Top stories this week are likely to include: the United States heads to the polls; Puerto Rico decides on status; Michel Martelly requests emergency aid; and Rafael Correa gets re-nominated for president.
Elections in the United States: On Tuesday, voters across the United States will go to the polls to vote for the next president as well as all congressional representatives and select governors and senators. A poll of polls from Real Clear Politics has President Barack Obama maintaining a razor-thin edge—0.5 percentage points—over Governor Mitt Romney. The difference-maker could be the turnout of Latinos, a demographic that supports Obama by 52 percentage points over his Republican challenger according to a poll released last week by Latino Decisions. AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak observes: “The question is the degree to which Latino political preferences will translate into votes, especially in battleground states. Beyond Election Day, Latino turnout tomorrow will shape the extent to which their concerns will factor into policymaking in the next four years.”
Puerto Rico's Referendum: Voters in Puerto Rico will decide on Tuesday about the future of the island’s status. Currently it is a semi-autonomous “unincorporated territory” of the United States that—since it is not a state—plays no role in the U.S. presidential general election. Puerto Ricans will decide whether they want the island to gain more autonomy as a “sovereign free association,” or whether Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state or independent altogether. Tuesday’s vote will be the fourth time in 45 years that Puerto Ricans have formally weighed in at the ballot box on the status of the island. A poll last month found that a slim majority—51 percent—want to keep the island’s current status intact, according to AS/COA Online. “This is probably the most complicated ballot used for a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status and will likely split the vote for those opposing the commonwealth’s status quo,” observes AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini.
Haiti Rebuilds After Superstorm Sandy: Sandy, which took on many forms including tropical storm, hurricane and post-tropical storm, left much damage in its wake—including in Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the United States. But a country that appears to have suffered the most long-term damage is Haiti. According to the Associated Press, 70 percent of crops in the south of the country were destroyed and livestock killed—significantly damaging the agricultural industry. President Michel Martelly is appealing to the international community for emergency aid as his country adds the superstorm damage to the loss inflicted by a devastating earthquake outside of Port-au-Prince in 2010. Will Martelly’s request be granted this week?
Correa to be Nominated at Party Convention: Ahead of Ecuador’s presidential election in February, the Alianza País incumbent party will hold its convention on Saturday and re-nominate President Rafael Correa to represent the party on the ballot. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño affirmed this past Wednesday that Correa, first elected in December 2006, will run for another full term. If he wins, the populist leader will remain in power into 2017. Early polls show Correa with a huge advantage over potential challengers, bringing in 56 percent of votes versus Guillermo Lasso, an ex-banker of the opposition who garners 23 percent.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Hugo Chávez post-radiation therapy; Michel Martelly begins his second year as president; Dominicans head to the polls; Peru minus two ministers; and Brazil creates a new social program.
Chávez Ends Cancer Treatment: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez returned from Cuba on Friday claiming that he had ended his radiation therapy session in Havana “in a successful manner.” This appears to be the first full week in the past several weeks where Chávez governs the country while on its soil. Despite his repeated absences, the latest poll by Datanálisis reports that Chávez returns home with a 17 percentage point advantage over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski ahead of the October presidential election. Now the question is whether Chávez is truly recovered; the recently-formed Council of the State casts some doubt. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini points out, “Sure Chávez says he is in the clear, and we all hope he is. But President Chávez has said that before. Given the chronic lack of transparency of this regime, it’s impossible to know.”
Martelly in Second Year: Haitian President Michel Martelly was sworn in one year ago last Friday, and this is his first full week of the new presidential year. The Associated Press ranks his first year as one of “modest gains” that many in Haiti view with “guarded surprise.” Despite clashes with parliament, Martelly has overseen successes such as reduced tuition for schools, funded by a tax on international phone calls, as well as a steady recovery after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. But it has not been without challenges. According to AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak, “A top priority in the next few months will be getting to the UN to devote all the resources necessary to control the cholera outbreak. This cannot be a piecemeal approach; it must be dealt with rapidly and comprehensively before more Haitians die.”
Elections in the Dominican Republic: Dominicans elect a new president on Sunday, May 20; the two leading candidates are Hipólito Mejia of the Partido de la Revolución Dominicana (Dominican Revolution Party—PRD) and Danilo Medina of the ruling Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (Dominican Liberation Party—PLD). President Leonel Fernández of the PLD is not running for re-election. Sabatini notes, “This election, and the Dominican Republic’s future, turns really on the ability of the PLD and the political system’s capacity generally to renew itself. The truth is: without broader leadership change across the parties, the political and economic miracle of the DR may be at risk—not now, but in the future.”
Peru and the Ministerial Gap: After last week’s resignation of the interior and defense ministers, Peruvian Prime Minister Oscar Valdés must quickly restore order to President Ollanta Humala’s cabinet. The ministers resigned after a failed operation against the Shining Path rebels killed at least nine soldiers, and they faced a congressional censure. This is not the first ministerial change; the entire cabinet was dissolved by former Prime Minister Salomón Lerner after Indigenous Peruvians protested against the controversial Conga mine. “Increasingly, we’re seeing a government that is shifting more in favor of investor rightism in large part as a recognition of the need of the state to generate revenue to support its social inclusion agenda,” observes Sabatini.
