Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

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U.S., Colombia Labor Deal Helps Advance FTA

The White House announced on Wednesday that Washington and Bogota had reached a deal that would strengthen labor protection in Colombia, which paves the way for the Obama administration to submit the pending bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) to U.S. Congress for approval. Colombia pledged to broaden oversight in terms of enforcing labor laws and hiring additional labor inspectors. The New York Times reports that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, currently in New York for his country’s assumption of the UN Security Council, will meet Thursday with U.S. President Barack Obama to announce the deal. This announcement comes less than a month after 44 GOP lawmakers ratcheted up pressure to pass the FTA, warning they would potentially filibuster a U.S. commerce secretary appointment. Learn more about the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which was originally signed in November 2006 and has since awaited U.S. passage. 

Colombia to Head UN Security Council

President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos will preside over a special session on Haitian reconstruction at the UN Security Council on April 6 following his country’s takeover of the Council’s rotating presidency. The agenda for the one-month term of Colombia’s presidency will also include crises in Libya, Ivory Coast, and Sudan.

Peruvians to Vote for New President on Sunday

A leftwing nationalist, three centrists, and the conservative daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori will vie for the presidency of Peru on Sunday. Polls indicated nationalist Ollanta Humala took the lead last week, turning the state’s role in the economy into the election’s most prominent issue and sparking volatility in the country’s currency and stock markets. No candidate appears to have the simple majority necessary to avoid a runoff election and polling agencies say that any of the five candidates can make it to the second round. A third of Peruvian voters remain unsure of who to vote for and may change their minds, according to a poll by Ipsos Apoyo released on March 21.

Read an AS/COA Online Analysis about polling in the Peruvian elections.

U.S. Ambassador Told to Quit Quito

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced on April 5 that Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Quito, was persona non grata and had been asked to leave the country. The expulsion was due to newly released Wikileaks cables written by Hodges claiming President Rafael Correa was complicit in awareness of corruption by the country’s police chief. Patiño said the Ecuadoran government aimed the action at Hodges specifically and did not intend to rupture relations with the U.S. government.

Walid Makled Claims Proof of Venezuelan Military Corruption

Alleged Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled told Univisión he has proof that corruption and drug smuggling reach the highest levels of his country’s military, but that he will only reveal what he knows to U.S. prosecutors if he is extradited to the United States. The Colombian government arrested Makled in August and previously said it plans to extradite him to Venezuela, where he faces homicide charges. The news comes as the Colombian and Venezuelan heads of state prepare to sign an anti-drug trafficking pact, discussed by Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera in El Tiempo

Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about the Walid Makled extradition controversy. 

Bolivia Takes Maritime Claims against Chile to International Courts

President of Bolivia Evo Morales said last week that La Paz would take its maritime demands against Santiago to the international courts after the Chilean government refused to discuss the possibility of ceding a port to its landlocked South American neighbor. Bolivia lost its access to the ocean to Chile during the War of the Pacific, from 1879 to1884.

Chilean Catholic Church Faces Sex-abuse Crisis

Chile’s Catholic Church faces a crisis of legitimacy after the Vatican found Chilean priest Fernando Karadima guilty of abusing minors in January. The public’s perception of the church as a force for good in Chilean society has declined since Karadima’s case began making headlines in April of last year, according to BBC Mundo.

Mujica Keeps Steady Course on Finances

Uruguayan President José Mujica said at a meeting of 1,200 businesspeople that he would maintain his government’s current fiscal policy in the face of pressure from his leftwing coalition, particularly the Communist Party, to increase taxes on windfall earnings, reduce fiscal incentives, and emphasize redistribution of wealth. 

Will Brain Strain Undermine Brazil’s Growth?

With just 6 percent unemployment and a booming economy, Brazil’s market favors job seekers. But Universia Knowledge@Wharton wonders whether a lack of skills in sectors including engineering and finance may hobble corporate growth. In recent years, Brazilian firms have sought skilled labor outside the country’s borders, with the number of foreign workers rising 30 percent to 50,000. “The long-term solution, of course, is education,” said Felipe Monteiro of Wharton. “The short-term solution is you have to train people on the job.”

Kerry Sets up Obstacles to Cuban USAID Funds

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) called for a review of programs aimed at promoting democracy and civil society in Cuba for which Congress has allotted $20 million. The programs began drawing increased scrutiny after USAID contractor Alan Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for subverting the Communist government, which views the pro-democracy programs as illegal. 

