Latin America News Round-up
April 13, 2012
Trade, Energy and Drugs Are Topics for Obama at Summit of the Americas
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Brazil and Southern Cone
IMF’s Eyzaguirre Cautions Latin America Against Monetary Easing
Brazil says BRICS to make joint W. Bank decision. Reuters
Brazil lifts ban on aborting brain-damaged fetuses. Reuters
Argentina Has Oil Firm in Its Sights. New York Times
Argentina, US Presidents To Meet At Americas Summit In Colombia. Dow Jones
Northern Andean Region
Cancer hasn't dimmed Hugo Chavez's electoral hopes. AP
Colombia's Uribe Accused of Paramilitary Involvement. EFE
Colombia’s President Talks with TIME About Castro, Capitalism and His Country’s Comeback. TIME
Santos expected to sign bill finalizing FTA with US. Colombia Reports
A.F.L.-C.I.O. Chief Sends Obama Letter Voicing Concern About Labor Killings in Colombia. New York Times
Western Andean Region
Ecuador: Failing Universities to Close. New York Times
Doe Run Peru creditors reject restructuring plan. Reuters
As Renco's lobbying drive fades, so does congressional support in its dispute with Peru. Sunlight Foundation
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Back again, liberal Mexico candidate makes pitch to business leaders. Los Angeles Times
Calderon says Cuba, Mexico friends again. Reuters
Maximum security prison, turn left after the “Hooters” sign. Progreso Weekly
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
IMF’s Eyzaguirre Cautions Latin America Against Monetary Easing. Bloomberg
Trade, Energy and Drugs Are Topics for Obama at Summit of the Americas. New York Times
At Summit of Americas, Governments "Are Listening" to the People. Inter-Press Service
Obama in Cartagena: No change, dwindling hope. Al Jazeera
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil says BRICS to make joint W. Bank decision
Reuters. April 13, 2012
(Reuters) - Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said the BRICS group of emerging market countries is likely to make a joint decision on who to support for the World Bank presidency as soon as Friday.
Mantega said the five countries were still discussing which candidate they would support. The BRICS group also includes Russia, India, China and South Africa.
"Brazil is talking with the BRICS and we will likely take a joint position," Mantega told reporters in Brasilia. "The position is likely to be taken today (Friday)."
The candidates include former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo, who visited Brazil on Thursday, as well as Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and U.S. nominee Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-American health expert.
Brazil lifts ban on aborting brain-damaged fetuses
Maria Carolina Marcello and Eduardo SimÃµes. Reuters. April 12, 2012.
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Supreme Court on Thursday voted to legalize abortions of severely brain-damaged fetuses, loosening the law in the world's biggest Catholic country and a region where the spread of evangelical denominations in recent decades has maintained fierce opposition to abortion rights.
With only two of the 10 judges voting against lifting the ban, the decision marks a small but historic shift in abortion law in Latin America's biggest country. Brazil, like many countries in the region, has long banned abortions in all cases except pregnancies caused by rape and those which pose a threat to the life of the mother.
While private hospitals and illegal clinics have long found ways around the ban, the decision now makes it possible for mothers carrying fetuses suffering from anencephaly to abort the pregnancy legally.
The measure applies specifically to cases of anencephaly, a disorder that leads to a malformation or absence of large parts of the brain and carries an overwhelming likelihood that the baby will die shortly after birth.
Such babies "would never become a person," said Justice Marco Aurelio Mello, speaking for the majority. "This is not about a potential life, but about certain death."
Abortion rights advocates and medical groups for years have pushed for such a measure, arguing that mothers who carried babies likely to die post-delivery should be spared unnecessary trauma.
"The diagnosis itself is bad enough," said Cristiao Rosas, a physician and spokesman for a Brazilian federation of obstetrician and gynecology groups. "It's a condemned gestation, with no prognosis for extra-uterine survival, and with a devastating impact on the psychological and emotional health of the mother."
Religious groups in Brazil, which still wield significant sway at the ballot box and in matters of public opinion, remain fiercely opposed to any changes to abortion law.
"We all have an absolute right to life from conception until natural death regardless of any type of deficiency," said Luiz Carlos Ludi, a Catholic priest who led a protest this week outside the Supreme Court building in Brasilia.
Such sentiments, echoed by Brazil's growing evangelical population, mean any bigger changes to abortion law in the country remain unlikely in the near future.
"This is a small and gradual step for very specific cases," said Rafael Cortes, a political analyst at Tendencias, a consultancy in Sao Paulo. "Change bigger than this would be much more difficult."
During Brazil's last presidential election, in late 2010, the debate over abortion helped derail what had appeared to be an easy first-round victory for President Dilma Rousseff.
After religious voters flocked to a born-again candidate in the days before the first vote, Rousseff had to backpedal from her abortion rights comments to assure her victory in a runoff.
(Writing and additional reporting by Paulo Prada; Editing by Jackie Frank)
Argentina Has Oil Firm in Its Sights
SIMON ROMERO and EMILY SCHMALL. New York Times. April 12, 2012
RIO DE JANEIRO — The fate of Argentina’s largest oil company, YPF, was thrown into doubt on Thursday as reports that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was preparing to nationalize the company drew a warning from Spain that it would consider such a move a hostile action.
A YPF station in Buenos Aires. The plan for a YPF takeover taps into a sentiment favoring greater control of the oil industry.
Argentina would take control of 50.01 percent of the shares in YPF, which is controlled by the Spanish energy giant Repsol, according to copies of legislation sent to Congress and published in the Argentine news media. The move reflects the resurgence of resource nationalism in a country that has seen the discovery of huge shale oil fields.
Compensation for the shares remains in doubt; a tribunal and state energy officials would determine the valuation of the stake, the legislation said. The bill, which could still be modified in important ways, would also let Argentina’s government take control of shares in YPF owned by Argentina’s Eskenazi family.
However, confusion persisted as to the government’s plans late Thursday. Eduardo Fellner, the governor of the province of Jujuy, said after a meeting with Mrs. Kirchner that production areas were under evaluation. He denied the existence of a nationalization bill, attributing the reports to “journalistic versions.”
Still, the nationalization talk points to a broader effort by Mrs. Kirchner to assert greater state control over areas of Argentina’s economy. She has already nationalized an airline, Aerolíneas Argentinas, and billions of dollars in private pension funds. Trying to stanch capital flight, she has tightened foreign exchange controls and forced companies to repatriate export proceeds.
In recent weeks, provincial authorities in Argentina have revoked a number of oil and gas concessions held by private companies, including concessions for some of YPF’s most productive fields. Posters plastered on streetlights on Thursday in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, declared, “Sovereignty is taking back what’s ours,” with YPF written in bold.
“YPF was given away in the 1990s; most of the profits have left the country,” said Walter Ojeda, 48, an unemployed veteran of the 1982 Falklands War. “The government should take it over and give jobs to the people here.”
A takeover of YPF would be the biggest reversal of Argentina’s privatizations in the 1990s, which remain highly controversial in Argentina. It would also illustrate a new push against what became known as La Reconquista, the “reconquest,” in which companies from Spain acquired companies in Latin America in the 1990s.
The move against YPF, while apparently stopping short of a full nationalization, is already generating tension between Argentina and Spain.
Spain’s government has been monitoring the tussle at a time when revenues from Latin American assets have become crucial to help Spain’s largest companies — from banks like Santander and BBVA to Telefónica, the telecommunications operator — offset weakening earnings at home. Spain is entering its second recession in three years.
In a video statement issued on Thursday, José Manuel Soria, the Spanish industry minister, said, “If in any part of the world, there are signs of hostility against the interests of Spanish companies, the government interprets them as hostile to Spain and the government of Spain.”
“What the Spanish government is saying is that if there are any hostile gestures,” he added, “they will bring consequences.”
The uncertainty appeared to leave Repsol, Spain’s largest company, grasping for solutions. Spanish news media outlets reported that Antonio Brufau, Repsol’s chief executive, had traveled to Buenos Aires this week to try to meet with Mrs. Kirchner.
But Argentina’s president declined to meet with Mr. Brufau. The Spanish newspaper El País reflected on the “paradox” of Repsol’s president being left to meet with Argentina’s planning minister even after Mrs. Kirchner recently met with the American actor Sean Penn and Roger Waters, a founder of Pink Floyd.
The nationalization debate raises doubts over the appetite foreign energy companies will have for investing in Argentina. Exxon Mobil, Apache and EOG Resources are among the companies with major investments in Argentina shale fields.
“The question in the minds of other investors: Is it going to stop at YPF?” said José Amador, managing director for mergers and acquisitions in Latin America with Scotia Waterous. “A lot of it’s going to depend on the perceived fairness of the price.”
Despite the allure and potential of the country’s new shale fields, Argentina’s energy industry displays serious woes, making the conflict with YPF “just the tip of the iceberg of a much more complex energy problem,” a report by Barclays says.
Argentina’s oil production fell 12 percent from 2003 to 2010, even as the country’s economy expanded and energy consumption surged 38 percent. Argentina became an energy importer, partly because of caps on residential energy tariffs, Barclays said.
At the same time, Argentina’s government has been pressuring YPF and other energy companies to increase spending on exploration. But private companies, restrained by price caps and measures forcing them to repatriate export revenue, have been hesitant to do so.
Still, Mrs. Kirchner is tapping into a broad sentiment in Argentine society that favors greater state control of the oil industry and other sectors. Perhaps because of YPF’s dominance in Argentina’s oil and gas market, the many Argentines think it should contribute more to the economy in taxes and job creation.
