Latin America News Round-up
April 10, 2012
Brazil's Rousseff Tells Obama of 'Currency War' Worries
For the latest news and developments on Haiti, please see CEPR's blog, "Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch."
For archives of past Round-ups, please click here.
Brazil and Southern Cone
Obama faces skeptical leaders at Americas summit
Brazil and U.S. Accentuate the Positive. New York Times
Brazil's Rousseff tells Obama of 'currency war' worries. AFP
Brazil, U.S. Deepen Ties Ahead of Obama's Latin America Week. Inter-Press Service
Brazil concerned over Iran, oil prices: sources. Reuters
Argentina May Make YPF Announcement This Week, Cronista Reports. Bloomberg
Uruguay will enjoy “positive discrimination” in bilateral trade with Argentina. Mercopress
Chile to spend $100 bln on mining sector by 2020. Reuters
Northern Andean Region
Venezuelan 'drug lord' Walid Makled goes on trial. BBC
Kidnapped Costa Rican diplomat freed: Venezuela. Reuters
Venezuela’s Minimum Wage to Rise 32.25% in 2012. Venezuelanalysis
Interview with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos. Washington Post
Colombia remains on international human rights 'blacklist'. Colombia Reports
Colombia to reassess policy of extraditing drug traffickers to US. Christian Science Monitor
PG upholds dismissal Colombian intelligence executive. Colombia Reports
Western Andean Region
Ecuador Jan-Feb Trade Surplus $289.66M Vs $164.6M Year Earlier. Dow Jones
Peru Expects Minas Conga Report As Protests Anticipated. Dow Jones
A disappointing return from an investment in computing. Economist
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Mexico's ruling party changes campaign strategy. AP
Study Links NAFTA to Obesity Epidemic in Mexico. Common Dreams
San Pedro Sula's violence mirrors Honduras' pain. AP
AFL-CIO tackles rights violations in Honduras. People’s World
Interview with Guatemala President Otto Perez. Washington Post
El Salvador’s Violence Dips After a Truce Between Gangs and Government. The Daily Beast
Fidel Castro takes aim at Canada’s environmental record ahead of Americas summit. AFP
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
Obama faces skeptical leaders at Americas summit. Reuters
Latin American countries pursue alternatives to U.S. drug war. Washington Post
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil and U.S. Accentuate the Positive
SIMON ROMERO and JACKIE CALMES. New York Times. April 9, 2012
RIO DE JANEIRO — Dilma Rousseff’s first visit to Washington as Brazil’s president was certainly cordial enough.
She had lunch at the White House on Monday with President Obama. The United States said it was opening two new consulates in Brazil in an effort to lure more free-spending Brazilian tourists. And the two countries even forged an agreement to bolster the trade of cachaça, Brazil’s signature sugarcane tipple, and Tennessee whiskey.
But the friendliness belied a sense that the United States, whose once-dominant sway in Latin America is ebbing, and Brazil, the hemisphere’s rising power, still do not see eye to eye on a range of important issues, from Middle East diplomacy to trade with Cuba and Brazil’s ambitions of obtaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“Brazil sees itself as having arrived or close to arriving,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research and policy organization in Washington. “The United States sees Brazil as big, the most important country in Latin America, but not anything like a global power.”
This disconnect was revealed in one account after another in the news media here about the visit, in which commentators lamented the fact that Ms. Rousseff was not received with the pomp of a White House state dinner, recognition granted by the Obama administration to the leaders of South Korea, India and Britain.
“The bilateral reality is far from being a disgrace, despite the points in dispute, but there’s a considerable lack of mutual respect,” Caio Blinder, a columnist for the magazine Veja, said in an essay describing the “downgrade” of Ms. Rousseff’s visit.
Still, both governments emphasized the positive aspects of Ms. Rousseff’s visit, which came a year after Mr. Obama visited Brazil. The level of diplomatic exchanges, sharing of classified military and defense information and overall trade is far more expansive than in some other parts of Latin America, like Venezuela and Ecuador, where relations remain at a low point.
The United States does not have a trade agreement with Brazil, despite reaching such deals with 11 other countries in Latin America, but trade with Brazil, which recently surpassed Britain as the world’s sixth-largest economy, is nevertheless thriving.
At one point this year, the United States surpassed China as Brazil’s top export market, because of rising purchases of Brazilian oil and manufactured goods. By the end of the first quarter of this year, China regained the top spot, but the relationship is not without problems, with tensions emerging over cheap Chinese imports and land acquisition by Chinese investors.
Meanwhile, the United States had a trade surplus of over $8 billion with Brazil in 2011, reflecting a surge of American exports into Latin America’s largest country. Faced with rising land and labor costs, Brazil, a biofuels powerhouse, even imported a record 1.1 billion liters, about 264 million gallons, of ethanol from the United States last year.
But these trade patterns disguise tension. The strength of Brazil’s currency, the real, has been a blessing for Brazilians snapping up properties in Miami and New York. At the same time, the real’s vigor has limited the competitiveness of Brazilian exporters by making their products costlier in foreign markets.
Mr. Obama and Ms. Rousseff met privately for two hours at the White House, and afterward sat in the Oval Office to speak briefly with reporters. Mr. Obama effused about “the extraordinary progress that Brazil has made under President Rousseff.” Ms. Rousseff echoed his calls for continued economic cooperation between the countries.
Ms. Rousseff also cited oil and gas production as “a tremendous opportunity for further cooperation,” with the United States both supplying equipment and know-how to extract the energy sources, and then buying some of the product. She welcomed the recent American reductions in tariffs on Brazil’s ethanol.
Yet the leaders’ eyes rarely met, and Ms. Rousseff rarely looked at Mr. Obama as he spoke. He looked intently at her during her remarks, nodding in agreement at times. But he seemed to bristle when she expressed concern that America’s “monetary expansion policy” could impair growth in emerging economies like Brazil’s. Monetary policy is the responsibility of the Federal Reserve; the White House and Congress deal with fiscal policy.
No breakthroughs were revealed regarding Brazil’s policies in the Middle East, which seem to have undergone some fine-tuning under Ms. Rousseff from those of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who in 2010 tried to forge an ambitious uranium exchange deal with Iran.
While Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notably bypassed Brazil on a recent tour of Latin America, and Brazil voted recently in the United Nations to censure President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, qualms persist in Brasília about intervening in Middle East conflicts.
Meanwhile, Washington has been reluctant to explicitly support Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council, even after the United States backed India’s bid two years ago.
Brazil also supports India’s bid and argues that the Security Council should be expanded to include various new members. But Susan E. Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Brazil, as well as India and South Africa, during their temporary tenures on the Council after they blocked efforts last year to pressure Mr. Assad’s government.
Other issues weigh on relations, like a new Florida law targeting companies that do business with Cuba by preventing local governments from hiring them. The law could complicate matters for Odebrecht, one of Brazil’s largest construction companies, which is upgrading the Port of Miami at the same time it is building Cuba’s Port of Mariel.
Ms. Rousseff will focus on higher education, one of the brightest areas of cooperation between Brazil and the United States, in a visit on Tuesday to Harvard and M.I.T., where she will discuss Science Without Borders, a program that aims to send about 100,000 Brazilians to study at foreign universities. As many as half are expected to study in the United States.
“Science Without Borders will do more to advance relations between the two countries,” said Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, an elite university here, “than every other diplomatic agreement under discussion.”
Simon Romero reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Jackie Calmes from Washington.
Brazil's Rousseff tells Obama of 'currency war' worries
Diego Urdaneta. AFP. April 9, 2012
WASHINGTON — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Monday expressed concern to President Barack Obama that the easy money policies of developed countries threaten the growth of emerging economies like Brazil.
"Such expansionist monetary policies... ultimately lead to a depreciation in the value of the currencies of developed countries, thus impairing growth outlooks in emerging countries," she said.
Brazil, the world's sixth largest economy, is suffering from an appreciation of its currency, the real, against the dollar, which the government blames on a "currency war" that has flooded the country with cheap dollars generated by easy credit.
Rousseff, making her first visit to the White House, welcomed the improving economic picture in the United States and told Obama that Washington had a key role to play "not only in containing the effects of the crisis but also in ensuring proper resumption of prosperity."
"The BRICS countries currently account for a very substantial share of economic growth worldwide," she said, referring to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
"But it is important to realize and bear in mind that the resumption of growth in the medium term future certainly involves a substantial resumption of growth in the US economy," she added.
Rousseff and Obama praised each other on the solid state of US-Brazilian ties, but said there was more to be done.
"The good news is that the relationship between Brazil and the United States has never been stronger. But we always have even greater improvements that can be made," Obama said.
"I feel very fortunate to have such a capable and far-sighted partner as President Rousseff, so that not only Brazil and the United States but the world can benefit from our deeper cooperation," he said.
