May 21, 2015
Manuel Contreras, the former police chief during Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, received a 15-year sentence for murder on Wednesday, adding to the 490-year term he is currently serving. In 2013, the Supreme Court convicted Contreras, 86, for the December 1974 disappearance of Alejandro de la Barra and Ana Maria Puga, members of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR—Revolutionary Left Movement). Four other officials from the Pinochet era were also convicted by the Court.
The Court’s rulings are a historical feat in Chile, marking the first time that disappeared Chileans have been acknowledged as victims of secuestro permanente (permanent kidnapping), which enables the crimes to be prosecuted despite the country’s 1978 amnesty law. The only way Contreras would have been able to evade a prison term on permanent kidnapping charges was “by producing the remains of the disappeared person or fully demonstrating that he or she is indeed dead,” according to Latin America Press.
Contreras has been found guilty of a slew of atrocities. Throughout Pinochet’s dictatorship, Contreras headed the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA—National Intelligence Directorate), an agency responsible for managing torture centers where hundreds were slain. Contreras completed a seven-year prison term between 1994 and 2001 for the 1976 assassination of former Ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. In 2004, Contreras was sentenced to 12 additional years in prison for the kidnapping and disappearance of a MIR guerrilla member Miguel Ángel Sandoval. Contreras received a 490-year sentence for crimes against humanity carried out during the early years of the military regime.
May 18, 2015
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang begins an eight day trip to South America today, landing in Brazil with a promise of some $50 billion in Chinese investments in Brazilian infrastructure. This trip follows on and is consistent with the promise that President Xi Jinping made in January to invest $250 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next 10 years.
Talk about checkbook diplomacy: whether each of these investments is ultimately consummated—and China has a history of big announcements that go unfulfilled—Latin American and Caribbean nations are paying attention.
The promise of infrastructure development is not unwelcome, even by the United States, which sees chronic underinvestment in Latin America’s creaking infrastructure to be a limiting factor in regional development. Resources are insufficient, and Chinese largesse meets a need. At the same time, China is not pursuing charity. Investments up to this point and into the future are clearly focused on the procurement of strategic natural resources, including energy and agriculture, and also the infrastructure to bring them to market—i.e. get them to China.
Monday Memo: Castro visits Pope—Chilean Cabinet—Colombian Coca—Guatemalan Corruption—Central American Geothermal
May 11, 2015
This week’s likely news stories: Raúl Castro has an audience with the Pope; Michelle Bachelet shakes up her Cabinet; Colombia bans coca spraying; a Guatemalan judge is linked to a corruption scandal; Germany will invest in Central American geothermal projects.
Cuban President Meets with the Pope: Cuban President Raúl Castro met with Pope Francis this Sunday at the Vatican and thanked the Pope for his assistance in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. On several occasions, the Pope has called on the U.S. to end its embargo on Cuba. Castro said he was so influenced by his audience with the Pope that he might return to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope is planning to visit Cuba on his way to the U.S. in September 2015. Also this weekend, French President François Hollande travelled to Cuba in the first visit by a French leader since 1898. Hollande is expected to meet with Castro on Monday, although the Cuban government has not confirmed whether or not there will be a meeting. France hopes to benefit from new openings with Cuba, and Hollande is travelling with business leaders as well as ministers.
Bachelet Names New Ministers to her Cabinet: On Monday, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced changes to nine ministers in her cabinet, following her request last week that all of her ministers resign. New appointments include Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdés, Interior Minister Jorge Burgos, Minister of the Government Secretariat Jorge Inzunza, and government spokesperson Marcelo Díaz. Tiago Severo, Latin America economist at Goldman Sachs, noted that “Rodrigo Valdes is certainly going to be most likely perceived as a market-friendly new minister, who could perhaps instill a renewed sense of confidence in the outlook for the economy.” The reshuffling of the cabinet comes amid record low approval ratings for Bachelet after a number of corruption scandals marred the administration.
Colombia Announces Ban on Coca Spraying: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced this weekend the decision to stop using glyphosate in the country's coca spraying programs. On Saturday, he asked the National Drug Council to ban glyphosate sprayin gdue to the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the substance is likely carcinogenic. The aerial spraying of coca fields, a program started in 1994 and backed by the United States, has been highly controversial. Farmers have claimed that the herbicides have killed their coffee plants and other crops, and citizens have called on the government to end the program due to the health risk. Santos stated that despite the decision, he will continue to fight drug trafficking in Colombia.
Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Implicated in Corruption Scandal: On Monday, Guatemalan Supreme Court Justice Blanca Stalling was implicated in the corruption scandal that forced Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign on Friday. Wiretappings uncovered by the AP include a conversation between lawyers, suspects, and businessman Luis Mendizábal that reveal a judicial bribery scheme to get suspects detained in the recent customs corruption scandal released. In the phone call, Mendizábal reportedly told defendant Javier Ortíz that he would be released soon, and mentioned Stalling. Stalling denies any wrongdoing.
Germany to Invest in Geothermal Energy in Central America: On Saturday, Nicaraguan news site El 19 reported that Germany will lend $112 million for geothermal energy projects throughout Central America. This weekend, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega met with Klaus Krämer, the head of the Division of Regional Development Policy for Central America and the Caribbean of the German Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry, to discuss the program and how Nicaragua can participate. Following the meeting, German Ambassador in Managua Karl-Otto König stated that there is a strong desire on both sides to continue collaboration. Last Thursday, the German Development Bank extended a line of credit of $6.71 million to Nicaragua for a water treatment project in Managua.
May 7, 2015
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called for the resignation of her cabinet Wednesday as the fallout from a corruption scandal among top-level officials continues to take its toll on her administration. The president announced her plans to reshuffle the cabinet the same day a new poll put her disapproval amongst Chileans at a record high.
"A few hours ago, I requested the resignation of every minister," Bachelet said during a TV interview on Wednesday, adding that she may decide to keep certain ministers in her cabinet. The president said the decision would have come sooner were it not for a recent series of natural disasters in the country, including severe flooding in the north and the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in the south.
The president’s move—which Reuters reports was received positively by most members of Bachelet’s center-left party—came as her approval ratings fell to the lowest level in her political career. A Gfk Adimark poll released Wednesday measured the president’s disapproval at 64 percent.
Fourteen months into Bachelet’s second administration, the Chilean political class is facing a crisis marked by scandal. In addition to allegations of illicit campaign finance schemes involving wealthy businessmen and right-wing politicians, members of Bachelet’s own family have also been accused of corruption. In Februrary, her son Sebastian Davalos resigned from his position as socio-cultural director of the presidency amid allegations that he and his wife used their political connections to obtain a $10 million bank loan to purchase land they later sold for $15 million.
The cabinet reshuffle is one of several moves the president have made to react to the corruption scandals. In March, Bachelet announced a series of anti-corruption measures requiring government officials to publically declare all assets.
Bachelet has attributed her falling approval ratings to a “crisis of confidence” among Chileans rocked by corruption allegations in a country traditionally perceived as the least corrupt in the region. On Wednesday, she said a new cabinet would represent a “new cycle.”
Monday Memo: Brazilian Corruption—Bolivian Opposition—Bolivia-Chile Dispute—Marijuana in Puerto Rico—Chemical Leak in Costa Rica
May 4, 2015
This week’s likely top stories: Former Brazilian president investigated; Opposition gains influence in Bolivia; ICJ hearing on Bolivia-Chile border dispute begins; Puerto Rico legalizes medical marijuana; Costa Rican coast suffers chemical spill.
Report of an Inquiry into Lula Shocks Brazil: On Friday, Brazilians were shaken by news of a probe regarding possible influence-peddling by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). The anti-corruption division of the Public Ministry is examining da Silva’s relationship with Odebrecht, one of the largest companies in Brazil, and whether he used his position as president to get loans for Odebrecht from the Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social (Brazilian National Development Bank—BNDES). An Odebrecht spokesperson denied any misconduct, and da Silva did not address the investigation on Friday when speaking on International Worker’s Day. The inquiry will determine whether or not there is reason to open a wider investigation. The governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) has suffered recently, with current President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s successor, also tainted by a corruption scandal involving the PT and the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras. However, investigations have not uncovered any wrongdoing by Rousseff.
Opposition Wins Runoff in Bolivia: On Sunday, Bolivian citizens from Beni and Tarija voted in runoff municipal elections after the initial elections failed to produce clear winners. The ruling Movimiento al Socialismo party (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) prevailed in five of nine states in March 2015. The opposition won in both Beni and Tarija yesterday, giving the opposition a stronghold in the four richest states in Bolivia, which includes La Paz. Carlos Dellien from Nacer beat Alex Ferrier of MAS in Beni. In Tarija, Adrián Oliva of the Unidad Demócrata coalition (Democratic Unity) beat Pablo Canedo by a wide margin (61 percent to 38 percent).