“The company is not meeting its agreed-upon investment commitments,” said Enrique Dentice, an economics professor at the University of San Martín in Buenos Aires. “What the government is doing is sending a message to foreign investors that the state is going to start taking a more active role in satisfying internal demand.”
Mrs. Kirchner was expected to discuss her plans for YPF on Thursday night in a televised appearance but instead referred to the beef and chocolate industries. Shares in YPF rose more than 7 percent on Thursday as investors seemed relieved that Argentina would not take full control.
Emily Schmall reported from Buenos Aires, and Raphael Minder contributed from Madrid.
Argentina, US Presidents To Meet At Americas Summit In Colombia
Dow Jones. April 13, 2012
BUENOS AIRES (Dow Jones)--Argentina's president, Cristina Kirchner, is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday during a regional summit in Colombia.
"The U.S. government requested an audience on behalf of President Barack Obama with Argentina's head of state, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, at the Americas Summit... The President accepted [the request]," Kirchner's spokesman, Alfredo Scoccimarro, said in a statement.
Argentina said the U.S. requested an "open agenda."
A U.S. government official confirmed the meeting.
The presidents last met at the sidelines of a G-20 summit in France in early November, just weeks after Kirchner was re-elected with a historic 54% of the vote.
Last month, the U.S. suspended duty-free access for some Argentine imports, saying that Argentina needs to pay outstanding awards stemming from investment disputes between the South American country and two U.S. firms.
The move to suspend Argentina's access to the duty-free program was the latest sign of strained ties between the two countries.
Last year, the U.S. said it would oppose loans to Argentina through the World Bank and other multilateral institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank due to its failure to heed international arbitration rulings.
Argentina's import substitution policies, which force foreign companies to make their products in Argentina or lose market access, have also angered a number of its biggest trading partners, including the U.S.
The U.S., European Union and a dozen other countries have asked Argentina to lift restrictions on imports or risk a battle at the World Trade Organization.
-By Ken Parks, Dow Jones Newswires; 54-11-4103-6740, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Laura Meckler contributed to this article.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Cancer hasn't dimmed Hugo Chavez's electoral hopes
IAN JAMES. AP. April 12, 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela -- With less than six months left until Election Day, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has hardly hit the campaign trail. Instead, he has been consumed with his fight against cancer, repeatedly traveling to Cuba for treatment and publicly vowing to defeat his illness.
While cancer would end the presidential ambitions of many politicians, Chavez's struggle against the disease has in fact become his main rallying cry. Cancer could serve as a political asset if his health holds through the October vote, and that's the big "if" hanging over Venezuelan politics.
Last week, Chavez offered his starkest outlook yet as he wept while holding hands with his parents at a Mass and then pleaded to Jesus Christ to give him more life.
"Give me your crown, Christ," Chavez said in live footage broadcast nationwide. "Give me your cross, 100 crosses. I'll carry it, but give me life because there are still things left for me to do for these people and for this homeland. Don't take me away yet."
Chavez said later that he has faith in a "miracle" as he undergoes radiation therapy in Cuba following two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic area.
So far, what appears to be a serious life-or-death crisis hasn't dented his political support. To the contrary, one recent poll showed Chavez with a lead of 14 percentage points over rival Gov. Henrique Capriles. The poll by the firm Datanalisis had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Chavez has managed to hold on to support even while his main image has been that of an ailing president climbing or descending airplane stairs on his frequent flights to and from Cuba for treatment. On top of that, many Venezuelans are supporting him despite 25-percent inflation and one of the worst homicide rates in the world.
Information Minister Andres Izarra, one of Chavez's key aides, said on Monday that the president won't be out campaigning door-to-door like his rival because "he doesn't need to." Izarra also said Chavez's spirits are being lifted by his supporters.
"That love of the people, it's arisen like a balsam, like part of his medicine, like part of his treatment to completely recover," Izarra said during a televised speech.
On Friday, Chavez is expected to rally his supporters on the 10th anniversary of his return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup, and he has drawn a parallel between his cancer fight and his survival during that coup, when he was restored to the presidency amid large pro-Chavez street protests.
"At that time, the love of the people rescued Chavez from the edge of death," Izarra said. "This time the love of the people is also rescuing Chavez from a particular health situation, in which if it weren't for that love, I'm sure his ailments would perhaps be greater."
Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American studies professor at Florida International University in Miami, said compassion elicited by Chavez's illness "has naturally played to his advantage in the electoral process."
"Not only President Chavez but certainly his supporters and certainly the people handling his political campaign are taking full advantage of it. And I think it would be crazy for them not to do so," Gamarra said.
Chavez's illness also presents a challenge for the opposition, Gamarra said, because it might appear "cold and callous" to attack a seriously ill leader.
For both sides in Venezuela's divided political landscape, Chavez's illness has the potential to be a game-changer. The subject of what would happen if Chavez were to die is taboo among his political allies, as leaders of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela insist that Chavez will be their candidate and that there is no backup plan.
In the meantime, Chavez is adeptly using the uncertainty to once again cast himself as the protagonist in a larger narrative, at times evoking his own tragic hero, 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar, who survived an assassination attempt and then resigned the presidency amid failing health. Bolivar was 47 when he died, and historians have generally cited tuberculosis as the cause.
At a televised meeting this week, Chavez, 57, said the independence leader had been "left without people, left without soldiers."
"What a painful end," Chavez said.
In speeches and rallies, Chavez has regularly shouted the slogan: "We will live and we will win!" It appears to be both his personal mantra and his political bet.
The odds of that bet remain unclear. Since he announced his diagnosis last June, Chavez has kept secret specifics about his illness such as the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors that have been removed.
Some medical experts say based on Chavez's accounts, it's very possible his cancer could come back yet again.
"The tumor is recurrent, and to us that indicates that his chances for a cure are minimal because in cancer care, the best treatment is the first treatment," said Dr. Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He noted that Chavez underwent surgery for a second tumor in February, indicating that his chemotherapy was ineffective.
Other medical experts say that depending on the type and grade of Chavez's cancer, the outlook might not be so grim.
Given Chavez's treatment regimen, he could have a soft-tissue sarcoma, said Dr. Steve Hahn, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.
"It's not necessarily pessimistic," Hahn said. "If he had a low-grade sarcoma, then he really has very little chance of it spreading elsewhere and the radiation, if it prevents it from coming back in the pelvis ... that should pretty much hopefully be the end of the story for him, end of the story meaning control of his disease."
Chavez's face has at times appeared puffy during his cancer treatments, and in September he acknowledged taking steroids along with other medications. Doctors say steroids can be prescribed as an anti-nausea medication to cope with the effects of chemotherapy and can help increase appetite and energy levels. Molina noted that excessive steroids use can spur side effects such as fluid retention, mood swings and increased blood pressure.
"It's always possible that they gave him a short course of steroids, he felt good, and then he requested that, you know, keep on this. It's very hard when you're a president and you have the powers to say 'this is what I want to do,'" Molina said.
The dearth of hard information about Chavez's illness, as well as the fluctuations in his tone and appearance, have fueled speculation and rumors about Chavez's health in the Venezuelan media and on the street.
Chavez, for one, has urged political allies not to waste time responding to the gossip.
Chavez communicated with the nation on Wednesday through several messages on his Twitter account while finishing his latest round of radiation treatment in Cuba.
"I'm putting on my combat boots!" one of the messages read. "Wait for me!!"
That night, Chavez made yet another homecoming at Caracas' airport, smiling as he descended the airplane stairs next to one of his daughters and saying he was doing well. He appeared vigorous as he chatted with aides at the presidential palace and reminisced about the 2002 coup during a televised talk that ended nearly an hour after midnight.
Chavez's legions of supporters have shown intense loyalty to their hero, regularly gathering at government-organized events to pray for his health.
On a downtown Caracas avenue, lampposts have been festooned with banners showing a healthy Chavez smiling and wearing the red beret of his years as an army paratrooper, along with the slogan: "Onward Commandant!"
At one recent pro-Chavez rally outside the presidential palace, Magalys Martinez said she's optimistic Chavez can overcome his illness.
"He very much wants to live," said Martinez, herself a cancer patient. "For this illness, what he needs to have is ambition to live."
Another supporter at the rally, 63-year-old Bernarda Mena de Palacios, said she's thankful to Chavez for a government-run education program that helped her earn her high school diploma.
"We're praying for the president," she said. "I have faith he's going to come out victorious. We can't lose a president like him."
Colombia's Uribe Accused of Paramilitary Involvement
EFE. April 12, 2012
Bogotá, Colombia – A leftist lawmaker asked the Colombian Attorney General's Office to investigate former President Alvaro Uribe for helping to found a paramilitary group in the 1990s.
The accusations leveled by congressman Ivan Cepeda are based on accounts from former paramilitaries who said that Uribe, as governor of Antioquia province, facilitated the formation of the Metro Bloc, a unit of the now-demobilized AUC federation of rightist militias.
Cepeda said Uribe's brother Santiago and two other men, Juan Guillermo Villegas Uribe and Santiago Gallon Henao, were also involved in creating the Metro Bloc.
The congressman offered photographs and statements from former paramilitaries indicating that the Uribe brothers' Gucharacas ranch, located in San Roque, Antioquia, hosted a militia base during Alvaro Uribe's 1995-1997 tenure as provincial governor.
Cepeda is also seeking additional protection for several jailed paramilitaries who have been testifying about the erstwhile president's alleged involvement with the militias.
