colombian Armed Forces—are joining the peace talks with the purpose of discussing a bilateral ceasefire. Santos also commented on the possibility of reaching a solution with the United States to not extradite FARC leaders, should an agreement ending the conflict be reached. Last week, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the talks, declaring that any agreement must be just and meet international standards. “Transitional justice is an issue of concern and controversy,” he said. “However, I would like to emphasize that justice must fit the Colombian context—while respecting international minimum standards. No one shoe fits all.”
Dollar Strengthens Against Latin American Currencies: Several currencies in Latin America are at their lowest levels in years, due to the decline in commodity prices and the expansion of the U.S. economy. Higher U.S. interest rates are expected to drive funds out of riskier emerging markets, contributing to currency weakness in the region. This week, however, several currencies may make profits, with operators seeking to exchange them for dollars to avoid the risk of a currency relapse later in the year, in which the dollar may weaken. In Brazil, the real may decline to 3 reais per dollar this week, causing a further devaluation of the Brazilian currency as market players turn to the dollar. The Colombian peso may move from 2,480 to 2,600 pesos per dollar in the next few weeks. In Peru, the dollar is expected to continue strengthening against the Peruvian Nuevo Sol from 2.96 to between 3.090 and 3.105 Nuevos Soles per dollar. The Argentine peso will likely continue its slight decline to an official 8.77 pesos per dollar, but the informal market levels continue to stay at 13 pesos per dollar. Increased purchasing of dollars may continue the Latin American currency devaluation trend seen in the past five years.
Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez Takes Office: Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez was inaugurated on Sunday, taking over from 79-year old President José Mujica. Vázquez, a 75-year old oncologist who served as president from 2005-2010, represents the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA), a leftist coalition party. In his inauguration speech, Vázquez called for national unity, particularly regarding public education, health and housing. Vázquez will inherit a growing economy and historically low unemployment rates. This transfer of power marks 30 years of uninterrupted democracy in Uruguay since President Julio María Sanguinetti‘s 1985 election ended the country’s 12-year dictatorship. “I would like to earnestly greet the 30 years of uninterrupted democracy we enjoy in Uruguay,” said Vázquez.
Peruvian Businesses to Learn from Costa Rican Ecotourism Best Practices: Sixteen Peruvian businesses are attending the Seminario Internacional de Desarrollo y Gestión de Productos y Servicios Turístico Sostenible (International Seminar for Development and Management of Sustainable Tourism Products and Services) in Costa Rica from March 1-8 to learn best practices regarding ecotourism. Participants in the week-long seminar, organized by La Asociación Costarricense de Profesionales en Turismo (Costa Rican Association of Tourism Professionals—Acoprot), will visit Costa Rican businesses that have successfully created sustainable products and business models. The Peruvian entrepreneurs will learn from tourist guides, sustainable companies and hotels, and will participate in site visits to parts of Costa Rica that have applied sustainable tourism methodologies—the Monteverde Cloud Forest and La Fortuna volcano. The seminar offers technical round tables, keynote speeches and workshops.
Delegates from the U.S. and Cuba met at the State Department in Washington, DC today to continue negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries. According to an unnamed U.S. State Department official, the current negotiations will focus on reopening the embassies. Speaking to whether the embassies will be opened before the Summit of Americas in April, a State Department official said, “Both sides have an interest in doing this as quickly as possible. I hope that we can be done in that kind of a time frame but I just can’t be sure.”
Cuba is likely to link the process to its removal from the U.S. government’s State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list. The country shares the SSOT designation with Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuban President Raúl Castro has qualified Cuba’s presence on the SSOT list as “unjustifiable.”
U.S. President Barack Obama announced a review of the designation last December, but that process is still underway. Regarding the ongoing negotiations, a State Department official said, “It would be very easy to reestablish diplomatic relations if [the Cubans] didn’t link the two things.”
The Cuban delegation will reportedly also seek a solution to its banking problems in the United States. Cuba’s Special Interests Section in Washington DC has cited the difficulty of finding banks in the U.S. willing to work with it—and consequently, all consular services are being transacted in cash. The U.S. delegation will reportedly seek to hammer out bureaucratic details, such as the number of representatives allowed at the embassies and the elimination of restrictions on diplomatic pouches.
A vote to decriminalize marijuana passed through Jamaica’s parliament Tuesday night and is expected to be signed into law by Governor General Sir Patrick Allen later this week. The law, approved by Jamaica's Senate in February, will overturn the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1948, which punishes the possession, cultivation, selling, transporting, and smoking of “ganja,” the local term for the drug.
Under the new regulation, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana will no longer show up on an individual’s criminal record, but will be re-categorized as a low-level offense resulting in a small fine. Individuals will be permitted to cultivate up to five plants on their property. Additionally, the law permits the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as well as for Rastafarian religious ceremonies.
