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.