ICJ Hearing on Bolivia-Chile Maritime Dispute Begins: On Monday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague will hear preliminary arguments on the maritime case that Bolivia brought against Chile in April of 2013. Felipe Bulnes, the former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., will speak today, arguing Chile’s position that their border dispute was already settled in 1904 by a previous agreement, and that the ICJ does not have jurisdiction over the matter. On Wednesday, the Bolivian delegation is expected to speak, reiterating the Bolivian right to sovereign access to the sea. The ICJ will have until the end of 2015 to determine whether or not the case is under its jurisdiction. The maritime dispute has been a source of tension between the two countries for decades.
April 29, 2015
After more than two months of diplomatic tension between Peru and Chile over accusations that Peruvian naval officials had sold secrets to Chilean intelligence, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced yesterday that the countries have resolved the dispute.
Humala said that he “recognizes the constructive attitude and dialogue of President Michelle Bachelet’s government in deploring these acts in the spirit of advancing the continued cooperation and integration of our peoples.”
Peru first accused Chile of espionage on February 19, calling on the neighboring country to investigate the accusations and press charges against those responsible. According to the Peruvian government, there was evidence that three Peruvian non-commissioned navy officials (NCOs) had shared confidential information with Chilean intelligence between 2005 and 2012. The naval officers allegedly stole classified military documents and passed them on to their Chilean handlers in secret meetings held in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in exchange for money. These officers first came under suspicion in 2014, when their superiors suspected that the officers could not finance those trips on their salaries alone.
April 14, 2015
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed a law on Monday allowing same-sex civil unions. The law, known as the Acuerdo de Unión Civil (Civil Union Accord—AUC), falls short of recognizing same-sex marriage, but establishes “civil cohabitation” as an officially recognized marital status that affords many of the same rights as marriage, such as visitation, inheritance and pension rights.
Same-sex marriages established abroad will be recognized as civil unions in Chile. “We are taking a fundamental step forward in rights, justice and respect for individual freedom,” Bachelet said at a ceremony at the presidential palace.
Monday’s signing ceremony marks the end of the law’s four-year-long political odyssey, and fulfils a promise Bachelet made as a candidate to support the law, which was originally introduced under a different name by her predecessor, Sebastián Piñera. “We are truly excited, because as of next October, couples will be able to legally enter into a bond that, years ago, was a dream, even a taboo,” said Rolando Jiménez, the director of the Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (Homosexual Liberation and Integration Movement—Movilh), an LGBT rights organization.
The government now has six months to draft the regulations that will guide the law’s implementation. The Civil Registry, which will be responsible for registering the new unions, is undertaking a training program for its employees to avoid discrimination. Because the law establishes a new marital status—rather than extending an existing status to LGBT couples—the registry is also developing new software in preparation for the law’s implementation. It is estimated that over 2 million Chileans may be eligible to contract civil unions once the law goes into effect.
Monday Memo: Brazil Protests—Colombian Generals Investigation—Obama-Castro Meeting—Puerto Rico Debt—Chilean Mining
April 13, 2015
This week’s likely top stories: Brazilians demonstrate against corruption; Colombian generals investigated; Obama and Castro hold meeting; Puerto Rico seeks debt help; Chilean communities fight mining companies over water.
Hundreds of Thousands Protest Corruption in Brazil: Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets on Sunday to protest government corruption. Estimates of participants vary, but police say almost 700,000 citizens protested, while organizers of the demonstrations claim the number was closer to 1.5 million people. The protests, which took place in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and across Brazil, were smaller than the ones that took place in mid-March 2015. Demonstrators then and now claim that President Dilma Rousseff was aware of the bribery taking place at Brazil's state oil company, Petrobras, during her tenure there, and yesterday, many called for the president's impeachment. Rousseff’s approval rating sank to just 13 percent following last month’s protests.
Colombian Generals Are Investigated for “False Positives”: The office of the Attorney General of Colombia announced on Sunday that approximately 22 army generals are being investigated for their suspected involvement in the “falsos positivos” (“false positives”) scandal during the term of former President Álvaro Uribe. The case involves thousands of civilians who were promised jobs and then murdered and dressed up as paramilitaries by the armed forces in order to up the military’s kill count. So far, 800 members of the military have been imprisoned and over 5,000 linked to the scheme. Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre Lynett stated that the investigation should conclude by the end of 2015.
