This week's likely top stories: Venezuelan opposition leaders halt protests in Caracas; Haiti swears in its nine-member Provisional Electoral Council; the U.S. hosts the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit; AT&T acquires Nextel Mexico; Rio’s environment secretary announces that Guanabara Bay will not be clean in time for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Opposition Curbs Protests in Caracas: Protests in Caracas—against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, chronic consumer staple shortages and a 64 percent increase in consumer prices—were called to an abrupt end by student opposition leaders over the weekend. Coming nearly a year after the violent demonstrations that led to 40 deaths and the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo López, the protests were quickly disbanded after several protestors clashed with police. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles canceled his speech and organizers emphasized safety, encouraging protestors to go home. A day earlier, in a nationally televised addressed, Maduro held his opponents responsible for Venezuela’s economic troubles, accusing them of organizing an “economic coup,” and criticizing an attempt by former presidents Felipe Calderón of Mexico, Andrés Pastrana of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile to visit López in prison.
Election Council Selected in Haiti: Haiti swore in a nine-member Provisional Electoral Council on Friday, in a step towards holding legislative and local elections that had been scheduled for 2011. Haitian parliament was dissolved and President Michel Martelly has been ruing by decree since January 12 due to the stalled elections. The electoral council was sworn in shortly before a United Nations Security Council arrived in Haiti, coming after nearly eight weeks of violent protests calling for Martelly’s resignation. Presidential elections are expected this year.
U.S. Hosts Summit to Discuss Alternatives to PetroCaribe: Caribbean leaders are gathering in Washington today—with the exception of Cuba—for the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit to brainstorm regional alternatives to the Venezuelan PetroCaribe oil subsidy program. The program has kept cash-strapped Caribbean governments afloat with $28 billion worth of oil on favorable financing terms since 2005. Although this perennial petroleum pipeline has been a lifeline in the region, its members owe a combined $12 billion to Venezuela. As the economic situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate with the declining price of oil, PetroCaribe’s 17 members are now seeking alternative energy sources. Capitalizing on this opportunity to wrest back regional energy influence, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is hosting today’s summit—along with the Council of the Americas and representatives from the EU, UN, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and other organizations—to advise Caribbean leaders on financing opportunities and regulatory changes that would allow them to incorporate natural gas and renewable sources into their national energy grids.
AT&T Acquires Nextel Mexico for $1.9 Billion: AT&T Inc., the second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier, purchased NII Holdings Inc.’s (Nextel) Mexican wireless assets today for $1.9 billion. The acquisition of Nextel Mexico’s network of 76 million people, its license and its high-paying monthly subscribers will strengthen AT&T’s strategic initiative of providing its first cross-border service between the U.S. and Mexico. This is the Dallas-based company’s third major expansion south of the border in the past year, after its takeover of DirecTV Mexico and Grupo Iusacell SA.
Rio Opts for Damage Control Over Sewage Treatment: The latest chapter in Brazil’s water troubles is Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games’ sailing and windsurfing competitions. With just over one and a half years to go before the opening ceremony, the new state environment secretary, Andre Correa, announced on Friday that the city will not be able to deliver on its pledge to cut the flow of raw sewage and garbage into Guanabara Bay by 80 percent. Correa estimated that diverting sewage from the bay and extending it to the entire metropolitan area would require an investment overhaul of $3.8 billion, and there is no known financing timetable in place. Cleaning Guanabara Bay by cutting the flow of pollutants to the trash-lined bay was supposed to be one of the game’s enduring civic legacies. The cleanup failure could potentially endanger the health of Olympic athletes, but the real losers are the residents of the surrounding favelas.
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.
Only two countries in Latin America—Costa Rica and Uruguay—can be considered “full democracies,” according to an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study commissioned by BBC for Democracy Day on January 20. The report says that a majority of Latin American countries hold “free and fair” elections and are better ranked than their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, but democracy in the region has stagnated. The governments of Cuba and Haiti are the lowest-ranked in Latin America and are classified as authoritarian regimes.
The study assesses a total of six factors, including access to the polls, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functionality of the government, political participation and political culture. Each country is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 10 and classified into one of four categories: full democracy, imperfect democracy, hybrid and authoritarian regime.
