Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Weekly Roundup from Across the Americas

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From 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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Second Guessing Zetas’ Ties with Iranian Terrorism

Concerns about the potential connection between Middle East terrorism and Latin American organized crime were revived this week when news hit that Iranians had plotted with an individual who they thought was a member of Mexico’s Zetas gang to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. The presumed gangster turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In Washington, legislators differed over whether the news demonstrated such a threat. “The fact that elements of the Iranian government targeted a Mexican drug cartel to carry out a high-level assassination is further evidence that the cartels are perceived as terrorists willing to participate in a lucrative, violent scheme inside the United States,” said Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX). But Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) said: “If anything, the Mexicans were trying to help us.”  A statement from Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Relations said: “In strict compliance with domestic and international law, Mexico was able to neutralize a significant risk to Mexico’s national security, while at the same time reinforcing bilateral and reciprocal cooperation with the United States.” Bloggings by Boz contends that the connection between Iranian terrorists and Zetas is unlikely, with Mexican drug cartels not wishing to disrupt their lucrative business. “I think the top leadership of the Zetas and others are very aware that any involvement in a bombing on U.S. soil or trafficking of [weapons of mass destruction] would bring a lot of additional focus and resources against them. They certainly wouldn’t do it for the price of one truck of cocaine,” he writes.

Abbas on LatAm Tour to Bolster Palestine’s Statehood Bid

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas took his fight for Palestinian statehood on the road this week with a Latin American tour that takes him to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. But he failed to reach his goal during his first stop in Colombia. Speaking on the prospect of an independent Palestine, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated: “It must be the product of negotiations [between Israelis and Palestinians] because this is the only way to achieve peace,”after meeting with Abbas. Colombia is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and Abbas sees Bogota’s support as crucial, given that he needs at least nine out of 15 votes from the Council to gain a recommendation in favor of Palestine gaining UN membership.

Colombia and Panama FTAs Head for Congressional Vote

Washington’s long-stalled trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, along with the South Korea pact, are expected to go up for votes in both the U.S. House and Senate in time for a state visit by South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee voted 18 to 6 to send the Colombia deal to the floor and to advance the South Korea and Panama accords by voice vote,reports Bloomberg. The Hill’s Floor Action blog lays out the timing for congressional debate of the trade deals, saying that, despite reservations about the Colombia trade pact, “all three of the FTAs are expected to pass today.”

Humala Purges Police Force

In an effort to combat corruption, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala dismissed two-thirds of the country’s police generals in an effort to fight corruption. With a majority of Peruvians identifying the police as the country’s most corrupt institution, Humala was making good on an anti-corruption pledge made during the presidential race, reports The Guardian. But critics of the move contend it left no time for the dismissed generals to defend themselves and amounts to building political control of police forces. 

Read an AS/COA News Analysis on Humala’s police purge.

Mexico City’s Police Work to Improve Reputation

Police in Mexico City, long unpopular among local residents, are working to boost their image. In an effort to improve response time and efficacy, the force has instituted reforms that decrease the size of zones patrolled and encourage police to know the residents in their zones. The reforms have strengthened crimefighting, with violent crimes down 12.5 percent over last year. But problems such as low levels of police education and low salaries remain a challenge to an effective force.

If I Were President: Mexico’s Peña Nieto Outlines Platform

Enrique Peña Nieto, considered the frontrunner in the Mexican presidential race, released a 10-point economic plan on Monday.  The former governor of the State of Mexico’s proposal includes fiscal and energy reforms, regulatory changes to combat monopolistic practices, increased spending in education and infrastructure, and a new trade strategy to compete with Asia.

First of “Cuban Five” Paroled, but No Swap for Gross?

This week the first of the “Cuban Five,” René González—arrested for espionage on behalf of the Cuban government—was released on parole. González’s release raises questions as to whether the United States may be able to gain the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in return. In an article for Time’s GlobalSpin blog, Tim Padgett explores Washington and Havana’s troubled ties and how they make that scenario unlikely. AS/COA’s Senior Director of Policy Christopher Sabatini makes a similar case in Latin America Advisor, saying: “It’s difficult for either side to do much to warm relations. On the one side, with its recent crackdown on dissidents and the ongoing detention of Alan Gross, the Cuban regime has made it politically impossible (not to mention morally difficult) for President Obama to press for further opening. On the other side, there are serious constraints on how far the Cuban regime can go as long as the Castros and their geriatric colleagues control the reins of power.”  

CentAm Migration through Mexico Drops Drastically

Animal Político reports that the number of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico dropped 70 percent over the past five years, according to the Mexico National Institute of Migration (INM). The agency based the figures on the decrease in the number of migrants detained in Mexico, which fell from 433,000 in 2005 to 140,000 in 2010. INM head Salvador Beltrán del Río attributes the drop to growing fears over kidnappings and extortion perpetrated by organized crime against Central Americans traveling through Mexico on their way to the United States.

Cuban Migration to U.S. Doubles

After declining over the past three years, the number of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the United States more than doubled over the past year, with around 1,700 this year compared with 831 in 2010. The reason for the uptick is uncertain, with analysts pointing to an improvement in the U.S. economy, a deterioration of the Cuban economy, and a more relaxed attitude towards emigration by Raúl Castro’s government.

One Million Chileans Participate in Unofficial Referendum on Education

This past weekend, the Chilean National Teachers Union and education activists held an “unofficial referendum” on student demands, open to all Chileans at home and abroad to participate in person or by internet. Voting closed Monday. The Santiago Times reports that, with 56.7 percent of the more than 1 million ballots counted, an overwhelming majority supports the students’ demands of free education for all, and an end to profit in education. The government downplayed the results, with Senator Víctor Pérez of the right-wing Democratic Union Party stating: “A serious country is not governed by plebiscites in the style of Cuba and Chávez.” The organizers plan to submit the results to the government to seek a binding plebiscite. In addition, after violent confrontations between the police and students last week, Chile’s trade unions announced a two-day strike on October 18 and 19 in solidarity with the students.