The two leaders, who were to head up a meeting of business leaders from both nations later in the day, said their talks were a good opportunity to exchange views ahead of a summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend, which they will both attend.
Rousseff's visit comes more than a year after Obama's trip to the South American giant, in which he tried to reset relations ruffled by differences with former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, particularly over Iran's disputed nuclear activities.
Although Rousseff is regarded as less ideological than Lula, her government has resisted US-backed sanctions against Iran and Syria, which could be a sore point in the talks.
Another irritant is the US Air Force's abrupt cancelation one month ago of a contract to buy 20 Super Tucano aircraft from Brazil's Embraer, angering the South American nation, which is in turn weighing US, French and Swedish offers for the sale of 36 fighter aircraft.
Earlier, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota spoke at a day-long bi-national meeting of business leaders at the US Chamber of Commerce.
Clinton announced plans to open two new US consulates in Brazil -- in Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre -- and said she would visit the country next week. The United States currently has consulates in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Recife.
"There is tremendous untapped potential in both of our countries. We have only begun to explore how we can work and prosper together," Clinton said.
Clinton said she and Patriota on Monday will sign a US-Brazil Aviation Partnership Memorandum, designed "to promote more and safer air travel between two countries," as well as promote the aviation industries and tourism.
Obama, who is on a campaign to double US exports, is especially interested in Brazil, where Washington has been pushed aside by China as the country's biggest trade partner.
Rousseff, who arrived in Washington on Sunday and held a meeting with Brazilian business leaders, will travel Tuesday to Boston to promote a program to train Brazilians abroad, at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Brazil, U.S. Deepen Ties Ahead of Obama's Latin America Week
Jim Lobe*. Inter-Press Service. April 9, 2012
WASHINGTON, Apr 9, 2012 (IPS) - Kicking off what some here have called President Barack Obama's "Latin America Week", the president and his Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, touted a deepening of bilateral ties in her first visit to the White House as president of South America's superpower.
Adding to a growing basket of "presidential dialogues" that were sealed during Obama's visit to Brazil in March 2011, the two leaders announced the creation of a "Defence Co-operation Dialogue" that will convene in the Latin American giant in two weeks.
According to the seven-page communiqué released during the two presidents' lunch, the new dialogue will identify "opportunities for collaboration on defence issues around the globe".
The two leaders also announced the signing of a new civil-aviation accord and the opening by Washington of two new U.S. consulates in Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre to facilitate travel by Brazilian businesspeople and tourists to the U.S.
Indeed, most of Monday's summit meeting, which precedes by just a few days the multinational Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia Apr. 14-15, dealt with issues on which the Americas' two most populous nations have been moving steadily to intensify their bilateral relations – business, energy, and education.
"We seek to be a partner, an equal partner, to promote sustainable, diversified, innovation-driven growth that translates into inclusive, long-lasting progress," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared during a morning address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hosted an all-day forum on U.S.- Brazilian economic ties at which Rousseff herself was to speak later in the day.
"We want, together, Brazil and the United States, to work toward creating economic opportunity, a system in which everyone has a fair chance to compete," she added.
While the emphasis on both sides Monday was on the positive, the summit could not escape a mutual sense of disappointment in how relations have developed during Obama's presidency.
Washington had clearly hoped that, under Rousseff, Brazil would move much closer to the U.S. on a wide array of global and regional issues than had been the case under her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Indeed, his trip to Brazil last year so soon after Rousseff's inaugation was widely seen as a deft move to gain her favour in that it reversed a tradition of new Brazilian leaders making a ritual pilgrimage to Washington to gain its blessing.
Lula, who complained just before leaving office that "nothing has changed" under Obama in Washington's relations with Latin America, had clashed openly with the U.S. president over the 2009 d'etat in Honduras, Brazilian-Turkish efforts in 2010 to mediate a settlement over Iran's nuclear programme, and his failure to more aggressively lift the 50-year-old trade embargo with Cuba
And, while Rousseff, whose focus has been mostly on domestic issues, has shown less interest than Lula in confronting the U.S. on geo- strategic questions – for example, by abstaining on Western-backed U.N. resolutions on the Middle East rather than voting against Washington – the changes have not been as great as the administration had hoped.
"The Brazilians believe these has been less of a divergence (between them and the U.S.)," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a hemispheric think tank here. "But the (Brazilian) policy is largely one of continuity."
For their part, the Brazilians have expressed disappointment in a number of areas, particularly Washington's failure to date to support Brazil's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, as Obama did for India in November 2010.
Indeed, the fact that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accorded the honours of a state visit on that occasion – in contrast to the White House luncheon that Rousseff was given Monday – only adds to the sense that Brazil, despite its regional superpower status and its full membership in the BRICS group that includes Russia and China, as well as India, is not yet taken seriously here as a global player.
"The fact that Brazil is not a nuclear power and that South America is not a relevant strategic hotspot should count in favour of Brazil's aspirations (for a permanent seat), not against," wrote Augusto de Castro Neves, a Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group here, in a foreignpolicy.com article last week.
In Monday's communiqué, Obama merely "reaffirmed his appreciation for Brazil's aspiration to become a permanent member of the Security Council and acknowledged its assumption of global responsibilities."
"The U.S. should treat Brazil much more like it does India and China," Castro Neves said, adding that Washington's failure to recognise Brazil's growing global influence "keeps the two countries' agenda much less ambitious than it should be."
While neither Rousseff nor her foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, complained directly about Washington's attitude, Patriota stressed in his presentation to the Chamber Brazil's "unique comparative advantage in (the) emerging world order" as a "country devoid of mass destruction, a peace-loving country, a country that believes in diplomacy, in dialogue, in tolerance."
In a brief public appearance with Obama after lunch, Rousseff also complained about U.S. and European low-interest monetary policies designed to make their exports more competitive and thus "impairing growth outlooks in emerging countries", including Brazil. She has previously warned that such policies will cause a "monetary tsunami" for countries like Brazil whose higher interest rates attract currency speculators.
Indeed, Brazil's balance of trade with the U.S. has moved sharply negative – from a 6.4 billion dollar surplus in 2007 before the financial crisis the following year to a deficit of 8.2 billion dollars in 2011.
Nonetheless, both leaders touted the fact that the growth in bilateral trade – an average of almost 10 percent per year over the past decade to a record 74 billion dollars last year - even as China displaced the U.S. as Brazil's number one trade partner.
Washington has taken some steps to please Brazil on the trade front over the past year, including ending certain kinds of subsidies on ethanol production here and lowering tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, although, since the discovery of huge oil and gas deposits off Brazil's Atlantic coast, the ethanol issue does not loom as large in bilateral relations as it has in the past.
In their remarks, both leaders alluded to their common interest in co-operating on extraction of those resources.
Washington also hopes Brazil will buy a fleet of Boeing F-18 warplanes in a deal worth close to four billion dollars, but that is unlikely to proceed unless the U.S. Air Force follows through on a recently suspended agreement to purchase Embraer training aircraft for the embryonic Afghan air force. Monday's announcement that Boeing and Embraer have worked out a cooperation agreement may facilitate both transactions, according to business analysts.
Rousseff's visit here did not come off without some protest. About 100 activists associated with Amazon Watch turned out at the Brazilian embassy here early Monday to highlight recent complaints by Brazilian civil society groups over the killings of indigenous people and small farmers in land disputes in and around the Amazon rainforest and Rousseff's alleged failure to implement land reform and promote sustainable agriculture.
They also protested pending legislation that allegedly would weaken protections of the forest and the continued construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam along the Xingu River.
Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank close to the White House, called Rousseff's decision to participate in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum "more than a little confusing", particularly given Obama's "snub(bing)" of Brazil's main opposition party.
"It is tempting to speculate who is advising President Rousseff to visit Washington in an election year and seemingly align herself with an organization that is such a fierce opponent of President Obama and opposed to so much of her own and her party's political philosophy," according to an essay by senior CAP aides published on its website.
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
Brazil concerned over Iran, oil prices: sources
Reuters. April 10, 2012
(Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff expressed concerns to U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday that sanctions against Iran could increase tensions in the Middle East and cause a sharp rise in oil prices, sources told Reuters.
Rousseff's government has generally opposed sanctions against Syria and Iran, arguing they do more harm than good.
Also, the two leaders did not explicitly discuss Boeing's proposal to sell F-18 jets to Brazil during their bilateral meeting at the White House, the sources said on condition of anonymity.
Reuters reported in February that Brazil was "very likely" to choose a jet made by France's Dassault instead for a contract worth at least $4 billion to renew its Air Force fleet.
Argentina May Make YPF Announcement This Week, Cronista Reports
Camila Russo. Bloomberg. April 9, 2012
The Argentine government may disclose its plans for oil producer YPF SA (YPFD) this week, newspaper El Cronista reported, citing unnamed provincial officials.
