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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Obama Wraps up First Major LatAm Tour

U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up a five-day tour in Latin America this week that took him to Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and San Salvador. The UN Security Council’s passage of a no-fly zone and subsequent allied attacks on Libya cast a shadow over Obama’s first trip to Central and South America and, ultimately, pushed him to cut the tour a few hours short. But the U.S. leader made the case that Latin America, a region where most countries successfully moved from authoritarian regimes to democracy, offered a model for the Middle East and North Africa. “At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy—and to do so peacefully,” said Obama during a Santiago speech focused on U.S.-Latin American ties. “Virtually all the people of Latin America have gone from living under dictatorships to living in democracies…The work of perfecting our democracies, of course, is never truly done, but this is the outstanding progress that’s been made here in the Americas.” 

Obama’s meetings with Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Sebastián Piñera of Chile, and Mauricio Funes of El Salvador included a number of cooperation agreements. In the case of Brazil, those pacts focused on areas ranging from educational and technical exchange to economic cooperation to organizing sporting events. A bilateral nuclear-energy pact signed in Chile was notable in the context of Japan’s current nuclear crisis. In El Salvador, Obama and Funes discussed Washington’s $200 million in funding for a regional security initiative as well as economic cooperation with the goal of stemming emigration and organized crime. “Ultimately [El Salvador] wants to be able to find growth and tap into its own potential here inside the country,” said Obama in a joint press conference

Access comprehensive coverage of the president’s March 19 to 23 trip through an AS/COA Online guide and “issues in Depth” at  www.AmericasQuarterly.org.

Chile and U.S. Sign Nuclear Energy Research Deal

The United States and Chile signed an agreement in advance of President Obama’s visit to work together to train Chilean nuclear engineers—a decision that opposition politicians and environmental groups criticized, pointing to the recent disaster in Japan. Chilean Energy Minister Laurence Golborne stressed that his earthquake-prone country does not currently produce nuclear energy and the agreement does not include plans to build a reactor. Chile signed a similar agreement with France last month.

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about how the nuclear crisis in Japan affects Latin America’s options for developing nuclear energy capability.

Brazil’s Security Council Abstention Vote Marks Policy Shift

Under the Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva administration, Brazil generally opposed military actions against foreign countries and tried to avoid a vote to sanction Iran over allegations of enriching uranium for the purposes of building nuclear weapons. Bloggings by Boz offers five possible explanations for Brazil’s abstention on the Libya no-fly zone vote in the UN Security Council. Brazil’s Foreign Ministry issued a press statement Monday saying it “expects that an effective ceasefire be implemented with the utmost brevity, so as to ensure the protection of the civil population and to create the conditions to solve this crisis through dialogue.” 

Poll Ranks Approval Ratings of Presidents of the Americas

A poll released by Mexican consulting firm Mitofsky found that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, with 75 percent, held the highest approval rating among 20 presidents of the Americas evaluated. Other presidents who scored well included Maurcio Funes of El Salvador (72 percent), Ricardo Martinelli of Panama (65 percent) and Rafael Correa of Ecuador (56 percent). Peruvian President Alán García held the weakest approval rating with 27 percent.

U.S. Amb to Mexico Resigns over WikiLeaks Uproar

Carlos Pascual, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, resigned from his post over the weekend due to bilateral tensions sparked by WikiLeak’s publication of comments he made criticizing the Mexican military’s organization and ability to confront drug cartels. Mexican President Felipe Calderón expressed displeasure with the comments to The Washington Post. Pascual appears to be the first U.S. ambassador to lose his position over a WikiLeaks cable. In a column for Vanguardia, Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser lambasted the president for pressuring for Pascual’s resignation, saying that, “Instead of killing the messenger, Felipe Calderón should reflect on the message that he sent.” 

Arizona Bills Targeting Undocumented Immigrants Fail

A group of bills before the Arizona legislature that sought to crack down on undocumented immigration met their demise when the state’s Senate voted against them on March 17. The laws included measures that would have required hospitals to determine the legal status of patients prior to treatment, eviction of public-housing residents in the case that even one occupant was in the United States illegally, and proof of citizenship for students to gain school enrollment. “Those rejected bills on what have been called ‘birthright citizenship’ proved the most controversial,” reports the Arizona Daily Star.

Central American Countries Unite against Organized Crime

With organized crime turning the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras into one of the most violent areas of the world, Central American governments hope to develop multinational security partnerships, writes Eliot Brockner for the International Relations and Security Network. In January, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom called for the creation of a multinational police force to target organized crime, which may be formally established in June. The United States is also ramping up military assistance to the region through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

Read an AS/COA analysis about CARSI. 

Guatemala’s President to Divorce First Lady

Álvaro Colom, president of Guatemala, and Sandra Torres filed for divorce by mutual consent so that Torres can run to replace him in September’s presidential election. The First Lady seeks the nomination of the governing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza. The Guatemalan constitution prohibits close relatives from succeeding the current president. An editorial in Guatemala’s Prensa Libre contends that the divorce makes a mockery of the country’s constitution. 

