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.
The Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (The Union of South American Nations—UNASUR) and the Banco de Desarrollo de América Latina (Latin American Development Bank—CAF) announced plans on Tuesday to develop the first fiber optic cable exclusively financed by Latin American institutions.
The creation of the proposed Red de Conectividad Suramericana para la Integración (South American Connectivity Network for Integration) could reduce South America’s reliance on foreign businesses for the infrastructure needed to connect to the Internet, subsequently lowering costs of access as well as increasing connectivity speeds.
UNASUR Secretary-General Ernesto Samper explained in a press conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, that Internet speed in South America is significantly slower than in other countries because of the challenges of broadband connectivity in the region, causing prices to surge up to 20 times higher than in developed countries.
There are an estimated 22.3 million Internet users in Latin America, accounting for 54.7 percent of the region’s population. Samper expressed concern about the digital divide in South America, stating that “one who is not connected is lost” and that Latin America “needs to generate value added processes and create autonomous communications highways to strengthen its independence and cyber defenses.”
CAF has pledged an initial investment of 1.5 million dollars for the first phase of the project, which will involve an in-depth analysis of the current Internet technologies in each South American country to determine how they will incorporate existing cables into the future fiber optic grid. The vice president of CAF, Antonio Sosa, stated that the study would focus on demographics, technical issues and institutional framework in each country.
Former Dominican army captain and infamous drug trafficker Quirino Ernesto Paulino Castillo announced on Monday that he funded former president Leonel Fernández’ presidential campaign, alleging that Fernández was fully aware of the source of the funding.
In an interview yesterday on the TV program Hilando Filo, produced by reporter Salvador Holguín, Paulino Castillo said that he provided funds for Fernández’ presidential campaign from 2002 to 2004 (Fernández went on to serve as president from 2004 to 2012), as well as for the Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (Global Democracy and Development Foundation—FUNGLODE), a non-profit founded by Fernández in 2000.
Paulino Castillo indicated that over $155,625 in narco-trafficking funds was used for FUNGLODE. He also stated that Fernández owes him approximately $500,000, money that was used in his campaign for president of the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party—PLD). Paulino Castillo further affirmed that the former president was aware that it was “dirty money,” and offered to take a polygraph test to prove his claims.
While Fernández was applauded for reducing inflation and encouraging foreign investment while in office, he was also criticized for downplaying corruption in the Dominican Republic. Three of his senior advisors had their visas revoked by the U.S. in 2012 for alleged ties to possible drug-traffickers.
Administrative Minister of the Presidency José Ramón Peralta was asked today to comment on rumors circulating that his colleagues were financing a negative publicity campaign against Fernández. So far there has been no comment from Fernández on the allegations.
Likely top stories this week: Independent forensic team deems Mexico’s 43 missing students case inconclusive; Cuban authorities to expand Internet centers in 2015; archaeological relics uncovered along Nicaragua Canal route; a general strike in Haiti on eve of Carnival; Unasur seeks to facilitate U.S.-Venezuela dialogue.
Independent Forensic Team Deems Mexico’s 43 Missing Students Case Inconclusive: A forensic report conducted by a team of Argentine experts was released on Saturday, questioning the Mexican government’s announcement last month that the 43 missing students in Iguala were definitively murdered. Hired by the students’ families to conduct an independent investigation, the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists concluded that Mexico’s official statement does not provide sufficient evidence to close the case. The report also issued a list of discrepancies in the Mexican attorney general’s investigation, including mistakes in the collection of 20 genetic profiles from family members that rendered them unusable, and allowing the trash dump—a key crime scene—to be unguarded for weeks. The Argentine team insists that investigations into the students’ disappearances should continue. The attorney general’s office has not responded to the statement.
Cuba to have 300 Internet Centers by Late 2015: Cuban authorities plan to create more than 300 Internet centers by the end of 2015, according to the state-run telecommunications company, Etecsa. There are currently 155 public “cyber points,” established by Etecsa in June 2013, that provide restricted access to the Internet at the steep cost of $4.50 per hour—as much as 20 percent of the minimum monthly wage. Etecsa also announced the possibility of creating Wi-Fi networks in hotels. Currently, only certain professionals have access to the internet—with government authorization. In January, the U.S. eased export restrictions on IT equipment to improve telecommunications and Internet access in Cuba, a market of 11 million people.