The announcement will likely be made on April 12 when President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is scheduled to meet with governors of oil-producing provinces, Buenos Aires-based Cronista reported.
The governors support an ownership model that includes the participation of the federal state, the provinces and private capital, Cronista said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Camila Russo in Buenos Aires at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Dale Crofts at email@example.com; David Papadopoulos at firstname.lastname@example.org
Uruguay will enjoy “positive discrimination” in bilateral trade with Argentina
Mercopress. April 10, 2012
Argentina and Uruguay presidents Cristina Fernandez and Jose Mujica agreed Monday evening to discuss their trade differences in the framework of Mercosur and promote “positive discrimination” measures for Uruguayan exports to help compensate the restrictions imported to all imports by the Argentine government.
Following the unexpected trip to Buenos Aires by President Mujica following the usual Monday ministerial cabinet meeting, sources said that the measures will be implemented “in the framework of Mercosur, in the framework of procedures for asymmetries with small countries, and as an element of positive discrimination which means a preference for the Uruguayan economy in the measures imposed by Argentina”.
Deputy Economy Secretary Luis Porto said that although the presidential meeting Monday afternoon in the Argentine president residence of Olivos came as a surprise, “it really had been scheduled with anticipation”.
Porto travelled with Mujica to meet Cristina Fernandez Monday early afternoon, but the Argentine government only confirmed the event two hours later.
While the Argentine government said that the meeting was to address “bilateral issues with an open agenda” in Montevideo the Mujica administration released an official communiqué saying that restrictions to imports by Argentina, “also impact Uruguay and it is essential to find some solution or mechanism which will allow those effects not to be that important for Uruguay or that at least they offer to entrepreneurs and workers a certain anticipation, with respect to their production capacities and jobs”.
“It was dialogue and not a meeting for an agreement, but with the purpose of discussing possible solution mechanisms and begin to work on them” said Uruguayan sources adding that in coming days some mechanisms with be technically adjusted so that small Mercosur economies such as the Uruguayan, “have a preferential treatment vis-à-vis the measures which are been implemented by Argentina”.
Chile to spend $100 bln on mining sector by 2020
Reuters. April 9, 2012
(Reuters) - Mining investment in Chile through 2020 should total $100 billion, of which more than three-fourths will come from the private sector, mining association Sonami said on Monday, as miners scramble to boost holdings amid high prices for many commodities.
Chile, the top copper mining country, is seen producing some 7.5 million tonnes of copper annually within eight years, up from about 5.2 million tonnes in 2011.
Sonami raised its estimate from its previous investment expectation of $80 billion in the 2011 to 2018 period.
In early March, the Chilean government increased its forecast for total investments in the mining sector through 2020 by 37 percent to $91.46 billion.
Chile is the world's leading copper producer, accounting for a third of global supply, and mines other metals such as molybdenum, gold and silver.
The world's top copper producing company, the state-owned Codelco, has several key projects planned as part of a long-term investment valued at about $17 billion to boost output to more than 2.1 million tonnes by 2020 and counteract dwindling ore grades.
Other miners operating in Chile include BHP Billiton , Barrick, Xstrata, Anglo American and Freeport McMoRan.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Venezuelan 'drug lord' Walid Makled goes on trial
BBC. April 10, 2012
The trial has begun behind closed doors of alleged Venezuelan drugs kingpin Walid Makled on charges of money-laundering, trafficking and murder.
Mr Makled, who is also wanted by the US, was arrested in Colombia in 2010 and extradited to Venezuela last year.
His case took on political overtones in Venezuela when he alleged in interviews from prison that he paid millions of dollars to senior officials.
The government said his claims were an attempt to avoid prosecution.
Mr Makled was a successful businessman in Venezuela whose family owned an airline, a transport company and several warehouses.
He went into hiding in 2008 when his brothers were arrested after large quantities of cocaine were found at a family ranch. He was arrested in Colombia in 2010.
Colombia sent him back to Venezuela a year later, in a move seen as a sign of improving ties between the two countries.
The US authorities say he was one of the biggest drug traffickers in the world.
Mr Makled, who is also accused of two murders, has always denied the charges, saying the authorities framed him in order to seize his businesses.
Journalists were not allowed into the court in Caracas to cover proceedings, with officials saying there was not enough room, the Spanish news agency Efe reported.
"The trial has begun and the prosecution is speaking. It is very long because the accusations run to 900 pages," one of the defence lawyers, Rafael Ojeda, told reporters.
"The trial has got off to a bad start," opposition politician Miguel Angel Rodriguez said, arguing that the importance of the case meant it should be open to the public.
Kidnapped Costa Rican diplomat freed: Venezuela
Mario Naranjo. Reuters. April 10, 2012
(Reuters) - A Costa Rican kidnapped during the weekend in the latest attack on foreign diplomats in Venezuela has been freed and is in good health, the government said on Tuesday.
"Thanks to police investigation and pressure, we achieved the liberation of the Costa Rican diplomat," Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said on Twitter. He promised full details of the operation later in the day.
Guillermo Cholele, a trade attache at the Costa Rican Embassy in Caracas, was seized on Sunday night as he returned to his home in La Urbina, a middle-class neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital.
"He is in good physical state, under police protection en route to meet up with his family," El Aissami said.
Various diplomats stationed in Venezuela have been victims of robberies and "express" kidnappings - usually short abductions motivated by money - in recent months. One consul's daughter was shot dead at a police roadblock.
Local media said Cholele was 55 and had lived in Venezuela with his wife and two children for the past six years. His abductors had demanded a ransom, according to Costa Rica, but it was unclear if anything was paid.
Murders, armed robberies and abductions are rife in Venezuela, which has huge oil wealth alongside deep poverty.
Mexico's ambassador and his wife were briefly kidnapped in January and last year a consul from Chile was shot and beaten in Caracas during an abduction that lasted several hours.
A diplomat from Belarus also was kidnapped last year. Last month, the teenage daughter of a Chilean diplomat was shot dead by police after the car she was in failed to stop at a roadblock in the western city of Maracaibo.
Venezuelan's favorite sport has also been hit. U.S. Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos of the Washington Nationals was kidnapped while visiting his parents last November. He was held in the mountains for two days before being rescued by security forces.
The country's opposition, which hopes to topple President Hugo Chavez in the October 7 election and end his 13 years in power, says his government only shows any urgency in its fight against crime when foreign or high-profile victims are involved.
Seeking to counter that impression, Chavez's socialist administration launched two new organizations to combat criminality just last week.
While voters appear not to hold the president personally responsible for one of the world's highest crime rates, his government is under growing pressure - and the latest incident quickly became politicized.
Some Chavez supporters suggest the violence against diplomats may be an opposition plot to discredit the government and tarnish the achievements of his self-styled revolution.
Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly boss and a staunch ally of the president, said he hoped the recent attacks were just a coincidence and nothing more sinister, while pro-Chavez talk show host Mario Silva said the opposition was following the violent playbook of a brief coup against Chavez a decade ago.
"What better way to show the international community that Venezuela doesn't even have the capacity to protect diplomats?" Silva said on Monday night.
"They're following the exact same script."
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by W Simon and Bill Trott)
Venezuela’s Minimum Wage to Rise 32.25% in 2012
Ewan Robertson. Venezuelanalysis. April 9, 2012
Mérida, 9th April 2012 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s national minimum wage is to increase 32.25% in 2012, announced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Saturday.
In a televised address from Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Chavez explained that the wage rise would take place in two phases. On 1 May the minimum monthly salary will increase by 15%, from 1,548 bolivars (US $360) to 1,780 bolivars (US $414). Then on 1 September the wage will increase a further 15% to 2,048 bolivars (US $476), a net rise of 32.25%.
The wage increase means that in dollar terms Venezuela will have the highest minimum wage in Latin America. Including legally guaranteed monthly food tickets, currently valued at 977 bolivars (US $223), the wage rise will represent a gross minimum income of almost US $700 for formally employed workers in Venezuela.
The measure also looks set to rise above inflation, at 27.6% in 2011 according to the Venezuelan Central Bank. With net inflation of 3.5% in the first three months of this year, the government is currently on track to meets its target of 20 – 23% annual inflation for 2012.
Chavez stated that the wage increase will cost the Venezuela state 20,055,678 bolivars (US $4,664,000), which will be paid for with oil income and taxes. “This leap forward in favour of the workers forms part of the project of redistribution of national income to achieve substantive equality,” he said.
The increase will benefit 3,903,408 public sector workers, as well as private sector workers and Venezuela’s 2,500,000 pensioners through the social security system and new “Greater Love” social program.
The Venezuelan president also cited figures which demonstrated that the number of workers receiving the minimum wage in the country’s formal economy had fallen from 65% in 1999, when his administration entered office, to 21% in 2010.
