It was difficult for any Latin Americanist (not to mention Latin American) not to feel a swell of surprise and pride when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson broke into Spanish at the end of his speech announcing his appointment to Commerce Secretary last week.
The announcement further filled out President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team. Governor Richardson adds to the moderate perspective and international perspective of a very capable, talented team. But as his heavily Mexican-accented closing remarks indicated, he also brings a unique focus to the job. The son of a Mexican mother and American banker father, raised briefly in Mexico City, Richardson doesn’t come from the working class immigrant world. But he does bring with him a true commitment (and responsibility) to the hemisphere and Hispanic voters.
In his closing remarks, he spoke first to Hispanic immigrants, thanking them for their support and promising that their vote brings a voice. And then he spoke to the “millions of Latin American citizens” pledging that “hay que fortalecer los nexos y recordar la importancia de un hemisferio unido.”
El Salvador was the last stop in what probably seemed an eternal five days to President Obama. Amid increasing domestic pressure regarding the intervention in Libya, Obama had to reduce an already short stay (although just by a few hours) in San Salvador.
President Funes, hoping the U.S. President would stay longer, jokingly said: “It is a pity because if you had stayed a little bit longer we could have invited you to get to see the beaches of our country that are one of the best in the region.”
The coincidence of Obama’s trip and the Libyan intervention unfortunately downplayed the importance of what could have been an even more historic visit. Before the trip, analysts, scholars and civil society engaged in Latin American issues speculated as to whether Obama’s trip represented a new realignment of U.S.-Latin American relations. The accuracy of that hypothesis is yet to be tested.
Speaking to the Chilean and Latin American public from the La Moneda presidential palace in Chile, President Obama signaled the start of a new era in U.S.-Latin America relations—one whose focus will be on enhancing security in the region, promoting inclusive development, strengthening democratic institutions, and securing sustainable energy resources. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s creation of the Alliance for Progress and amid political turmoil and regime change in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama’s speech to the Latin American public was both symbolic and significant.
It is no secret that the U.S. administration supported—and even lent assistance—to the forces that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in 1973 and installed a military regime with General Augusto Pinochet at its head. This is a part of Chile’s history with which the country continues to come to terms, serving justice to the victims of the regime’s human rights abuses.
In a joint press conference with President Piñera, Obama was asked by a reporter about the U.S.’ past role in Chilean affairs. He answered without missing a beat: “It is important for us to understand our history, and to learn from our history,” he said, but “we are not trapped by our history.”
President Obama’s visit to Chile coincides with President Piñera’s completion of the first year of his four-year term. Although his administration has been highly effective at rebuilding the massive damage of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, Piñera’s approval ratings are at their lowest level yet. Almost immediately after being sworn in, Piñera took a hit in the polls.
The unnecessary delay in selling two of his most emblematic companies (a television station, CHV, and LAN Airlines) sparked debate on potential conflicts of interest. Although he was able to regain some support after the successful rescue of the trapped miners, a popular revolt triggered by the decision to raise natural gas prices in the south sent approval ratings in a downward trajectory.
Though Piñera later sold his companies (or provisionally signed them over to non-profit organizations) and promptly announced that gas prices would only marginally increase, several other minor unforced and unpopular decisions have underscored his first year in office. Some of these errors can be attributed to the difficulties of running a country ruled by the opposition for the past 20 years. But others should be understood as part of Piñera’s natural entrepreneurial character, which naturally entails a certain amount of risk-taking.
During a two-day visit to Brazil this past weekend, and amidst a backdrop of escalating events in Libya, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff reinvigorated stalled political and economic relations between the two countries, signing a series of preliminary agreements that pave the way for stronger commercial links between the Hemisphere’s largest economies.
Obama’s trip—intended to bolster trade and investment ties with the world’s seventh-largest economy and prove U.S. commitment to a region increasingly engaged with China—kicked off with talks between the two leaders in Brasilia on Saturday morning. Following the leaders’ meeting at the Palácio do Planalto, Obama met with U.S. and Brazilian CEOs and delivered an address at the U.S.-Brazil CEO forum. Throughout the meetings around Brasilia, Obama stressed the opportunities for mutual economic benefit through increased cooperation, and cited the potential for the U.S. to sell “more goods and services to a rapidly-growing market of around 200 million consumers.”
After talks at the Palácio do Planalto, the two leaders announced the signing of a series of agreements to deepen ties as “global partners in the 21st century” in areas ranging from trade to technology, education to energy and air travel.
Chile is abuzz. President Obama landed at Santiago’s airport at 1:20 pm (local time) and will stay in the country for 24 hours. Every U.S. President since George H. W. Bush has been to Chile, but this is the first strictly bilateral visit in almost 20 years.
The last 13 months have been challenging for the country, with a series of events that placed Chile under the spotlight of international media, forcing a candid scrutiny of national strengths and weaknesses. A mega earthquake and tsunami, a transition of power from the center-left to the center-right, the tragedy of the trapped miners and their subsequent victorious rescue, and the celebration of the nation’s 200 years of independence have all made this an eventful period of time and a test of resilience that somehow redefines national identity. In this context, the visit of the U.S. President serves as a culmination after an intense year of soul-searching.
