Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro embarked today on a three-day tour of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, all members of Mercosur (The Common Market of the South). Following Paraguay’s suspension from the free-trade group, Venezuela joined Mercosur last year and will assume the bloc’s temporary presidency for the first time on June 28 during a summit in Montevideo.
During a ceremony on Sunday to commemorate the two-month anniversary of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Maduro announced that he would visit the other Mercosur countries to “continue bringing forward a perfect equation of financial, energy, cultural and political integration.”
In Uruguay, Maduro will meet with Uruguayan President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, union leaders and the electrical transformer company Urutransfor. Members of the Uruguayan opposition have criticized Maduro’s visit as “tactless and inconvenient” because of the current political tensions that exist in Venezuela. Later this week, Maduro will meet Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Buenos Aires and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia to discuss the next steps for the regional bloc.
Uruguay’s lower house passed the Ley de Matrimonio Igualitario (Marriage Equality Law) with a wide margin—81 votes in favor out of 87 total votes—last night, sending it to the Senate where it is expected to be approved. The law recognizes all marriages as legal and provides the same rights and responsibilities for both genders under a civil union.
The new law would also allow couples to decide which surname goes first when they name their children—breaking a tradition in Latin America that gives priority to the father’s name. This measure would replace Uruguay’s 1912 divorce law, which gives only women the right to break their vows without cause.
Legalizing same-sex marriage has been one of the main policy objectives of the ruling Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA), the same party that has promulgated laws decriminalizing abortion and allowing state-controlled sales of marijuana in an attempt to blunt drug-related crime.
If the bill is signed into law, Uruguay would become the second Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage; Argentina was the first in 2010.
Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny, co-editors of The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, point to growing secularization and stronger activism as key factors in the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Denmark have marriage equality on the books.
A bill to legalize abortion in Uruguay, having passed the Senate in December 2011, remains stalled in the Chamber of Deputies. Earlier this year, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) coalition, which controls congress and the presidency, was one vote away from agreeing to the Senate bill that would decriminalize abortion within the first 12 weeks after conception.
The deciding vote, from opposition Deputy Iván Posada in the Partido Independiente (Independent Party), offered up a compromise proposal in April that would permit abortion only after a pregnant woman submits to a counseling committee made up of a psychologist, a social worker and a “conscientious objector,” also known as an anti-abortion activist. The woman would then be given five days to decide whether to move forward with the abortion, and allowed to undergo a legal abortion procedure after that waiting period. The bill still remains on the floor in the Chamber of Deputies and Deputy Pedro Abdala of the Partido Nacionalista (Nationalist Party), the second-largest party in congress, favors sending the issue to a national referendum if the bill eventually passes in the Chamber.
In the absence of bill passage, Uruguayan pregnant women are turning to drugs like misoprostol. Obstetricians or gynecologists cannot prescribe misoprostol, although some still do illegally and the drug can be found on the black market. Misoprostol has a 97 percent success rate in terminating a pregnancy, but a 2001 survey shows that 30 percent of female deaths in Uruguay were attributed to illegal abortion measures.
The deadlock in Uruguay underscores Joan Caivano and Jane Marcus-Delgado’s argument in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly: “In Latin America and the Caribbean, 12 percent of all maternal deaths are estimated to have been the result of unsafe abortion. Annually, about 1 million women in the region are hospitalized for complications ranging from excessive blood loss and infection to septic shock arising from unsafe terminations of pregnancy. Despite these dire statistics, and their dramatic effect on women’s health, the efforts to address reproductive rights have been marked by divisive politics.” For more from Ms. Marcus-Delgado, she will be speaking at the Americas Quarterly Summer 2012 issue launch on August 17.
The presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay will meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Brasilia today to formalize Venezuela’s full admission into Mercosur, the largest trade bloc in South America.
Venezuela’s entry was approved in 2006 and recognized in subsequent years by the parliaments of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, but failed to materialize due to opposition by the Paraguayan Congress. Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur after Fernando Lugo’s impeachment on June 22, 2012 opened the door for Venezuela to formally join.