The AQ blog offers an analysis of Guatemala’s electoral scene ahead of September’s presidential vote.

Ticos Shun Gold Mining

Costa Rica has shunned gold mining, despite the fact that the precious metal is fetching record prices, reports GlobalPost’s Alex Leff. A controversy began when the Las Crucitas gold mine sparked a protest movement from people who argued the environmental consequences of the operation outweighed the economic benefit. The Costa Rican courts annulled the mine’s contract in November and the country’s Congress later voted to outlaw open-pit mining. 

Martinelli Dreams of Turning Panama into a Global Hub

The Christian Science Monitor profiles Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket tycoon who dreams of turning his country into a global business hub. Panama enjoys Central America’s most rapid economic growth, but Martinelli faces criticism at home and from the Obama administration of governing with a heavy hand.

Haitian Election Results Not Expected until March 31

Haiti held a runoff presidential election on Sunday, with popular musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly facing former first lady and senator Mirlande Manigat. Unlike the first election back in November, observers did not report many allegations of fraud, though two people died during clashes in rural areas. The country’s electoral council will release preliminary results on March 31, according to the Associated Press.

Aristide Returns after Seven-year Exile

Twice-ousted former President of Haiti Jean-Bertrande Aristide arrived in Port-au-Prince on Friday, notwithstanding U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion that Aristide’s return could cause turmoil ahead of Sunday’s runoff presidential election. Aristide says he does not plan to return to politics. His party, the leftwing Fanmi Lavalas, did not participate in the elections, after the electoral council excluded it on a technicality.

Raúl Reforms Cuba’s Education System

The Castro government has begun reforming Cuba’s higher education system, long hailed as one of the great triumphs of the Cuban Revolution. Under the new system, universities will accept fewer students, ending a longstanding policy of offering higher education to as many Cubans as possible. Instead, the government will focus on matching education needs to the demands of the island’s economy, including a greater emphasis on skilled labor. 

Over Half of Puerto Rican Youth Live in Poverty

A new report issued by the National Council of La Raza found that 56 percent of Puerto Rico’s youth live in poverty. The report, entitled 2010 Kids Count – Puerto Rico Data Book compiled statistical data from all of the island’s 78 municipalities.

Peruvian Presidential Race Tightens

A new poll by Datum International shows the Peruvian presidential race getting tighter, with former President Alejandro Toledo leading at 20.2 percent and nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala in second place with 18.5 percent. Keiko Fujimori—daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, who is in jail for human rights violations—polled at third place with 17 percent. The election will be held on April 10.

Ecuadoran and Bolivian Banks Flying High, But for How Long?

The banking business is booming in Ecuador and Bolivia, notwithstanding regulatory actions by the government that have scared off foreign financial institutions. But as credit expands to near record rates, the Economist Intelligence Unit asks if those countries’ banks can turn demand for financial services into higher profits.

Chávez Uses Decree Authority to Reform Military

For the fourth time in less than five years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez reformed his country’s military. Invoking temporary decree-making authority granted in December by the “Habilitating Law,” Chávez altered 48 of the 138 articles regulating the armed forces. The changes give more power to citizen militias by creating new titles. State media said the reform would help advance the construction of socialism and advance humanist and ethical principles. Critics say it will cause confusion in the chain of command and have questioned the constitutionality of enacting the reform by decree.

Is Venezuela Getting a Good Deal from China?

Financial Times’ beyondbrics blog wonders whether China’s economic support of Venezuela comes at too high a price. China contributes major loans and investments in oil projects that balance the decrease in investment from traditional economic partners, including the United States. But some of that assistance may come in exchange for oil sold for as little as $5 per barrel, according to a state oil company official cited in a recently released WikiLeaks cable.

First LatAm Outlet Interviews Julian Assange

Colombian magazine Semana became the first Latin American news outlet to interview Julian Assange this week. “Colombia is a very interesting country for us,” Assange said, adding that part of the organization’s interest in the Andean country “has to do with the relationship between the United States and Latin America.” The interview came just after Semana published an article outlining the U.S. role—or lack thereof—in Colombia’s diplomatic conflicts with Ecuador and Venezuela in 2008 and 2009, based on WikiLeaks cables.

Santos Backs up on Tariff Policy

After lowering tariffs on 3,600 classes of imports—half of the total classes designated by the Colombian government—the Santos administration is reconsidering its position due to protests from industry groups. La Silla Vacía outlines the economic interests most affected by the tariff reductions and examines the politics behind Colombian industry.

Héctor Recalde’s Happy to Run for VP of Argentina

Notwithstanding the fact that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has yet to announce if she will run for a second term, Congressman Héctor Recalde told the local press that he has “no doubt that I’m going to be the vice presidential candidate.” Recalde heads the organized labor block in Argentina’s national legislature.

Hugo Chávez: Life on Mars?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez wondered if capitalism played a role in destroying life on Mars, if it ever existed. “I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars,” Chávez said in a speech marking World Water Day. “But maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet.”

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