International news often praise Chile for institutional strength and economic success. But Chileans are not self-congratulatory. The country made a sustained effort to be included in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and now uses this yardstick to measure itself. Chile is a small open economy vulnerable to the swings of the global economy and self-aware of its light weight in international politics. For this very same reason, the visit of the U.S. President is sincerely appreciated, as it signals the respect Chile has earned from the international community and reinforces the ever-improving bilateral relations. If in the past Chile went north to ask for aid, or the U.S. went south trying to intervene in domestic politics to maintain the Cold War status quo. Now both countries talk of cooperation, common values and regional challenges.
President Barack Obama departed Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this morning and is scheduled to arrive at the international airport in Santiago, Chile, at 12:20 pm (eastern). He will hold a bilateral meeting with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to be followed by a joint press conference at 2:05 pm (eastern) and a public speech at 3:20 pm (eastern) at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda. The speech is being framed as an address to all of Latin America with comparisons drawn to his Cairo speech in June 2009.
Yesterday, in an address to the Brazilian people at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal, the President reinforced the U.S.-Brazil partnership, economic ties and cooperation in areas such as infrastructure and energy. Read more AQ Online coverage of his Rio speech including a video of the address.
Today’s speech to all of Latin America is being held in Chile since the “successful transition to democracy and sustained economic growth make it a model for the region and the world,” according to the President in an interview with Chile’s El Mercurio. In light of the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, among the issues to come up is the nuclear cooperation agreement signed between U.S. and Chilean officials on Friday.
The route from the international airport into downtown Rio de Janeiro along the Linha Vermelha passes through parts of the city unnoticed by the casual business traveler or tourist. Instead, a first-time visitor is likely to focus on the favelas dotting the hillsides in and around Rio, or on that first glimpse of the sea in anticipation of the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.
On Saturday evening, U.S. President Barack Obama (in his first trip to Rio) will be taking that same road after he lands at Galeão Air Force Base in Rio. On Sunday, some of his visits will include Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, a speech at Cinelândia Square (moved to the municipal theater as of March 18) and a visit to the Cidade de Deus, or City of God, favela made famous in the 2002 movie. The visit to Cidade de Deus is certainly a good choice given the implementation of Governor Cabral's Pacifying Police Units (UPP) strategy in that favela.
But as the President leaves Galeão Air Force Base on Saturday night or arrives on Monday morning, he—like other visitors flying into the adjacent international airport—may unfortunately not notice the community of Maré, which sits along the Linha Vermelha leading into the city center. The wall constructed along the highway to block the view of Maré, which seemed bigger when I recently visited Rio and Maré, is a concrete reminder of the isolation of one of Rio’s largest favelas. With 140,000 people living in Maré, its population is on par with that of Kansas City, KS, or Savannah, GA. But that is where the similarities—at least on the surface—end.
The youth of Maré have long faced an uphill battle in being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder, a major factor of which is a lack of education. Among Maré’s 16 communities, there are just three public high schools and 16 elementary schools. Of these schools, 88 percent do not have a public library according to data from Rio Como Vamos, a Rio-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that measures the city’s quality of life. But even more worrisome, schools are sometimes closed for a month or so at a time with teachers simply not showing up for work. And shockingly, less than 0.5 percent of Maré’s youth receive a university education. This compared to the 16 percent of Brazilians nationwide from the lowest income quintile that go on to post-secondary institutions—a number that is still low when compared to the 52 percent attendance rate for those from the highest quintile.
Without post-secondary education, there is little chance for Maré’s youth to enjoy the widespread mobility and rising middle-class status that Brazilians increasingly enjoy.
President Hugo Chávez announced today that he is freezing plans to develop nuclear energy in light of the events currently unfolding in Japan. This past October, Chávez signed a deal with a Russian company to build a nuclear power plant over the next decade. Highlighting the dangers of nuclear technology, despite technological advancements, Chávez has put those plans on hold. “Despite the great technology and advances that Japan has, look at what is happening with some of its nuclear reactors,” he stated. The president also noted that increased concern for the safety of nuclear power will boost demand for Venezuelan oil exports.
Venezuela’s hold on its nuclear energy plans follows China’s announcement that they would also be putting a hold on the construction of 27 new nuclear energy plants, almost half of new nuclear power plant construction worldwide, while they reviewed safety regulations.
Despite concern over nuclear energy triggered by the catastrophe in Japan, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera announced that Chile will forge ahead with a nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S. due to be signed during President Obama’s trip to Santiago next week. Piñera noted that Chile’s energy demands required the country to keep the option of nuclear energy open despite recent events. “Chile needs to learn about nuclear energy, and that is why we have signed accords with France and Argentina and we will sign another with the US,” Piñera announced following a meeting with the Japanese ambassador during which he expressed Chile’s condolences.
The earthquake in Japan and the emergency in the nuclear plant of Fukushima have had an unprecedented effect in Chile on the upcoming visit by President Barack Obama next Monday.
Weeks before the visit, the Sebastián Piñera administration had announced that a cooperation agreement on nuclear energy would be signed during the visit. After the nuclear crisis in Japan, that agreement has become a contentious topic of debate in Chile. Some environmental organizations and the center-left Concertación opposition have seized the opportunity to criticize the government.
Though the treaty will only allow for the preliminary steps toward the possible adoption of nuclear energy in several years from now, like Japan, Chile is also vulnerable to powerful earthquakes. The government has now tried to downplay the importance of the nuclear energy cooperation agreement, but until last week it had highlighted this agreement over dozens of others that will also be signed. As an inevitable result, the Japanese nuclear emergency has produced aftershocks in the political arena in Chile.