15,000 Pre-Columbian Artifacts Discovered along Nicaragua Canal Route: Nicaragua Canal developers have discovered 15,000 pre-Columbian artifacts—mainly shards of pottery and obsidian—along the interoceanic canal’s proposed 173-mile route. The relics were found above ground, but archaeologists expect to unearth more artifacts once digging officially begins. Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a British consulting firm, and Jorge Espinoza, a Nicaraguan archaeologist, plan to work with the Nicaraguan government and the Chinese development firm HKND to conduct a number of specific archaeological excavations along the route. “Due to the quantity, it would be impossible to preserve every last relic,” says ERM. The $50 billion project is estimated to take five years and has faced significant pushback from Nicaraguan farmers citing social and environmental concerns.
General Strike in Haiti on Eve of Carnival: The three-month-long protests against Haitian President Michel Martelly are expected to continue today, with a two-day general strike planned in the capital city of Port-au-Prince over the high cost of gasoline. While the global price of crude oil continues to fall, and is currently at about $53 per barrel, the Haitian government has emphasized that it cannot lower the price of gasoline—currently at $4.50 a gallon after a recent $0.25 reduction—due to its PetroCaribe debt. Haiti’s debt to Venezuela’s preferential fuel program is currently at about $1.5 billion. Protestors have threatened to disrupt Haiti’s Carnival, set to begin on February 15, if the prices aren’t lowered further. Haiti’s long-delayed elections originally sparked the anti-government protests in December, and President Martelly continues to rule by decree. Despite threats of violence during the strike, protests against the high cost of fuel that drew about 6,000 people over the weekend were largely peaceful.
Unasur Seeks to Facilitate U.S.-Venezuela Dialogue: As the meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—Unasur) requested by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro drew to a close in Uruguay today, Ricardo Patiño, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, expressed Unasur’s concerns over U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Patiño emphasized the committee’s interest in opening up direct channels of communication between the U.S. and the South American nation after receiving a report on the potential impact of recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan government officials, which stem from charges of corruption and human rights violations following mass protests in Venezuela last year. The U.S. sanctions have frozen assets and restricted travel visas for former and current government officials who are believed to have taken part in human rights abuses, and were expanded to include their immediate family members last week after the Venezuelan government ignored “repeated calls for change,” and “continued to demonstrate a lack of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” according to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
On Thursday morning, Brazilian police questioned the treasurer of Brazil’s governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT), João Vaccari Neto, in connection with the deepening corruption scandal that has engulfed the state-run oil company Petroleos Brasileiros SA (Brazilian Petroleum SA—Petrobras). Vaccari’s questioning came just a day after the oil giant’s chief executive, Maria das Graças Foster, and five other executives resigned in connection to the scandal. After the interrogation, Vaccari released a statement on the PT website. “All the questions asked by the police chief were clarified,” Vaccari declared. “I answered everything transparently, and with total candor and tranquility.”
Vaccari has been under suspicion for months, since a former Petrobras director, Paulo Roberto Costa—detained last March and now cooperating with authorities—alleged that Vaccari was the intermediary between corrupt elements of Petrobras and the PT. Another informer in the case, Pedro Barusco, has alleged that Vaccari had collected 200 million Brazilian reals (about $72 million) for the PT. “[Vaccari] never received cash payments as treasurer of the PT,” Vaccari’s lawyer is reported to have said. The PT has reportedly released a statement declaring that the party has only received legal donations, and that all donations have been registered with the country’s electoral authorities.
While formal charges have not been lodged against Vaccari, his questioning represents a further challenge for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, as opposition parties prepare to launch a congressional probe into the scandal. This morning, her government moved quickly to stanch the fallout from Wednesday’s crisis, naming Aldemir Bendine, the current president of the Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil), as the new chief executive of Petrobras.
Ernesto Samper, Secretary-General of the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR) traveled to Caracas Wednesday to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and discuss efforts to reinitiate talks between Venezuela and the United States. The two met Wednesday evening in a private meeting at the Miraflores Palace.