According to Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics, unemployment was 9.2% for February. Of those employed, 41% work in informal employment, down from 55% when Chavez entered office.
In 2011 the minimum wage increased by 26.5%.
“Every year without fail the [Bolivarian] Revolution has decreed an increase in the minimum salary, as a way of solidly constructing social justice. It is one of the reasons why Venezuela is the country with the lowest indicator of inequality in this continent,” emphasised Chavez in his address.
The Venezuelan head of state also outlined advances in drafting the new Labour Law, which is expected to be passed by presidential decree on 1 May.
Chavez said the law will contain provisions for a new Social Benefits Fund, which will guarantee that money destined for benefits payments to workers is not diverted to other ends. The Fund will be supported by Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, through a new body PDVSA Social, which will receive 4% of PDVSA dividends.
Venezuela’s pro-government umbrella union the National Union of Workers (UNT) indicated that the 32.25% wage increase is close to their own suggested rise of at least 33.59%.
UNT coordinator Marcela Maspero stated that the rise does not solve all issues regarding salaries in Venezuela.
“It is necessary to do more to give workers a salary that allows them to live with dignity and cover basic material, social and intellectual necessities,” she said.
Alternative news website Aporrea drew attention to the issue of salaries above minimum wage, as it was not announced whether they would also see similar increases as part of the rise.
Venezuela’s business federation Fedecamaras criticised the salary increase as “an isolated measure” that would not raise citizen’s buying power in the context of an “adverse climate against private investment”.
The wage increase comes among various government policies to guarantee living standards and combat inflation in Venezuela, including the introduction of regulated prices for 19 basic household and bathroom items on 1 April this year.
Interview with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos (transcript)
Juan Forero. Washington Post. April 10, 2012
On April 3, The Washington Post’s Juan Forero spoke to Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota about the drug problem facing Latin America and what is on the table for discussion during the Summit of the Americas. Here are excerpts from the interview:
What are you proposing at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena?
“[The drug issue] has a very high political sensitivity, and people like to play with people’s sensitivity, and so many times the discussion is not rational. It’s irrational. But if we discuss this in a rational way,with experts and say, ‘Well, okay, what we are doing? Is that the best thing that we can do? Or should we maybe explore other alternatives to see if we find a better one, where the cost to humanity and to thousands of victims of this drug problem could be less, and the cost for the countries could be less? And this is the discussion that I want to open.”
Is there an alternative, a specific alternative, you are proposing?
“I am not coming into this discussion with a preempted or a definite proposal, because I have to confess that I don’t know the answer. It might be that after this discussion we might conclude that what we are doing is the best we can do, so we have to continue.”
What is the ultimate goal?
“If we find that there is a better alternative that will take away the profits from the criminal organizations and that maybe you can address the problem of consumption in a more effective way, then everybody will win. And this is what I want, a discussion without a specific proposal.”
What do you think of some proposals by leaders such as Guatemalan President Otto Perez, who talks about legalizing?
“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion. The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization because we think the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization.’ But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, [whether] the cost is lower or not.”
It would be difficult politically to make a big shift, no?
“The polls will be very negative. So politically it’s very difficult to take a decision in that direction. But if you find out that maybe for a country or for humanity, legalization is the way to find a least costly path, then it is your responsibility as a leader to then sell this alternative to your people.”
Some would argue the established anti-drug strategies are working in Colombia.
“When I was minister of defense, we were very successful. We took down all the members that were in the list of high-value targets in the drug trafficking, all of them. They are either in jail or dead. We confiscated unprecedented amounts of cocaine. We eradicated unprecedented amounts of hectares of coca, and the DEA director came here and congratulated me and congratulated our people, saying we are doing very well. And you know how success was defined? By the price of cocaine in Los Angeles or in New York or in Washington. And so, because the price went up, we were being successful. But at the same time, if the price goes up, the incentive goes up. So there is a structured sort of contradiction in the whole setup.”
Some of the people proposing new alternatives may have surprised you.
“I was surprised that Pat Roberson went down and said, I think, he said he was pro-legalization of marijuana. He said this is something that we should discuss. More and more, and very conservative people in the U.S., have taken this stand. I hope that the U.S. engages in constructive discussion because the U.S. is the Number One consumer and is co-responsible for what is happening in Central America, here in Colombia.”
Colombia remains on international human rights 'blacklist'
Marc Hall. Colombia Reports. April 9, 2012
Colombia stays on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' "blacklist," because of ongoing violence by illegal armed groups and the country's inability to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice, the OAS body said Monday.
"Illegal armed groups continue to be involved in acts of violence against the population, peoples and persons historically discriminated or that have been subjected to vulnerable situations, such as women, human rights defenders and children," said the annual report from the IACHR, an arm of the Organization of American States (OAS).
OAS members will come together this weekend for the Summit of the Americas, at which Obama is expected to state Colombia has met Free Trade Agreement (FTA) requirements to improve protection for workers and unionists, who have suffered decades of appalling violence. The appearance of Colombia on the IACHR blacklist, which refers to countries which require "special attention" with regards to human rights abuses, suggests otherwise.
It is the 12th year in a row Colombia has appeared on the list. Venezuela, Cuba and Honduras are other Latin American countries included.
"The IACHR continues to receive complaints regarding the use of the military jurisdiction in situations involving human rights violations, and six years after the enactment of the Law on Justice and Peace, only one final judgment has been handed down," the report states.
The organization also lamented the small number of convictions handed out by Colombia's court for extrajudicial killings of civilians "allegedly by members of the security forces," in a scandal known as "false positives." The term denotes the reporting of murdered civilians as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to artificially boost the army's kill rate.
Colombia to reassess policy of extraditing drug traffickers to US
Geoffrey Ramsey. Christian Science Monitor. April 9, 2012
Although it has relied heavily on extraditions in the past as a way to break up powerful criminal networks, the perception that criminals face lighter sentences in the United States has caused Colombia to reassess this strategy.
Colombia's Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra has been raising eyebrows recently by insinuating that the country may soon alter its reliance on extraditing criminals to the US to stand trial. In a March 29 interview with W Radio (in Spanish), Mr. Esguerra remarked that some who are sent to answer to justice in the US are given sentences that are "too short,” adding that Colombians should face domestic charges first before being sent abroad.
Esguerra clarified this statement in a subsequent interview in El Tiempo (in Spanish), saying that extraditions are not a sign that Colombia is incapable of enforcing the rule of law. Instead, he insisted that the process of approving an extradition depends on the gravity of charges in the foreign country. Esguerra also claimed that the country is at a “turning point” in its anti-drug strategy, and said that President Juan Manuel Santos will likely address the issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
Extradition has a long and tumultuous history in Colombia. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar waged a war over the measure, leaving hundreds of civilians, police and judges dead before Colombian lawmakers and leaders banned extradition in the 1991 constitution.
The measure was reinstituted in 1995, and it's generally believed that the prospect of extradition to the US has been the worst nightmare of Colombian drug traffickers. But this is only partly true. For convicted traffickers, a jail cell in the US has often meant losing touch with their families, as well as completely renouncing their positions within their organizations. In contrast, Colombia’s weak and corrupt justice system has provided prisoners with the ability to direct criminal activities from prison.
However, after extradition came into play again in the mid-1990s, traffickers started negotiating with US law enforcement, providing information in return for more lenient sentences. The results were sometimes dramatic reductions in time served for some of the most notorious underworld figures.
These included men like Nicolas Bergonzoli, a man who worked for several drug cartels before joining the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Mr. Bergonzoli served 39 months in a US jail and currently lives in Florida. He also helped broker deals for other drug traffickers, who received protection from the notorious AUC warlord Carlos Castaño so that rivals would not harm them or their families as they cooperated with US counterdrug agents. The extraditions reached the stage where many traffickers saw it as a way out of the business and a means by which they could legalize much of their "savings."
During his two terms in office, President Alvaro Uribe dramatically increased extraditions. While only 333 Colombians were extradited since the country signed an extradition treaty with the US in 1982, Uribe handed over more than 1,100 to the US while in power (link in Spanish).
Uribe relied on the measure as a way of breaking up large criminal networks, especially the former factions of the AUC. However, many believe Uribe abused the measure as well, sending AUC leaders to the US just as these leaders were beginning to implicate members of his own government in war crimes and corruption schemes.
Critics also said Uribe was simply currying favor with the United States, especially as it related to the extradition of suspected members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a seeming response to both accusations, the Supreme Court blocked several high profile extraditions towards the end of Uribe's term.
President Santos has seemingly continued the trend of sending large numbers of suspected traffickers to face trial in the United States. The president has authorized the extradition of at least 300 Colombian nationals so far (link in Spanish).