Paraguayan President Federico Franco—who was not permitted to attend the meeting—asserted that Chávez’s goal in joining was to give him an electoral push in the upcoming October elections. The visit to Brazil will be the Venezuelan president’s first official trip abroad since he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. Chávez, who turned 58 last Saturday, has lately appeared in more rallies and public events after declaring himself free of cancer earlier this month.
Chávez claims that Venezuela finally joining Mercosur is a sign of the United States’ failure in South America, as he claims that Paraguayan resistance is a product of American diplomacy. However, due to its tight exchange controls and high dependency on imports, Venezuela will benefit the least from participation in the regional bloc. The country will also have to meet a series of conditions, which might include resuming diplomatic relations with Israel that have been broken since 2009.
José Mujica’s administration plans to send a bill to Uruguay’s Congress legalizing the sale of marijuana as a crime-fighting measure, unnamed lawmakers told local press yesterday. Latin American news agency Efe and Uruguayan newspaper El Pais were among the media outlets citing “official sources” detailing President Mujica’s upcoming announcement of the bill.
Under the proposed measure, lawmakers familiar with the draft bill said that only the government would be allowed to sell marijuana—in the form of cigarettes—and only to registered adult users. The government would take responsibility for the quality of the cigarettes and levy a sales tax, revenues from which would go toward financing rehabilitation programs. Purchase amounts would be regulated, and those who surpass those amounts would be mandated to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. The government hopes that moving the sale of marijuana into the open will remove the profit incentive for drug dealers and divert users from harder drugs, including the highly addictive cocaine paste known as pasta base or paco.
President Mujica’s office did not immediately confirm the reports, although he told The Associated Press in an email that an upcoming announcement of a series of measures to combat public insecurity could include “the marijuana issue.” Other measures include a plan to combat the sale and use of pasta base, with severe fines and penalties and greater regulations on broadcasting images of violence on television.
There are no laws against marijuana use in Uruguay. Personal consumption has never been criminalized, and last year lawmakers from President Mujica’s Frente Amplia (Broad Front—FA) proposed a bill to decriminalize its cultivation. Uruguay is also considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, but rising violence has become a concern for President Mujica, who went on national radio and television on Tuesday to give a call to action. According to Uruguay’s Interior Ministry, the number of homicides during the period from January to May jumped to 133 this year, up from 76 during the same period in 2011.
With today’s release of its Spring 2012 issue, Americas Quarterly has unveiled a new index that measures social inclusion in the Americas. This ranking evaluates 15 different indicators and compares them across 11 countries in the hemisphere. The variables include a country’s economic competitiveness, percent of national GDP spent on social programs, level of political and civil freedoms, and citizen perception of personal empowerment and government responsiveness in that country.
Out of a maximum of 100, Chile came out on top with a score of 71.9, while Guatemala ranked lowest at 7.5. The index praises Chile’s “consistently high rankings across almost all indicators” and cites “severe inequalities by race and ethnicity” in the case of Guatemala, adding that “Indigenous and Afro-Guatemalans lag far behind” socioeconomically. Uruguay and Brazil ranked second and third, respectively.
For four variables—enrollment in secondary school, percent of population living on more than $4 per day, access to adequate housing, and percent of population with access to a formal job—Americas Quarterly uses data collected by the World Bank in household surveys and disaggregated by race and gender.
According to the index, social inclusion is defined as “the concept that a citizen has the ability to participate in the basic political, economic and social functioning of his or her society. It includes not just economic empowerment, but also access to basic social services, access to infrastructure (physical and institutional), access to the formal labor market, civil and political participation and voice, and the absence of legally sanctioned discrimination based on race, ethnicity or gender.”
Access the full results of—and methodology behind—AQ’s social inclusion index.
Argentina and Uruguay signed a bilateral treaty yesterday as part of a joint effort to stem tax evasion, reduce capital flight, and attract greater foreign investment. Argentine citizens have long used Uruguayan banks accounts to avoid tax payments. The new measure, which will likely be approved by both countries’ legislatures later this year, will allow investigators from Argentina’s tax authority, Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos (AFIP), to access financial data on suspected tax evaders.