Brazil Combats Extreme Poverty: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced a new social program to fight extreme childhood poverty yesterday. The program, Brasil Cariñoso (Caring Brazil), will spend $4 billion to create 6,000 new daycare units for children and an increased subsidy of the popular Bolsa Família program—and it will affect the most impoverished areas of Brazil, the north and northeast. Marczak says, “The very poor have yet to join in the Brazil miracle, but this newest program has the right ingredients for their young children to have access to many of the foundations needed for success. Once again, Brazil is an example for the region.”
Haitian legislators yesterday approved President Michel Martelly’s nominee for Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, ending a confirmation standoff that has brought Haiti’s federal government to a virtual standstill for nearly two months. Lamothe, a former special adviser to President Martelly before being appointed foreign minister in September 2011, was confirmed by a vote of 62–3 after a six-hour long debate centered on whether he met residency requirements for public officials stipulated in the country’s constitution.
In an interview after the vote with the Associated Press, Lamothe vowed to immediately begin working to get Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery back on track saying, “We have a lot of work to do now… I feel that the country finally has the opportunity to work on the people’s problems. We have a lot of different issues to deal with and finally we have the team in place to start solving the people’s problems.”
The confirmation will also ease concerns in the international community—particularly among donors and aid organizations—which had grown weary of dealing with a government partner hobbled by political infighting. In remarks delivered before the vote, UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton weighed in saying officials needed to set aside self-interest for the good of the country and “restore confidence in Haitian institutions so that donor funds can flow again and attract new investment.”
Observers note that even with the confirmation, it could still take weeks before the legislature finally approves Lamothe’s government plan and his choices for Cabinet positions.
AQ Online today launches its weekly Monday Memo that looks ahead to what it expects to be the top headline grabbers for the week. The top anticipated stories for the week of February 27 include: Hugo Chávez’ surgery; U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s current five-country Latin America tour; U.S. Vice President’s forthcoming visit to Mexico and Honduras; the search for a new prime minister in Haiti; and FARC suspending kidnappings in Colombia.
Chávez' Cancer: As the Venezuelan president heads to Cuba for a second surgical operation, the rumor mill on his real health status will continue as will the discussion about what its implications will be for Venezuela's October presidential election. Christopher Sabatini, AQ editor-in-chief, observes: “While it may translate into sympathy support, President Chávez' lack of transparency about his illness and treatment will likely raise fears among some Venezuelans about their future and a potential successor—irrespective of what the president says upon his release.”
Napolitano on Latin America Tour: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano begins a five-country tour today through Wednesday in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) press release, Secretary Napolitano will be accompanied by Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection David Aguilar and DHS Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Alan Bersin. Her visit is likely intended to reiterate support for security measures like the Central America Regional Security Initiative and reinforce counter-trafficking efforts to interdict narcotics through key transit points.
Biden to Mexico and Honduras: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Mexico and Honduras on March 4-6, meeting with both Presidents Calderón and Lobo. Why is the Vice President going to Honduras? While Mexico remains an important economic, diplomatic and strategic partner in the war on drugs, the trip to Honduras is a mystery. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become the murder capital of Central America. Two weeks ago, a fire at a Honduran prison left 350 inmates dead—an incident that Human Rights Watch blamed on poor and overcrowded conditions in Honduran prisons.
Haiti Prime Minister Watch: The abrupt resignation of Haitian Prime Minister Gary Conille on Friday culminated weeks of disagreement between him and President Michel Martelly. The departure of the former UN diplomat and favorite of the international aid community is a blow for both political stability in Haiti and for donor nations that had great hopes in a government that included his technical skills. Jason Marczak, AQ senior editor, says: “Expect President Martelly to move quickly in naming a successor, with a candidate likely announced this week.” Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe is one possibility as is Chief of Staff Ann-Valerie Milfort. However, both would face a tough confirmation by an opposition-controlled legislature.
FARC Hostage Release: Colombia's FARC announced on Sunday that it will suspend all kidnapping and free remaining prisoners. Is this a political ploy or a true change in tactics? Given the group's decentralized nature, it is unclear whether the FARC secretariat can actually enforce the order, if it chooses to do so. Expect renewed debate this week on whether this may help to clear the way for an eventual peace dialogue or if the current strategy should continue without talks.
Haitian President Michel Martelly announced yesterday that his administration plans to provide education subsidies for 772,000 children in an attempt to boost student enrollment. The announcement coincided with the opening of the school year in Haiti. Martelly’s National Fund for Education (FNE) will cover the tuition of 142,000 students who will attend school for the first time ever.