However, according to legal experts consulted by El Colombiano (in Spanish), many Colombian drug traffickers still see extradition as a more promising option than remaining in Colombia, as US officials continue to offer favorable plea bargains in exchange for information on Colombia’s criminal underworld. US law enforcement officials dispute these claims.
However, for Colombians, this "leniency" was illustrated recently in the case of Phanor Arizabaleta Arzayus, a ranking member of the once-mighty Cali Cartel. Arizabaleta was extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges in 2011 but was only imprisoned there for eight months, a development which was met with criticism in Colombia. When he returned to Bogota in late March, he was taken into custody again, and will now likely live out the rest of his life in prison.
These deals are especially problematic in Colombia because they can also serve to shield human rights abusers in the country’s decades-long internal conflict. As InSight Crime has pointed out, many former paramilitary warlords that have been extradited to the US have had their records sealed, meaning that they are essentially beyond the reach of further prosecution in Colombia.
One such warlord, Salvatore Mancuso, is in close sentencing, and could receive close to 10 years, sources close to the case tell InSight Crime, much less than many in Colombia expected when he was sent to the US in 2008.
But if Colombia is to rely more heavily on its own justice system, it will have to address some major structural flaws. The entire judiciary branch is chronically understaffed, and court cases are often long, drawn out processes. When a case is heard in court, judges and prosecutors are frequently intimidated or paid off by criminal networks, contributing to a situation in which impunity remains the rule rather than the exception. According to a Justice Ministry report, less than three percent of all homicide cases between 2005 and 2008 resulted in a conviction.
– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
PG upholds dismissal Colombian intelligence executive
Christan Leonard. Colombia Reports. April 10, 2012
The Colombian Prosecutor Generals Office Monday upheld the 15-year dismissal and disability for illegal wire-tapping against a former intelligence executive.
The PG's denied an appeal to undo a sentence that barred former DAS executive Martha Leal was barred from holding public office for 15 years for coordinating illegal surveillance during her tenure in office between 2004 and 2008.
The Prosecutor's Office also confirmed the 10-year dismissal of former Coordinator of the Technology Development Group of the DAS Teresa Guzman.
According to the Prosecutor's Office, Leal and Guzman employed "irregular procedures, coordinated the study and analysis of cell phones seized from persons deprived of liberty, in order to extract, analyze and incorporate information from the equipment and the respective SIM cards for the so-called 'Project X' of the DAS."
The Prosecutor's Office did reverse the ruling of a six-month suspension against Deputy Director of the DAS Technology Development Jose Antonio Garcia.
The DAS was dismantled after the illegal wiretapping of Supreme Court judges and government opponents came to light. The scandal did not only hit the intelligence agency, but also led to the barring from holding public office of former President Alvaro Uribe's chief of staff. The former president and a number of his closest allies are under criminal investigation.
Western Andean Region [contents]
Ecuador Jan-Feb Trade Surplus $289.66M Vs $164.6M Year Earlier
Dow Jones. April 9, 2012
QUITO (Dow Jones)--Ecuador posted a trade surplus of $289.66 million in the first two months of the year, compared with a surplus of $164.6 million in the same period of last year, the Central Bank reported Monday.
In the latest issue of its statistics bulletin, the central bank reported exports rose 23% to $4.07 billion, while imports rose 20% to $3.78 billion.
During the two months, Ecuador posted an oil-trade surplus of $1.8 billion and a nonoil-trade deficit of $1.6 billion.
Crude oil led the country's exports at $2.42 billion, followed by bananas at $328 million, oil products at $183 million, shrimp at $176 million and flowers at $153 million.
Of total imports for the January-February period, raw materials reached $1.2 billion, capital goods $1.0 million and consumer goods $756 million.
Ecuador posted a trade surplus of $198.7 million in February, compared with a surplus of $175.6 million in the same month last year.
In February exports totaled $1.97 billion while imports totaled $1.77 billion.
All figures have been rounded.
-By Mercedes Alvaro, Dow Jones Newswires; 5939-9728-653; email@example.com
Peru Expects Minas Conga Report As Protests Anticipated
Dow Jones. April 9, 2012
LIMA – Three international consultants are expected to soon give Peru's government a report on the viability of water use for the $4.8 billion Minas Conga copper gold project.
That report will be crucial for the future of the project, which stalled late last year after protesters in the northern region of Cajamarca carried out violent demonstrations demanding the cancellation of the project on fears of contamination of water supplies.
The administration of President Ollanta Humala has said it wants the project to proceed, but it has also promised to protect water supplies. The government of ex-President Alan Garcia approved the environmental impact study, or EIA, for the project in 2010.
Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal said Monday the consultants returned to Lima on Sunday following field work in Cajamarca region. The consultants are finalizing their report on Minas Conga, which the government plans to present towards the end of this week or early next week, Pulgar-Vidal said on RPP radio.
"Once it is presented, the document is going to be made public," Pulgar-Vidal said.
More protests are expected. The government has sent troops to the Cajamarca region to keep order. Government officials say groups controlled by regional president Gregorio Santos, who has led opposition to the mining project, are already blocking access to sites.
Pulgar-Vidal said the government is looking at restarting talks with Santos.
Minera Yanacocha, which is developing the deposit, plans to build reservoirs to ensure improved access to water.
"We welcome the independent experts' re-review of Conga's EIA and trust they were objective and impartial in their work," Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM) said in a statement Monday. It is the operator of Minas Conga and the nearby Yanacocha gold mine, the largest precious metals mine in South America.
Economists say ending the Minas Conga project would hurt the investment climate in Peru, which is one of the world's largest producers of copper, gold, zinc, silver, tin and other minerals.
In an interview with newspaper La Republica, Energy and Mines Minister Jorge Merino said he believes the project will proceed if Newmont carries out more social works in the area. "I think it will go ahead and will create a better climate for investments in the Cajamarca region," he said.
Yanacocha hopes to have production up and running at Minas Conga by the end of 2014 or early 2015. Production is seen at an average annual output during the first five years of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper.
Newmont has a 51.35% interest in Yanacocha, while Compania de Minas Buenaventura SA (BVN, BUENAVC1.VL) has a 43.65% stake. International Finance Corp. owns the remainder.
A disappointing return from an investment in computing
Economist. April 7, 2012
GIVING a child a computer does not seem to turn him or her into a future Bill Gates—indeed it does not accomplish anything in particular. That is the conclusion from Peru, site of the largest single programme involving One Laptop per Child, an American charity with backers from the computer industry and which is active in more than 30 developing countries around the world.
Peru is enjoying an economic boom, but has one of Latin America’s worst education systems. Flush with mining revenues, the previous government embraced the laptop initiative. It spent $225m to supply and support 850,000 basic laptops to schools throughout the country. But Peruvians’ test scores remain dismal. Only 13% of seven-year-olds were at the required level in maths and only 30% in reading, the education ministry reported last month.
An evaluation of the laptop programme by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found that the children receiving the computers did not show any improvement in maths or reading. Nor did it find evidence that access to a laptop increased motivation, or time devoted to homework or reading. The report applauded the government for providing much-needed hardware: less than a quarter of Peruvian households had a computer in 2010. But it now needs to improve teacher-training and the curriculum, said Julian Cristia of the IDB. Above all, the classroom environment needs to change.
Part of the problem is that students learn faster than many of their teachers, according to Lily Miranda, who runs a computer lab at a state school in San Borja, a middle-class area of Lima. Sandro Marcone, who is in charge of educational technologies at the ministry, agrees. “If teachers are telling kids to turn on computers and copy what is being written on the blackboard, then we have invested in expensive notebooks,” he said. It certainly looks like that.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Mexico's ruling party changes campaign strategy
OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ. AP. April 10, 2012
MEXICO CITY -- The candidate of Mexico's ruling party retooled her presidential campaign on Monday, promising a more aggressive strategy to win undecided voters and adding new members to her campaign team following a series of missteps in the first week of the race.
Josefina Vazquez Mota, who is trailing Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the polls ahead of the July 1 vote, blamed the campaign problems on divisions within her National Action Party that have been overcome with Monday's "course correction."
The 51-year-old's campaign has been marred by poor logistics, late-starting events, a speaking gaffe and a dizzy spell that interrupted one of her speeches.
Vazquez Mota, who is seeking to become Mexico's first female president, won her party's nomination in a primary even though most analysts considered rival Ernesto Cordero, the former finance secretary, as the preferred choice of outgoing President Felipe Calderon and the party establishment.
"I have demanded that the party leave behind all internal conflicts and that once and for all we work together for victory," she said.
She said that Cordero and other Calderon allies, including his sister, have joined her campaign and said the internal strife was now "part of the past."
"She is trying to have all of National Action behind her ... (especially) those close to Calderon that didn't support her during the primary," said Macario Schettino, an analyst and professor at Monterrey Technological Institute.