One of those witnesses, Juan Monsalve, was recently accosted and stabbed by two other inmates at Combita prison, the congressman said.
The AUC, which demobilized as part of a peace process with the 2002-2010 Uribe government, is responsible for more than 250,000 deaths in Colombia, according to a U.S. State Department cable disseminated by WikiLeaks.
Colombia’s President Talks with TIME About Castro, Capitalism and His Country’s Comeback
Tim Padgett. TIME. April 12, 2012
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will host the sixth Summit of the Americas this weekend, April 14-15, in the Caribbean city of Cartagena. The hemispheric gathering marks a comeback for Colombia, which is emerging from half a century of crippling guerrilla, drug and political violence and is making a serious bid to be Latin America’s new economic and diplomatic player. The center-right Santos, 60, recently sat down at the Casa de Nariño palace in Bogotá with TIME International Editor Jim Frederick, TIME’s Latin America bureau chief Tim Padgett and its Colombia reporter, John Otis, to discuss the summit, the region’s decreasing dependence on the U.S. and Colombia’s chances for a peaceful end to its long conflict.
To everyone’s surprise, you recently called for a discussion of legalizing drugs as a way to address the world’s largely failed drug war strategy. Will this be debated at the summit – and do you see any way of getting the U.S. onboard?
SANTOS: I want the world to discuss if we are doing the correct thing or if there are possible alternatives that are less costly [in terms of lives and interdiction resources]. I hope the summit endorses the proposal. I think the U.S. too is willing to discuss the issue and I think this is a very important and big step in the right direction.
After being considered a nearly failed state, a near narco-state, only a decade ago, is this summit a coming-out party for Colombia – not just as a nation rebounding from almost 50 years of conflict, but as a new hemispheric leader as well?
Yes, I think this [summit] coincides with many processes that have given Colombia a new and much more important position. We were for many decades signaled as a non-viable state, as the champions of kidnapping, drug trafficking, murders, violations of human rights, and for many years people didn’t even want to come to Colombia because they were afraid. We have been changing this reality. Today the world is understanding that Colombia is one of its most dynamic democracies and economies. Who would have thought just a few years ago that the spread on our sovereign bonds would be lower than Japan, Italy, France and competing with the U.S.? This is completely out of anyone’s imagination.
Yet there are big concerns that Colombia’s hard-won security is backsliding: the country’s Marxist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, are regrouping and making fresh attacks, and new bandas criminales are expanding.
I’ll be the first to recognize that we are winning but we have not won yet. We have a long way to go still. The FARC is still active, but they’re weaker and weaker, that’s why they are now [focused] on terrorist acts [to] show the country and the world that they are still alive. That’s what they want – but that’s a demonstration of their weakness. The bandas are a direct inheritance from the [right-wing, now disbanded] paramilitary groups that [like the FARC] were also dedicated to drug trafficking. With them there is no room for negotiations. They are criminals, and we will be as effective against them as we were in dismantling Colombia’s once impenetrable, all-powerful drug cartels.
The FARC just released the last of its military and police hostages as a goodwill gesture. Does that bring Colombia closer to peace negotiations – and do you believe you’ll be the President who ends the 48-year-old conflict?
I am always open to a political solution to this conflict, provided they demonstrate that they can sit down and negotiate in good faith. Which has not happened yet. I certainly hope [to be the President who ends the conflict]. But the worst thing I could do is be in a hurry. I have to wait for the correct circumstances, and for that I have to be patient.
How much of a debt does Colombia owe the U.S. and its $5 billion Plan Colombia? Is it also fair to say you’ve distanced Colombia from the U.S. somewhat since taking office?
No, I’m not interested in distancing myself from the U.S. We owe tremendous gratitude to the U.S. I think Plan Colombia is probably the most successful bipartisan foreign policy initiative in the recent history of the U.S., and we’re proud to be its beneficiaries. But it also represents only 4% of what we ourselves invest in our security.
Is it more accurate to say then that Colombia wants to be an interlocutor between the U.S. and Latin America? Should Washington view you in that role as a more valuable partner?
Yes, the U.S. has told me they welcome our new good relations with our neighbors, and my neighbors value my good relations with the U.S. We do see ourselves as a bridge between the U.S. and the [Latin American] countries with which the U.S. doesn’t have particularly good relations now.
How would you describe your personal relationship with President Obama?
We have a good personal relationship – at least I hope so after [my U.S. alma mater] Kansas beat North Carolina [the team Obama favored] in the NCAA tournament last month. We have a good chemistry.
Is the recent agreement you brokered with Cuba – to not invite it to this summit but to push for its inclusion in future summits – an example of the “bridge” role you describe?
I believe very much in the value of putting your face to problems. That’s what I did with [left-wing Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez: We used to insult each other on a daily basis [when I was Defense Minister]. But I decided to confront the problem as head of state, and I said, Let’s respect our differences. I simply could have said to the media, [Cuba] is not coming [to the summit]. But I think the fact of going [to Havana] and explaining [the situation], [President Raúl Castro] valued that.
Do you fear what’s on the horizon next door in Venezuela as a result of President Chávez’s battle with cancer?
What I hope is that Hugo Chávez doesn’t die, because at this moment he is a factor of stability. What would hurt Colombia and the whole region more is an unstable Venezuela.
You just secured a free-trade agreement with the U.S., yet one of the concerns hanging over this summit is Washington’s shrinking influence in Latin America. Is the inter-American ideal still relevant in the 21st century?
The U.S. should value more the importance of Latin America – of its strategic long-term interest for the U.S. The more they look south again, the more we will look north again. We need each other, but it’s a two-way street now.
Some feel Latin America is looking more to Asia now, especially China. Latin America is enjoying an economic boom and more rapid development, but are its economies, including yours, depending too much on commodities exports and not enough on building its manufacturing and value-added sectors?
We are struggling to not have this high dependence on commodities and we’re increasing investment in manufactured goods. But you also have to ask, How is the world going to be fed with 2 billion more Chinese and Indians in the future? Those commodities become a very important player.
Your more conservative predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, is credited with restoring security to Colombia, but he’s criticized for not addressing the root social causes of Colombia’s conflicts. Do you feel you’re addressing them adequately now?
Yes, especially our inequality of resources. We’ve achieved a constitutional reform previously considered impossible, to distribute mining and oil revenues much more evenly, a sort of affirmative action to the poorest regions. And land restitution and title for peasants displaced by the violence: this is a real agrarian revolution. And we are about to present to Congress a tax reform geared toward making our country more equitable.
Are you showing the Latin American right that it too, like much of the Latin left today, can practice a more centrist Third Way between capitalism and socialism?
The more I apply the principles of the Third Way, the more convinced I am that this is the correct way: use the markets as much as possible and the state as much as necessary. Sometimes I say to some of our neighbors, You’re choosing [left or right] extremes that will not work. This is the best approach for Latin America. Governability has been the key to [Colombia’s] success, getting people to agree on things. Polarized societies are a perfect recipe for failure.
Uribe and his “Uribista” supporters, however, have become some of your most vocal critics – and they say you’ve betrayed the conservative principles you backed under Uribe.
They are being very short-sighted: they should have read [the more moderate policy positions] I’ve been writing for the past 20 or 30 years. About being conservative as Defense Minister, I was simply doing my job. And modesty aside, I was the most successful Defense Minister this country has had in its last 50 years. I have not given [Uribe] any reason to be such a staunch critic.
Do you see Colombia as a model for how Latin America can escape the lawlessness and inequality that still plague it?
We’re the oldest democracy in Latin America, and I think we are [rediscovering] a respect among Colombians for rules that give us the opportunity to develop in a collective way. What I know is that when you ask people in the U.S., Europe and Japan today if their kids will have a better future, they say no. In Colombia they’re saying yes. I think that’s extremely important in any society.
Santos expected to sign bill finalizing FTA with US
Charles Parkinson. Colombia Reports. April 12, 2012
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to give the final approval and signature to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between his country and the United States head of this weekend's Summit of the Americas.
The bill, which will go into effect once both nations exchange the necessary documents, will bolster trade and change Colombia's copyright laws to fall more in line with U.S. standards.
Colombia's Senate and House of Representatives convened in a joint session Wednesday to go over final details of legislation regarding the proposed reform of the country's intellectual property laws.
President Santos urged his government to rush implementation of the FTA in March to finalize the agreement ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival for the Summit of the Americas, a series of political meetings attended by 32 heads of state, to be held in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena April 14 and 15.
Colombia's Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism, Sergio Diaz-Granados said in a statement to reporters that he hoped Obama would recognize that "Colombia has done its part in the process of implementation" of the FTA.
The bilateral agreement has garnered fierce opposition from critics in both countries for Colombia's alleged failure to comply with commitments to improve labor rights enshrined in the FTA agreement. Four union members have been killed by illegal armed groups in 2012, with dozens murdered in 2011.
The Intellectual Property Rights chapter of the accord proposes a significant overhaul to Colombia's copyright laws. One contentious new reform would prohibit the transmission of TV signals over the internet, carrying with it a potential sentence of four to eight years. Critics have opposed the new legislation because they feel this section of the FTA did not receive sufficient public debate before being passed.
Diaz-Granados hopes the bill will "fine-tune the legislation in Colombia to fall in line with the existing international commitments and standards on copyright."
The cyber hacking group, Anonymous disabled the webpages of Colombia's president, vice president and Ministry of Commerce Tuesday in protest of the FTA.
