This week’s likely top stories: María Mercedes Maldonado becomes Bogotá’s new mayor; the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital case; the deadline passes to regulate illegal mining in Peru; rallies in Venezuela turn violent; Gabriel García Márquez’ memorial service is held in Mexico City.
Santos Names Interim Mayor for Bogotá: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos named María Mercedes Maldonado the interim mayor of Bogotá on Monday, weeks after former Mayor Gustavo Petro was officially removed from his post in March. Petro’s removal by Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez—on the grounds that Petro had mismanaged an overhaul of the city’s garbage collection system—was accompanied by a wave of protests and lawsuits, but the decision was ultimately approved by Santos. Maldonado, a lawyer and professor who has worked in both the public and private sector, was secretary of planning for six months in Petro’s administration.
Argentine Debt Case Reaches U.S. Supreme Court: The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital, the case that pits the Argentine government against U.S.-based holdout creditor NML Capital, which is attempting to enforce a $1.4 billion judgment against Argentina. To collect the judgment, NML must be able to enforce subpoenas against Bank of America Corp. and Banco de la Nación Argentina to access Argentina’s non-U.S. assets. NML Capital won the right to subpoena the banks in an August 2012 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court, but the U.S. government has sided with Argentina in arguing that the ruling violates the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act by forcing a sovereign national to reveal assets held outside the U.S.
Deadline Passes for Illegal Gold Miners in Peru: Saturday marked the deadline for illegal gold miners in Peru to legalize their status as part of a government effort to eradicate illegal mining in the country. Currently, some 40,000 illegal gold miners are active in the southeastern part of the country, where they have clashed with police and blocked highways to protest government efforts to crack down on their livelihood. Illegally mined gold accounts for some 20 percent of Peru’s gold exports and the trade has serious environmental, social and economic consequences, but miners say that the government has offered few alternatives to the lucrative trade, and that the actual process of registering with the government through the national tax agency was overly burdensome.
Violence Continues in Venezuela: A rally on Easter Sunday in Caracas took a violent turn as protesters against the government of President Nicolás Maduro clashed with security forces. Troops used tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators, who burned effigies of Maduro in the street and set up barricades in the district of Chacao, which they defended with homemade bombs. Supporters of the government also protested and burned effigies of opposition leader Henrique Capriles. Maduro completes his first year as Venezuela’s president this week, while more than 40 people have died in protests that began on February 12.
Memorial Service for García Márquez: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will attend a public memorial service on Monday for the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian literary icon Gabriel García Márquez, who died of a lung infection last Thursday at the age of 87. The service will be held in Mexico City, where the author spent his final days, though his final resting place is not yet known. García Márquez spent much of his adult life in Mexico. The Colombian government declared three days of national mourning for the author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.
Parts of Argentina were paralyzed on Thursday after the country's biggest unions shut down transportation and blocked entrances to Buenos Aires. The unions are staging a 24-hour strike to protest rising inflation and cuts to government subsidies, and are currently negotiating wage increases. Industrial unions—including metal and oil workers allied with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—did not participate in the strike.
Hugo Moyano, leader of the Confederación General del Trabajo de la República Argentina (General Confederation of Labor of Argentina—CGT) led the 24-hour strike, which included bringing transportation to a near stop in the capital city, and shutting down many businesses and public schools.
This is the second strike Moyano has organized against President Kirchner since she disregarded his union's demands for higher salaries and better representation in 2011. The first strike Moyano staged against President Kirchner took place in November 2012 and called for tax cuts and pay increases.
After years of spending on social programs and subsidies, Kirchner's government is facing high inflation, forcing the administration to devalue the Argentine peso and reduce subsidies for gas and water by 20 percent. In February, economists estimated that Argentina's inflation rate had risen to 34.9 percent from the same period last year. According to a March 29-April 3 Management & Fit survey, President Kirchner's approval rating fell to 25.9 percent in April of this year.
Ten individuals suspected of the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of Maria de los Ángeles “Marita” Verón were sentenced to prison in Tucumán, Argentina on Tuesday.
