Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

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From the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online’s news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.

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Valenzuela and Mack Debate Latin America Policy

Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere Connie Mack (R-FL) held the group’s first hearing of the congressional session yesterday on the state of Latin American relations. Undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela argued that Obama’s policy of engagement had helped foster and increase positive attitudes toward the United States in Latin America, citing Latinobarómetro polling data. Mack, however, attacked President Barack Obama’s policies, saying they rewarded U.S. enemies while punishing the country’s allies, and called for the passage of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, a Cuba-style embargo on Venezuela, and increased attention to the problem of the Mexican drug war. Valenzuela said that the State Department is investigating whether the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is violating international sanctions against Iran, as alleged by Mack.

Plan Merida Cash Cut; Funds Shifted to CentralAm

The Obama administration’s newly announced budget contains about $250 million less than in 2010 for the Merida Initiative, an anti-drug military aid program for Mexico. A State Department official said the reason for the large drop was that in 2010, $260 million in funds from the plan were used to make a one-time equipment purchase. The news came just after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield announced that the Obama administration is considering a $200 million anti-drug aid plan specifically for Central America. 

U.S. ICE Agents Attacked in Central Mexico

Two U.S. Immigration and Customs officials traveling in a diplomatic vehicle from Laredo, Texas, to the Mexican City of Monterrey were ambushed by gunmen in the state of San Luis Potosi. One agent died while the other is in stable condition. Fernando Toranzo, the governor of San Luis Potosi, said narcotraffickers were behind the attack and he acknowledged the presence of organized crime in his state.

Mexico and France in Dispute over Frenchwoman’s Case

Franco-Mexican ties hit a rough patch after Frenchwoman Florence Cassez last week lost an appeal to her 60-year sentence in Mexico for kidnapping. Cassez was sentenced in 2009 for involvement in abductions staged by her Mexican boyfriend, who ran a kidnapping ring. Her supporters say her arrest by Mexican authorities was tarnished and included a filmed “recreation” of her capture originally depicted to be the actual raid. Mexico rejected requests to transfer her to France and, with bilateral tensions running high, Mexico pulled out of France’s “Year of Mexico” cultural celebration after French President Nicolas Sarkozy indicated he would use the event as a platform to push for Cassez’s release.

U.S. Budget for 2011 Trims Money from Plan Colombia

The proposed U.S. budget would cut funding for Plan Colombia, an anti-drug and anti-insurgency aid program in effect since 2001, by about $100 million since last year to $398 million. It is the fourth consecutive year that Plan Colombia’s resources have been scaled back. The cuts owe to two factors: the tendency to shift functions previously financed by the security program to the Colombian government and political pressure to cut the U.S. deficit, El Tiempo reports.

Colombia Chats with China about Building Dry Canal

The Juan Manuel Santos administration is discussing with China the possibility of creating a 137-mile “dry canal” that would connect the Andean country’s Pacific and Atlantic coast by railroad. The new land route would facilitate exports and imports from the Asian economic powerhouse. “It makes a lot of sense,” Santos told the Financial Times, referring to the program. “Asia is the new engine of growth for the world economy.” Some observers note the dry canal would be hamstrung by transportation costs, environmental concerns, and questions over efficiency.

Read the AS/COA Online news analysis regarding Colombia’s turn to China for investment dollars. 

Slim Sets Sights on Colombia

Mexico’s Carlos Slim—the world’s richest man, according to Forbestold Bloomberg News that he is looking to up his investments in Colombia. Slim already has interests in the Colombian telecommunications industry, but wants to expand into oil exploration, he said. Watch Bloomberg’s 14-minute video of the interview with the Mexican billionaire. 

Machu Picchu Relics Return Home

Yale University has signed an agreement to return about 5,000 Incan artifacts brought to the United States by American anthropologist Hiram Bingham in 1912. The Peruvian government has long disputed the legality of Bingham’s action, arguing that Yale received the relics on loan and they should have been returned years ago. All items are slated for return by December 2012.

Chevron-Texaco Ordered to Pay $8 Billion in Ecuador Case

An Ecuadoran judge ordered U.S. oil company Chevron to pay $8 billion in damages to repair environmental damages from its operations in the country in 1972 and 1990. Residents of Ecuador’s Amazon region brought the civil case against Texaco years ago and Chevron inherited iy when it purchased Texaco in 2001. Chevron called the sentence “illegitimate” in a statement and plans to appeal the decision.

Four Years in: Correa Assessed

World Politics Review published a two-part series exploring Ecuador under President Rafael Correa, evaluating both his domestic and foreign policy agendas. “Now, despite some notable successes, there are increasing doubts about the Correa administration’s stability and longevity as well as about the legacy it will leave behind,” write Daniel Wagner and Daniel Jackman. The articles touch on a wide range of topics, such as growing Chinese investment, troubled relations with Washington and Colombia, success in boosting tax revenues, rising lawlessness, and closer ties with the military that correspond with a weakened national police force.

Latin American Leaders Talk Peace in the Middle East

Dominican President Leonel Fernández and former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias are helping to organize a forum to discuss how Latin American civil society can contribute to peace in the Middle East. The talk, organized by Fernández’s and Arias’ foundations and the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales will take place from March 10 to 12 in San José, Costa Rica. 