Maduro announced the planned arrival of Samper during his weekly address to the nation on Tuesday night, during which he also accused the Obama administration of attempting to orchestrate a “bloody coup” against the Venezuelan government. The partnership with UNASUR would be aimed at building a “diplomacy of peace, dialogue, and understanding, so as to stop aggression against Venezuela,” Maduro said.
In addition to UNASUR, Maduro also broadcast his outreach to the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) through its president pro-tempore, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who Maduro said would lend support to a collaborative effort among UNASUR nations to fight the alleged U.S. conspiracy against Venezuela.
Earlier this week, the U.S. government implemented sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of corruption, narco-trafficking and human rights violations, as part of a sanctions bill signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in December of last year. The Venezuelan government has vehemently fought back against the bill, which places travel restrictions and freezes the accounts of the alleged human rights abusers and their families.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved $100 million dollars for Costa Rica to modernize its border-crossing infrastructure, the Ministry of Finance announced on Tuesday. The plan seeks to bolster trade competitiveness at Costa Rica’s four border crossings with Nicaragua and Panama. In late 2014, Nicaragua completed the construction of a bridge at the Las Tablillas border crossing over the disputed San Juan River.
Costa Rica also requested a $200 million credit line to back renewable energy, transmission and distribution projects. The energy projects would help mitigate the impact of climate change and promote sustainable economic growth and regional integration through the Mercado Eléctrico Regional (Central Regional Electricity Market—MER).
“In close coordination with the Bank, after reviewing the progress of all running programs, we established the most important projects for 2015, which we defined in accordance with the priorities established by the government in the National Development Plan,” said Minister of Finance Helio Fallas.
The IDB will provide an additional $2.9 million in technical cooperation grants for Costa Rica’s social and fiscal growth, and will help formulate the 2015-2018 Country Strategy, a joint initiative between the IDB and the Costa Rican government that will address issues such as macroeconomic stability, public finances, competitiveness, infrastructure and poverty reduction.
The current $1.1 billion portfolio of programs between Costa Rica and the IDB includes projects in areas of transportation, energy, education, tourism and prevention of violence, among others.
On Monday, Argentine Judges Ariel Lijo and Daniel Rafecas turned down the case of late prosecutor Alberto Nisman against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, alleging that the president participated in a cover-up plot surrounding a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires.
After investigating the case for over a decade, Prosecutor Nisman presented an indictment for the president and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman in mid-January for their suspected involvement in attempting to hide Iran’s role in the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people. Nisman was found dead in his apartment on January 18, just four days after the indictment. His death, which initially appeared to be a suicide, was declared a “suspicious” death upon further investigation. It is still unclear whether or not the death was a suicide (forced or not) or murder.
The case has been wrought with controversy. Yesterday, Viviana Fein, the prosecutor overseeing the investigation into Nisman’s death, denied the existence of a document that Clarín reported had been found in Nisman’s trash. The document allegedly called for the arrest of Timerman and President Fernández de Kirchner in June 2014. The government has stated that Nisman’s request to arrest the president only came in January, due to unnamed foreign pressure. However, Fein admitted Tuesday morning that her denial of the detention order’s existence was a mistake.
Yesterday, Judge Lijo declined to take on the investigation of Nisman’s allegations on technical grounds, claiming that it was not in his jurisdiction. A federal chamber will now appoint a judge to manage the investigation.
Likely top stories this week: the deadline passes for children of undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status in the Dominican Republic; U.S. companies stand to lose billions of dollars in Venezuelan currency losses; Michelle Bachelet moves to end Chile’s abortion ban; relatives of Mexico’s 43 missing students meet with UN officials in Geneva; Puerto Rico’s economy continues to suffer.
