This week’s likely top stories: New delegation for FARC peace talks; Tabaré Vázquez takes office; U.S.-Cuba talks promising; Peruvian businesses to learn from Costa Rican ecotourism; dollar strengthens against Latin American currencies.
U.S.-Cuba Normalization Talks Promising: After two rounds of talks—one in Havana last month and the second in Washington DC on Friday—the U.S. and Cuba announced that the re-opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana before the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas is not out of the question. While U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and her counterpart—Joséfina Vidal Ferreiro, the director for United States Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba—agreed that the talks were productive, Cuba remains on the State Departments Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC remains unbanked. While not a precondition for further normalization, Vidal emphasized that the removal of Cuba from the terrorism list was a top priority. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that the terrorism list was an issue separate from the negotiations, and that the review of Cuba’s position on the list would go through Congress. In simultaneous addresses on December 17, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the re-establishment of relations after Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds and the U.S. released the three remaining “Cuban Five.”
Colombian President Announces New Delegation for FARC Peace Talks: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday that a new delegation of negotiators will be sent to Havana, Cuba on Tuesday to join the ongoing peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The emissaries—five active generals and one admiral of the Colombian Armed Forces—are joining the peace talks with the purpose of discussing a bilateral ceasefire. Santos also commented on the possibility of reaching a solution with the United States to not extradite FARC leaders, should an agreement ending the conflict be reached. Last week, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the talks, declaring that any agreement must be just and meet international standards. “Transitional justice is an issue of concern and controversy,” he said. “However, I would like to emphasize that justice must fit the Colombian context—while respecting international minimum standards. No one shoe fits all.”
Dollar Strengthens Against Latin American Currencies: Several currencies in Latin America are at their lowest levels in years, due to the decline in commodity prices and the expansion of the U.S. economy. Higher U.S. interest rates are expected to drive funds out of riskier emerging markets, contributing to currency weakness in the region. This week, however, several currencies may make profits, with operators seeking to exchange them for dollars to avoid the risk of a currency relapse later in the year, in which the dollar may weaken. In Brazil, the real may decline to 3 reais per dollar this week, causing a further devaluation of the Brazilian currency as market players turn to the dollar. The Colombian peso may move from 2,480 to 2,600 pesos per dollar in the next few weeks. In Peru, the dollar is expected to continue strengthening against the Peruvian Nuevo Sol from 2.96 to between 3.090 and 3.105 Nuevos Soles per dollar. The Argentine peso will likely continue its slight decline to an official 8.77 pesos per dollar, but the informal market levels continue to stay at 13 pesos per dollar. Increased purchasing of dollars may continue the Latin American currency devaluation trend seen in the past five years.
Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez Takes Office: Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez was inaugurated on Sunday, taking over from 79-year old President José Mujica. Vázquez, a 75-year old oncologist who served as president from 2005-2010, represents the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA), a leftist coalition party. In his inauguration speech, Vázquez called for national unity, particularly regarding public education, health and housing. Vázquez will inherit a growing economy and historically low unemployment rates. This transfer of power marks 30 years of uninterrupted democracy in Uruguay since President Julio María Sanguinetti‘s 1985 election ended the country’s 12-year dictatorship. “I would like to earnestly greet the 30 years of uninterrupted democracy we enjoy in Uruguay,” said Vázquez.
Peruvian Businesses to Learn from Costa Rican Ecotourism Best Practices: Sixteen Peruvian businesses are attending the Seminario Internacional de Desarrollo y Gestión de Productos y Servicios Turístico Sostenible (International Seminar for Development and Management of Sustainable Tourism Products and Services) in Costa Rica from March 1-8 to learn best practices regarding ecotourism. Participants in the week-long seminar, organized by La Asociación Costarricense de Profesionales en Turismo (Costa Rican Association of Tourism Professionals—Acoprot), will visit Costa Rican businesses that have successfully created sustainable products and business models. The Peruvian entrepreneurs will learn from tourist guides, sustainable companies and hotels, and will participate in site visits to parts of Costa Rica that have applied sustainable tourism methodologies—the Monteverde Cloud Forest and La Fortuna volcano. The seminar offers technical round tables, keynote speeches and workshops.
