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Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

April 4, 2012

by AS-COA Online

From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.

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FARC Releases Military Hostages

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released the last of their security force hostages on April 2. The ten hostages—four soldiers and six policemen—were surrendered to hostage mediators and the Red Cross, and transported by Brazilian military helicopter to the city of Villavicencio. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos praised the release, but called it “insufficient,” saying the FARC must still release hundreds of civilian hostages and renounce all violence. 

Colombian World Bank President Nominee Outlines Vision

In an op-ed for Project Syndicate, ex-Finance Minister of Colombia José Antonio Ocampo shared his vision for the World Bank in light of his nomination for the presidency of the institution last month. He explained the need for social inclusion and the importance of incorporating market, state, and society actors. “It is not the role of any international institution to impose a particular model of development on any country—a mistake that the World Bank made in the past, and that it has been working to correct,” he writes. “Because no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy exists, the Bank must include among its staff the global diversity of approaches to development issues.” 

April: Obama’s Latin America Month

Latin America will be U.S. President Barack Obama’s focus this April, reports EFE. Obama kicked off the month meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the North American Leaders Summit. April 9 will see a visit from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the White House, followed by a trip to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas a week later. After the summit, Obama will spend an extra day in Colombia meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. This attention serves to shore-up support from the Latino community in the United States, says the article, which also notes that the “renewed relationship” Obama promised with Latin America in 2009 has not materialized. 

U.S. Senate Confirms Long Held-up Western Hemisphere Posts

After months of backlog, the Senate cleared a number of the Obama administration’s State Department appointments for posts in the Western Hemisphere. Among those confirmed were Roberta S. Jacobson as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs and more than a dozen ambassadors, including those for Barbados, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, and Uruguay. The confirmations came after “an agreement by Democrats to confirm Republican nominees and an understanding that the White House would make no further recess appointments,” reports The Washington Post.

ICE Reveals Record Criminal Deportations

Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced they arrested more than 3,100 immigrants with a criminal record over a six-day period last week—the agency’s largest operation of this type ever. “ICE remains focused on the removal of those individuals who constitute…a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators, recent border entrants, and fugitives subject to a final order of removal,” one ICE official told Fox News Latino. On Monday, ICE also released a report to the U.S. Congress showing that they deported 46,486 undocumented parents of U.S.-born children in the first six months of 2011. 

Keystone XL Reroute Addresses Environmental Concerns

Developers of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline identified a new route for the northern portion of the pipeline that will circumvent environmentally sensitive wetlands in Nebraska. Stalled since January due to environmental concerns, the 1,700-mile-long duct would channel up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. gulf coast. Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama urged a fast-track approach for the southern portion of the pipeline, approved by the administration in February. Canadian officials say they expect a decision to come after November’s U.S. presidential election. 

A Look at SOUTHCOM’s Fight against Organized Crime

The Wilson Center published an interview with U.S. Southern Command Commander General Douglas M. Fraser on transnational organized crime and U.S. military efforts to combat it. Fraser addresses how Southern Command operates, where, who it targets, and the effect of globalization on these operations.

Former Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Dies

On April 1, former Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid died at the age off 77. De la Madrid governed the country from 1982 through 1988, inheriting an economic crisis fueled by his predecessor’s oil-fueled spending binges. His government struggled to respond to Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake. "I took a country with great problems and leave it with problems,” he said upon departing from office. His most lasting legacy is overseeing the beginning of Mexico’s free-market transition. De la Madrid privatized hundreds of state companies, and entered trade pacts that paved the way for NAFTA a decade later. He is also credited with taking some small steps towards the country’s democratic opening, paving the way for opposition parties to win in local elections, though governors’ races remained controlled. In a 2009 radio interview, de la Madrid seemed to confirm rumors that the long-governing Institutional Revolution Party manipulated the 1988 election to ensure their victory. In that same interview, he expressed disappointment with his appointed successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, accusing him of corruption. De la Madrid later recanted those statements, saying his poor health left him “weak and confused.” 

Getting the Numbers Right on Mexican Security

Given U.S. Defense Minister Leon Panetta’s statements in Canada last week that incorrectly tripled the death toll of Mexico’s drug war to 150,000, Insight Crime takes a look at other recent Mexico-related miscalcualtions by U.S. officials. U.S. policy makers also made debatable claims that Mexican gangs represent a greater threat to U.S. Security than Colombian gangs did in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the error of describing Ciudad Juarez as the most dangerous city in the Americas.

The Risks of LatAm Dependence on China

An article for Harvard Political Review argues that Latin America’s newly touted “independence” from U.S. influence may easily be replaced by dependence on China. “[T]he trade practices of China illustrate that despite rhetoric claiming the contrary, Latin America’s goal of political nonalignment is impossible in light of its economic interests,” writes the author. Council of the Americas Vice President Eric Farnsworth weighs in, saying Latin America’s commodity exports to China in exchange for industrial imports reflect the same unequal trade relationship with the United States now criticized by the Latin American Left. “[I]f countries depend on [the commodities trade] as their long term economic development strategy, they will be disappointed in the end, just like they were disappointed in previous waves of economic growth and investment,” said Farnsworth.

Cuban Spy Permitted to Visit Sick Brother back Home

René González Sehwerert, a Cuban spy serving probation in the United States, was permitted to travel to Cuba this week to visit his sick brother. Arriving in Havana on Friday, government blog Cubadebate welcomed González as a “hero of the Republic of Cuba.” He will spend two weeks on the island, and must maintain constant contact with authorities in the United States. Some analysts questioned if the decision to allow González to travel home might be a diplomatic gesture by the United States to convince Cuba to allow jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross to visit his dying mother in the United States.