While walking to a doctor’s appointment in 2002, Verón, 23, disappeared, and was suspected to have been forced into a sex trafficking ring. All 13 individuals accused of being involved were cleared of charges in 2012. However, the ruling was overturned in December of 2013 and now 10 of the 13 originally accused have been found guilty.
Brothers Jose and Gonzalo Gomez were sentenced to 22 years in prison each, seven others received between 10 and 17 years sentences, and the last suspect will server 15 days of house arrest. Of the original 13 accused, two were acquitted and one passed away.
Marita’s mother, Susana Trimarco, is still searching for her daughter and is seeking new litigation on human trafficking in Argentina. Over the past twelve years, she has helped rescue 6,400 victims of sex trafficking, including establishing the foundation Fundación María de los Ángeles in 2007 and leading an initiative to have an anti-trafficking bill signed into law in 2008.
A 2013 report showed that Argentina is a trafficking hub and that 70 percent of human trafficking cases have some connection to drug trafficking. Most victims are between 15 and 17 years old, and while about half of the victims are from Argentina, 33 percent come from Paraguay.
Argentina celebrated the thirty-second anniversary of the Guerra de las Malvinas (Falklands War) on Wednesday with a rally lead by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the release of a new 50 peso bill picturing the islands.
The commemoration the 74-day conflict between Argentine and British forces took place at the Malvinas Argentinas Hall at the Casa Rosada, with government officials, union leaders and war veterans in attendance, among others. The new banknote pictures a map of the Malvinas Islands in the national colors of Argentina—blue and white.
On April 2, 1982, in the final years of the Argentine military dictatorship, Argentina launched a failed invasion to repossess the islands, resulting in a bloody war where 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers were killed. Argentina surrendered on June 14 of the same year.
The United Kingdom has maintained control of the territory since then, and a clear majority of island residents supported British rule in a March 2013 referendum vote. Still, disputes have resurfaced in recent years, as Argentina continues to claim the territory as its own, with Fernández de Kirchner saying at the rally “I have endless confidence that we will recover these islands.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has attested that the he will not negotiate over the sovereignty of the islands.
A debate dominates the end of my dinners at my parents’ house: how to get home? I live a mere seven blocks away, a brief walk across a park. Though I’m an independent urban type, in the labyrinth of subjective insecurity that is Buenos Aires these days, the answer is not as obvious as it seems.
When I walk to my bus stop in Buenos Aires, I zip my purse shut and clutch it tight to my body, like a football player running toward the end zone. When I play Candy Crush on the subway, I hold my phone in a two-handed death grip, lest it be snatched away. After a girls’ night out, I ask my friend to text me when she’s safely home. On warm spring days, my car windows remain shut because robberies have been known to happen at red lights.
And those deeper down the rabbit hole consider me foolhardily naïve in my lack of precaution. I know people who drive from their guarded apartment building garage to their office parking lot, and who avoid setting foot on the street even in broad daylight. Iron bars cover many ground floor windows on Buenos Aires streets, and increasingly the next floor up, too. Barbed wire wraps around some houses’ entrances like ivy. And then there are those who move to gated communities, where they can finally leave these quotidian safety measures behind—but instead end up living in a sort of custom-designed Truman Show of safety from “others.”
But the higher the walls, the more upper-middle-class porteños seem to be afraid. How necessary are these measures, and the correlated paranoia that seems to seep into every step we take?
As surging inflation takes a toll on Argentine consumers, the Argentine government affirmed on Tuesday that it would levy fines against supermarkets who fail to respect voluntary price controls that many stores and wholesalers agreed to in December.
On Tuesday, Chief of Cabinet Jorge Capitanich said that the details of the new sanctions would be made public by the Secretary of Commerce this week. Meanwhile, he encouraged Argentines to act “rationally and effectively” and to not purchase overpriced items that would validate “product price increases due to speculation from industrialists, traders and entrepreneurs."
Initiatives to freeze the costs of common goods at supermarkets, accompanied by ongoing criticism of business owners and banks, have increased as the Argentine government tries to confront rising inflation. The government has also encouraged citizens to report overpriced items to officials by using a free app for smartphones called “Precios OK” (Okay Prices).