A.F.L.-C.I.O. Chief Sends Obama Letter Voicing Concern About Labor Killings in Colombia
STEVEN GREENHOUSE. New York Times. April 12, 2012
With President Obama scheduled to attend the Summit of the Americas in Colombia this weekend, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president has sent him a toughly worded letter saying that he should not officially certify that Colombia has done enough to stop a decades-long series of killings of union leaders and supporters there.
Richard L. Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president, wrote that it would be wrong to grant such certification because Colombia had done far too little to stop the killings. Mr. Trumka also maintained that Colombia had not fulfilled many of the promises it made as part of a “labor action plan” that it embraced last April to help persuade Congress to ratify a free-trade accord.
Mr. Trumka asserted that the Colombian government had fallen short on its commitment to prosecute and reduce impunity for those who have murdered union supporters.
“Less than 10 percent of the nearly 3,000 cases of trade unionists murders since 1986 have reached a conviction,” Mr. Trumka wrote. “The powers behind the crimes remain almost completely free from punishment. None of the 29 labor activists killed in 2011 had their cases resolved by a successful prosecution.”
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has opposed the Colombia trade deal, originally negotiated six years ago, even after the Obama administration negotiated the labor action plan in the hope of addressing organized labor’s concerns. Influenced by the labor action, the Democratic-led Senate ratified the deal in October.
Last month, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. officially endorsed Mr. Obama for president, despite its differences with him over the Colombia accord and numerous other trade matters. Mr. Trumka clearly hopes that Mr. Obama will not follow through in certifying Colombia’s progress under the action plan, but if Mr. Obama certifies it, it is unclear whether labor – which has promised its biggest campaign effort ever – will campaign any less hard to re-elect Mr. Obama.
The Obama administration has said the trade accord would expand exports by $1 billion a year. The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups cheered the accord, with several business lobbyists asserting that the union movement was once again being reflexively protectionist in opposing a trade deal.
Labor leaders say they fear that Mr. Obama will announce at the meeting in Colombia that he is certifying that Colombia has fulfilled its promises under the action plan, an important step before the free-trade agreement is officially implemented. Mr. Obama will be meeting with more than 30 heads of state and government this weekend in the coastal city of Cartagena.
Mr. Trumka wrote his private letter to Mr. Obama as the president is eager to woo unions and blue-collar workers in what is shaping up to be a difficult re-election contest against Mitt Romney.
In his letter, Mr. Trumka wrote that Colombia’s “commitments have not yet been fulfilled, which is why I think any determination that Colombia has ‘successfully implemented key elements of the labor action plan’ is premature. Premature certification would undermine the efforts the Colombian government has made thus far and prevent further progress. Decisions on the lives and livelihoods of workers should be driven by concrete action and the desire for improved prospects for the future, rather than simply timed to accompany scheduled meetings among leaders.”
A copy of the letter was made available by a union official who is seeking both to step up pressure on Mr. Obama not to certify Colombia’s efforts and to focus a spotlight on the continuing murders of labor activists in Colombia.
In a news briefing on Wednesday, Dan Restrepo, Mr. Obama’s top Latin America adviser, praised Colombia’s efforts. “The labor action plan is something that we have been, are, and will continue to be working on implementing with the Colombian government,” he said. “The Colombian government has taken a number of very important steps to improve labor rights and labor protections in Colombia, passing a series of laws, issuing a series of executive decrees, imposing a million-dollar fine recently on a company in the palm sector that was violating the new rules.”
Mr. Restrepo said that Washington’s commitment to labor rights in Colombia would certainly be part of Mr. Obama’s agenda when he meets with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
Mr. Trumka also faulted the labor action plan for not including any specific “objectives to reduce threats or attacks on labor leaders or other types of human rights defenders.” He also said that Colombia, which promised to hire 200 labor inspectors, had not done enough preventive inspections to help ensure that the labor rights of Colombia’s workers were not violated.
Mr. Trumka noted that many Colombian employers continued to subcontract work in what he said was an illegal strategy to block unionization. He wrote that after municipal workers in the city of Jamundí began a unionization effort in January, the city fired 43 workers, two union leaders received threats, and one activist, Miguel Mallama, “was gunned down in the streets on March 25.”
He also wrote that when 450 port workers in Turbo joined Colombia’s port workers’ union in February, within weeks 50 of the port workers’ leaders were effectively fired.
“It is premature to declare the labor action plan a success — now is not the time to relieve the pressure on Colombia,” Mr. Trumka wrote. “Moving too quickly toward implementation could jeopardize future improvements for Colombian workers, undercutting efforts to secure labor and other human rights and harming the workers of both countries.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy White House national security adviser, noted in Wednesday’s news briefing that Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis would accompany Mr. Obama to Cartagena. That, he said, “demonstrates our continued focus on moving forward with the labor action plan and our commitment to stand up for workers’ rights as we move toward implementation of the trade agreement.”
Western Andean Region [contents]
Ecuador: Failing Universities to Close
WILLIAM NEUMAN. New York Times. April 13, 2012
The police and education officials on Thursday moved to shut down 14 universities that the government determined did not meet basic academic standards. The schools, with a total of about 38,000 students, were on a list of failing universities, sometimes called “garage universities” because of accusations of their low quality. The move is part of a broad effort to improve higher education by President Rafael Correa’s government. The government said it would take a year to close the schools, allowing about 10,000 students who are in their final year of studies to graduate. Most of the remaining students would be given the chance to transfer to other academic programs.
Doe Run Peru creditors reject restructuring plan
Patricia Velez. Reuters. April 12, 2012
LIMA, April 12 (Reuters) - Creditors rejected on Thursday a restructuring plan from Doe Run Peru, a unit of U.S.-based Renco Group, casting doubt on the future of the La Oroya smelter.
Doe Run Peru's board of creditors voted to start an "operational liquidation" process that could result in the smelter being operated by a new company, Doe Run Peru revising its restructuring plan to hang on to the smelter, or outright liquidation of the plant.
La Oroya, once one of the largest smelters in Peru, has been shut since 2009 because of protracted financial problems and a stalled environmental cleanup in what has been ranked as one of the 10 most polluted places in the world.
Under Doe Run Peru's "operational liquidation," the unit controlled by U.S. billionaire Ira Rennert will remain in charge of La Oroya for up to a year and is required to pay its workers.
"In principal there will be a six-month period that could be extended by another six months. The question is whether Doe Run Peru presents a plan that is acceptable to the creditors," Diego Calmet, president of the board, told reporters.
Another board member said creditors would start looking for a new company to operate La Oroya, which processed copper, lead and other metals.
A Doe Run Peru manager confirmed that the restructuring plan had been rejected, but said the company would fight to hold on to the smelter.
"We are going to find a solution so that the Doe Run Peru plan is approved," manager Juan Carlos Huyhua said.
A lawyer for Peruvian mining company Buenaventura said Doe Run Peru had 30 days to revise its restructuring plan or the board of creditors would likely choose a new operator or liquidate the plant entirely.
The Peruvian government, Doe Run Peru's main creditor, did not consider the initial restructuring plan viable. It would have relied in part on $200 million in credit from commodities trader Glencore.
Minister of Energy and Mines Jorge Merino Tafur has said the plan would have made the Peruvian state assume potential liabilities for environmental lawsuits.
The Peruvian government holds 36 percent of Doe Run Peru's debt, while Doe Run Cayman, a special unit of the Renco Group, has 35 percent. The other creditors are mostly mineral traders and suppliers. The company owes creditors at least $100 million.
Doe Run Peru inherited the La Oroya smelter from state control in 1997. It had operated with few environmental controls and had contaminated the city and surrounding area with toxic amounts of lead.
Former President Alan Garcia revoked Doe Run Peru's license to operate in July 2010 after it failed to meet an environmental cleanup deadline, but said the future of the company was in the hands of a board of creditors.
In January, creditors voted not to outright liquidate Doe Run Peru, which was once the sixth largest metals exporter in the country.
While the government opposed Doe Run Peru's restructuring plan, President Ollanta Humala, who took office in July, has said he favors reopening the La Oroya smelter. It provides jobs for some 3,500 workers.
"No workers will be fired because this process allows the company to keep operating as a business unit," the Ministry of Energy and Mines said in a communique on Thursday.
Mining workers, however, condemned the government for opposing the restructuring plan, which if approved would have led the way to resumed operations at La Oroya.
"We have been betrayed by the ministry of energy and mines," said Luis Castillo, president of the Federation of Mining Workers of Peru. (Reporting By Patricia Velez; Writing by Caroline Stauffer)
As Renco's lobbying drive fades, so does congressional support in its dispute with Peru
Keenan Steiner. Sunlight Foundation. April 12, 2012
A group of lawmakers is urging Obama administration officials to oppose a multinational U.S. company's efforts to sue Peru in a mining dispute, citing the company's environmental and health record.
The request, made in a letter last month to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, pits the lawmakers against a secretive billionaire and big U.S. political donor—and, in some cases, against themselves.
Four of the letter-signers—Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., Ed Towns, D-N.Y., and Danny K. Davis, D-Ill.—have switched sides in a controversy involving Doe Run Peru, which environmental groups have accused of causing lead contamination in a small Peruvian town called La Oroya. The four were among eight legislators who, when we last looked in on this dispute a year ago, were praising the company's environmental record and argue it was being subjected to "disparate treatment" by Lima, the same rationale used in a lawsuit the American firm filed against Peru.
Doe Run is the Latin American affiliate of the Renco Group, a conglomerate owned by notoriously secretive billionaire Ira Rennert, who built a fortune on junk bonds, owns what is reportedly the largest private home in the U.S., and has contributed over $600,000 to U.S. political campaigns over the years, according to Influence Explorer data.