Presidents Obama and Castro Meet at Summit of the Americas: At the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama on Friday and Saturday, a showing of anti-U.S. sentiment by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Venezuelan and Bolivian delegations was overshadowed by a historic meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. The face-to-face meeting—which was the first between presidents of the U.S. and Cuba in over 50 years—was mostly symbolic, but demonstrated the two leaders' willingness to work together despite ideological differences. Latin American leaders praised the U.S. for renewing relations with Cuba, and experts are now analyzing how Obama can best leverage the renewed credibility. The leaders did not issue a joint declaration at the end of the summit, as a result of President Nicolás Maduro’s demand to include a denunciation of U.S. sanctions in Venezuela.
Puerto Rico Calls on Former IMF Officials to Help with Debt: Puerto Rico’s government and investors have asked former International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials for help in resolving the island's debt crisis. Puerto Rico has hired Anne Krueger, the IMF’s former first deputy managing director, as a consultant, and hedge funds that own Puerto Rican bonds have reportedly approached Claudio Loser, the former director of the IMF’s Western Hemisphere department. Puerto Rico has over $7 billion in debt, and last month, Fitch Ratings downgraded its debt to a “B” rating. On Wednesday, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority faces a debt payment deadline, but is currently negotiating with creditors about restructuring.
Chilean Citizens and Mining Company Continue Dispute: Citizens in Caimanes, a small community in the north of Chile, are locked in a dispute with mining company Antofagasta Minerals over water, a precious resource in the arid region. Citizens claim that the Los Pelambres copper mine’s tailings dam is contributing to water scarcity and that the mine’s activity is contaminating water in their community. Juan Olivares, one of the citizens that has criticized Antofagasta Minerals, said this weekend, “They say we are looking for an economic reward. That has never been the goal […] We want the law to be respected in Chile.” A recent court ruling ordered the company to demolish the dam, but the company will appeal the decision, and is also exploring further investment in the area.
Monday Memo: Bolivian Elections—U.S.-Cuba talks—Caribbean Bitcoin—UNASUR on U.S. Relations—Chile Floods
March 30, 2015
This week’s likely top stories: Bolivia holds local elections; Cuba and the U.S. to discuss human rights; Caribbean Bitcoin exchange launches; UNASUR head urges closing of U.S. military bases in the region; Chile rejects Bolivian aid for flood victims.
Bolivia’s MAS Party Loses La Paz in Local Elections: Bolivian citizens elected local government leaders on Sunday, with President Evo Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) winning most governments, according to unofficial results. MAS won four out of nine provinces (Pando, Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba) outright, and led in two other provinces that will now advance to a second round of votes on May 3, due to a close race. However, MAS lost La Paz, as well as Santa Cruz and Tarija provinces. Félix Patzi, from the Solidaridad y Libertad party (Solidarity and Liberty) secured approximately 52 percent of the votes for the governorship of La Paz. Official results are expected later on Monday.
U.S. Confirms Human Rights Meeting with Cuba: On Friday, a U.S. government spokesperson confirmed that U.S. and Cuban officials will meet on Tuesday, March 31 in Washington, DC for a preliminary discussion on human rights. The undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, will lead the U.S. delegation. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said that the Cuban delegation will detail the country’s current and past successes in the area of human rights. This will be the fourth round of talks since the re-establishment of ties between the two countries. U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to re-open embassies before the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.
Caribbean Bitcoin Exchange Launched: The Caribbean Bitcoin exchange “Bitt,” which is based in Barbados, was launched on Monday. Bitt, powered by digital currency exchange software company AlphaPoint, will be operating after confirming $1.5 million in seed funding from venture capital group Avatar Capital. The exchange will allow customers to trade in 11 fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro. CEO Gabriel Abed praised the positive impact that Bitt will have. “By facilitating trade between traditional and digital currency markets, Bitt is creating the platform for very low-cost international commerce and remittance between the people who need it most—the millions of unbanked and underbanked citizens in the Caribbean,” he said.
March 26, 2015
On March 25, Chile’s Interior Ministry declared a state of emergency for cities in the country’s northern Atacama and Antofogasta regions after flash flooding from the worst rains in two decades left at least four people dead and 22 missing. Meanwhile, high temperatures and strong winds in southern Chile are making it harder for authorities to fight forest fires that have raged for weeks and have affected over 11,000 acres in three protected areas.
Overflowing rivers in northern Chile forced residents out of their homes and onto roofs, while mudslides cut off road access to several small towns. Approximately 1,500 people had to take refuge into shelters. On Wednesday evening, 48,000 people were without drinking water and 38,500 were without electricity.
In response to the flooding, President Michelle Bachelet traveled to Copiapó in Atacama on Wednesday evening after authorizing the armed forces to assist in rescue operations.