Despite the measures, however, analysts have questioned whether attempts to tackle inflation without implementing tighter fiscal and monetary policies will be sufficient. “If the government decides to maintain the interest rate below the rates of inflation and devaluation, mechanisms will arise that increase the demand for dollars,” read a report published in late January by the Instituto Argentino de Analisis Fiscal (Argentine Institute of Fiscal Analysis—IARAF).
Likely top stories this week: the International Court of Justice will rule on the Chile-Peru Maritime border; the CELAC Summit begins on Tuesday in Havana, Cuba; Argentina begins easing restrictions on purchasing US dollars; protesters of the World Cup clash with police in Sao Paulo; Belize and Guatemala sign an agreement at the OAS.
International Court to Rule on Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute: The United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to make a decision today on Peru and Chile’s disputed maritime border. The ruling will decide which country owns 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of ocean, which includes one of the world’s richest fishing grounds with an annual catch of $200 million. If Peru wins the dispute, some 2,000 Chilean fishermen fear they could lose their jobs. Presidents of both countries have each said they will adhere to whatever decision the court makes.
CELAC Summit Begins in Havana: World leaders from around the hemisphere are traveling to Havana, Cuba this week for the two-day Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which begins tomorrow. Thirty-two heads of state will be attending the summit, including presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Raul Castro of Cuba, among others. Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a new “wave of political repression” ahead of the summit. Activist Guillermo Farinas has been kept under house arrest for three days, and as many as 100 members of the Ladies in White have been arrested to prevent them from attending a forum on human rights on Tuesday.
Argentina Lifts Restrictions on Purchasing U.S. Dollars: Argentina’s Economy Minister Alex Kicollof announced on Friday that it was relaxing restrictions on the purchase of U.S. dollars starting Monday. The decision came amid a 28 percent inflation rate and the sharpest slide in the value of the Argentina peso since the 2002 economic collapse. However, in an interview published by Pagina 12 on Sunday, Kicillof said that the lowering of the tax rate on credit card purchases made in U.S. dollars from 35 percent to 20 percent would not happen on Monday, with no indication of when the change will happen. It’s not clear whether the easing of restrictions will be enough to stabilize the country, given the already high inflation rate and the general lack of confidence in the government—from chronic blackouts, recent looting in the provinces, and President Kirchner’s recent absence—that has grown.
World Cup Protests in São Paulo Turn Violent: Protesters clashed with police this weekend in São Paulo, where thousands had taken to the street to protest the cost of the 2014 World Cup. More than 130 protesters were arrested, and one man is in critical condition after being shot by police for allegedly carrying an explosive in his backpack. The Anonymous Rio protest group organized the demonstrations using social media and called it “Operation Stop the World Cup”. Following the massive protests last year, Brazil has seen “rolezinhos”—flash mobs by young people from the favelas targeting affluent shopping malls —crop up across the country.
Belize and Guatemala Sign Bilateral Agreement: The foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala met with Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza over the weekend, and signed on to a “Road Map and Plan of Action” to deepen transnational cooperation. According to Insulza, the agreement will allow the two countries to “develop significant projects in the areas of the environment, security, labor, immigration, health or education, (which) helps people to get to know and value each other.” Through the agreement, both nations also pledged that they will adhere to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the pending territorial dispute.
The Argentine government adopted new legislation limiting online buying on Tuesday in an effort to defend domestic production.
The resolution, adopted by Argentina’s tax agency, the Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos , and published in the Boletín Oficial, restricts Argentines to two tax-free purchases of up to $25 on foreign-based websites per year, with a 50 percent tax imposed on any additional amount spent.
Argentines will also no longer be able to have items purchased on foreign websites delivered directly to their residences, but will have to pick up their packages at a customs office. The new resolution changes the way the government gathers information on shipments, requiring the buyer to fill out paper work on their transaction before picking up their order. Prior to the resolution, increased online spending made it difficult for Argentine Customs to track online transactions, but with the newly imposed measures, the government expects easier application of the import tax.