Marijuana regulation has been a hotly contested topic on the island, in large part due to Jamaica's close ties with the United States. However, Jamaica’s national security minister, Peter Bunting, assured the parliament that the new law would not affect international relations.
"The passage of this legislation does not create a free-for-all in the growing, transporting, dealing or exporting of ganja. The security forces will continue to rigorously enforce Jamaican law consistent with our international treaty obligations," said Bunting.
Earlier on Tuesday, Alaska passed legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington as the only U.S. states to do so. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, Uruguay permits the growth, sale and distribution of marijuana, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina have decriminalized possession of the drug, and Chile, Costa Rica and Guatemala are in the process of discussing new policies around marijuana.
The Paraguayan government’s Institution for Indigenous Affairs of Paraguay (INDI) expressed its hope on Tuesday that the Paraguayan Supreme Court will reject an appeal from two German ranching companies that have been required to return 14,404 hectares of land to an Indigenous community.
Roughly 500 members of the Sawhoyamaxa community of the Exnet nation have been living alongside a highway in the Chaco region since they were displaced from their ancestral lands by cattle ranchers 23 years ago. In 2006, The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) ruled that the Sawhoyamaxa’s rights had been violated and ordered the Paraguayan government to return the land to the community within three years of the ruling.
Paraguayan president Horacio Cartes ultimately signed an expropriation law to return the lands to the Sawhoyamaxa on June 11, 2014 after it passed through the House and Senate after months of protests by the Exnet nation that the IACHR order had remained unfulfilled.
Two months after the law was signed, Heribert Roedel, president of both the German ranching companies Roswell S.A. and Kansol & Company S.A., petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the law on grounds of unconstitutionality. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Roedel’s claims, but recently accepted a second appeal from the company that focuses more specifically on article 3 of the new law. The argument put forward by the company states that the article is unconstitutional because the “constitutional provision does not provide an assessment of the amount of compensation carried out by the Ministry of Public Works and Communications.”
INDI has pointed out that the Paraguayan state would compensate the two companies with roughly $8 million and called the move by Roedel’s lawyers their “latest attempt to retain the property.”
Department of Justice lawyers filed a notice of appeal and a motion for a stay on Monday with Texas Judge Andrew S. Hanen in an attempt to postpone a hold on President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.
U.S. District Judge Hanen filed a preliminary injunction on February 16 against a plan that Obama announced late last year to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. The first piece of the program—the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—was scheduled to begin on February 18. The other program, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, was scheduled to begin in May. Together, around 4.7 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible for deferred deportation. Texas and 25 other states have filed a lawsuit arguing that executive action on immigration was unconstitutional, and claiming that it would obligate states to increase their funding for healthcare and education. Twelve states and Washington, D.C., along with 33 cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities have signed an amicus brief in support of Obama’s executive action on immigration.
Hanen’s ruling has already interrupted the federal government’s immigration action plans: on Friday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s lease on an office building in Virginia to process applications for the program was canceled. A hold on the stay would allow the program to continue throughout the government’s appeal process.
If Hanen rejects the motion, the U.S. government is likely to request a stay at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Hanen’s decision is expected by the close of business on Wednesday, February 25.
Allegations of Espionage Threaten Peru-Chile Relations: Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz announced on Sunday that Chilean Ambassador Roberto Ibarra would not return to his post in Peru in light of the country’s espionage complaints against Chile. On Friday, Peruvian Ambassador Francisco Rojas Samanez was recalled to Lima after Peruvian prosecutors claimed that several Peruvian naval officers sold confidential information about their navy’s surveillance of fishing boats to Chilean navy officials. Two of the naval officers implicated in the leaks have been placed in detention. Muñoz has stated that Ibarra is “in consultations” to craft a response to the allegations “with calmness and without harsh remarks.” Peruvian president Ollanta Humala called on Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to issue assurance “that such espionage activities will never be repeated.”
Panama to Mediate Conflict Regarding Hydroelectric Dam: The Panamanian government formally announced negotiations on Saturday to address growing conflict over the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant on the Tabasará River, which is now 95 percent complete. A neighboring Indigenous community, the Ngäbe Buglé, is demanding cancellation of the $225 million project due to environmental concerns, and local protests stalled construction work on February 9. Negotiations over the dam are to be facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City, and led by a high-level committee headed by the vice president and foreign minister of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela expressed faith in the negotiations, saying, “we will do whatever we have to do in the negotiations to seek a solution. I have a lot of confidence and we will take the time that is required.” However, the president of the Regional Congress of the Traditional Ngäbe Buglé, Toribio García, said the community’s opposition to the dam is “not negotiable” and announced that they would not participate in the negotiations.