Allegations of Espionage Threaten Peru-Chile Relations: Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz announced on Sunday that Chilean Ambassador Roberto Ibarra would not return to his post in Peru in light of the country’s espionage complaints against Chile. On Friday, Peruvian Ambassador Francisco Rojas Samanez was recalled to Lima after Peruvian prosecutors claimed that several Peruvian naval officers sold confidential information about their navy’s surveillance of fishing boats to Chilean navy officials. Two of the naval officers implicated in the leaks have been placed in detention. Muñoz has stated that Ibarra is “in consultations” to craft a response to the allegations “with calmness and without harsh remarks.” Peruvian president Ollanta Humala called on Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to issue assurance “that such espionage activities will never be repeated.”
Panama to Mediate Conflict Regarding Hydroelectric Dam: The Panamanian government formally announced negotiations on Saturday to address growing conflict over the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant on the Tabasará River, which is now 95 percent complete. A neighboring Indigenous community, the Ngäbe Buglé, is demanding cancellation of the $225 million project due to environmental concerns, and local protests stalled construction work on February 9. Negotiations over the dam are to be facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City, and led by a high-level committee headed by the vice president and foreign minister of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela expressed faith in the negotiations, saying, “we will do whatever we have to do in the negotiations to seek a solution. I have a lot of confidence and we will take the time that is required.” However, the president of the Regional Congress of the Traditional Ngäbe Buglé, Toribio García, said the community’s opposition to the dam is “not negotiable” and announced that they would not participate in the negotiations.
Guatemala to Eliminate Customs Duties with Honduras: Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina set a deadline of mid-December 2015 to eliminate customs duties between Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to improve both countries’ trade. Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Raúl Morales also confirmed that three shared land border crossings between the two countries could also be phased out, and expressed hope that El Salvador and Nicaragua would eventually join the partnership. The plan is part of a coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants fleeing to the U.S. border in the summer of 2014. In September 2014, the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras formed the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a joint development plan that included eliminating customs to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The Northern Triangle’s combined population is 29 million and has the highest poverty levels in Latin America. The plan has received support from the Obama administration.
El Salvador will hold its next legislative and municipal elections in three weeks, on March 1, 2015. As the country’s electorate preps for yet another election, political parties scramble to fine tune logistics and communication strategies in the run up to the election.
The period leading up to the election has showcased El Salvador’s positive evolution in establishing democratic institutions. However, it has also shed light on pending reforms and necessary safeguards to protect the institutional framework which stemmed from the 1992 Peace Accords.
The upcoming election will be a first for the country for several reasons. In November 2014, the Supreme Court of Justice determined that citizens could not be prevented from voting for individual candidates from various political parties. An election without blocked lists would take place for the first time. This would allow voters to choose between pre-determined party lists or select individual candidates from the different political parties.
Despite the late notice of the reform (a mere four months before the election), El Salvador’s electoral institutions—including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and political parties—responded positively and adapted to the change in voting procedures. Similarly, the forthcoming election will be the first to elect pluralist, multi-party municipal councils. Both reforms will ultimately contribute to strengthened political and democratic institutions within the legislative branch and in local municipalities.
El año comenzó con eventos que conmocionaron al mundo y llamaron a reflexionar sobre seguridad, radicalismo y civilización. Venezuela no fue inmune al contexto internacional. El 31 de enero de 2015, Caracas difundió una nota de pesar por el asesinato del periodista japonés Kenji Goto. En tres párrafos, el presidente Nicolás Maduro condenaba “enérgicamente” su decapitación. En las últimas líneas ratificaba que su gobierno abogaba "por el respeto a la vida y la tolerancia”.
Esto en un país que cerró 2014 como el segundo con mayor homicidios de la región, 82 por cada 100 mil habitantes (24.980 personas), según el reporte del Observatorio de la Violencia, ONG venezolana que monitoriza el tema en el país. El único “balance” oficial del gobierno venezolano al respecto fue el dado por la ministra de Interior y Justicia, Carmen Meléndez, quien el 5 de enero se limitó a decir que la tasa de homicidio en el país “ha bajado, un poco”.