The Clinton Foundation donated $1.25 million to cover the registration fees of some students. FNE, the initiative that Martelly launched shortly after he took office in May, is funded by per-minute fees assessed to incoming international calls as well as a flat tariff on international wire transfers. Gaston George Merisier, Martelly’s advisor on education, announced last week that $28 million had been raised thus far from these taxes, and that much of the additional monies had been sent by Haitian expatriates abroad.
Martelly repeatedly called for free education during the 2010-2011 presidential campaign. Education is a much-needed social service in Haiti, which is still ravaged by the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Much of the donor money into Haiti thus far has been funneled into short-term delivery of education and health services in tent camps—and reconstruction of hospitals and schools over the long term.
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.
Giuliani Advises Peru’s Fujimori as She Pulls ahead
Conservative Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori contracted former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani this week as an adviser to help design public security programs. The news came as polls indicated that Fujimori has begun to pull ahead of leftwing nationalist Ollanta Humala for the June 5 runoff election. A Datum released Sunday night found Fujimori leading over nationalist Humala by nearly six percentage points, with 46 percent against Humala’s 40.2. Another pollster, Ipsos Apoyo, released a figure the same day that found Fujimori winning by a smaller margin, with 51.1 percent compared to Humala’s 48.9 percent.
Victims Law Reaches Final Debate in Colombian Congress
A law that would provide state compensation to victims of violence in Colombia’s civil conflict reaches its final debate in Congress today. Before passing the law, legislators will debate whether to legally recognize that Colombia faces an internal conflict with enemy combatants or to classify the FARC guerrilla army as a terrorist group for the purposes of the law. Colombian ex-President and FARC nemesis Álvaro Uribe explains to Foreign Policy why he supports categorizing the guerrillas as terrorists rather than combatants. Investigative website La Silla Vacía charts the positions of key Colombian politicians on the issue.
Scandal-tainted Colombian Envoy to Venezuela Resigns
Eight months into his job, Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela José Fernando Bautista stepped down Monday after admitting he had ties to a Colombian construction conglomerate involved in bribing politicians for work contracts. He will be replaced by Ricardo Montanegro, who served as the Colombian business attaché in Caracas.
Preparations are underway in Port-au-Prince today as Haiti readies for the inauguration of President-elect Michel Martelly on Saturday. The ceremony, which will take place on the grounds of the heavily damaged national palace, marks the first transfer of power since the 2010 earthquake that left nearly 1 million homeless.
Approximately 150 foreign dignitaries are expected to attend the event, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.S. ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and numerous heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean. However, Mr. Martelly has stirred controversy in Haiti by inviting all eight of Haiti’s living presidents to the event, including former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc’’ Duvalier. In a statement, Haiti's National Human Rights Defense called the decision to invite Duvalier “a total disregard to the tens of thousands of victims” of his regime.
Mr. Martelly will face daunting challenges as president. The earthquake recovery effort is far from complete and recent months have brought increasing insecurity and economic hardship. Robert Maguire, associate professor of international affairs at Washington DC-based Trinity Washington University, provides in-depth analysis of Haiti’s precarious situation and offers a few possible solutions in his article, “Haiti's New President: Welcome to the Toughest Job in the Americas,” in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly.”
After his landslide victory in the March 20 presidential runoff, Haitiian President-Elect Michel Martelly joined Ruben Blades (Panama’s minister of tourism from 2004-2009) and Gilberto Gil (various positions including Brazilian minister of culture from 1987-2008) as an artist who has made a successful transition into politics. But his presidential election is also unique for its use of social media to ride to victory.
Known affectionately to the Haitian people as “Sweet Micky” or tet kale (bald head), Martelly is a popular kompa and carnival artist renowned for his racy lyrics and flamboyant stage persona. It came as no surprise that many initially doubted Martelly’s potential as a serious political candidate. Early predictions had Jude Celestin, a construction tycoon endorsed by incumbent President René Préval, as the favorite to win. Martelly also had to compete with Haitian-American hip-hop/pop artist Wyclef Jean for media attention, until the Electoral Council (CEP) barred Jean from running in September of last year.
Haitian President-elect Michel Martelly traveled to Washington DC today to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Talks will focus on job creation, education, security, reconstruction, public health, and the future relationship between Haiti and these multinational organizations.
The three-day trip to the U.S. comes two weeks after preliminary results confirmed that Mr. Martelly received 68 percent of the vote in a March 20 run-off election, beating former First Lady Mirlande Manigat. The President-elect will also meet with the U.S. news media, including CNN, the Washington Post, and Fox News. The National Press Club in Washington has confirmed that Martelly will hold a press conference on Thursday, the last day of his trip.
The Provisional Electoral Council had intended to release final results on April 16, but the announcement was since rescheduled for tomorrow. If the preliminary results stand, Martelly will become Haiti’s 44th president on May 14. One of his first responsibilities will be to nominate a new prime minister, who must then be approved by a parliament still largely controlled by members of outgoing President Réne Préval’s INITE party.