Children of Immigrants to Lose Legal Status in the Dominican Republic: A deadline for the children of undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic to register for legal status expired on February 1 at midnight, potentially leaving some 200,000 people stateless—most of them of Haitian descent. The deadline was part of a May 2014 law designed to normalize the status of the children of undocumented immigrants in the D.R. after a September 2013 court ruling revoked the citizenship of Dominican-born children of undocumented immigrants, sparking an international outcry. Thousands of people affected by the law formed long lines to register themselves in the past weeks, but it is unclear if the government will extend the deadline. Human rights groups have harshly criticized the government’s failure to adequately publicize information about the law, and so far, only 5 percent of the estimated 110,000 people eligible to apply for legal status have been able to do so. Meanwhile, the government of the Bahamas has also introduced strict new requirements that have disproportionately affected Haitian immigrants and their children.
U.S. Companies Losing Billions in Venezuelan Currency: At least 40 U.S. member of the S&P 500, including General Motors and Merck & Co Inc., stand to lose billions of dollars in Venezuelan currency losses, a Reuters analysis shows. The American automotive and pharmaceutical giants together have at least $11 billion in assets in Venezuelan bolivars. Companies like Clorox have already exited the South American nation due to continued devaluation, insecurity and unfavorable conditions. While the official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar—with government-set rates SICAD 1 and SICAD 2 at 12 and 50 bolivars to the dollar, respectively—the black market rate registered at 190 bolivars to the dollar on Sunday.
Bachelet Proposes End to Total Abortion Ban in Chile: Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced on Saturday that she would submit a bill to Congress that would end Chile’s total ban on abortions. The bill would permit abortions up to the 12th week of pregnancy in the cases of rape, a life-threatening pregnancy, or if the fetus will not survive—and abortions would be permitted until the 18th week for girls aged 14 and younger. Chile’s total ban on abortions began in 1989, a legacy of the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The anti-abortion lobby and Catholic Church remain a powerful influence in Chile, but some 15,000 to 160,000 abortions are still carried out in the country each year. “Facts have shown that the absolute criminalization of abortion has not stopped the practice,” Bachelet said. Chile, along with El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and Suriname are the only countries in Latin America that outlaw abortion under any circumstance.
Relatives of Mexico’s Missing Students Rally in Geneva: Parents and relatives of the 43 Mexican students who went missing after a protest in Iguala, Mexico in September are in Geneva this week meeting with the United Nations Enforced Disappearances Committee. To date, no one has been tried in the case of the missing students. The parents reject Mexican officials’ claim that the students were killed and burned in a landfill by members of the Guerreros Unidos gang, asserting that the government is holding the students illegally. At least 23,721 people are missing in Mexico, according to official figures. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission will present a report to the UN today, requesting that the Enforced Disappearances Committee make recommendations to Mexico’s government.
Puerto Rico Enters Eighth Year of Recession: The economically battered U.S. commonwealth saw its economic activity drop 1.4 percent between December 2013 and December 2014. Puerto Rico is in its eighth straight year of recession, with over $73 billion in public debt. Puerto Rican government officials met with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in January to discuss strategies for strengthening the territory’s economy. The Puerto Rican House approved the borrowing of an additional $225 million for public works last Thursday.
Panama’s Supreme Court voted unanimously on Wednesday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate corruption claims against former president Ricardo Martinelli.
Martinelli has been accused by his erstwhile political ally and former head of the Programa de Ayuda Nacional (National Assistance Program—PAN), Giacomo Tamburelli, of ordering the inflation of government contracts worth $45 million for the purchase of dehydrated food. Tamburelli, who is under house arrest, said Martinelli had ordered him to inflate contracts while he was head of PAN.
Meanwhile, Martinelli—who was attending a session of the Parlamento Centroamericano (Central American Parliament—Parlacen) in Guatemala—denied any wrong-doing. “I have not done anything,” he said.
As a member of Parlacen, Martinelli is invested with diplomatic immunity. According to the Spanish daily El País, members of Panama’s National Assembly have called on Martinelli to renounce his immunity. The current president, Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally of Martinelli who broke with the ex-president and accused the administration of corruption before running for the presidency on a strong anti-corruption message, said, “An ex-president must face justice and be held accountable if he didn’t do things right. […] I am a person who respects democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, and everyone is responsible for their actions. I’ll answer for mine; let the ex-president answer for his.”
Martinelli has not said whether or not he will relinquish immunity or return to Panama. “I will make that decision in the future, but I am not going to go for a trial arranged by Mr. Varela,” he said.