Being told of their contradictory positions seemed to catch lawmakers off balance.
Renee Ferguson, a spokesperson for Rush, said the Chicago liberal "changed his mind after getting more information" and that he might not have been thoroughly briefed on the issue before. "After multiple consultations, we realized that the dispute was related to environmental degradation," Ferguson said.
In a statement, Rush explained the mix up as one of competing priorities. "It is my instinct and natural desire to support the interests of American business development but never at the expense of the health, safety and well-being of people, especially vulnerable children."
A spokesperson for Davis, Ira Cohen, also said that new information prompted the recent letter. He did not answer whether Davis was aware of the old letter when he signed the new one. Meanwhile, spokespeople for Woolsey and Towns did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The sign-on effort for the new letter was led by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., after two advocacy groups, Oxfam and Public Citizen, sponsored a congressional briefing on March 28 about how investor protection clauses written into free trade agreements can threaten the peoples' health and environment in foreign countries. A total of 17 lawmakers signed on. Another congressman, Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., wrote a separate letter to the Peruvian Congress asking them to encourage Doe Run Peru to meet its environmental agreement. Missouri is home to another Renco subsidiary that runs a lead smelter, which paid $65 million in fines to the EPA for breaking environmental laws.
The new letter comes as Renco's lobbying campaign has fizzled. In the final two months of 2010, just before the lawmakers wrote pro-Renco letters, the company spent about $250,000 on lobbyists advocating for Doe Run Peru. By the following spring, Renco had five firms working the halls of Congress on its behalf. A year later, two firms are on hire for $30,000, according to the most recent filings.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Renco Group has spent about $4.6 million lobbying for its various businesses since 1998, most of that for one of its businesses, AM General Corp, the maker of Humvees sold to the U.S. military. Rennert's political contributions have tilted towards Republicans of late, most notably the more than $60,000 he gave to a joint fundraising committee for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in 2010; $100,000 to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (running in a state with no contribution limits), and more than $30,000 he gave to the committees affilated with 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But Rennert has given to plenty of Democrats, including former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and then-Sens. Al Gore and Joe Biden.
His company's metals smelter is controversial for several reasons:
The health problems of the people in La Oroya;
Financial troubles that led to the plant's shutdown, and
An ongoing dispute with the Peruvian government over who is responsible for cleaning up the environmental contamination and the legal claims of children suffering from lead poisoning.
The latest bump in the road came because Doe Run Peru submitted a plan that only funds part of the $200 million environmental cleanup and asks Peru to be liable for the children's U.S. court claims. Peru's mining minister called the plan "unacceptable" and until a plan is accepted, the company cannot restart operations
The new congressional letter, written on March 29, asks Clinton and Geithner not to back Doe Run Peru's investor protection claim asking Peru for $800 million in damages, a claim allowed under the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement signed in 2010, and accuses the company of repeatedly evading environmental agreements.
Last year's sharply contrasting congressional advocacy seemed to be the direct result of Renco's lobbying. Lawmakers leading the charge for Renco last year—the late Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.—both had ties to lobbyists working to press the U.S. government to support the troubled company. Renco hired a lobbyist who used to work for Payne. The veteran New Jersey Democrat, who spoke on House floor to defend Renco in February 2011, died last month after battling colon cancer. A former aide would not talk on the record about the Renco issue.
Bachus wrote a separate letter favorable to Renco. A longtime campaign contributor to the powerful Alabaman was another one of the Renco-hired lobbyists.
Public Citizen, the advocacy group that opposes free trade agreements, suggested that the lawmakers' advocacy last year had an impact on U.S. policy. The Treasury Department's response was that the U.S. negotiated the investment chapter of the free trade deal with Peru to allow such disputes to be resolved in a neutral international court. At the time, the State Department had already assured the lawmakers that it had expressed its concern to Peru, the legislators' letter.
"Even making the statements they’ve made send the signal to the Peruvian government that the heavies are in town and supporting Renco," Todd Tucker, the global trade research director at Public Citizen, wrote in an email.
In a Public Citizen report, Tucker suggests that the international arbitration was used to move its U.S. court case, where Peruvian children are suing Renco for lead poisoning, out of Missouri court and into federal court, which it accomplished in June 2011.
A spokesperson for Renco did not respond to a request to comment. One of the lawyers defending Renco's affiliate in the U.S. court case, Richard Ahrens of Lewis Rice, referred media inquires to the company itself.
It's unclear if the lawmakers' new advocacy against Renco will affect the U.S. position. A spokesperson for the Department of Treasury declined to comment. The State Department is monitoring the matter but must refrain from taking a position on the merits of a dispute once it is taken to court, wrote Kerry S. Humphrey, a senior media advisor in the Bureau of Economic & Business Affairs.
But the lawmakers have certainly completed an about-face.
Last year, they even floated the idea of cutting off U.S. investment in Peru if the company were expropriated, a threat Renco worried about.
This time around, they argued that "the mere threat" of an international arbitration case "can cast a chill on environmental and health regulation."
"If anything, the United States Government should be urging Renco to drop its investor-state claim," they added.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Back again, liberal Mexico candidate makes pitch to business leaders
Los Angeles Times. April 13, 2012
MEXICO CITY -- In 2006, when he came within a hair of winning Mexico's presidency, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's opponents on the right called him a "danger to Mexico," a would-be Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and said he would plunge the country into an economic crisis.
Six years later, Lopez Obrador, the liberal former mayor of Mexico City, is back and in a second run for the country's top office.
This time around, the candidate has sought to soften his image, and the traditionally conservative business elites now appear open to at least listening to the man bidding to become Mexico's first leftist president in modern times.
On Thursday, Lopez Obrador addressed a group of leading private-sector finance chiefs for the first time in his political career. He was greeted with smirks and chuckles at some points, but drew applause when he said he'd basically "maintain macroeconomic policies" currently in place in Mexico.
"We have no plans to expropriate, we will respect concessions, contracts [to foreign companies]," Lopez Obrador said.
Yet he also told the Institute of Mexican Finance Executives, or IMEF, during a two-hour freewheeling breakfast session, that he'd aggressively seek to reduce poverty that still lingers in Mexico and "combat corruption" and waste through austerity measures.
He said his team believes they can make Mexico's economy grow 6% annually while creating 1.2 million new jobs a year, through a mix of public and private investments, including roads and refineries. His overall model, he said, is rising economic powerhouse Brazil under leftist leader and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
With austerity cuts, the government could save billions of pesos a year, Lopez Obrador added; he'd start by halving the presidential salary and flying in commercial jets if elected.
"If we don't combat poverty and inequality, we will keep seeing frustration, insecurity, and violence," he said.
Lopez Obrador, 59, has been running third for most of this election season heading to the July 1 vote. Yet in recent days, as conservative opponent Josefina Vazquez Mota has made a series of stumbles, he appears to be moving up in some polls.
Still, even a dramatic surge in support for either candidate might be too little, too late, as the candidate for the resurgent formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, Enrique Peña Nieto, maintains a comfortable double-digit lead over both.
It was unclear how strongly Lopez Obrador's message resonated with the business group. One attendee, Beatriz Zarur, said that in 2006 she cast her vote actively against Lopez Obrador, by supporting Felipe Calderon, the current president. This year, she said she was still unsure whom to support.
"I think he has some interesting proposals, but at the same time, he's got things that I don't agree with," said Zarur, who works for a law firm in Boston and whose mother is an IMEF member.
"I am not a partisan," Zarur added. "I don't care if she's a woman or he's handsome. I'm interested in proposals and in candidates."
Calderon says Cuba, Mexico friends again
Jeff Franks. Reuters. April 12, 2012
(Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared Mexico and Cuba friends again on Thursday at the end of a visit that included talks with Cuban leader Raul Castro to patch up strained relations between the two countries.
Calderon, speaking to reporters as he prepared to leave Havana for Haiti, said the problems of the past had been replaced by a new cordiality, affirmed by the signing of accords to increase cooperation in areas such as oil and healthcare.
He also condemned the 50-year-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
"Through this official visit, Cuba and Mexico have begun a renewed stage of our relationship," Calderon said at the Havana airport.
"They have been two extraordinary days for Cuba and for Mexico in that their mutual affection has been found again."
Calderon met with President Raul Castro on Wednesday and had what he described as "a frank, open dialogue befitting the leaders of two sister countries."
Both agreed it was time to restore their long friendship even if, as Calderon said on Wednesday, they did not agree on all matters.
"The friendship of Mexicans and Cubans is something that will last forever, beyond any situation," Calderon said. It was not known if he met with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is Raul Castro's older brother and was succeeded by him in 2008.
Mexico once prided itself on having warm relations with Cuba despite the hostility of the United States, its superpower neighbor, toward the island's communist government.
But when conservative Vicente Fox was elected Mexico's president in 2000, he took a less sympathetic line toward Cuba which led to a series of spats with Fidel Castro.
They clashed over human rights, and in 2002 Fox told the revolutionary leader that he could attend a Mexican-hosted diplomatic summit, but had to leave before then-U.S. President George W. Bush arrived.
Fidel Castro recorded the conversation, then made it public in an embarrassing episode for Fox.
Fidel Castro, who is 85 but has a long memory, called Fox a "vile traitor" for the incident in a 2009 column published in Cuba's state-run media.
That same year, Calderon, who succeeded Fox in 2006, angrily cancel led an official visit to Cuba after the island government suspended flights between the two countries at the height of a health scare over swine flu.