Cuba and Partners to Drill for Oil

Manuel Marrero, a representative from Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industry, announced Tuesday at a geology convention that Cuba will drill five exploratory, off-shore wells in deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The Cuban government will partner with Spain’s Repsol, Venezuela’s PDVSA, and companies from three other countries to drill the new wells. Marrero highlighted that Cuban law permits U.S. companies to participate in oil exploration in Cuban waters, but the decades-old trade embargo precludes such activity.

Documenting Disaster in Japan and Haiti

Photojournalist David Gilkey compares his experiences covering last year’s earthquake in Haiti and the catastrophe that hit Japan March 11. Gilkey says the main challenge photojournalists face when documenting disasters is to successfully compose an image that conveys the scale of the tragedy. NPR presents Gilkey’s photos from both disasters side by side in a slideshow.

Sweet Micky Wins Haitian Presidency in a Landslide

Popular Musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly won Haiti’s runoff election by a two-to-one margin, according to preliminary results released Monday by the country’s electoral council. Martelly faces the daunting task of rebuilding a country devastated by an earthquake that left over 200,000 dead and a million people homeless. The international community has pledged some $10 billion for reconstruction, but much of that has been withheld until the new government assumes power. 

Courts Hold up Sandra Torres’ Divorce

She may love her country more than her husband, but a Guatemalan judge will not let First Lady Sandra Torres divorce Álvaro Colom just yet. Critics charge that the couple’s divorce, in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election, runs against the spirit of the Constitution, which prohibits the president’s close relatives from running for office. 

A Border Patrol for Costa Rica

On March 30 Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla inaugurated her country’s new border patrol police unit of 153 men, charged with fighting organized crime and protecting national sovereignty. The ceremony took place at Los Chiles, a few miles from the Nicaraguan border. Costa Rica, which abolished its military six decades ago, has had an ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua.

Mexico’s First Female Attorney General

El Universal profiles Marisela Morales, the first woman to be nominated for the position of attorney general in Mexico. Morales, who received the U.S. State Department’s Women of Courage award in 2011, has worked at the Attorney General’s Office since 1997, where she headed high-level investigations into corruption and drug cartel activity. Her nomination awaits confirmation by the Senate.

U.S. Bank Security Oversights Open Door for Drug Money Laundering

The Observer published an investigative report on money laundering by Mexican drug cartels in the United States on April 3. The article describes efforts to uncover what are claimed to be avoidable security oversights by U.S. bank Wachovia, now part of Wells Fargo, and the subsequent $160 million it paid in fines and forfeiture. “The conclusion to the case was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the ‘legal’ banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars—the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world—around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.”

Ciudad Juarez Police Official Faces Human Rights Complaints

Human rights activists demanded an external investigation into the disappearance in Ciudad Juarez of four young men, who witnesses say were last seen being rounded up by police. The allegations put senior police official Julián Leyzaola under the spotlight after just one month on the job in the country’s most violent city. While activists do not accuse him of playing a direct role in the disappearances, they question his commitment to investigate the alleged abuses. Leyzaola faced allegations of using torture and other illegal tactics to rein in drug cartels during his stint in Tijuana.

Canada’s Nunavut Confronts Serious Social Challenges

Crime in the Canadian Inuit territory of Nunavut has doubled in the 12 years since the territory was founded, despite the federal government’s attempts at “domestic nation-building.” In a lengthy feature article, Canada’s The Globe and Mail tries to find out why murder has become 10 times more common in Nunavut than in the rest of the country and the suicide rate among young Inuit males is now 40 times higher than the national average.

LatAm Countries Start Ranking Universities

The media, private researchers, and federal governments are taking a greater interest in ranking national university systems in Latin America, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru now all have at least one national ranking for their universities, and Brazil has adopted an official measure of university quality. Advocates of university rankings say such systems provide a tool for prospective students to compare the caliber of their country’s higher education institutions.

Could Brazil Help Its Erstwhile Colonial Ruler?

As the euro-zone crisis looks to claim Portugal as its latest victim, there was speculation that the country’s former colonial possession could help support it after a March 29 visit to Lisbon by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, where she hinted her government could start buying Portuguese debt. While Brazil’s Finance Minister Guido Mantega later said he didn’t think this was a possibility, the ruckus brought up talk of an “inverted world order,” writes the Financial Times beyondbrics blog.

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