Nine countries (Chile, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay) are considered imperfect democracies, while six are classified as hybrids (Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Imperfect democracies are characterized by weaknesses in governability, low levels of political participation and an undeveloped political culture. The division between “imperfect” and “hybrid” regimes isn’t clear, says London School of Economics professor Francisco Panizza, but hybrids are generally described as having substantial irregularities in elections, oppression of opposition parties and greater weakness in governance.
Evans Paul took office yesterday as Haiti’s new prime minister amid continued political uncertainty after Parliament was dissolved on Tuesday. Paul, a former journalist, former mayor of Port-au-Prince and presidential candidate, was nominated by Haitian President Michel Martelly to replace Laurent Lamothe, who stepped down as the country’s prime minister in December. Florence Duperval Guillaume had been serving as interim prime minister since Lamothe’s departure.
Paul, 59, has not been confirmed by the Haitian Senate and Chamber of Deputies. However, he was able to become prime minister automatically because legislators could not come to an agreement over a disputed electoral law before their mandates expired on Monday, leading to the dissolution of Parliament. Martelly said on Sunday that he was on the verge of reaching a deal with the political opposition, but the negotiations collapsed, and Martelly can now rule by decree until new elections take place.
On Wednesday, Paul said that he would appoint a new electoral council to organize long-delayed legislative elections in 2015. Elections were originally slated for 2011, and their postponement has led to widespread protests across Haiti, with many Haitians demanding that Martelly resign. A presidential commission that Martelly set up in December to resolve the political crisis recommended that then-Prime Minister Lamothe resign. Paul is now the fourth prime minister that Martelly has appointed since taking office as president in 2011.
Shortly after winning his first majority government in 2011 (he won two minority governments in 2006 and 2008), Conservative Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper passed legislation to set the next election date no later than October 19, 2015. In a pre-holiday interview, Harper reiterated his commitment to holding the next general election on that date.
Unlike the United States, we in Canada have no tradition of a fixed-date national election. This has led many in political and media circles to speculate about a spring election following the government’s 2015-2016 budget. The probability that the Harper government will present some new anti-terrorism legislation could result in a wedge issue, thereby prompting an earlier election call. Clearly, the opposition partiesthe New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—are planning accordingly. One thing is certain: 2015 is an election year in Canada.
Just a year ago, the Liberals were coasting in the polls, following the election of a new leader, Justin Trudeau. In the past year, Trudeau has continued to lead the polls, and his party has performed well in by-elections and in provincial elections. It is fair to say that the Liberal brand, which was on a decline for nearly a decade, has rebounded. However, in the weeks prior to the holidays, the gap between the Liberals and the governing Conservatives narrowed substantially in the polls.
While the Conservative government has had its share of difficulties in 2013 (referred to as “annus horribilis” because of a Senate scandal), the government seems to have gained a more solid footing in 2014. The House of Commons debate in September on a resolution to support the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS (the radical Islamist terrorist group) in Iraq and Syria provided the Harper government with an opportunity to set the agenda. The two lone-wolf terrorist acts on Canadian soil (both in Ottawa and St-Jean, Québec) also presented a backdrop for Harper to show aplomb and compassion. The face-to-face confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, where Harper bluntly told the Russian leader to get out of the Ukraine, only added to the perception of the government’s surefootedness.
This week's likely top stories: Haiti attempts to negotiate its way out of political deadlock; Cuba frees 53 political prisoners, holding up its end of the rapprochement deal with U.S.; Mexico cuts funding to PEMEX causing major oil sector layoffs; the U.S. Supreme court declines to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban; China and CELAC hammer out the details of increased economic partnership.
Haitian Lawmakers to Vote on Electoral Law to End Political Deadlock: On the eve of the five-year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitian President Michel Martelly reported on Sunday that he had come to an agreement with the opposition to hold long overdue elections by the end of 2015. Martelly announced that he’d reached a deal with 20 opposition politicians, although the leftist party Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family), a major instigator of anti-government protests, was not involved in the deal. The agreement commits to organizing elections for two-thirds of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies by the end of the year, in addition to presidential elections. It also attempts to lend legitimacy to the political system by creating a nine-member electoral council made up of church, union and media representatives, but excluding political delegates. The current legislature’s mandate will elapse at midnight today, and if legislators do not approve the deal by then, President Martelly will rule by decree, a situation that opposition politicians claim that he has deliberately planned.