Now, said Calderon, both he and Raul Castro had "agreed to increase trade and investment," as well cooperation in health, education, culture and sports.
Trade between the two countries total led $373 million in 2011, the Mexican government said.
Among the accords signed was a non-binding letter of intent for state oil company Pemex to look into "the possibility of participating and investing in the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons" in Cuba's part of the Gulf of Mexico contiguous to Mexican waters, Calderon said.
The non-binding nature of the letter of intent means there is no guarantee Pemex will proceed with the evaluation.
"Pemex does not have the capital and/or technology for their own development so I do not see how they would do it in Cuba," said Cuba oil expert Jorge Pinon at the University of Texas.
"If they do it, it would be totally political."
A consortium led by Spanish oil company Repsol YPF is drilling the first of what could be a series of wells in Cuba's part of the Gulf of Mexico, where Cuba says it may have 20 billion barrels of oil.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated a more modest 5 billion barrels.
According to Mexican press reports, the two governments were to discuss Cuba's debt of more than $400 million to Mexico, but Calderon did not mention it.
He condemned the U.S. trade embargo and praised Cuba for its role in forming CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a hemispheric organization created in 2010 that Cuba and its socialist ally Venezuela have promoted as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States.
Calderon flew to Haiti from Havana and was to go to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas, which the OAS has helped organize.
Cuba, which is a former member of the OAS, was not invited to the hemispheric summit despite a strong push by several left-leaning Latin American countries, led by Ecuador, to have it invited. The United States, which will be represented by President Barack Obama at the event, strongly opposed inviting Cuba.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta; editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)
Maximum security prison, turn left after the “Hooters” sign
Danny Glover and Saul Landau. Progreso. April 11, 2012
Highway 15 connects California’s Inland Empire with Las Vegas – accounting for the relative thickness of Saturday morning traffic. So we don’t stare too long at signs advertising Gentleman’s Clubs – showing no gentlemen, but rather attractive young women. Did you get it? If not you will. A few miles ahead the road ascends into the high desert. A billboard descends to Super Hooters (appropriately clad females presenting their gifts).
We drive past cactus littered with plastic bags and empty tract houses. Then another desert eyesore confronts us: the U.S. Penitentiary. We calculate it has enough barbed wire to fence the U.S.-Mexico border, with three brooding towers sheltering unseen guards with rifles. We park outside the maximum security unit.
We fill out and sign forms, wait, get called, then remove our belts and shoes and empty our pockets into a tray. We place coins – to buy junk food sold in the visiting room vending machines – and get our bodies X-rayed.
Saul asks a guard if he gets lonely doing “tower duty.” He shrugs. “You learn to cope. We’re in prison just like the inmates here,” he says. “Difference is we get to go home at night. Welcome to Paradise.”
A guard stamps our wrists with an invisible imprint, and we sit and wait, staring at wall photographs of President Obama, Attorney General Holder, the prison chief of California and the Victorville Warden, all men of color. Beneath the portraits sits a hand drawn sign with a bunny advertising an Easter egg hunt for prison staff. Another poster advertises National Women’s Week.
A guard escorts visitors into the fluorescent-lit visiting room laden with miniature grey plastic chairs. We wait for Gerardo Hernandez, sentenced in 2001 to two consecutive life terms for conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
He was controller of Cuban intelligence agents who infiltrated Miami-based Cuban exile groups that plotted violence against Cuban targets. In 1997, these groups planted bombs at heavily populated tourist sites in Havana. A tourist died in one bombing.
The agents also infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, originally formed in the early 1990s to help rescue rafters leaving Cuba. After Washington and Havana signed an immigration accord, the rafter epidemic stopped. The Brothers designed new task: drop provocative leaflets over Havana. The Cuban intelligence agents discovered that the Brothers’ leader also planned to drop serious weapons from subsequent flights.
On February 24, 1996, after the Cubans had delivered numerous warnings in vain to Washington to control these unauthorized flights, Cuban MIGs shot down two planes. The pilots and co-pilots died. Cuba maintains the incident took place over its airspace, meaning the alleged crime for which Gerardo is serving time didn’t occur.
In September 1998, the FBI Bureau Chief ignored activities of certain Saudis training for their mission in the Miami area, which they realized on 9/11. Instead, Hector Pesquera, closely allied with right wing Cuban exiles, arrested the men now known as the Cuban 5. Havana had recycled their information to the FBI who had then seized illegal arms and explosives caches.
In 2001, at Gerardo’s trial, the federal prosecutor summoned General James R. Clapper, Jr. (now Director of National Intelligence) as an expert witness. Clapper had read the material the government had seized from Hernandez. On cross examination, Paul McKenna, Gerardo’s attorney, asked if Clapper had “come across any secret national defense information that was transmitted (to Cuba)?”
“Not that I recognized, no.”
Agreeing with other expert witnesses like retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, and Army Major General Edwards Breed Atkinson, Clapper could not testify to any material seized that demonstrated espionage.
McKenna: "Would you agree on saying that having access to public information is not an act of espionage?"
McKenna: "Would you, with your experience in intelligence matters, describe Cuba as a military threat for the United States?"
Clapper: "Absolutely not. Cuba does not represent a threat."
McKenna: "Did you find any evidence indicating that Gerardo Hernandez was trying to obtain secret information?"
Clapper: "No, not that I remember."
Without evidence an intimidated Miami jury convicted the Cuban Five.
Almost eleven years later, we see Gerardo bouncing across the room to hug us. His smile conveyed spiritual energy we found hard to imagine living in Victorville’s “Paradise.”
“I’m serving two consecutive life sentences for conspiracy to commit espionage and murder, a longer sentence than those real spies who transmitted highly secret information to foreign powers. We didn’t deal with anything even remotely resembling classified material," he explained.
Gerardo spoke of the recent Israeli exchange – one sergeant for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – and how the Israeli public supported the move. Two plus years ago Cuba arrested and convicted Alan Gross for having illegally imported prohibited technology to create impenetrable satellite communication systems. Gross received almost $600,000 as an USAID subcontractor to establish a secret communication network as part of a plan for regime change. (Desmond Butler AP, February 13, 2012)
Gross has served two plus years of a fifteen-year sentence in Cuba, Gerardo, thirteen plus. Diplomatic sources indicated – not confirmed – that Cuba had offered to free Gross if President Obama releases the Cuban Five. With pressure from Gross’ family and the Jewish community these reciprocal humanitarian gestures could become reality – after November, of course.
We hugged goodbye, Gerardo smiled and fisted a salute. Having imbibed another dose of the American experience, we reversed our journey without looking back at the Hooters sign.
Danny Glover is an actor and activist. Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens at Howard University (Blackburn Center) April 19, 7 PM.
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
Randall Woods. Bloomberg. April 13, 2012
Policy makers in Latin America should be careful not to “over-stimulate” their economies by lowering lending rates as the region is likely to keep growing near capacity even amid global turmoil, according to the International Monetary Fund’s top official for the region.
Nicolas Eyzaguirre, director of the fund’s Western Hemisphere department, said the World Economic Outlook being released next week should show growth in Latin America and the Caribbean this year near the IMF’s January forecast of 3.6 percent.
“The region is growing as much as it can and as much as it should,” Eyzaguirre, a former Chilean finance minister, said in a phone interview from Washington yesterday. “Generally speaking things can’t be more favorable, but risks are looming on the horizon.”
Those risks include a deterioration of the Euro area economy or a faster-than-forecast deceleration in China, a top buyer of South American commodities like copper and iron ore. Rather than cutting borrowing costs if global financial instability resumes, policy makers should take alternative steps to sustain liquidity without boosting demand, he said.
“Economies have enough stamina to grow at about potential growth without idle capacity,” said Eyzaguirre, who received his doctorate in economics from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Central banks should be very careful not to over-stimulate the economy.”
Policy makers in Brazil cut the benchmark interest rate to 9.75 percent last month, bringing it below 10 percent for only the second time since the central bank began targeting inflation in 1999. While the pace of price increases has slowed since August, when the bank began cutting rates, inflation has stayed above the government’s 4.5 percent target since 2010 as near record-low unemployment and double-digit credit growth fuel demand.
Mexican central bankers said in the minutes of their March policy meeting that if inflation eases, they may cut borrowing costs after keeping rates unchanged for about three years.
While renewed instability in Europe could spur investors to withdraw capital from Latin America, that’s a less likely scenario than the one seen in 2010, when excessive global liquidity poured into the region, Eyzaguirre said. Such a prospect could put pressure on regional currencies already trading above historical averages and lead to overheating as demand in many countries remains robust.
“Compared to other regions in the world, downside risks in South America are probably more muted and the upside risks are more possible,” he said. “There are other parts of the world where there is a lot of idle capacity, so upside risks would be welcome. In the case of Latin America, they would not be.”
South American commodity exporters, including Chile and Peru, have a high growth potential this year while Mexico is on track to exceed output capacity by “a bit,” Eyzaguirre said.
The outcome of Mexico’s presidential election poses little risk as candidates seem to have formed consensus around the basic principles of economic policy, he said.
“Macroeconomic policy in Mexico has been extremely appropriate,” he said. “They are on a very balanced growth trajectory.”
Gross domestic product in Brazil and Mexico, Latin America’s two biggest economies, will expand 3 percent and 3.5 percent respectively, according to January estimates made by the Washington-based lender.