After a four-year debate, the Chilean Senate has passed a bill allowing for same-sex unions. The law passed on Wednesday with a vote of 25 to 6, with three abstentions.
Under the new law, called the Acuerdo de Unión Civil (Civil Union Accord—AUC), same-sex couples are afforded many of the rights of married couples, including health, inheritance and pension rights. The law was originally proposed under the Sebastián Piñera administration, coined the Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja (Couple Life Agreement—AVP), and has been advocated for publically by President Michelle Bachelet, who promised to pass the AUC during her latest presidential campaign.
“We’re very happy that the State recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples also constitute a family and deserve protection,” said Luis Larraín, president of the LGBT rights group Fundación Iguales.
While the bill has now passed the Senate and the House of Representatives (on a vote of 78-9), it still needs to be approved by President Michelle Bachelet and then will go to the Constitutional Court. Upon its final approval, Chile will be one of three South American countries to allow same-sex civil unions, along with Colombia and Ecuador. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow same-sex marriage.
Taking the next step to same-sex marriage remains unlikely in Chile, which has historically conservative laws based on Roman Catholic ideology. Divorce was illegal until 2004, and Chile is still one of the few countries in Latin America where abortion for any reason is illegal.
Mexican officials confirmed on Tuesday that the 43 students who disappeared in the southern state of Guerrero on September 26 are dead. Citing confessions and forensic evidence, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam concluded that the group of students was murdered and incinerated by a local gang who mistook the students for a rival gang.
The state’s extensive investigation—which involved 39 confessions, 386 statements, 16 raids, 487 forensic examinations, and 99 arrests—provides evidence that “allows us […] without a doubt to conclude that the students were deprived of their liberty, killed, incinerated and thrown into the San Juan River,” Murillo Karam announced at a press conference. The attorney general also denied the involvement of the federal army in the attack.
Relatives of the missing students and thousands of others marched on Monday—marking the fourth month since the students’ disappearance—demanding government action and concrete proof of what happened. Many remain skeptical of the government’s announcement, including fire experts, the lawyers representing the families, and the Argentine forensic anthropologists who were hired by parents to work with federal investigators to verify the fate of their children. The remains of only one student have been identified.
So far, authorities have arrested 99 people for suspected involvement in the students’ deaths, including the mayor and first lady of Guerrero. The Iguala mass kidnapping has sparked protests in Mexico and abroad since September, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized for his mishandling of the case. Peña Nieto responded to protests on Tuesday by saying that “[Mexico] cannot remain trapped [in Ayotzinapa].”
This week's likely top stories: Venezuelan opposition leaders halt protests in Caracas; Haiti swears in its nine-member Provisional Electoral Council; the U.S. hosts the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit; AT&T acquires Nextel Mexico; Rio’s environment secretary announces that Guanabara Bay will not be clean in time for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Opposition Curbs Protests in Caracas: Protests in Caracas—against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, chronic consumer staple shortages and a 64 percent increase in consumer prices—were called to an abrupt end by student opposition leaders over the weekend. Coming nearly a year after the violent demonstrations that led to 40 deaths and the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo López, the protests were quickly disbanded after several protestors clashed with police. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles canceled his speech and organizers emphasized safety, encouraging protestors to go home. A day earlier, in a nationally televised addressed, Maduro held his opponents responsible for Venezuela’s economic troubles, accusing them of organizing an “economic coup,” and criticizing an attempt by former presidents Felipe Calderón of Mexico, Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison.
Election Council Selected in Haiti: Haiti swore in a nine-member Provisional Electoral Council on Friday, in a step towards holding legislative and local elections that had been scheduled for 2011. Haitian parliament was dissolved and President Michel Martelly has been ruing by decree since January 12 due to the stalled elections. The electoral council was sworn in shortly before a United Nations Security Council arrived in Haiti, coming after nearly eight weeks of violent protests calling for Martelly’s resignation. Presidential elections are expected this year.