“This is a fundamental tool for international cooperation on tax matters,” said Uruguayan Minister of the Economy Fernando Lorenzo. The treaty also allows Uruguay to respond to Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommendations that it shore up its highly deregulated banking sector.
The treaty is very specific on how and what information on depositors can be shared. Information will only be exchanged on a case-by-case basis and a formal legal petition has to be filed by tax authorities for each individual under scrutiny. It is estimated that approximately $ 2 billion in Argentine savings have been deposited in Uruguayan banks in recent years by depositors anxious about the possibility of further currency controls.
Yesterday, at Mercosur’s presidential summit in Montevideo, Uruguay, foreign ministers of the bloc’s four founding members—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Palestinian Authority (PA). This trade deal is significant not only due to Mercosur’s strength as the world’s fourth-largest economic bloc, but also because this pact opens the Palestinian economy up to new South American markets. The PA had prior trade relations with Argentina, according to the Latin American Integration Association—importing over $1.7 billion of Argentine goods in 2010.
PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was present in Montevideo on behalf of the Palestinian people and expressed his gratitude: “We are glad to know we have so many friends in the region.” All four founding Mercosur members endorsed a sovereign and independent Palestinian state over the course of the past 12 months, starting with Brazil in December 2010.
Mercosur also has an FTA fully in force with Israel; it was signed in December 2007 but needed ratification by the parliaments of each member state. Argentina’s congress became the last such nation to do so in March 2011.
Israel places strict controls on the flow of goods to and from the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank—and leaders like al-Maliki charge that Israel is stifling economic growth among the Palestinians. An Israeli representative from its Montevideo embassy said that while Israel would respect the Mercosur-PA FTA, it is “not the best way to promote peace” in the Middle East.
Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) will travel today to Salto, Uruguay, to meet with her Uruguayan counterpart José Mujica. Together they will preside over the opening of a new train line that will connect passengers in the two countries.
In recent years only cargo has crossed the Argentina-Uruguay border by rail. Passenger train service was discontinued nearly 30 years ago due to frayed bilateral relations. In recent years disagreement has centered on the construction of a cellulose plant in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, that Argentina alleged would pollute the Río Uruguay on the border of both countries. For the last three years, Argentines in the city of Gualeguaychú, Entre Ríos (at times with the support of the federal government), staged numerous protests including a blockade of the bridge over the Río Uruguay.
The new railway—and this afternoon’s inauguration ceremony, which hundreds of government officials from both countries are expected to attend—underscores the warming relations between the South American neighbors. CFK’s trip, replete with symbolism, will take her from across the Río Uruguay in Concordia, Entre Ríos, to Salto, as she and Mujica launch the rail line traversing the river border between their two countries.
This transnational infrastructure is part of El Plan de Acción Binacional Argentino-Uruguayo (Argentine-Uruguayan Bi-National Action Plan), that was signed earlier this month by the two countries’ ministers of transport. Today’s symbolic journey from Concordia to Salto will expand on September 9 to a weekly, 813-kilometer (505-mile) journey from Pilar, Argentina to Paso de los Toros, Uruguay. Service will become daily by December.
As part of a four-country, seven-day official visit through South America, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made his first stop in Colombia over the weekend. He joined Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to visit sites in the north of the country, near the Caribbean Sea, that have been subject to floods and mudslides. Altogether these natural disasters have killed 469 people since last year.
Ban ended his visit yesterday in the town of Soacha by visiting populations displaced by ongoing internal violence. He praised Colombia’s recently-ratified Victims’ Law, which awards territory and compensation to over four million internally-displaced Colombians. The secretary-general visited a school in the large settlement for uprooted civilians of Altos de la Florida, which was constructed with UN funds. Ban, the former South Korean foreign minister, recalled his own personal childhood—having been displaced as a result of the Korean War that bifurcated the Korean Peninsula.
Ban’s tour comes one week after he announced his intention to seek a second term as secretary-general. Colombia occupies one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council, and Ban received Santos’ endorsement over the weekend.
The secretary-general continues to Argentina today, where he will be received by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He will also travel to Uruguay and Brazil, wrapping up his Latin American tour on Friday, June 17.