En la primera semana de enero, en la principal morgue de Caracas ya contabilizaban el ingreso de 100 cadáveres para 2015, según la prensa nacional. Una semana cualquiera en la capital nacional.
Las cifras pueden transmitir la gravedad de la situación venezolana, pero no el día a día de un país cuya cotidianidad fue transfigurada. Restaurantes y lugares nocturnos modificaron sus horarios y comenzaron a operar con detectores de metales en las puertas para evitar el ingreso de armas. Carteles prohibiendo el porte de pistolas proliferan por todas partes, como si estar armado fuese algo normal. Caminar se ha vuelto un deporte de riesgo, y el territorio nacional es una zona roja, donde estar vivo es un regalo divino o un exceso de suerte.
To many outside our country, Canada has been characterized as a stable, durable democracy with a consistently enlightened approach to matters of public policy. The political parties that have governed the country since its inception in 1867 have usually struck a balance between ideological pursuits and the general values Canadian hold dear. Canada’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, has been devoid of the ideological splits that have characterized different periods in U.S. history.
Last week best illustrates how Canada can come to grips with some crucial and potentially divisive issues. On February 2, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper tabled new anti-terrorism legislation that went further than some (including myself), who cherish basic freedoms and favor restraints on police authority in the exercise of these freedoms, would have liked. The proposed legislation, however, does strike a chord with a majority of Canadians who are willing to give some leeway to authorities in combating the scourge of terrorism and in remembering the risks of homegrown terrorist assaults (this following two such acts last autumn on Canadian soil).
The opposition parties—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals— immediately expressed serious reservations about the new police-type powers handed to Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS (Canada’s version of the CIA).
The NDP has chosen to use parliamentary debate to extract amendments before indicating its decision to vote for or against the proposed bill. The Liberals decided to support the bill, but proposed stronger oversight measures for the elected representatives. This being an election year, we can expect more fireworks, with the ultimate assessment of the law being made some time after the upcoming Canadian election. But the debate in itself is healthy.
Likely top stories this week: Independent forensic team deems Mexico’s 43 missing students case inconclusive; Cuban authorities to expand Internet centers in 2015; archaeological relics uncovered along Nicaragua Canal route; a general strike in Haiti on eve of Carnival; Unasur seeks to facilitate U.S.-Venezuela dialogue.
Independent Forensic Team Deems Mexico’s 43 Missing Students Case Inconclusive: A forensic report conducted by a team of Argentine experts was released on Saturday, questioning the Mexican government’s announcement last month that the 43 missing students in Iguala were definitively murdered. Hired by the students’ families to conduct an independent investigation, the Argentine Forensic Anthropologists concluded that Mexico’s official statement does not provide sufficient evidence to close the case. The report also issued a list of discrepancies in the Mexican attorney general’s investigation, including mistakes in the collection of 20 genetic profiles from family members that rendered them unusable, and allowing the trash dump—a key crime scene—to be unguarded for weeks. The Argentine team insists that investigations into the students’ disappearances should continue. The attorney general’s office has not responded to the statement.
Cuba to have 300 Internet Centers by Late 2015: Cuban authorities plan to create more than 300 Internet centers by the end of 2015, according to the state-run telecommunications company, Etecsa. There are currently 155 public “cyber points,” established by Etecsa in June 2013, that provide restricted access to the Internet at the steep cost of $4.50 per hour—as much as 20 percent of the minimum monthly wage. Etecsa also announced the possibility of creating Wi-Fi networks in hotels. Currently, only certain professionals have access to the internet—with government authorization. In January, the U.S. eased export restrictions on IT equipment to improve telecommunications and Internet access in Cuba, a market of 11 million people.