Dominican Presidential Candidate Woos Diaspora Voters

Danilo Medina, the Dominican Liberation Party’s presidential candidate, began a trip to the United States on Sunday, in hopes of winning the votes of the large diaspora community. Medina leads in polls in the Dominican Republic, and will make stops in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, reports Infolatam. Dominican elections will take place May 20. 

Approval Rating on the Rise for Venezuela’s Chávez

Bloggings by Boz’s James Bosworth looks at poll numbers from Datanalisis in Venezuela, which show an upward trend in Chávez’s approval rating over the past six months, now topping 60 percent. Chávez’s numbers improved considerably from only a year ago, a fact Bosworth attributes partially to sympathy for his cancer diagnosis. Given the president’s high approval ratings, Bosworth believes Chávez would win the election if it were held today. Nevertheless, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles also enjoys a positive evaluation among half of Venezuelans—including 54 percent among undecided voters and 23 percent among chavistas—a fact that could help his election prospects in the long run. “Capriles being in positive territory overall and among [undecided] voters are key signs that he is a candidate who has a shot at winning the election, particularly with 20 percent of voters still undecided,” Bosworth writes. 

Chávez Threatens Companies that Support Opposition

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez warned banks and companies that support the opposition of possible nationalization, alleging a plan to destabilize the country if his rival loses the October 7 presidential election. “We must denounce this plan before UNASUR, CELAC, and the international community: the government of the United States is behind this plan,” Chávez said. He asked the Venezuelan Armed Forces to “keep an eye” on the activities of businesses associated with the opposition. 

Correa Confirms Absence at Summit of the Americas

In an open letter, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa confirmed that he will not attend this month’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, if Cuba is not permitted to attend. “By definition, one cannot call the meeting ‘Summit of the Americas,’ if a country of the Americas is intentionally and unjustifiably excluded,” Correa wrote, adding that “our wish to attend [the Summit] is great, exceeded only by the strength of our convictions.” 

Peru Inaugurates Gas Pipeline Project

Last week Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced the inauguration of the Gasoducto del Sur, the country’s largest infrastructure project to date. The $16 billion pipeline will run around 600 miles and connect gas fields in the north with oil refineries in the south and should create around 40,000 jobs. Humala hopes the pipeline will lead to development of the south, with cheaper access to natural gas attracting industry and jobs. Construction will begin in June.

Bolivian Officials Must Speak Spanish and an Indigenous Language

The Bolivian Senate passed a law last week that will make it obligatory that all state employees speak Spanish and an indigenous language. According to Vice President Álvaro García Linera, the law seeks “to recognize, protect, promote, transmit, develop, and regulate the individual and collective linguistic rights of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.” The law also obliges state media to broadcast programming on the country’s linguistic diversity. President Evo Morales will sign the bill into law shortly, reports Bolivia’s El Deber.

Food Inflation Outpaces General Inflation in Latin America

A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean shows that food inflation in the region has stabilized after two years of variability. However, as FAO official Fernando Soto Baquero indicates, the food inflation rate remains higher than that of general inflation: “In February of this year, [food] inflation was two percentage points higher than the general inflation rate,” he said. Food inflation was double the official inflation rate in Argentina, Chile, and Panama, though it was down in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru.

Brazil Announces New Tax Cuts, Industry Stimulus

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced a $35 billion stimulus package yesterday, with Brazil facing an economic slowdown due to what she called “predatory” trade practices by rich nations. The package includes cuts in the payroll tax for large industries and increases in government purchases of locally-made goods. Finance Minister Guido Mantega also stressed the importance of weakening the Brazilian currency, the real. The real has strengthened 45 percent since 2005, making Brazilian exports more expensive and therefore less competitive. “We won’t hesitate to do whatever needs to be done, within our laws, to defend our companies, jobs, and growth,” Rousseff told business leaders.

World Cup Law Passes Brazilian Lower House

On March 28, Brazil’s House of Representatives passed a revised version of the controversial World Cup Law, the legal framework required by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in order for Brazil to host the international soccer tournament. A clause to allow the sale of alcohol at stadiums—which is prohibited under Brazilian law—was removed, which will mean FIFA will have to negotiate with state governments and stadiums directly. The bill will also set aside 10 percent of all tickets at discount prices for students and seniors. The bill must now pass the Senate, but voting is delayed due to legislators’ refusal to meet with Jérôme Valcke, FIFA secretary-general. Valcke caused a rift with the Brazilian government last month when he said Brazil needed a “kick up the backside” to speed up World Cup preparations. 

Marking 30 Years of Debate over the Falklands

April 2 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War, a 74-day military confrontation between Argentina and the United Kingdom. With the debate over the islands’ sovereignty recently renewed, Americas Quarterly looks at the islands’ strategic and economic importance, and begs a resolution. “The continuation of the status quo is of no good to anyone and should be a matter of concern, not of pride,” writes Ivan Petrella, academic director of Buenos Aires-based Fundación Pensar. 

Buenos Aires’ Ailing Infrastructure

The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch looks at Buenos Aires’ infrastructure challenge in light of congestion, poor service, and an accident in February which killed 51 and injured hundreds. Analysts attribute the poor condition of the city’s transit to a lack of investment, aided by low returns due to low fare collection and high employee wages. The blog argues a solution could lie in a public-private partnership like those in Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, “with the private sector recovering their investments at a reasonable profit from regulated rates,” though it acknowledges that this may be unlikely given the government’s preference for state control.

Tags: FARC, Colombian Hostages, World Bank President, Obama Latin America, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs

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