Cuba Frees 53 Political Prisoners: Cuba upheld its promise to release 53 political prisoners this weekend as part of December’s historic agreement with the United States to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries. Working with Cuban activists and human rights groups, the U.S. presented the Cuban government last spring with a list of prisoners to be released, and the Cuban government agreed to release 53 of those prisoners. Cuban dissidents said on Sunday that they only knew of 39 people who had been freed since December 17, but the U.S. Interests Section in Havana confirmed that all of the prisoners have now been released. The White House is expected to provide the names of the freed prisoners to Congress, which will then make the prisoners’ identities public.
Budget Cuts at PEMEX Lead to Major Layoffs: About 10,000 oil service workers were laid off at the end of last week as state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos (Mexican Petroleums—PEMEX) cancelled contracts due to budget cuts stemming from the global oil slump. Against a backdrop of a 10-year decrease in oil output at Pemex—the world’s ninth largest oil producer—and the price collapse of oil to nearly $46 per barrel, the Mexican Finance Ministry decided to withhold 50 billion pesos from Pemex in the interest of streamlining the management of public sector finances. PEMEX responded by terminating exploratory rig contracts, which may clear the way for foreign drillers to fill the gap in accordance with Mexico’s 2013 energy reform. Job losses could reach 50,000, according to Gonzalo Hernández of the Economic Development Chamber in Ciudad del Carmen, where many oil service companies are based.
U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Review Challenge to Gay Marriage Ban: The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a challenge to Louisiana’s gay marriage ban on Monday, and took no action on four similar cases in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee—though it may act on those cases this week. The decision was not surprising, since a challenge to the ban is still being decided in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and that court has not yet ruled. However, lawyers for the Louisiana plaintiffs opposed to the ban sought Supreme Court review because they said there is a “pressing need” for the court to definitively review the marriage bans as soon as possible. Gay marriage is now legal in 36 U.S. states, and if the Supreme Court strikes down one or more of bans in the 14 states that still prohibit gay marriage, all remaining bans could be overturned.
China and Latin America Hammer Out Increased Economic Partnership: At the close of last week’s first ministerial meeting of the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged on Thursday to invest $250 billion dollars in Latin America over the next five years. The framework for cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and technological innovation is expected to include an increase of two-way trade to total up to $500 billion over 10 years—about twice its current level of $275 billion. Together, China and the countries represented by CELAC—which excludes the U.S. and Canada—account for one fifth of global land area, one third of world population and one eighth of the world’s total economic aggregate. Meanwhile, China is expected to surpass the European Union by 2016 to become the second-largest trading partner of most South American countries, after the United States.
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.
The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”
The phrase “campaigning in poetry and governing in prose” was coined by the late and former New York governor, Mario Cuomo. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been an admirer of Mario Cuomo ever since he gave the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Since he passed away on January 1, the media have been replaying this landmark speech.
Cuomo’s later address at the University of Notre Dame in September 1984 on the Catholic politician and pluralism was also a classic. It has been considered a model for governance in a diverse and pluralistic society. He was quite the orator.
The DNC speech was meant to be the Democratic response to the so-called Reagan Revolution and the conservative vision of Republican politics back then. While President Reagan spoke of the “shining city on the hill,” Governor Cuomo countered with his version of the “tale of two cities.” It was a call for greater equality and more social justice. It explored how government can help provide opportunities for jobs, fight to reduce poverty, and contribute to the overall prosperity of American society. Above all, the Cuomo speech may have been the last hurrah of the liberal, progressive vision of America.
To some, the speech may be an eloquent expression of another time in history, and that its message is no longer as relevant or as electorally viable today. To those who believe this, it may be worthwhile to give it another listen. If anything, economic inequality has risen and poverty levels remain unacceptably high in developed societies. Cuomo spoke of America then, but he might also be speaking about America today. As a Canadian, I believed his message transcended the U.S. border, with relevance for Canada then and now.