Eyzaguirre said that an IMF and World Bank mission will probably travel to Argentina before year’s end to conduct an assessment of the country’s financial stability as agreed to by all Group of 20 members. The mission, which must be agreed to by Argentina, will probably include some basic analysis of the country’s economy, he said.
Argentina hasn’t had a so-called Article IV review of its economy, as is required of all IMF members, since 2006.
To contact the reporter on this story: Randall Woods in Santiago at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trade, Energy and Drugs Are Topics for Obama at Summit of the Americas
JACKIE CALMES. New York Times. April 12, 2012
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday heads to Latin America for the third time for a summit meeting whose very location — Colombia — reflects the broader economic and security gains in the hemisphere.
Mr. Obama will spend the weekend in Colombia’s coastal city of Cartagena at the Summit of the Americas for discussions with other leaders on trade, energy and that constant, drug trafficking. In contrast with the previous gathering three years ago, when the global economic crisis forced the leaders to focus simply on weathering the downturn, the changed agenda and mood for this gathering is summed up by its name — “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.”
The president will be navigating several controversial areas. Some leaders want to legalize currently illicit drugs; the United States is routinely pressed to end its half-century-old embargo against Cuba; and American unions continue to criticize Colombia’s labor-rights record. But none of those issues is seen as likely to overshadow the meeting.
“The best of the summit, what it provides, is an opportunity for the heads of state from all the countries in the hemisphere, almost all of them, to come together and have a moment — a forced moment — to talk,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin American studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And on energy, commerce and infrastructure projects, she added, “You could see movement forward” that will not necessarily be reflected in the press releases.
For the most part, the tension over Cuba seems mostly to be behind Mr. Obama — a not insignificant consideration in a presidential election year in which Florida, the bastion of anti-Castro sentiment, could be a critical swing state. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, announced earlier this month that he would boycott the meeting in Colombia because Cuba, as usual, was not invited, but he failed to persuade other leftist leaders in the region to do the same. And Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as Cuba’s leader, said he did not want to attend anyway, sparing Mr. Obama the prospect of any photo opportunities with a Castro.
“We look forward to the day when a democratic Cuba rejoins the inter-American system,” said Dan Restrepo, the top White House adviser for Latin American policy. “Unfortunately,” he added, “Cuban authorities haven’t decided to go down that path. Instead you see, even with Pope Benedict in Cuba a couple weeks ago, the Cubans insisted publicly that theirs will remain a one-party state.”
Julia E. Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, all but dismissed the potential for spats over the United States’ policies. “It’s a perennial issue that any White House will continue to have to contend with” until Communist Cuba democratizes, she said.
Drugs may be more of a problem. Most leaders in the region believe the United States-led war on drugs has failed. It has neither controlled supply, by reducing the ranks of drug lords and smugglers, nor cut demand, by changing consumer habits at home.
Demand has also risen sharply in Brazil. The host of the summit meeting, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, has put on the table the general topic of an alternative policy.
The president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, has led the call for decriminalization of narcotics, a proposal that is certain to be discussed.
“U.S. policy on this is very clear,” Mr. Restrepo said. “The president doesn’t support decriminalization. He does think this is a legitimate debate and it’s a debate that we welcome having because it helps demystify this as an option.”
Mr. Obama will emphasize the financing increases that the administration has won for drug treatment and prevention in the United States, responding to the sense that the country needs to do more to curtail demand. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, at the White House on Monday for a meeting with Mr. Obama, said, “As I have consistently mentioned, I believe that when it comes to drug trafficking, we have to take a hard stance in fighting drug trafficking while addressing those that have fallen prey.”
The president’s focus will be on free trade throughout the Western Hemisphere, aides said, in keeping with his pledge to double American exports.
According to the administration, more than 40 percent of the nation’s exports are to the Americas, including Canada, and the traffic is growing faster than trade elsewhere.
Trade pacts with Colombia and Panama took effect late last year, but the Colombia agreement remains controversial with Mr. Obama’s union allies.
The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard L. Trumka, wrote to Mr. Obama last week warning him not to certify that Colombia has complied with a side agreement requiring that nation to do more to stop the decades-long killings of labor leaders there.
On his way to Colombia, Mr. Obama will stop in Tampa, Fla., whose port handles a significant amount of trade with southern neighbors.
He will then go to Cartagena for dinner with other leaders before two days of talks.
Colombia is an appropriate venue, administration officials said, given that it has overcome years of drug-related chaos and civil war to become what Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, called “a tremendous success story in the Americas.”
“The attention of the United States is often focused on trouble spots,” like Afghanistan, Mr. Rhodes said. But, he added, “There is a unique quality to the relationship with the Americas,” given that so many Americans trace their heritage there.
At Summit of Americas, Governments "Are Listening" to the People
Constanza Vieira. Inter-Press Service. April 13, 2012
CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, Colombia, Apr 13, 2012 (IPS) - In preparation for the Sixth Summit of the Americas, the gathering’s Social Forum has held 25 meetings since September, as well as dozens of online working sessions, with the participation of some 7,000 people.
The coordinator of the Social Forum, Colombian feminist and trade unionist Socorro Ramírez, said the governments of the continent "are listening."
The Social Forum, meeting from Monday Apr. 9 to Friday Apr. 13 in this city on Colombia's Caribbean coast, will end with a "political dialogue" to be attended by all of the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, with the exception of Cuba’s, and a closing address by host President Juan Manuel Santos and his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales.
This week, the 950 representatives of the forums and online working sessions put the final touches to their common proposals and formulas for implementing them.
Ramírez said the Social Forum of the Apr. 14-15 Sixth Summit of the Americas, which will also be held in this city, "was gradually built from the previous ‘counter-summits’ and summits."
What the people care about
Indigenous people: The biggest concern expressed this week at the Fourth Summit of Indigenous Leaders is physical integration through improved infrastructure. And they protested megaprojects that turn development into the "extermination" of the most vulnerable populations.
New technologies: Young people pointed out that the countries of Latin America continue to depend on the extraction of raw materials and do not put a priority on science and technology, or on improving the capacity for innovation. When natural resources run out, these countries will be worse off than ever.
Blacks: Organisations of black people have been, perhaps, the social sector that has participated with the greatest vigour in the forums. They noted that Afro-descendants continue to be overwhelmingly poor and are still excluded from improvements in living conditions in the region.
Natural disasters: The dangers of natural catastrophes are growing. Climate change has led to an increase in frequency and intensity of disasters, but the capacity of states and societies to deal with and prevent the risks has not improved. Government responses have been short-term, and risks must be addressed in an integral manner.
Security: The issue that drew the biggest crowds, and that was the focus of the largest number of forums. Each one tackled the question from a different angle.
Drugs: The forums concluded that anti-drug policies produce more negative than positive effects today, that the so-called triumphs are partial and short-lived, and that the triumph of one is the downfall of another.
On the horizon is the end to drug prohibition. But it is important not to get trapped in the prohibition-legalisation debate, and it is necessary to start to generate risk and damage reduction strategies at all levels of the problem, starting with production.
There was also an absolute consensus that small-scale producers – peasant farmers - who have no alternative livelihood must no longer be treated as criminals.
Cuba: If Latin America and the Caribbean already include Cuba in everything, why does the United States remain attached to a legacy of the Cold War, as President Barack Obama himself has stated? This was the main question raised.
Cuba is not participating in this weekend’s summit, on the argument that it does not form part of the Organisation of American States (OAS). But its inclusion "is an issue that has already been put irreversibly on the agenda," she told IPS.
The fifth People’s Summit – an example of the "counter-summits" to which Ramírez referred – is also being held in Cartagena, from Thursday Apr. 12 to Saturday Apr. 14, with Cuba’s participation.
"It’s being held by left-wing people, or people who also feel that things are not really that open," said Ramírez, a political scientist and historian with a postdoctoral degree, who taught at the public National University.
"But I do think the doors have been opened," she said. "We have organised 20 forums in Colombia and 60 more in other places. We have managed to take the issues of the summit and approach them from all possible angles, from all of the different social sectors.
"We have made this space a reality," she said. "It has been extraordinary, because we got the Colombian government to understand and accept that it was essential to create the best conditions for a space for dialogue with society.
"Friday (Apr. 13) will be the first time that a dialogue between the multiplicity of social actors and the governments will be achieved, in any international event," said Ramírez, who was a socialist presidential candidate in 1978.
In the schedule, the political dialogue was given two hours in the morning. Will the governments listen this time? "They are listening," she responded.
"This process, which we have called ‘the road to Cartagena’, has been an intense debate," she said. Its main proposals were gradually presented to the meetings held by the governments to negotiate the documents to be approved at the summit.
The preparatory meetings discussed the five key areas on the official summit agenda: integration through improved infrastructure, access to and use of new technologies, poverty and inequality, natural disasters, and security.
Ramírez hopes that by the end of the Social Forum, civil society will have managed to unify initiatives so that Friday’s dialogue "reflects plurality and is so compelling that it is able to get the governments to talk about the essential issues."
She said she was confident that it would not be "a monologue, but truly a pronouncement by the governments on the initiatives that have arisen here, at the Fourth Summit of Indigenous Leaders, and from the Afro-descendants, the women’s networks, and the Bolivian force that arrived in the early hours of the morning on Wednesday: miners, women, indigenous people, who have been in all of the forums."
The governments will thus see society’s "capacity to take the initiative, to engage in dialogue, to protest, and they will see that societies have a growing capacity to look at the bigger picture with respect to the issues of concern in the Americas," Ramírez said.