Her campaign will now focus on undecided voters, about one-third of the electorate, and it will have the input of foreign campaign advisers who have worked on the successful election bids of female candidates, she said.
Last Monday, Vazquez Mota felt faint during a speech and had to interrupt her address and sit down to continue. The campaign dismissed the episode as a brief spell of low blood pressure, but images of her looking ill dominated television news for several days.
Then, in what was seen as a strange attempt to demonstrate her good health, the 51-year-old candidate allowed a TV crew to film her morning workout at a hotel gym, commenting to the camera as she exercised on an elliptical machine, did sit-ups and lifted weights.
Days earlier, she misspoke during a speech and said she planned to "strengthen money laundering" if elected. The next day, a campaign rally had to be called off because of a nearby picket line of striking airline workers - a cancellation her staff blamed on poor planning.
Vazquez Mota canceled campaign stops Saturday in Veracruz and instead conducted a strategic planning and evaluation session to find ways to strengthen her campaign.
She said her strategy will now be more aggressive and she will address every criticism from her opponents.
"Not a proposal, not a criticism, not an argument from our opponents will be left unanswered," Vazquez Mota said.
She also outlined three themes she said will guide her campaign: education, security and a strong internal economy.
The economist and former secretary of education said that if elected president she would follow a different approach to fighting crime but did not give details.
Mexicans have become weary of Calderon's assault on organized crime, which been accompanied by violence that has left more than 47,000 people dead nationwide since he deployed thousands of federal police and soldiers shortly after taking office in December 2006.
Polls suggest that Mexicans will return to power the PRI, which had a stranglehold on the presidency for seven decades being ousted by the Pan in 2000.
Mexico limits presidents to a single six-year term.
Study Links NAFTA to Obesity Epidemic in Mexico
Common Dreams. April 5, 2012
A new study shows a link between the agribusiness-benefiting policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the obesity epidemic in Mexico.
The study, Exporting obesity: US farm and trade policy and the transformation of the Mexican consumer food environment, appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. [ Alejandro Sierra)] (photo: Alejandro Sierra)
“We’ve known for years that NAFTA hurt small-scale farmers in Mexico and contributed to job losses on border. The realization that NAFTA’s rules on trade and investment may be partly responsible for creating an unhealthy ‘food environment’ in Mexico, mirroring that in the U.S., is new,” says Karen Hansen-Kuhn, a study co-author and program director with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
Dr. David Wallinga of IATP states, “As Mexico’s food environment has come to resemble that of the U.S., with more ubiquitous sodas, processed meats and other processed snacks high in added fats and sweeteners, it’s no wonder that Mexico’s struggle with obesity and its related life-threatening problems—diabetes, stroke, heart disease—has become ‘Americanized’ as well.”
The IATP notes that "before being ratified, bilateral or multilateral trade agreements typically have not been assessed for impacts on public health. This study suggests pre-ratification 'health impact assessments' would be smart public policy, as well as essential for appropriately engaging health communities in trade policy debates."
From IATP’s summary fact sheet on the article:
The U.S. has exported increasing amounts of corn, soybeans, sugar, snack foods and meat products to Mexico over the last two decades. These exports, facilitated by NAFTA, are one important way in which U.S. agriculture and trade policy is influencing the Mexican food system.
Coupled with rising imports, Mexico has received significant amounts of cross-border investment, also facilitated by NAFTA, from U.S. agribusinesses across the spectrum of Mexico’s food supply chain. As a result, the Mexican food system looks increasingly like the industrialized food system of the United States—characterized by the overabundance of obesogenic foods.
Mexico has experienced significant changes in food consumption patterns over the last two decades, followed by a rising obesity epidemic in both children and adults. Mexicans, both rich and poor, and from diverse geographic regions, are consuming more added fats and sugars from snack foods, sodas, and processed dairy and meat products. Their health is suffering in the process.
While public health researchers and policymakers are actively debating the relationship between the food system and the U.S. obesity epidemic, the impact of similar forces on the population of U.S. neighbors and trade partners has been less investigated.
San Pedro Sula's violence mirrors Honduras' pain
ALBERTO ARCE. AP. April 9, 2012
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- This is a city besieged by crime in all its forms: gang violence, drug cartel killings and rampant extortion compounded by a fear of authorities.
Honduras is now among the most dangerous places on Earth. No other country matches its rate of 86 slayings per 100,000 inhabitants a year, according to a 2011 United Nations Report. That is roughly 20 times the U.S. homicide rate.
And it's worse in San Pedro Sula, often cited as Honduras' most violent city, with a murder rate almost double the national average.
In this Wild West city, gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, operate with impunity. MS-13 was born in the 1980s among Central American-born inmates in the prisons of California and spread to Central America when members were deported back home by the U.S. They found fertile ground in Honduras and other countries with underfunded police forces and corrupt officials.
Hondurans say gangs have imposed an almost unchallenged reign of extortion, murder and drug trafficking on this city and others.
Mayor Juana Carlos Zuniga recognizes that San Pedro Sula is threatened by violence that authorities cannot control. And the city's location near Honduras' Atlantic coast and border with Guatemala have put it on key international drug trafficking routes.
"As a local government we don't have the necessary instruments to fight the well-defined and identified violence derived from drug trafficking that overwhelms us," Zuniga told The Associated Press.
One night recently, the Catalino Rivas public hospital in San Pedro Sula could have been operating in a country at war.
There were not enough stretchers for the 19 wounded who arrived that night, and the people who brought them in had to shift the patients about. Pools of blood on the floor went unmopped.
Natalia Galdamez, the doctor on duty, received three patients with gunshot wounds. They said a gunman suddenly appeared and shot them without saying a word.
"It's tough to believe. This was a paid hit. We hear the same story all the time," Galdamez said.
Drug trafficking isn't the only source of San Pedro Sula's violence.
At a nearby taxi stand, a driver with 21 years of experience explained how each of the company's 35 cars has to pay $30 a month to a gang. He said the drivers have to pay the same amount in taxes to the government, but each year, not each month.
"Who do you think has more power, the state or the criminals?" said the driver, who didn't want his name used for fear of reprisals.
AFL-CIO tackles rights violations in Honduras
Mark Gruenberg. People’s World. April 9, 2012
WASHINGTON - The AFL-CIO and two leading Honduran union federations formally complained to the U.S. Labor Department that Honduras is violating the Central American Free Trade Agreement by not enforcing its own labor laws. The groups asked the DOL to investigate, negotiate changes, and punish Honduras if necessary.
In the case, filed Mar. 29, the federations said the Latin American government is refusing to enforce its laws in the manufacturing, agriculture, and port sectors. Last year, the DOL found another CAFTA signer, Guatemala, broke the CAFTA pact.
Honduran workers' internationally recognized rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and acceptable working conditions are also violated, this year's complaint said. Many workers have nowhere to turn for legal relief and there is still excessive use of child labor in Honduran agriculture, it adds.
Honduras "has not complied with the ILO provisions" in CAFTA, said Francisco Joel López Mejía, Deputy Secretary General of the Independent Federation of Workers of Honduras, one of two Honduran union leaders who came to Washington to file the complaint.
"The [Honduran] government and corporations have continued to act with impunity, while undermining our most basic rights," Lopez Mejia said.
In particular, he said, the Honduran government changed its labor law in late 2010 to let firms hire up to 40 percent of their workforce on temporary, part-time contracts for what is usually full-time work. The other Honduran leader, Evangelina Argueta Chinchilla of the General Workers Confederation, said: "We are here in search of justice. For many years our government neglected workers and even violated their own promises. They ignored Honduras' unions, while dealing openly with corporations. They passed laws that undermine unions and reduce the standards of living."
Interview with Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina (transcript)
Juan Forero. Washington Post. April 10, 2012
The following are excerpts from an interview with Otto Perez Molina, the president of Guatemala, conducted on March 24, 2012, via phone by The Washington Post’s Juan Forero. The interview was translated from Spanish.
What’s your assessment of the war on drugs?
“I think it is very clear that the war that has been staged against drug trafficking in the last 40 years has not had the fruits that we expected. I think that’s the case in the area where it’s produced, in the areas where it’s transported, as is the case with Guatemala and Central America, and in the area where it’s consumed, which is mostly in the United States.”
You’ve talked about legalizing drugs — can you explain?
“It could be a partial de-criminalization, or a complete de-criminalization that would go across the whole chain of production, transit and consumption. But obviously, that implies a commitment of all the countries. Not just one country can make that decision.”
Can you explain your call to make drug use a health issue?
“The other strategy that we are proposing is to emphasize the issue of health, the issue of education and prevention. And on the other hand, that we have a court with regional jurisdiction that would exclusively judge crimes related to drug trafficking.”
You have experience fighting the drug trade?