U.S. Hosts Summit to Discuss Alternatives to PetroCaribe: Caribbean leaders are gathering in Washington today—with the exception of Cuba—for the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit to brainstorm regional alternatives to the Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil subsidy program. The program has kept cash-strapped Caribbean governments afloat with $28 billion worth of oil on favorable financing terms since 2005. Although this perennial petroleum pipeline has been a lifeline in the region, its members owe a combined $12 billion to Venezuela. As the economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate with the declining price of oil, PetroCaribe’s 17 members are now seeking alternative energy sources. Capitalizing on this opportunity to wrest back regional energy influence, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is hosting today’s summit—along with the Council of the Americas and representatives from the EU, UN, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and other organizations—to advise Caribbean leaders on financing opportunities and regulatory changes that would allow them to incorporate natural gas and renewable sources into their national energy grids.
AT&T Acquires Nextel Mexico for $1.9 Billion: AT&T Inc., the second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier, purchased NII Holdings Inc.’s (Nextel) Mexican wireless assets today for $1.9 billion. The acquisition of Nextel Mexico’s network of 76 million people, its license and its high-paying monthly subscribers will strengthen AT&T’s strategic initiative of providing its first cross-border service between the U.S. and Mexico. This is the Dallas-based company’s third major expansion south of the border in the past year, after its takeover of DirecTV Mexico and Grupo Iusacell SA.
Rio Opts for Damage Control Over Sewage Treatment: The latest chapter in Brazil’s water troubles is Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games’ sailing and windsurfing competitions. With just over one and a half years to go before the opening ceremony, the new state environment secretary, Andre Correa, announced on Friday that the city will not be able to deliver on its pledge to cut the flow of raw sewage and garbage into Guanabara Bay by 80 percent. Correa estimated that diverting sewage from the bay and extending it to the entire metropolitan area would require an investment overhaul of $3.8 billion, and there is no known financing timetable in place. Cleaning Guanabara Bay by cutting the flow of pollutants to the trash-lined bay was supposed to be one of the game’s enduring civic legacies. The cleanup failure could potentially endanger the health of Olympic athletes, but the real losers are the residents of the surrounding favelas.
According to reports in German and Mexican news media, Mexico’s Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Secretariat of National Defense—SEDENA) has been implicated in the illegal sale of German arms in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in cooperation with a representative from German arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch.
Guerrero is one of four Mexican states to which the German government forbids the sale of arms, due to the determination that the weapons could be used to perpetrate human rights violations. Reports of illegal arms sales by Heckler & Koch to Guerrero and other embargoed Mexican states have circulated in Germany since 2010, and the company admitted in 2013 that it had illegally sold thousands of weapons in Mexico.
Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifles were reportedly among the arms seized in the aftermath of an attack on student teachers in the Mexican state of Guerrero last September. Mexican Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade neither confirmed nor denied that German arms were found in Iguala.
The accusations against SEDENA were first reported by the German daily Taz, and were later picked up by the Mexican news site sinembargo.mx. According to these reports, a letter from Germany’s Bundeswirtschaftsministeriums (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy—BMWi) to German green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele alleges that defense ministry officials provided false information about the final destination of arms shipments in export documents.
“Mexico has violated the political principles of the federal German government with regard to the exportation of military weaponry and equipment,” said Ströbele.
Mexican officials have yet to respond to the accusation.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, defending his government’s socialist economic model and accusing the Venezuelan political opposition of waging an “economic war” that has led to the country’s current financial crisis.
That crisis has worsened in recent weeks as global oil prices have plummeted and the price of Venezuelan crude, the country's chief export, fell from $98 per barrel in 2013 to just $39 per barrel this week. Venezuela’s inflation rate, which Maduro estimated at more than 64 percent last year, is currently the highest in the Americas. The IMF’s Alejandro Werner predicted on Wednesday that Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent in 2015, and Maduro said in his speech that the economy had contracted 2.8 percent in 2014.
Maduro was expected to announce possible cuts to social spending and a devaluation of the bolivar during his speech. However, while Maduro said he was willing to consider raising the price of gasoline and restructuring the country’s three-tiered exchange rate system, he rejected the idea of a currency devaluation and instead announced that social spending would continue, promising to wage raises and pensions by 15 percent and build more low-income housing.
