Likely top stories this week: Six people die in “La Bestia” train accident in Mexico; Colombia-FARC peace talks resume in Havana; Venezuela and Palestine sign energy deal; Roberto Azevêdo will become the new WTO director; and public consultations on energy reform begin in Mexico.
Six Dead and 22 Injured in “La Bestia” Train Accident: On Sunday, at least six people were killed and 22 were injured in the derailment of the cargo train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) in southern Mexico, a train that is notorious for transporting Central American migrants through Mexico and to the U.S. border. According to official sources, at least 16 of the passengers injured in the accident were nationals of Honduras between 20 and 30 years old. Public Security Minister for Tabasco State Audomaro Martinez Zapata said that thieves had stolen the nails and metal plaques from the tracks, which led to the accident. Migrants’ rights activists demanded immediate measures to put an end to the risks that undocumented migrants face when traveling across the country, and criticized the Mexican government for not taking this issue seriously. On Sunday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto lamented the accident via Twitter and expressed his solidarity with the victims’ families.
Colombia-FARC Talks Resume after Crisis: On Saturday, lead Colombian government negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced that the talks between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) would resume in Havana on Monday. This statement put an end to one of the biggest crises to afflict the peace process since it began in November 2012, which was prompted when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposal last week that any peace agreement must be put to a national referendum. On Friday, the FARC announced that it was putting the peace talks on hold to study the referendum proposal. In response, Santos stated that the FARC is not entitled to “dictate pauses and impose conditions” on the negotiations, and ordered his team of negotiators to return to Bogotá to evaluate the implications of a hiatus in the peace process. So far, the talks are advancing at a slow pace and negotiators have only been able to reach a partial deal on one of five points in the agenda. Still, both sides have remained at the negotiation table, raising hopes for an end to the five-decade-long armed conflict.
Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority Sign Energy Deal: On Saturday, Venezuela and the Palestinian Authority signed an energy agreement that will allow Venezuela to sell oil at a “fair price” with “flexible repayment terms” to Palestinians, as well as provide expert advice and training for the fuel management and handling. The deal was signed during a meeting between Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad al-Maliki, while al-Maliki is on a tour of Latin America. During his trip to the region, al-Maliki also met Ecuadorian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility Ricardo Patiño and Guyana’s president, Donald Ramotar. Venezuela, Ecuador and Guyana are among several countries from Latin America and the Caribbean that recognize Palestine as an independent state.
Roberto Azevêdo to Become New WTO Director: Next Sunday, Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo will become the new director general of the World Trade Organization. Azevêdo has served as Brazil’s ambassador to the WTO since 2008 and was selected in May to become the first Latin American to lead the WTO. In August, Azevêdo announced the appointment of four deputies, who will assume their posts in October: Yi Xiaozhun of China, Karl-Ernst Brauner of Germany, Yonov Frederick Agah of Nigeria and David Shark of the United States. One of Azevêdo’s main objectives in his new position is to revive the stalled Doha Round trade talks. In a recent statement, Azevêdo said that regional and bilateral trade accords obstructed efforts to revive global trade talks and “steal the attention a little from the multilateral system.”
Public Consultations on Energy Reform began in Mexico: On Sunday, Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática—PRD) began the first phase of a citizen consultation on the country’s fiscal and energy reforms. The set of energy reforms presented by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on August 13 would open Mexico's energy sector to foreign investors. The fiscal reform seeks to increase Mexico’s tax take by about 4 percentage points of GDP as a means to channel more resources towards education, health and infrastructure projects at the federal, state and municipal levels. Jesús Zambrano, the president of the PRD, called citizens from all parties to participate in the consultation. Members of the PRD have different positions from President Peña Nieto on both the fiscal and energy reforms and hope the result of the consultations will be taken into account by the central government. The first phase of the consultation took place in almost 3,000 centers installed in parks, plazas and metro stations in Mexico City and in the states of Coahuila, Campeche, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Colima, Nuevo León, Sonora, Nayarit, and Tabasco. A second phase of consultations will begin next Sunday.
Yesterday, at Mercosur’s presidential summit in Montevideo, Uruguay, foreign ministers of the bloc’s four founding members—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Palestinian Authority (PA). This trade deal is significant not only due to Mercosur’s strength as the world’s fourth-largest economic bloc, but also because this pact opens the Palestinian economy up to new South American markets. The PA had prior trade relations with Argentina, according to the Latin American Integration Association—importing over $1.7 billion of Argentine goods in 2010.
PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was present in Montevideo on behalf of the Palestinian people and expressed his gratitude: “We are glad to know we have so many friends in the region.” All four founding Mercosur members endorsed a sovereign and independent Palestinian state over the course of the past 12 months, starting with Brazil in December 2010.
Mercosur also has an FTA fully in force with Israel; it was signed in December 2007 but needed ratification by the parliaments of each member state. Argentina’s congress became the last such nation to do so in March 2011.
Israel places strict controls on the flow of goods to and from the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank—and leaders like al-Maliki charge that Israel is stifling economic growth among the Palestinians. An Israeli representative from its Montevideo embassy said that while Israel would respect the Mercosur-PA FTA, it is “not the best way to promote peace” in the Middle East.