Guatemala to Eliminate Customs Duties with Honduras: Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina set a deadline of mid-December 2015 to eliminate customs duties between Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to improve both countries’ trade. Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Raúl Morales also confirmed that three shared land border crossings between the two countries could also be phased out, and expressed hope that El Salvador and Nicaragua would eventually join the partnership. The plan is part of a coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants fleeing to the U.S. border in the summer of 2014. In September 2014, the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras formed the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a joint development plan that included eliminating customs to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The Northern Triangle’s combined population is 29 million and has the highest poverty levels in Latin America. The plan has received support from the Obama administration.
Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld the right of adoption by same-sex couples on Wednesday via Twitter, but only if the child in question has biological ties to one of the partners. The narrow 5-4 ruling excludes gay adoption in other circumstances. “Adoption will only be allowed when it deals with the biological child of the same sex partner," read the decision.
Wednesday’s decision comes after a historic 6-3 ruling in August 2014 that allowed an adoption request from a same-sex couple for the first time. The Court found that sexual orientation cannot be a discriminating factor in second-adoption cases, and overruled Colombia’s Family Welfare bureau, which had denied a woman’s petition to adopt her partner’s biological daughter—who was conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups expressed disappointment, saying the Court did not go far enough and promoting the hashtag #SiALaAdopcionIgualitaria (yes to equal adoption). Wednesday’s ruling is the latest in a string of favorable precedents set by the Court. Colombia’s highest court has been slowly expanding gay rights—recognizing de facto unions for gay couples and granting them joint health insurance coverage in 2007; shared pension rights in 2008; and inheritance rights in 2009.
Same-sex marriage and adoption rights have so far been recognized in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and some states in Mexico.
Emilio Lozoya, the CEO of Petróleos Mexicanos (Mexican Petroleums—Pemex), announced Wednesday that some of the company’s deep water exploration projects would be put on hold due to the declining prices of crude oil. In addition to scaling back on research projects, Lozoya said that job cuts would also be part of a spending cut of over $4.16 billion dollars approved by Pemex’s board of directors last week.
The price of oil has dropped drastically in the last year. Although crude prices averaged at $86 dollars a barrel in 2014, prices fell from a high of $100 dollars a barrel in June of last year to a mere $40 dollars in January of this year. This week prices were slightly up at $50.57 dollars a barrel, a price considered $25 dollars below the amount needed to make such deep water exploration projects profitable. “The exploration of some deep water deposits, especially the riskier ones and those that have not yet begun will be suspended,” said Lozoya.
Pemex, which is the seventh largest oil producer in the world, has been rocked by a number of changes over the past year. In August of 2014 the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded in passing an energy reform bill to break-up the Pemex oil monopoly, awarding foreign companies oil contracts for the first time in Mexico since 1938. The oil giant has also had to deal with illegal tapping of its petrol and diesel pipelines, costing the company over $1 billion dollars.
The initial round of talks occurred in Havana on January 21-22, with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson leading the U.S. delegation, and Josefina Vidal, General Director for the U.S. within the Cuban Foreign Ministry heading the Cuban envoy. The U.S. has called for Cuba to lift travel restrictions for U.S. diplomatic staff, and has indicated that it will not remove Cuba’s name from its list of state sponsored terrorists until the U.S. embassy is allowed to reopen. Cuba has countered that its name must be removed from the list before it allows the U.S. embassy to reopen. It has also insisted that the U.S. halt its support for Cuban political dissidents, and that the U.S. trade embargo to be lifted.
Since the December 17th announcement that the two countries would aim to normalize relations, the Obama administration has taken steps toward easing travel and trade restrictions against Cuba, including a decision by the State Department last Friday to allow imports of privately produced products from Cuban entrepreneurs. However, it will take an act of legislation from Congress to fully lift the trade embargo.
A group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced a bill on February 12th that would end the trade embargo. Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, the lead sponsor of the bill, completed a 4-day visit to Cuba yesterday with two other Democratic Senators, Claire McCaskill and Mark Warner. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Mike Enzi, as well as Democrats Patrick Leahy, Richard Durbin and Debbie Stabenow.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen issued an injunction yesterday against programs announced by President Obama last November that would shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Led by Texas, twenty-six states are suing the federal government over the programs, arguing that President Obama had acted beyond the boundaries of his legal authority and that the programs would create significant new costs for states. In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “This injunction makes it clear that the president is not a law unto himself, and must work with our elected leaders in Congress and satisfy the courts in a fashion our Founding Fathers envisioned.” Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, 33 mayors, and the Conference of Mayors have filed an amicus brief in support of the federal government.