Supporters of Maduro’s government are expected to rally on Friday, prior to a planned opposition protest march on Saturday.
Only two countries in Latin America—Costa Rica and Uruguay—can be considered “full democracies,” according to an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study commissioned by BBC for Democracy Day on January 20. The report says that a majority of Latin American countries hold “free and fair” elections and are better ranked than their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, but democracy in the region has stagnated. The governments of Cuba and Haiti are the lowest-ranked in Latin America and are classified as authoritarian regimes.
The study assesses a total of six factors, including access to the polls, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functionality of the government, political participation and political culture. Each country is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 10 and classified into one of four categories: full democracy, imperfect democracy, hybrid and authoritarian regime.
Nine countries (Chile, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay) are considered imperfect democracies, while six are classified as hybrids (Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Imperfect democracies are characterized by weaknesses in governability, low levels of political participation and an undeveloped political culture. The division between “imperfect” and “hybrid” regimes isn’t clear, says London School of Economics professor Francisco Panizza, but hybrids are generally described as having substantial irregularities in elections, oppression of opposition parties and greater weakness in governance.
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
Today, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments published their revised regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba, following President Barack Obama’s historic December announcement of restored diplomatic relations with the island after over half a century of hostilities. Effective January 16, these changes mark the first practical steps in delivering on Obama’s executive action.
In a Fact Sheet, the U.S. Department of the Treasury spelled out each regulatory amendment to the Cuba sanctions. While U.S. tourism on the island remains illegal, travelers will no longer need to seek advanced authorization from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for their trips, so long as they can certify that they are traveling under one of the 12 existing authorized categories, including journalistic, humanitarian, religious, and educational activities. U.S. citizens will also be allowed to use their U.S. credit and debit cards and to import up to $400 worth of goods acquired on the island for personal use (limited to no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products).
Notably, telecommunications companies will be authorized provide “efficient and adequate” services necessary to connect Cuba to the world under a new general OFAC license. Additionally, U.S. airlines will be permitted to schedule regular flights to Cuba without specific OFAC licenses, pending a U.S.-Cuba agreement on aviation standards. United Airlines has already announced its intentions to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark, New Jersey and Houston, Texas. American Airlines, which already operates charter flights from Miami and Tampa, Florida, will likely look to expand its services as well.
Although these measures are intended to usher in a new era of contact between Americans and Cubans, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate boom in tourism, which continues to be restricted. The economic embargo is still in effect, and most trade remains illegal. According to Robert L. Muse, a Washington DC-based lawyer who wrote a blueprint for normalizing relations with Cuba via executive action in the Fall 2014 issue of Americas Quarterly, “A couple cannot go to Cuba to educate themselves on a subject like Cuban music. They can only go under the auspices of an organization that arranges a structured educational trip.” Moreover, travelers will still have to acquire visas from the Cuban government and will be constrained by what the island’s meager tourism infrastructure can offer.
Evans Paul took office yesterday as Haiti’s new prime minister amid continued political uncertainty after Parliament was dissolved on Tuesday. Paul, a former journalist, former mayor of Port-au-Prince and presidential candidate, was nominated by Haitian President Michel Martelly to replace Laurent Lamothe, who stepped down as the country’s prime minister in December. Florence Duperval Guillaume had been serving as interim prime minister since Lamothe’s departure.
Paul, 59, has not been confirmed by the Haitian Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, he was able to become prime minister automatically because legislators could not come to an agreement over a disputed electoral law before their mandates expired on Monday, leading to the dissolution of Parliament. Martelly said on Sunday that he was on the verge of reaching a deal with the political opposition, but the negotiations collapsed, and Martelly can now rule by decree until new elections take place.
On Wednesday, Paul said that he would appoint a new electoral council to organize long-delayed legislative elections in 2015. Elections were originally slated for 2011, and their postponement has led to widespread protests across Haiti, with many Haitians demanding that Martelly resign. A presidential commission that Martelly set up in December to resolve the political crisis recommended that then-Prime Minister Lamothe resign. Paul is now the fourth prime minister that Martelly has appointed since taking office as president in 2011.