If there is one thing consistent about President Barack Obama, it’s his ability to defy the odds. His nomination over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and his eventual election as president made history. His seventh State of the Union speech, delivered on Tuesday, clearly showed his intention to resist any lame-duck status as he enters the final stretch of his presidency.
The State of the Union speech is an occasion for the president to tout his achievements and outline a path for the coming year. It is an ambitious wish list coupled with the hope—and maybe the possibility—of actually getting things done. This year’s speech was no exception.
The difference between this year’s speech and Obama’s earlier addresses was the president’s tone and passion. For many of Obama’s early supporters, the passion seemed to have dissipated since his 2012 re-election. The 2014 mid-term election drubbing to the Republicans indicated that the presidency was about to enter the predictable lame-duck status. Many referred to Obama’s last SOTU address as accomplishing very little in terms of concrete actions.
Just like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama is now facing a Congress led by the opposition party in his final two years in office. By the midterms, all the talk about legacy was beginning to be relegated to the verdict of the historians, with the presidential sweepstakes soon to begin. While the usual post-election platitudes were uttered by both the president and the Republican leadership about compromise and cooperation, no serious observer took them seriously. Lame-duck status had arrived.
Then a series of events in November and December occurred, and Obama began to sound like the Obama of 2008. On immigration, he chose to use an ambitious executive order to grant relief to some undocumented immigrants. He also concluded a climate change agreement with China, making it possible for the world’s two largest economies to agree on something vital. His sanctions strategy regarding Russia’s behavior in Ukraine was beginning to have an impact. Finally, Obama used skillful diplomacy to reinstate diplomatic relations with Cuba, with the hope that someday, the 50-plus-year trade embargo would come to an end.
More than Christmas, Three Kings Day on Tuesday was the holiday to celebrate if you come from Latin America. Starting in Mexico and going south, the holiday—the Dia de los Reyes Magos—commemorates the New Testament story in Matthew that describes the visit of three wise men to Bethlehem to see the newborn baby Jesus. Each one bears a gift for the Christ child. It is also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
So I wondered whether Tuesday's meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto bestowed anything more than symbolic gifts during this first official visit by Mexico's leader to the United States.
Can Peña Nieto's offer to prevent a surge of illegal immigration from Mexico actually be implemented? The Obama administration fears that with the president's recently signed executive action, many Mexicans may be falsely lured into thinking that they can now enter illegally and get a work permit. Did Obama's offer to help Mexico with a new public relations campaign to protect its southern border from migrants from El Salvador and Honduras symbolize another gift on Three Kings Day? Did both leaders promise to help finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement that presents economic opportunities for both nations? The answer to all these questions is yes. They are important steps forward in the bilateral relationship with our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
But the real gifts that Mexico needed on this holiday of giving were not in hand, in spite of the willingness of both countries to work together to improve economic gains and better cross-border relations. The gift of democratic governance is something that cannot be bestowed from the outside. This is something that the United States has learned the hard way, from Iraq to Afghanistan to other parts of the world where we have been generous with our assistance but more often disappointed by the results.
That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
Over the past week, politicians have argued about whether or not President Barack Obama should take administrative action to protected undocumented immigrants and their families. But for small business owners like me, the case is clear: the president should act quickly and boldly.
I’m the proud, tax-paying owner of Latina Beauty Variedades, a clothing and perfume store in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I’ve owned my business for four years, and I’ve been proud to be of service to my community and watch my business grow.
When I first came to this country from Uruguay 12 years ago to find a better life for my family, it was hard to make ends meet. So I started working cleaning houses. After several years of doing this back-breaking work to just barely survive, in 2010 I decided that I would not let anyone else be my boss. I started my own small business. But, because I was undocumented, I could not access credit through banks, so I had to use my savings from cleaning jobs to get my business up and running.
My business is now doing well, but my family lives with the constant fear of being separated. I live here with my husband and my two daughters. All but one of us are undocumented: one of my two daughters benefited from President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, while the other missed the deadline by less than a month. But my children are American through and through. When the thought of going back to Uruguay comes up, my daughters simply say no. They’ve been raised here and this is their home.
Today, U.S. officials said that President Barack Obama is planning to announce a broad overhaul of the national immigration enforcement system to protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
The official announcement could come as early as next week, and Obama’s actions will be manifold. First, an enforcement memorandum would direct federal law enforcement and judicial agencies to deprioritize the deportation of undocumented immigrants with strong family ties and no criminal history. Another component of the executive order would allow many parents of children who are American citizens or have legal status to obtain legal work documents, thus quelling fears of family separation.
Depending on the strictness of the White House’s final resolution, these protections would be extended to at least 2.5 million of these parents who have been in the country for at least 10 years—and potentially to 3.3 million more who have been in the country for 5 years, plus the 1 million unauthorized immigrant youth. Lastly, Obama’s executive order would expand opportunities for immigrants with high-tech skills, reroute security resources to the border, and revive the immigration enforcement program called Secure Communities.
For U.S. Democrats, hiding President Barack Obama and making the U.S. midterm elections about local politics was supposed to curtail the predicted gains of the Republican Party.
That strategy did not work, and the GOP gains turned into a wave. While midterms are not presidential elections, the new U.S. electoral map may favor the possibility of a trifecta sweep for the GOP in 2016.
We can therefore expect a spirited race for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. And unlike the Democrats, who could claim Hillary Clinton as their nominee early in the primary season (if not before), the Republicans will dominate the news cycle once the Iowa caucuses meet in January 2016. This could favor the GOP if the party veers closer to the political center.