As general debate of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) 66th Session got underway this week, the issue of UN structural reform was again brought into focus—with Brazil leading the charge. A thriving democracy and one of the largest emerging economies in the world, Brazil has powerful ammunition in making its demand—especially paired with the collective declining influence of deficit-ridden, developed nations.
The desired trophy for Brazil comes in the form of a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This elite organ has retained the same numerical composition—15 seats: 5 with permanent tenures (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and 10 with temporary, two-year terms—since its formation in 1946.
Critics of the status quo argue that this small size does not accurately reflect the global developments of the last 55 years. Brazil, as it vocally carries the banner of emerging nations that feel underrepresented in the UN, has chosen to act on reform. The most notable way of doing so has been through the Group of 4 (G4), an alliance formed in 2004 composed of Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. Each of the G4 nations mutually supports the other members’ bids.
The G4 seeks to expand the size of the UNSC by two-thirds, from 15 members to 25, through the addition of 6 permanent and 4 non-permanent seats. The permanent seats would be comprised of the G4 plus two nations from Africa. However, discord within the African Union has stifled compromise on this issue; Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa are all vying for the two proposed seats and cannot arrive at an agreement.
The G4 is also facing competition from a larger but less influential faction of UN members: Uniting for Consensus (UfC). Members of the UfC, some 40 in number, also favor expanding the UNSC to 25 seats—but by adding 10 temporary seats and keeping the same 5 permanent, veto-carrying members. This makes sense, considering that many of the UfC’s core members are regional rivals of the G4—including Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey, Italy, and South Korea—who have a vested interest in thwarting any sort of growing regional influence among the individual G4 members.
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.
Dilma First Woman Ever to Open UNGA
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff became the first woman in history to open the UN General Assembly. “It is with personal humility, but with my justified pride as a woman, that I meet this historic moment,” said Rousseff as she opened the general debate. “I share this feeling with over half of the human beings on this planet who, like myself, were born women and who, with tenacity, are occupying the place they deserve in the world. I am certain that this will be the century of women.” Rousseff can also be found on the cover of this week’s Newsweek, with a profile by Mac Margolis.
In conjunction with the opening of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly, Americas Society and Council of the Americas are hosting multiple Latin American heads of state. Go to AS/COA Online for livestreams and a schedule of events.
LatAm Countries to Join U.S.-Brazilian Governance Partnership
Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Barack Obama of the United States officially launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP) while in New York on Tuesday. The OGP’s goal is to give citizens tools to monitor elected leaders and achieve more transparent governance. Mexico is one of the six founding members and other Latin American countries that have pledged to sign on to the partnership are: Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Uruguay. “This is a smart program for U.S. policy in the hemisphere and a great leadership role for Brazil to play,” reports Bloggings by Boz, who links to commitments and plans from Brazil, Mexico, and the United States.
Palestine Can Expect Heavy LatAm Support at UN
Nearly every country in Latin America is set to support a vote for Palestinian statehood, which is anticipated at this week’s UN General Assembly. The only holdouts appear to be Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas toured Latin America in 2009.
In the last two months, the world has witnessed a wave of diplomatic support for a Palestinian state from a region that is continuing to extend its foreign policy imprint: Latin America. But will this trend yield any measurable progress toward a two-state Palestinian-Israeli agreement—or produce a negligible effect on Palestine’s quest for full autonomy and sovereignty?
Although Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela fully recognized a sovereign Palestinian state before the end of last year, Brazil’s decision to throw its diplomatic weight behind Palestine in December 2010 initiated a chain reaction through the region. Given Brazil’s economic prominence, its South American neighbors likely saw low political risks in following Brasília’s lead. For instance, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sent a letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas only five days after then-Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did so. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Uruguay have since issued similar statements.
After Chile formally recognized a Palestinian state earlier this month, Palestinian officials suggested Paraguay and Peru would shortly follow suit—the latter of which acquiesced this week. Peru was widely expected to acknowledge a Palestinian state in anticipation of the third Summit of South American-Arab Countries (Cumbre América del Sur-Países Árabes), which will be hosted in Lima beginning February 12.
This domino effect begs the question: Why now? The Palestine Liberation Organization was established back in 1964 and Abbas has been the PA president for over six years—so there has not been a recent regime change. Most likely, it appears that Latin America was simply fed up with the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Despite the optimism that persisted in September 2010 with the re-launching of the first direct talks since the 2007 Annapolis Conference, those negotiations quickly broke off—resulting in the present stasis.
The Argentine government officially recognized Palestine as a free and independent state, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman said on Monday. In a letter to the president of the National Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner recognized Palestine’s borders as they were defined in 1967, before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza during the Arab-Israeli War. Argentina’s announcement follows a similar statement of recognition made by Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations last Friday.
Only months after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed over settlement issues, Argentina and Brazil’s statements were drew both praise and condemnation. The Palestine Liberation Organization said the support from the South American powers sends a message of respect for international law and against colonialism. The Israel government, on the other hand, condemned the recognition of Palestine as deceiving, lamentable and counterproductive to peace negotiations.
Several Middle Eastern nations have been working to build stronger diplomatic ties with Latin America. Perhaps the best example is the relationship between Brazil and Iran which is centered on energy cooperation. Uruguay, a sovereign member of Mercosur along with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, has publicly announced its plans to recognize Palestine in early 2011. However, Israel remains a key partner for Latin America, and is the first non-Latin American nation to sign a free-trade agreement with Mercosur.