This week's likely top stories: the Panama Canal gears up to expand its Pacific coast facilities; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels to China and OPEC countries; the 114th U.S. Congress starts its session on Tuesday with a Republican majority and plenty of hot button issues for the Americas; the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide resumes; Uruguayan First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirms she will run for mayor of Montevideo in 2015.
Panama Prepares to Expand its Pacific Canal Facilities: On Saturday, the Panama Canal Authority approved the development of a new transshipment port in the Corozal region, the canal’s entrance to the Pacific Ocean. This two-phased expansion project will improve the port’s capacity on the Pacific side from five to eight million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) by 2020 through the construction of a 2,081 linear-meter dock, a container yard, offices and warehouse facilities within a 120-hectare area. The new terminal will also include port facilities capable of accommodating mid-size cargo ships that can pass through the canal. Aware of impending competition from Nicaragua, which inaugurated the construction of its own canal megaproject on the Pacific Coast just before Christmas, Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge Luis Quijano said, “This new facility will increase inter-oceanic cargo traffic, consolidating Panama’s position as an international logistics and maritime hub.” The Panama National Assembly will review the bill for final approval this week before issuing a call for bids from construction companies for a twenty year contract.
Maduro Packs His Bags for an Economic Relief World Tour: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro left Caracas on Sunday night to commence an urgent diplomatic mission to China and several as-yet-unspecified Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations in pursuit of assistance to lift Venezuela out of recession. China, Maduro’s first stop on his economic tour, is Venezuela’s principal foreign lender and is keeping Venezuelan state welfare projects afloat through an $8 billion oil-for-loan agreement. Maduro is expected to discuss financing options with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would help Venezuela meet its debt obligations and tamp down inflation. Since Venezuela’s economy has suffered from OPEC’s decision in November not to curtail oil output despite the price drop, Maduro will visit OPEC countries in the second leg of his trip with the hopes of establishing “a strategy for recovering the price [of oil] and strengthening the organization.” Venezuela’s oil basket has fallen nearly 50 percent, to about $47 dollars per barrel since the summer, with each dollar drop in oil prices costing the government an estimated $700 million per year in revenue.
Republican-controlled U.S. Congress Convenes: The 114th U.S. Congress will start its session in Washington DC on Tuesday, with a Republican majority set to take over the Senate and continue control of the House of Representatives. The new Congress is expected to clash with President Barack Obama over policy on Cuba-U.S. relations, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to win approval in Congress last year. In November, Obama announced executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba in mid-December after more than five decades. However, Cuban authorities’ arrest of dissidents at the end of the year has amplified concerns about the state of human rights on the island, and some members of Congress who have opposed improved relations have suggested that the Senate may refuse to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Meanwhile, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that a bill approving the Keystone pipeline will be an early priority for Republican lawmakers, though it could still be vetoed by Obama.
Genocide Trial Resumes for Guatemala’s Ríos Montt: After 14 months, the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges—for his alleged role in ordering 15 massacres of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Maya from 1982 to 1983 during Guatemala’s Civil War—resumes today. While the former president was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison in May 2013, Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) upheld a measure that annulled the verdict and required that the trial resume where it stood on April 19, 2013, claiming that the general had been denied due process. Ríos Montt will not appear at his trial proceedings, which begin today and will presided over by Tribunal President Janeth Valdez, due to his health. At 88, he remains under military house arrest in an upscale neighborhood of Guatemala City.
Uruguayan First Lady to Run for Mayor of Montevideo: Uruguayan Senator and First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirmed she will run for mayor of Montevideo in the May 2015 elections. Topolansky, who is married to outgoing Uruguayan President José Mujica, is a member of the Movimiento de Participación Popular (Movement of Popular Participation—MPP) political party, the largest voting bloc within the ruling left-wing Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front—FA). The Uruguayan first lady accepted the candidacy on some conditions, including a respectful campaign against Daniel Martínez, another FA candidate from the Uruguayan Socialist Party who is competing in the mayoral race. With Topolansky as mayor, the MPP would control Uruguay’s main electoral region and add to the FA’s absolute majority in the legislature.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.