While international online purchasing will have tax restrictions, national online spending will still be unlimited. With Argentine reserves at $30 billion—their lowest levels since 2006—and a 30 percent drop since last year, the resolution aims at decreasing dollars from leaving the country, which can occur when purchasing from foreign countries. According to Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, Internet purchases in Argentina have doubled over the past year, and Argentines spent almost 30 million dollars during an organized Cyber Monday sale last month.
Argentine government officials formalized a $500 million plan to improve the distribution of electricity in Buenos Aires this week, but remained strongly opposed to raising utility rates in order to alleviate the city’s ongoing energy crisis.
The measure comes after the hottest heat wave on record prompted a series of power outages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Argentines without light and running water in December and January. According to the Argentine Ministry of Infrastructure, Julio De Vido, energy consumption reached unforeseen levels during those two months.
The new government plan will enable two privately-owned electric companies, Edesur and Edenor, to install new substations and upgrade low-voltage cables in neighborhoods affected by the recent blackouts. Edesur and Edenor serve 13 million residents of Buenos Aires and, according to De Vido, will have to increase work crews by 20 percent.
Many, however, accuse the government of sidestepping its own role in the energy crisis. “The outages are synonymous with failure,” said Sergio Massa a likely presidential candidate from the opposition party Frente Renovador (Renewal Front).
Likely top stories this week: the U.S. Supreme Court will look at Argentina’s debt case; Michoacán’s government asks for help; Pope Francis names Haitian, Brazilian, Nicaraguan and Chilean cardinals; President Ortega says that Nicaragua Canal construction will begin this year; Air Europa rejects Venezuelan customers’ bolivars.
Argentina’s Bondholder Battle Goes to U.S. Supreme Court: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to review a case that pitted hedge funds NML Capital and Aurelius against the Argentine government in the aftermath of the country’s 2002 debt default. Though most of the debt has been written off since then, the holdout bondholders have demanded repayment in full, which amounts to about $1.3 billion dollars, plus interest. Argentina has refused to pay back the debt, and while U.S. courts have ruled against the country, a U.S. appeals court said last August that Argentina will not be required to pay back the money until the Supreme Court rules on the matter.
Michoacán Asks for Help From Federal Government to Contain Violence: Governor Fausto Vallejo of the Mexican state of Michoacán confirmed that he asked for help from the federal government on January 10 to combat a recent spate of violence in the crime-plagued state. In Michoacán, vigilante “self-defense” vigilante groups have occupied a number of cities in an effort to battle the Knights Templar drug cartel for control of the state. On Friday, a number of masked gunmen looted and set fire to stores and the main municipal building of the town of Apatzingan, causing fearful residents to stay home. Local Congressman Silvano Aureoles called on the federal government to take control of the situation in a statement published on Sunday.
Pope Francis Names Cardinals, Including Four from the Americas: Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals this Sunday, including Chibly Langlois of Haiti, Orani João Tempesta of Brazil, Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Nicaragua, and Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Chile. A spokesperson for the Vatican said that the new appointees from poor countries such as Haiti and Burkina Faso reflect the pope’s commitment to helping the impoverished. The new cardinals will be installed in a ceremony on February 22 in the Vatican City.
Nicaragua Canal Construction on Track, Says Ortega: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced on Saturday that the construction of the country’s $30 billion inter-oceanic canal would begin as planned in December 2014. Last week, Manuel Coronel Kautz, president of the Nicaragua canal authority, said that the canal’s construction would likely be delayed until 2015. The Nicaraguan government granted the Hong Kong-based HKND Group a 50-year concession to build and manage the new canal, which will also include an oil pipeline, overland route, two deepwater ports, and two airports and duty-free zones.
Airline Refuses Bolivars from Venezuelan Customers: Spanish airline Air Europa announced on Friday an “indefinite” suspension of all ticket sales in bolivars, making it increasingly difficult for Venezuelans to purchase flights in the local currency. The airline said that it is owed more than $160 million because Venezuela’s country’s foreign exchange agency has not exchanged bolivars for U.S. dollars in some time. Other airlines may follow suit, cutting off access to flights for many Venezuelans. While the Venezuelan government says that one U.S. dollar equals 6.3 bolivars, the black market exchange rate is 11 times higher.