“I know narco-trafficking, from the battles that have been fought against drug trafficking. I cooperated and cooperated closely with United States agencies and international agencies. I was the intelligence director in my country.”
And how has drug trafficking developed?
“Narco-trafficking has grown, has penetrated institutions, prosecutors, judges. ... There’s a generalized level of corruption, money laundering. Everything that’s been tried, and the result has been a growth [in drug trafficking] that shows that the strategy that has been followed for 30 or 40 years has failed.”
What do you think the U.S. response should be?
“The United States has to recognize that there is a need to debate the issue. There are many organizations in the United States that have closely studied the issue, that talk about de-criminalization, that talk about the need to change the strategies that have been followed until this moment.”
Where is the debate headed?
“I think this will be a process, a process of dialogue, of debate, and in the end I see no other path but de-criminalization. This will be sooner or later, but I hope it will be sooner. That is what I visualize at the end. There is no other way as long as the demand exists, as long as you see so many dollar revenues generated throughout Mexico and Central America.”
What do you say about the anti-drug success in Colombia?
“There’s been talk of success in Colombia, but look, in Colombia they are still producing cocaine, the cocaine keeps coming out of Colombia, and it continues to ship through Central America and it still gets to the United States. You don’t have the big cartels and the big capos that you had in decades past. But there are smaller cartels, smaller groups, that continue to produce.”
El Salvador’s Violence Dips After a Truce Between Gangs and Government
Mac Margolis. The Daily Beast. April 7, 2012
As news outfits go, El Faro of El Salvador is no colossus. Founded 14 years ago, the San Salvador based, online-only publication with 25 staffers boasts a modest 100,000 hits a week and a following among the small Central American nation’s chattering classes. But El Faro had much of Latin America in a lather last week when it broke a story on an unspoken agreement that put the Salvadoran government in bed with Central America’s most violent street gangs.
Citing government officials, police higher-ups, and former gangsters, El Faro reported that President Mauricio Funes’s administration had brokered a cease-fire between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, two of the hemisphere’s most feared criminal gangs that have kept the nation’s streets in cocaine and cordite for years. In exchange, authorities allegedly agreed to ease prison conditions for jailed gang leaders.
Salvadoran officials immediately dismissed the report. Tellingly, so did the bandits, who answered with an unprecedented joint communiqué admitting to the cease-fire but flatly denying a deal with the government. Both sides touted peacemaking efforts by the Roman Catholic Church, which regularly trolls the jails for troubled souls, and a sudden change of heart among the gangsters themselves. "I believe as humans we have the right to repent for the ills we have caused," Romeo “El Diablo” Henríquez, one of the MS-13 capos, told the press. His Christian moment came in a prison-yard mass celebrated by papal Nuncio Luigi Pezzuto and the armed-forces chaplain, Fabio Colindres.
In their statement, the bandits went out of their way to slam El Faro for its "irresponsible, tendentious, perverse, and unprofessional" reporting. Carlos Dada, editor of El Faro, believes his detractors protest too much. Since breaking the story, he said, El Faro’s reporters have been shadowed, barraged with menacing phone and email messages, and shunned by government officials. “The government is under intense pressure to reduce crime rates, and the strain is showing,” he told The Daily Beast.
Any other time, the report and its fallout might have been dismissed as another round of conjecture from the hyperactive Central American rumor mill. But the unusual combination of events—from the mass transfer of prison leaders to a sudden fall in crime rates—have stoked comment all the way to Washington.
Just a few weeks ago, peace was the last thing on the minds of this embattled nation of 6.1 million, where escalating gang warfare has driven the murder rate to record levels. During the first two months of the year, police tallied 14 murder victims a day. By last month, after the peace deal, the homicide rate had plunged to eight a day. It may be too soon to say amen, but a 59 percent drop in homicides is a godsend for a nation that has become, alongside Guatemala and Honduras, one of the most dangerous places in the world. With 66 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador is more than three times as deadly as Mexico (18 per 100,000).
More than prayers, Salvadorans noted that the dramatic drop in crime immediately followed the transfer in early March of dozens of top gangsters from a maximum-security prison to a common prison, where inmates are allowed conjugal visits, meetings with the press, and other perks unknown to the hardest felons. As though to seal the covenant, last Monday dozens of MS-13 gangsters, in prison whites covering their gangland tattoos, took communion in a highly publicized jail-yard mass.
No one argues that something had to be done. El Salvador’s “maras” or gangs are a sophisticated criminal machine with international reach. They are junior partners to the brutal Mexican cartels, like the Zetas, that have turned Central America into the corridor of choice between drug-producing nations of South America and the moneyed consumers to the north. The U.S. State Department reports that Mexican drug syndicates control 90 percent of the South American cocaine shipped to the U.S., leaving a trail of lawlessness and fear throughout the Central American isthmus.
Mayhem is not new to Central America. A clash between the armed forces and Marxist insurgents in the '80s turned El Salvador into a killing ground, eventually claiming 75,000 lives and driving a quarter of the population into exile. Young men fleeing civil war landed on the streets of Los Angeles only to join the gang war raging there, before branching out across the U.S. “Rape, control, and kill” is the slogan of one of the “gringo” franchises of the MS-13, which has tentacles stretching from Los Angeles to suburban Washington, D.C.
The U.S. branches of Salvadoran gangs have diversified into child prostitution, contract killings, and “stealing” groups of illegal immigrants bound for the U.S. to pocket the handsome smuggling fees.
A pushback by U.S. law enforcement captured and deported thousands of gang members, who came back home armed with the latest weapons, cash, and a web of international crime connections. Their return threatens not only law and order but the young democracies throughout the region.
Last year, El Faro published an investigation, drawing on police and intelligence services, showing the local Texis crime cartel had allies or godfathers among politicians, judges, tax auditors, and business executives. After the report, and with government ratings slumping, the Funes administration ramped up anti-drug operations and named a new security minister, says Dada.
With violence spiking, Central Americans are clamoring for a crackdown, but the public record has been mixed. The prisons not only are overflowing but a spark away from a conflagration; 361 inmates perished in Honduras after setting their packed prison aflame in February, and 13 more died in another jail-yard uprising in late March. Nor has Mexico’s “mano dura” (strong hand) against the drug cartels—where nearly 48,000 have died since 2006—done the job.
Now embattled leaders are desperate for alternatives as the drug war rages. Guatemala recently elected right-wing Gen. Otto Perez Molina as president, but he surprised everyone by immediately calling for decriminalizing drug use, joining a chorus that now includes former presidents of Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico.
Could the Salvadoran government have taken an unorthodox step further? As speculation swirled, President Funes last week vowed to renew his war against crime, arresting over 50 gangsters, but also implored his compatriots to give the peace deal a chance. “Are miracles part of our new security policy?” asks Dada. Salvadorans would be forgiven for being agnostics.
A longtime correspondent for Newsweek, Mac Margolis has traveled extensively in Brazil and Latin America. He has contributed to The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.
Fidel Castro takes aim at Canada’s environmental record ahead of Americas summit
AFP. April 9, 2012
HAVANA — Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro criticized Canada and the United states in a letter titled “Stephen Harper’s Illusions” ahead of an Americas summit in Colombia.
Both Canada and the U.S. have opposed Cuba’s presence at the event, which brings together 34 heads of state and government to discuss regional co-operation and a reduction of physical barriers to integration.
In his letter, which was published on the website of Cuba’s official news agency, Castro accused Canadian mining companies of inflicting “incredible damage” in Latin American countries while in pursuit of gold, precious metals and radioactive materials. He also made note of “the damage caused by the Yankees” who forced Canada “to look for oil by extracting it from huge extensions of sand that are impregnated with that fluid, thus causing an irreparable damage to the environment of that beautiful and extensive country.”
A good deal of the of Castro’s note was dedicated to mocking idea that U.S. President Barack Obama could wear a “guayabera” shirt at the upcoming summit, while opposing Cuba’s presence at the event.
News reports have said a noted Colombian designer is making a series of guayaberas for Obama to wear at the summit of the Americas in Cartagena, April 14-15.
Castro, whose brother Raul formally succeeded him as president in 2008, offered a history lesson on the origins of the light, tropical shirt, asserting that it was created in an area of Cuba that is watered by the Yayabo River.
“That’s why they were originally called yayaberas,” he wrote in an article published in the Cuban press.
Other accounts say the shirt’s name may have come from the guayabas, or guavas, that could be carried in the large pockets that are sewn into the shirt’s pleated front.
“What’s curious, dear readers, is that Cuba is forbidden from attending this meeting, but not the guayaberas. Who can stop laughing? We must hurry up and tell Harper,” Castro said.
Other Latin American countries had pressed for Cuba’s inclusion in the summit, but Washington has been reluctant to end a five-decade-old policy of isolating the only one-party communist state in the Americas.