Bean Insecurity in El Salvador

With concerns growing over global food security, Tim’s El Salvador blog points out that the cost of red beans in the Central American country has skyrocketed 138 percent over the last year, to $1.24 per pound due to scarcity caused by heavy rains in 2010. The Salvadoran government will import some $5 million worth of beans to offset the shortfall. 

Honduran Officials Die in Plane Crash

A small Honduran commercial plane crashed Monday outside Tegucigalpa, killing all 14 passengers, including Assistant Secretary for Public Works Rodolfo Rovelo, labor leader José Israel Salinas and former Economy Secretary Carlos Chaín. The cause of the crash is under investigation. 

Brazil Pitches SouthAm Defense Strategy

While on an official trip to Uruguay, Nelson Jobim, Brazil’s defense minister, announced his country’s plans to develop a regional defense industry in South America to modernize its military capabilities. Prior to his statement in Montevideo, Jobim met with Argentine Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli in Buenos Aires, where they signed a defense cooperation agreement. Among the projects mentioned in the agreement are the production of a lightweight military vehicle called the “Gaucho,” aeronautic cooperation, and the Argentine adoption of Brazil’s Embraer KC 390 transport plane to replace the Hercules produced by Lockheed.

Blackouts in Brazil

As electricity demand continues to increase in Brazil, temporary blackouts may become more common, according to report from The Economist. Almost 50 million people lost power early this month, drawing attention to the challenges that Brazilian policymakers face to keep electricity flowing without interruptions. Brazil relies primarily on hydroelectric power, which is subject to droughts. Lengthy, difficult-to-maintain distribution lines compound the problem. 

Rio Gets First Woman Police Chief

Martha Rocha became Rio de Janeiro’s first female police chief on Wednesday. She took the position after her predecessor, Allan Turnowski, was removed for his alleged involvement with a ring of corrupt police accused of selling weapons to drug traffickers, providing illegal private security, and participating in paramilitary activities. Rocha, who has served with the police for 28 years, is known for having a strong anti-corruption stance

Tremors in Chile Shut Tunnel Link to Argentina

Nearly a year after a major earthquake rocked Chile, an earthquake on Friday caused damage to and closure of the primary mountain pass connecting the country with Argentina. The Cristo Redentor tunnel links Santiago with Mendoza and some 865 trucks travel through it on a daily basis.

Military Cargo Plane Sparks U.S.-Argentine Row

A diplomatic spat has erupted between Buenos Aires and Washington after Argentine customs officials seized undeclared equipment from a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, including guns and GPS equipment. U.S. officials protested the seizure, saying it had been authorized for a training program in which a military team would train the federal police on hostage rescues, La Nación reports. The Argentine authorities have called upon the Obama administration to cooperate with their investigation into the incident.

Member of AZ Border Militia Convicted of Murder

An Arizona court found Shawna Forde, a Minutemen American Defense (MAD) commander, guilty Monday for her involvement in the May 2009 murders of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raúl Junior Flores. A third victim, Brisenia’s mother, was also shot but survived the incident. Forde was found guilty of co-conspiring to break in to the family’s Arizona home with the goal of robbing it to fund MAD, a splinter faction of the Minutemen—a border vigilante group that reports undocumented migrants. The court has decided that Forde is eligible to receive the death penalty. Arizona Daily Star’s At the Courthouse blog offers incremental coverage of the Forde case.

Majority of Latinos Like Obama, But May Not Vote for Him

Hispanics in the United States continue to view President Barack Obama favorably, but that support does not translate into automatic votes, according to a poll conducted by impreMedia and Latino Decisions. According to the data, 70 percent of Latino voters approve of Obama’s performance, but only 43 percent are sure they would vote for him in the case of his reelection. Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics jumped significantly following the president’s support for a failed attempt to pass the DREAM Act last session. 

Hispanics Face Digital Divide

Pew Hispanic Center reports that “Latinos are less likely than whites to access the Internet, have a home broadband connection or own a cell phone.” However, the report finds that usage patterns are similar when comparing Hispanics and whites of the same socioeconomic backgrounds.

Generation Y Unblocked in Cuba

Without announcing the reason for the decision, last week the Cuban government unblocked desdecuba.com, a site that hosts dozens of blogs critical of the Communist government, including Yoani Sánchez’s Generation Y. Sánchez’s blog has won a number of foreign awards, but the site has been blocked since 2008. The unblocking of the blogs coincided with an international computer science conference and the arrival of a fiber optic cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela that is expected to dramatically increase the island’s bandwidth.

Cuba’s Food Economy Evolves

The Cuban government has begun to deregulate the sale of sugar and rice, partly to satisfy the needs of the island’s budding class of self-employed entrepreneurs, many of whom work in food service. The decision comes just as GlobalPost reports that subsidized bread is becoming more difficult to find in Havana, where tens of thousands of entrepreneurs are buying up loaves to stock their cafés, pizzerias, and snack bars. 

Bolivian Circus Lions Airlifted to New Home in Colorado

“Operation Lion Ark” will bring 25 former circus lions from Bolivia to Colorado today, where they will join roughly 270 other animals on the Wild Animal Sanctuary. In November Bolivia became the first country in the world to ban traveling circuses from using animals in performances. The Denver Post reports that the lions couldn’t be relocated into the wild as they had always lived in captivity. The giant cats will get 80 acres to roam in their new sanctuary.

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