Although summits do not often bring about changes, she was optimistic, because in Cartagena "another Latin America and Caribbean" is being seen – a closer-knit region marked by differences but by an ability to come together as well.
It is this region "that is here deciding on the issues to be discussed," she said. "And it is up to the United States to say: ‘OK, we’ll talk about what all of you say you want to talk about."
"The perception that has been fairly widespread in the forums is that Cartagena has produced effects before the presidents have arrived, on two issues at least: Cuba and drugs," she said.
"These are no longer questions left to academics and former presidents; they are now being discussed by the presidents. And the United States had to say ‘OK’. I hope the result is an organised debate, especially with respect to alternatives," she said. (END)
Obama in Cartagena: No change, dwindling hope
Alex Main. April 12, 2012
Washington, DC - When President Obama arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14 to attend the Sixth Summit of the Americas, he may well feel a pang of nostalgia, as he recalls the heartwarming welcome he received three years ago at the Fifth Summit in Trinidad and Tobago.
On that happy occasion, which marked Obama's first encounter with most of the region's heads of state, he was greeted with smiles and warm handshakes at every turn. For the US media, the takeaway moment was a brief instant when Obama and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela exchanged pleasantries with broad grins.
For Latin America's leaders, the most memorable sight might have been that of Obama patiently sitting through the long speeches of other presidents, studiously taking notes with a look of intense concentration. In his own speech, Obama spoke of the need for "equal partnerships" and "a new chapter of engagement" with the countries of the region.
The words and style of the new president stood in stark contrast with the coarse, inflexible approach of former President George W Bush, who at the previous Americas Summit in Argentina had lectured his counterparts on the benefits of "free trade", while massive protests against his administration's policies raged outside.
With Obama now in the White House, expectations were high that a particularly unpleasant chapter of US foreign policy had finally come to a close.
But that was three years ago. Today, talk of "partnership", "equality" and "mutual respect" is bound to be greeted with skepticism by Latin America's leaders. The "new chapter" has turned out to be "business as usual" with Obama continuing to implement the Bush administration's agenda towards Latin America in various key policy areas.
Whether on Cuba policy, "free trade", the "war on drugs" or relations with left-wing governments in South America, the administration's current policies are nearly indistinguishable from those of Bush. As a result, Obama's reception in Cartagena is likely to be lukewarm at best; and the Summit of the Americas itself may well be seen as increasingly irrelevant by most of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Obama's promising overtures
In Trinidad, Obama's promising overtures and openness provided the Summit of the Americas with a much-needed shot in the arm. Well before 2009, the Summits had lost much of their lustre and sense of purpose.
First launched by Bill Clinton in 1994, the Summit of the Americas - bringing together the leaders of every government in the hemisphere except for Cuba - had been created to advance the US' regional "free trade" offensive. They had started out promisingly from the US government point of view with leaders at the First Summit in Miami agreeing in principle to the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
But, by the 2000s, the Summits began to drift perilously off course. In 2001, discussions at the Third Summit in Quebec were eclipsed by spectacular civil society protests and police repression. At the Fourth Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, the anti-FTAA rebellion spread to the Summit itself. Five countries firmly objected to the agreement terms set by the US, forcing Bush to concede defeat. In a nearby soccer stadium, Hugo Chávez joined thousands of Latin American protesters and correctly pronounced the FTAA "buried".
At the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, there were fewer protests, mainly because the FTAA was no longer on the agenda. Instead, with a strong contingent of the region's governments now solidly on the left, the big focus was on the US' refusal to allow Cuba to participate. The argument that Cuba first had to meet “democratic” benchmarks was received with incredulity given the US' cozy relationship with various dictatorships around the world. Many participants expressed their discontent, including President Lula of Brazil.
In response, the White House made Cuba policy a central part of its charm offensive in Trinidad. Though refusing to relent on Cuba's exclusion, Obama announced, only days before the Summit, the easing of restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban-Americans. In Trinidad, Obama declared his administration would promote a "new beginning" in its Cuba relations and seek high-level engagement with the Raúl Castro government. These gestures of good will, seen by many as a positive first toward correcting the US' absurd and unjust Cuba policy, undoubtedly helped placate the administration's strongest Latin American critics.
Three years have passed since the Trinidad Summit - more than enough time for Obama to implement significant reforms to US policy towards Latin America. But it's difficult to discern even any minor changes.
The limited easing of travel restrictions to Cuba wasn't followed by any meaningful reform. The current administration remains unwilling to ease the trade embargo against Cuba, let alone remove it altogether.
But it's not just on Cuba that President Obama's actions have been disappointing to Latin Americans. In several key policy areas, he has continued the path set by the Bush administration: an aggressive "free trade" agenda, which has taken on new forms since the FTAA's demise; militarisation as a response to the so-called "war on drugs", especially in Central America; and regional diplomacy rooted in an outdated Cold War paradigm that seeks to isolate and contain left governments.
'Free trade' by any means
When the FTAA foundered in 2005, the Bush administration began to focus on bilateral "free trade" agreements (FTAs) with individual Latin American governments more disposed to the US corporate trade agenda. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Peru was approved by the US Congress in December 2007.
Bush also signed FTAs with Colombia (2006) and Panama (2007), but was unable to get these through Congress before the end of his term. When Obama took office in 2009, he didn't shelve these agreements, even though this was what his labour allies and many Democrats demanded. Instead, Obama presented them for congressional approval, together with the US-Korea FTA, in late 2011. Though most Democrats in the House opposed the FTAs, the trade deals were approved, thanks to the backing of a majority of Republicans.
Especially troubling was Obama's enthusiastic support for the Colombia FTA. During the presidential campaign, Obama said he opposed a FTA with Colombia and, in his last televised debate against John McCain, proclaimed: "We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organise for their rights".
But in April 2011, Obama received Colombian President Santos at the White House and announced he would present the US-Colombia FTA to Congress. In order to garner the support of progressive congressional Democrats, Obama submitted a "Labour Action Plan" that Colombia agreed to implement as a pre-condition.
But, as human rights defenders pointed out, the Action Plan had no teeth; it required Colombia to create institutions and programmes nominally dedicated to protecting union activists, but established no benchmarks for reducing the killings.
Obama is now expected to announce Colombia's compliance with the Labour Action Plan - possibly during the Cartagena Summit itself - despite the fact that killings of trade unionists continue (at least 30 in 2011 and four so far this year) and over the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, the US' largest trade union federation.
Although Obama remains dedicated to keeping the "free trade" agenda sputtering along, interest in US-backed trade agreements has waned in Latin America. These agreements, designed in concert with major US corporations, prioritise corporate "rights" above public services and labour and environmental concerns. FTAs require reducing or eliminating protections for various developing countrys' manufacturing and agricultural industries - giving larger multinational companies a clear advantage - while invariably enacting costly protections for intellectual property and highly-paid professionals (again, the US - and multinational businesses disproportionately benefit).
Latin American countries with FTAs have seen little benefit from them; few have experienced strong economic growth or experienced marked social progress. In fact, many of these countries are faring worse than their neighbours.
Meanwhile, the South American trade bloc Mercosur (Common market of the South) is gaining popularity. It includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela as full members (with Venezuela's entry awaiting the Paraguayan legislature's approval) and Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as "associate members", exploring the possibility of full membership.
With an end goal of creating a common market among member countries, Mercosur takes into account asymmetries within the group and allows members to pursue trade integration at varying paces. Though there are significant economic disparities within Mercosur, they are much less stark than between Mercosur countries and the US, and provide burgeoning South American industries a more level playing field upon which to compete. These factors make it a more enticing option for many countries than rigid FTAs with the economic giant in the North.
Regional security agenda
As anyone who reads the news is aware, Central America and Mexico are not only suffering economically, but are also reeling from the devastating impact of surging levels of organised crime and gang violence resulting primarily from the trafficking of drugs to the US.
In his 2009 Trinidad speech, Obama recognised that as the world's biggest consumer of drugs, the US had greatly contributed to record levels of violence south of the border, and promised the US would "take aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs, and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash across our borders".
Three years later, it's clear that the demand-side approach to drug trafficking has been relegated to the back burner, while the long-standing militarised approach has been ramped up.
The Obama administration has aggressively touted Mexico's Plan Mérida and Plan Colombia as "models" for Central America. Both of these plans involve heavy deployment of local military forces to address crime, with the US providing training, equipment and direct funding.
In Mexico, violent crime has intensified since the launch of Plan Mérida, with over 12,000 homicides within just first nine months of 2011. This hasn't prevented the Obama administration from continuing to support Plan Mérida and extending it to Mexico's southern neighbours as the Central America Regional Initiative (CARSI). Since CARSI's initiation in 2008, violent crime has increased steadily throughout most of Central America.
The main "success" model for these initiatives is Plan Colombia, into which the US has poured more than $8bn over 13 years. Initially designed to target drug-trafficking, Plan Colombia's mission soon involved supporting the Colombian military's counter-insurgency campaigns against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups.
Plan Colombia may have successfully eliminated some illicit coca cultivations and contributed to a fall in violent crime in some areas, but it has been accompanied by massive human rights abuses carried out by Colombia's armed forces and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Afro-Colombians caught in the middle of the conflict.
Nevertheless, William Brownfield, Obama's Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, recently told a Congressional Committee that Colombia should be viewed as "an exporter of regional security". He went on to explain that "Colombia's participation in improving security and reducing instability throughout the hemisphere by providing needed training is an enormous return on our investment in that country, and is precisely the type of regional approach to security promoted by Secretary Clinton".
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