Castro, while president, delegated his duties to Raul in 2006 in what was said to be a temporary transfer of powers, but the move became permanent two years later.
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
Brian Ellsworth. Reuters. April 10, 2012
(Reuters) - Three years after being feted by star-struck Latin American leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama faces skepticism and disappointment at this week's Summit of the Americas for failing to meet promises of a new era in relations with the region.
Obama's first meeting with leaders from the hemisphere in Trinidad and Tobago at the height of his popularity included a vow to mend ties with Cuba and a photo-op handshake with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president and pugnacious U.S. critic.
This year, Obama is more focused on re-election than foreign policy and is set to receive a grilling over contentious issues like the drugs war, Cuba and even U.S. monetary policy from heads of state eager to remind him that Washington is growing less relevant for the region.
"The deception and disappointment are quite real," said Hal Klepak, a Canadian history professor and Latin America expert. "The last summit's focus was the 'Obama show,' this time what we have are years of nothing happening."
A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. president goes to the weekend summit in Cartagena, Colombia seeking to boost trade and commercial ties, specifically in the energy sector at a time of high gasoline prices.
He is likely to focus on free trade deals with Panama and Colombia, approved by the U.S. Congress last year, which are seen boosting growth in both countries while also creating jobs at home.
Latin American leaders generally favor him winning a second term, analysts say, in part because of some of the hardline comments on immigration by the Republican presidential hopefuls. Mitt Romney, for example, upset some with remarks about immigrants facing "self deportation" because they can't find work.
But they are nonetheless set to press Obama on allowing Cuba entry into the next Americas summit and again challenge the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist-run island. The embargo is widely seen within Latin America as an outdated Cold War-era policy.
And presidents spanning the political spectrum will push for a discussion of legalizing and reducing U.S. demand for illegal drugs, seeking to shift responsibility for the problem toward the world's top consumer.
"Colombia, and I myself, have put this issue on the table, because if there is any country that has suffered more from drug trafficking, that has shed more blood, it's Colombia," President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting the summit, said recently.
BETTER THAN BUSH?
Obama can ill-afford to entertain changes to policy on Cuba or the drug war because they might alienate him from middle-of-the-road voters who will be key for his re-election bid.
"This is the worst moment to be proposing issues to the Americans in the run-up to a difficult and problematic election for President Obama," said Andres Rozental, former deputy foreign minister of Mexico.
Republican critics have in the past said Obama's efforts at dialogue with Cuba and Venezuela compromised national security.
A senior administration official said Washington had already eased travel restrictions to Cuba, and was waiting for Havana to release political prisoners and improve political freedoms before taking further steps to ease relations.
Obama is still popular among Latin Americans. A 2011 visit to a slum in Rio de Janeiro, for example, brought throngs of screaming admirers.
That contrasts with the violent protests that met former President George W. Bush at a 2005 regional summit in Argentina, where leftist leaders sank a hemisphere-wide free trade deal being pushed by the United States.
"I think relations (with the United States) are better now, there is more dialogue between the presidents, and Obama has been more accessible," said Jeremiah Barbosa, 66, filling pastry dough with caramel in his small bakery in Bogota.
But that charm has worn a bit thin on policymakers.
Facing budget battles at home and what will likely be a decline in foreign aid to Latin America this fiscal year, Obama heads to Cartagena with few favors to offer.
Brazil is frustrated with loose U.S. monetary policy that has pushed a flood of capital into Brazil, driving up its currency and making its exports less competitive, and President Dilma Rousseff complained to Obama about it in a meeting at the White House on Monday.
An overhaul of U.S. immigration rules has all but fallen off the agenda in the Washington, frustrating Mexico and Central American countries as well as Latino voters in the United States.
Argentina and the United States are at loggerheads over trade restrictions and compensation payments to American investors. And China is an increasingly active investor and economic power in Latin America as U.S. influence wanes.
"The United States has historically wanted to be a policeman to the world, but in general it has struggled to do so," said Rozental. "I think it's going to be difficult for the United States to give Latin America the priority that it deserves."
(Additional reporting by Pablo Garibian in Mexico City, Laura MacInnis and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)
Latin American countries pursue alternatives to U.S. drug war
Juan Forero. Washington Post. April 10, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia — When President Obama arrives in Colombia for a hemispheric summit this weekend, he will hear Latin American leaders say that the U.S.-orchestrated war on drugs, which criminalizes drug use and employs military tactics to fight gangs, is failing and that sweeping changes need to be considered.
Latin American leaders say they have not developed an alternative model to the hard-line approach favored by successive American administrations since Richard Nixon was in office. But the Colombian government says a range of options — from decriminalizing possession of drugs to legalizing marijuana use to regulating markets — will be debated at the Summit of the Americas in the coastal city of Cartagena.
Faced with violence that has left 50,000 people dead in Mexico and created war zones in Central America, regional leaders have for months been openly discussing the shortcomings of the U.S. approach. But the summit marks the first opportunity for many leaders to directly share their grievances with Obama.
Those who have most forcefully offered new proposals, or developed carefully argued critiques of American policy, are among Washington’s closest allies. They include the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who marshaled U.S. aid to weaken drug syndicates; Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a former military man who has long battled drug gangs; and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose nation has been engaged in an all-out war with cartels.
“There’s probably been no person who has fought the drug cartels and drug trafficking as I have,” Santos said in an interview last week with The Washington Post. “But at the same time, we must be very frank: After 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right and you’re are almost in the same position.
“And so you have to ask yourself, are we doing the correct thing?”
Perez, whose small country has been engulfed by violence that his security forces are barely able to contain, has been the most forceful and surprising proponent of sweeping change to the current policy. The military and police under his command in Guatemala have continued to battle traffickers, he said in an interview from Guatemala City. But he believes they have little to show for their effort.
“The strategy that we have followed these 30 or 40 years has practically failed and we have to recognize it,” he said.
In Washington, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which oversees anti-drug policies for the Obama administration, declined to comment about the debate. But in a two-day visit to Central America and Mexico last month, Vice President Joe Biden laid out the government’s position, saying “there are more problems with legalization than non-legalization.”
“It’s worth discussing,” he told reporters, “but there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”
U.S. data signals some progress, such as a 40 percent drop in cocaine use in the United States since 2006 and a 68 percent plunge over the same period in the number of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.
And in Colombia, where the United States has been heavily involved in upgrading the military and in funding aerial fumigation of drug crops, the amount of land dedicated to growing the plant used to make cocaine dropped by nearly two-thirds from 2000 to 2010. Potential production of cocaine, meanwhile, tumbled from 700 metric tons in 2001 to 270 metric tons in 2010, though it picked up in Bolivia and Peru, according to U.S. statistics.
Latin American leaders, though, point out that the United States remains the world’s largest cocaine market and that there have been record levels of violence from Venezuela to Guatemala, El Salvador to Mexico.
Cesar Gaviria, a former Colombian president who has been a forceful critic of U.S. policy, said that American officials acknowledge the failure of the policy behind closed doors and do little to defend it publicly. He said it is simply a policy on automatic pilot.
“You reach the conclusion that all this killing in Mexico and Central America has been in the name of a failed policy that the United States does not believe in or vigorously defend,” said Gaviria, speaking in his Bogota office.
Much of the momentum for a shift began after Gaviria, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso issued a report in 2009 calling for reform of drug policies. They have been joined by a range of intellectuals, among them the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and retired officials, including former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.
What they and many current presidents in Latin America propose is not a wide-open policy of legalization but a softening of the current laws.
Decriminalizing drug possession would free billions of dollars from the criminal justice system, advocates say, while vastly improving drug treatment. Heavy drug users, who drive the illicit trade, could be weaned off drugs through maintenance models that provide drugs legally but under heavy supervision.
Legalizing marijuana, which advocates argue presents only a modest risk to public health, would weaken cartels and free up funding for other uses, advocates say.
“They’re not saying, ‘Legalize everything today,’ like alcohol and tobacco,” said Ethan Nadelmann, who has advised Latin American leaders and is the director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy organization that has been critical of U.S. tactics. “What they are saying is we need to give the same consideration to alternative, regulatory and non-prohibitionist drug control policies in the future as we’ve given to the failed drug war strategies of the last 40 years.”
Leaders who are participating in talks on drugs at the summit said they do not expect a policy change soon. Rather, the idea is to plant a seed that would lead to changes in the years ahead.
“We understand perfectly that this is an election year in the United States,” said Perez, Guatemala’s leader, noting that no major policy shift could occur without a region-wide consensus. “There is not a decision that has to be made in this moment, or in six months. This is a process of discussion.”
Santos, who said he wants talks to take place “without a specific proposal” in mind, said if there are changes in the future they should be based strictly on serious studies.
“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion,” he said. “The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization because the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization. But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, the cost is lower or not.”