15,000 Pre-Columbian Artifacts Discovered along Nicaragua Canal Route: Nicaragua Canal developers have discovered 15,000 pre-Columbian artifacts—mainly shards of pottery and obsidian—along the interoceanic canal’s proposed 173-mile route. The relics were found above ground, but archaeologists expect to unearth more artifacts once digging officially begins. Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a British consulting firm, and Jorge Espinoza, a Nicaraguan archaeologist, plan to work with the Nicaraguan government and the Chinese development firm HKND to conduct a number of specific archaeological excavations along the route. “Due to the quantity, it would be impossible to preserve every last relic,” says ERM. The $50 billion project is estimated to take five years and has faced significant pushback from Nicaraguan farmers citing social and environmental concerns.
General Strike in Haiti on Eve of Carnival: The three-month-long protests against Haitian President Michel Martelly are expected to continue today, with a two-day general strike planned in the capital city of Port-au-Prince over the high cost of gasoline. While the global price of crude oil continues to fall, and is currently at about $53 per barrel, the Haitian government has emphasized that it cannot lower the price of gasoline—currently at $4.50 a gallon after a recent $0.25 reduction—due to its PetroCaribe debt. Haiti’s debt to Venezuela’s preferential fuel program is currently at about $1.5 billion. Protestors have threatened to disrupt Haiti’s Carnival, set to begin on February 15, if the prices aren’t lowered further. Haiti’s long-delayed elections originally sparked the anti-government protests in December, and President Martelly continues to rule by decree. Despite threats of violence during the strike, protests against the high cost of fuel that drew about 6,000 people over the weekend were largely peaceful.
Unasur Seeks to Facilitate U.S.-Venezuela Dialogue: As the meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—Unasur) requested by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro drew to a close in Uruguay today, Ricardo Patiño, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, expressed Unasur’s concerns over U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Patiño emphasized the committee’s interest in opening up direct channels of communication between the U.S. and the South American nation after receiving a report on the potential impact of recent U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan government officials, which stem from charges of corruption and human rights violations following mass protests in Venezuela last year. The U.S. sanctions have frozen assets and restricted travel visas for former and current government officials who are believed to have taken part in human rights abuses, and were expanded to include their immediate family members last week after the Venezuelan government ignored “repeated calls for change,” and “continued to demonstrate a lack of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” according to U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo could be set for a stunning return to the political arena in the country’s upcoming elections in September.
Portillo will be released from federal prison in the U.S. in February, having served less than 12 months of his six-year sentence for conspiracy to launder $2.5 million—money he received from the Taiwanese government.
With the elections seemingly a straight fight between Manuel Baldizón—who lost to President Otto Pérez Molina in a runoff in 2010—and Alejandro Sinibaldi, former minister of communications in Pérez Molina’s government, Portillo will add an intriguing element to the campaign if he runs. To win, he will have to break tradition; since 1996, every election has been won by the runner-up in the previous presidential run-off.
Portillo is a potential vice-presidential candidate, should Edmond Mulet—now the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations—find a party to run as its presidential nominee. In September 2014, Mulet and Edgar Gutiérrez, the former foreign minister and chief of civil intelligence during Portillo’s government, met with Portillo in prison in Colorado and discussed his possible return to politics.
Translated by Paulina Suárez-Hesketh
The Ayotzinapa case (in which 43 students were disappeared by local government forces in the city of Iguala, Mexico) has galvanized an unexpected amount of social energy in Mexico. The healthy civic agitation that followed the case, along with the countless expressions of protest and dissatisfaction, reveal the desires of a large portion of the Mexican people to become further engaged with the public sphere.
The revitalization of social consciousness and the meaning of public life have resulted in an unexpected effervescence of ideas and proposals that trace alternate routes for Mexico’s future. One such idea, Ya Me Cansé, Por Eso Propongo (I’m Fed Up, Hence I propose) offers citizens a platform through which to channel this energy.
The initiative Ya Me Cansé, Por Eso Propongo seeks to reinforce ties of solidarity between Mexican citizens through the collective re-articulation of popular political imagination. The project invites people to create a postcard that proposes how to transform the country for the better. A few of weeks from now, the postcards will be printed and exhibited at public events. Each and every one of the messages will be delivered to authorities.
Humbero Beck's postcard for #YaMeCansé, Por Eso Propongo. Image courtesy of Humberto Beck.
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.