In a 123-page opinion that accompanied the injunction, Judge Hanen did not rule on the legality of the programs, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and the expansion of Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). However, he wrote that, by failing to provide the notice-and-comment period customary in federal rulemaking, the administration did not meet the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. He also noted that the injunction was needed to make time for a full trial on the case. “There will be no effective way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube” if the program were to start before a final ruling, he wrote. The government was due to begin receiving applications for the expanded DACA program on Wednesday.
The White House has indicated that it will appeal the decision at the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A statement released by the White House early today said, “The district court’s decision wrongly prevents these lawful, common-sense policies from taking effect and the Department of Justice has indicated that it will appeal that decision.” The administration is also widely expected to seek an emergency stay of the injunction, though it is unlikely that a stay will be granted before the application phase of the DACA expansion was due to begin.
Meanwhile, Congress is currently dead-locked over attempts by Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives to make the rollback of Obama’s executive actions on immigration a condition for funding the Department of Homeland Security. The department’s current funding expires on February 27.
At approximately 4 a.m. this morning, several armed, masked men reportedly broke into Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López’ jail cell, destroying his belongings. López was then forcibly moved to a small isolation cell without access to running water or a toilet.
According to human rights activist Lilian Tintori, López’ wife—who reported the events on Twitter—the move is retaliatory in response to her February 12 meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the White House. During the meeting, which also included the family members of pro-government and anti-government protestors killed during last year’s demonstrations, Vice President Biden affirmed his support for human rights in Venezuela and advocated an end to impunity. He also called for the release of political prisoners in the country.
Earlier this week, Tintori met with OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, as well as Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.
Various world leaders and NGOs have called for the release of Leopoldo López—who is accused of attempting to destabilize the government of President Nicolás Maduro—and other Venezuelan political prisoners without success. In October 2014, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein advocated for Lopez’ release. The Venezuelan government rejected al-Hussein’s statement, claiming his assertions were “meddlesome, false and unfounded.”
Listen to AQ’s interview with Lilian Tintori, on her fight for human rights in Venezuela.
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) announced yesterday an immediate ban on the recruitment of minors younger than age 17.
In a statement on Thursday, the UN's International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, the FARC reiterated, “We want to take steps that will ensure that fewer generations and fewer young people will be involved in military confrontations which put their lives at risk.” The new ban will increase the previous minimum recruitment age of 15 by two years.
Additionally, the chief negotiator for the FARC, Iván Márquez, accused the Colombian government of using minors to fight the guerrillas through the forced recruitment of young men and the use of children for gathering intelligence. He called on the armed forces to join the FARC in discontinuing the recruitment of minors.
The Colombian government and the FARC have been involved in peace talks in Havana, Cuba since 2012. Many opponents of the peace talks point to the FARC’s own use of child soldiers in their criticism of the negotiations. The Colombian government has stated that it has rescued almost 6,000 former child soldiers in the last 15 years, many of them former guerrillas. Yet the FARC has disputed these figures, and says that its recruitment practices are in line with international humanitarian law.
One person died and dozens more were injured after a protest against the Argentine energy company Pluspetrol turned violent late Tuesday night. A 25-year-old man, who was identified as Ever Pérez Huamán, passed away Wednesday morning after receiving a bullet wound to the abdomen. Police representative Edwin Rojas has said an investigation is underway to find out who fired the shot.
The protest began on Monday, led by the Frente de Defensa Ambiental (Environmental Defense League) in the Pichanaki district in central Peru, and escalated late on Tuesday when, according to Peru’s interior ministry, over 500 people blockaded the roads leading to a Pluspetrol office in Pichanaki, destroyed two tents, and stole a water pump. Police forces reportedly responded by using tear gas to quell the crowd, and protesters then reportedly attacked with stones, spears and guns. Protesters say that the energy company contaminates their land and rivers.
However, representatives of Pluspetrol have dismissed the accusations of environmental contamination. “It is a very basic exploration; we haven’t drilled, we haven’t contaminated anything, there is no possibility of a spill because we’re not producing anything,” said Pluspetrol spokesperson Daniel Guerra.
Pluspetrol has been working in Peru since 2001 and has been conducting exploratory work on lot 108 in Pinchanaki since 2012. The nearly 3 million acres of land comprising the lot is a key excavating site, and experts have compared the quantity of gas reserves available to those of Camisea, which supplies half of Peru’s electric energy.
Despite the promise of large quantities of natural resources, energy companies and local farmers and Indigenous groups continue to clash in Peru. Pluspetrol has been the focus of tension in two separate areas of the Peruvian Amazon since January of this year. Protestors claim they are demonstrating against President Ollanta Humala, who as part of his 2011 presidential campaign promised to defend the Amazon region against exploitation by the extractive industries.