Is it over for Obama? On November 6, Canada’s most respected daily, The Globe and Mail, published an editorial entitled “Obama is still alive and living in Washington.” Yet despite the convincing GOP victory on November 4, U.S. pundits on the Sunday shows have been careful to avoid concluding that the Obama presidency is over. Quite the opposite: spokespersons of both political parties recognize that political gridlock was likely uppermost in voters’ minds on Election Day. Talk of bipartisan immigration reform, tax reform, and an infrastructure rebuilding project was heard on various news shows in the course of the week, thereby keeping Obama potentially relevant in the political mix.
What do the Brooklyn hipster and the Brazilian president have in common? They both think they look good in a pair of oversized, black-framed glasses.
Sometimes called “hipster glasses” in the United States and óculos setentas (70s glasses) in Brazil, these trendy frames have proven to complement both skinny jeans and struggling presidents in need of appearing more accessible to the youth vote. During the final months of the Brazilian presidential race, incumbent Dilma Rousseff’s campaign began circulating a stylized poster depicting Rousseff as a young revolutionary in the 1970s wearing a plaid shirt and sporting the thick-framed glasses.
It’s an outfit you might spot in any number of artsy New York or São Paulo neighborhoods today. The retro glasses have been re-popularized in recent years by sports stars (Lebron James, David Beckham), artists (Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z), and politicians (former U.S. presidential candidate Rick Perry, for one), but Rousseff wore them before they were cool, which makes her that much cooler.
“It was an attempt to bring Dilma closer to youngsters and people who did not relate to her more 'formal' image as president,” said João Marcelo Ehlert Maia, a professor of sociology at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro. “The idea is to present the 'guerrilla look' in a new fashion. 'Hipster Dilma' is, in fact, 'Revolutionary Dilma.’”
On Tuesday, the Harper Conservative government decided with its majority in the Canadian House of Commons to engage Canada in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS. In so doing, the Canadian government will carry out a mix of air strikes, surveillance, training and humanitarian aid. The mission is meant to last six months, but will be subject to assessment and review within that period. There is, however, the possibility that it could be extended or expanded.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals opposed the move. As requested, the opposition was able to have a full-throated debate, as a sovereign and healthy democracy should.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the case for the ISIS mission using arguments similar to those of U.S. President Barack Obama. Given its senseless violence and genocidal actions, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a brutal, murderous force that has a total disregard for the rule of law and basic humanitarian principles. With some ISIS recruits coming from Western countries such as Canada, Harper argued that it has become imperative for the Canadian government to either collaborate with the coalition abroad or face a more serious problem at home with homegrown terrorism.
The mission is UN-sanctioned, and involves over 50 countries, including key Arab states and our traditional allies, such as the U.S., France and Great Britain. Doing nothing would have been unthinkable: on this, most Canadians could agree. The real question was to determine the nature and the extent of Canadian involvement.
This week’s likely top stories: Barack Obama delays executive action on immigration; a former Petrobras director names 40 politicians in scandal; former Salvadoran President Flores turns himself in; private equity fundraising in Latin America this year could reach $8 billion; Chileans remember September 11, 1973.
Immigration reform stalled: U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise to use his executive authority to reform immigration has hit a roadblock in the run-up to midterm elections, angering immigrant rights activists who hoped he would take action to ease deportations after Congress’ August recess. Polls conducted this summer revealed that voters in states like Arkansas and Iowa were overwhelmingly opposed to executive action on immigration, and a July survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press showed that a majority of respondents believed Obama had mishandled the surge of unaccompanied minors at the border this summer. A White House official said this weekend that the president will take action on immigration at the end of the year.
Petrobras corruption scandal: Paulo Roberto Costa—a former director of Brazilian state-run oil company Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) who was arrested in 2013 for corruption—alleged that more than 40 Brazilian politicians received commissions for contracts signed with Petrobras between 2004 and 2012. Brazilian media revealed on Saturday that most of the individuals Costa named were members of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT), further complicating President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election bid on October 5. Costa struck a plea deal with prosecutors before naming the politicians. Rousseff said Saturday that she would await official information to “take all appropriate measures” to investigate the scandal.
El Salvador’s Francisco Flores under house arrest: Former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, of the ARENA party, turned himself in to Salvadoran authorities on Friday, four months after a warrant for his arrest was issued in May. Flores was accused of misappropriating $15 million during his 1999-2004 presidential term, funds allegedly provided by Taiwan to help with reconstruction efforts after two earthquakes, as well as to fight drug trafficking and crime. On Friday, Flores—who had been missing for months—said he had turned himself in “voluntarily and out of respect for the law.” He is currently under house arrest and denies the charges against him.
Private equity push in Latin America: Private equity and venture capital fundraising in Latin America has already reached $3.5 billion in the first half of 2014, indicating that year-end totals could reach as high as $8 billion, according to new data from the Latin American Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (LAVCA). In 2011, a record $10.27 billion was raised, and in 2013, investments reached a six-year high—but have decreased by 10 percent for the same period this year. According to LAVCA, information technology attracted 30 percent of total investments, followed by healthcare.
Chileans march in memory of September 11: Thousands of Chileans marched through Santiago on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende and led to the death or disappearance of some 3,000 people. The march was largely peaceful, according to Chilean police, although four journalists were injured when some of the protesters threw objects at the police. More marches are planned for Thursday, September 11.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.