LatAm University Rankings Get Assessed

Quacquarelli Symonds released a ranking of over 100 Latin American universities that puts University of São Paulo at the top. The top-10 list includes institutions in Brazil (3), Chile (2), Colombia (2), Mexico (2), and Argentina (1). However, The Economist takes a measured view on the methodology behind the rankings. It’s Americas View blog warns that the region has low educations standards and “has a particularly perverse way of doling out cash, spending proportionally less on primary education, which benefits everyone, and more on tertiary, which is the reserve of the few.” 

An Americas Quarterly interactive from the Fall 2010 issue on education explores how Latin American countries spend a disproportionate amount on higher education, which favors more well off students. 

Canada, Chile Make the Grade in Best-for-Business List

According to Forbes, Canada ranks as the top country worldwide for conducting business. Chile, which came in at 24, took Latin America’s top spot. Peru (42) and Mexico (57) rank as Latin America’s second and third best countries for business, respectively.

After Tariff Increase, Brazilian Auto Industry Sees Investment

A week after the Brazilian government announced a 30 percent import tariff on autos into Brazil, both French-Japanese partnership Renault-Nissan and Chinese manufacturer JAC Motors announced major investments in the Brazilian auto industry. In an effort to boost Nissan’s share of the Brazilian market, the Brazilian-born president of Renault-Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, announced an investment of $1.5 billion in a Nissan plant in Rio de Janeiro state that could produce 220,000 cars a year. Similarly, Chinese JAC Motors said it will invest $500 million to build a factory in the state of Bahia that will produce 100,000 cars annually.

Number of Brazil’s Catholics Falls, Agnosticism Rises

The São Paulo-based thinktank Fundação Getúlio Vargas found the number of Catholics in Brazil continues to fall, now making up approximately two-thirds of the population. This marks a major decline from 90 percent just three decades ago. While the Catholic Church has traditionally lost their Brazilian faithful to Pentecostal Christianity, the study finds the largest growth is among Brazilians who state they belong to no faith at all, with young people making up the largest part of this group.

China’s Demand for Soy Prompts Brazilian Fears of “Neocolonialism”

The Financial Times’‘ beyondbric’s blog discusses Brazilian trade policy in the face of Chinese demand for soy. With China hungry for resources—including food imports—Brazil seeks to prevent the kind of “neocolonialism” some Brazilians assert China practices in Africa, by passing laws that prevent foreigners from owning land. The post discusses Brazil’s compromises with China despite these concerns.

Brazil’s Cardoso Offers Advice to Countries in Economic Crisis

Celebrated economist and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso offers lessons from Brazil’s experience with the Latin American debt crisis and its aftermath, in an article for The Christian Science Monitor.  Warning against the dangers of austerity, and the importance of social policy in promoting growth, he offers advice to those countries in the midst of economic crisis today.

Polls Forecast Big Electoral Win for Fernández de Kirchner

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is looking like the runaway winner in Argentina’s October 23 election, with polls forecasting she’ll finish well ahead of rivals and projecting she’ll pull in between 49 percent and 57.3 percent of the vote. If the predictions come true, she could capture the largest portion of the vote won by a presidential candidate since the country’s return to democracy, when Raúl Alfonsín received 51.7 percent in 1983. To claim a first-round victory, Fernández de Kirchner needs to win either 45 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a 10-point margin over the second place finisher. 

NGO and Buenos Aires Governor Differ on Slum Figures

A new report by the organization Un Techo para mi País found that more than 508,000 people live in villas miserias—shantytowns—in Buenos Aires, with 90 new shantytowns built in the past five years.  La Nación reports that Governor of Buenos Aires Daniel Scioli argued with the study’s findings, saying it was not carried out with sufficient scientific rigor and that urban planning had mitigated growth of such settlements.

Uruguay to Become a Major Exporter of Natural Gas?

Recent assessments by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that Uruguay hosts large deposits of natural gas within its territory that could soon become available for export. The EIA estimates Uruguay possesses 20,580 billion cubic feet of recoverable reserves, which would make it the sixth largest in the region. President José Mujica has stated his desire to make his country self-sufficient in energy.

Bicentennial Celebrated in Uruguay

Uruguay celebrated its bicentennial on Monday, marking 200 years since José Artigas, considered the father of Uruguayan independence, declared freedom from Spain. The day was observed with huge celebrations in Montevideo, including a show of more than 20 musical acts from Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Spain.

Paraguayans Abroad Win Right to Vote in National Elections

A constitutional referendum in Paraguay passed this week that will allow Paraguayans living abroad to participate in national elections. The measure passed with 80 percent approval, though only 10 percent of eligible voters participated. About 500,000 Paraguayans of a total population of 6 million live outside the country, the majority in neighboring Argentina.

Chávez Talks of Nationalizing Los Roques

Via a phone call broadcast on state television, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced plans to nationalize the islands known as Los Roques off his country’s coast. Contending that the islands are full of illegal constructions including some by foreigners, he said his government intends to build small hotels there “for the people,” and to use expropriated yachts “from bankers” to ferry tourists there.

Rio Celebrates Christ the Redeemer’s 80th Birthday

The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro officially turns 80 on October 12. To commemorate the event, the city is hosting a mass at the site, inaugurating a bust of the site’s architect and patron, and offering an evening “Peace Show” that will include more than 30 acts with the theme of “Brazilianness.”

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