Latin America News Round-up
April 16, 2012
Americas Meeting Ends With Discord Over Cuba
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Brazil and Southern Cone
Americas Meeting Ends With Discord Over Cuba
Brazil's Criticism Of Weak Dollar Garners Support At Summit. Dow Jones
Treat Latin America as an equal: Brazil tells US. AFP
Rights group: One gay Brazilian murdered per day. GlobalPost
Argentina storms out of Americas summit. Al Jazeera
Obama and CFK leave trade issues aside and want to continue as ‘friends and partners’. Mercopress
Spain's Repsol urges talks in Argentina YPF oil tension. BBC
U.S. warns Argentina on intervening in YPF. MarketWatch
Northern Andean Region
Hugo Chavez skips summit, citing doctors' orders. AP
Obama clears way for Colombia free trade pact. Los Angeles Times
US, Colombia announce regional security plan. AFP
Obama to witness land title handover to black Colombians. AFP
Western Andean Region
New Twist for TIPNIS Road: Bolivia Cancels Highway Contract. NACLA
Peru backs the US in the war on drugs. GlobalPost
Peru Expected To Release Conga Mine Water Use Report Monday. Dow Jones
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Mexico's Pena Nieto extends lead over main rival. Reuters
Five Killed in Honduras Land Dispute. EFE
El Salvador heralds 1st murder-free day in nearly 3 years. Reuters
Guatemalan president says drug war has failed. Al Jazeera
First Cuba offshore well going slowly, mid-May finish seen. Reuters
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
Americas Meeting Ends With Discord Over Cuba. New York Times
Obama concludes Summit of the Americas on the defensive about inviting Cuba. Washington Post
US secret service scandal overshadows Obama trip. The Guardian
Obama pledges to tackle immigration reform early in 2nd term if reelected. AP
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Brazil's Criticism Of Weak Dollar Garners Support At Summit
Luciana Magalhaes. Dow Jones. April 16, 2012
CARTAGENA, Colombia (Dow Jones)--A top official from Brazil said Sunday the country's criticism of the weak U.S. dollar's ill effects on Latin America was well-received by other nations in the region during a weekend summit of western-hemisphere leaders.
The 33-nation Summit of the Americas in the seaside city of Cartagena included U.S. President Barack Obama, who listened Saturday as Brazil President Dilma Rousseff--sharing a stage with him--criticized the U.S. and other developed nations for what she called lax monetary policies. She said the U.S. prints money in excess to make up for its overspending habits, which then weakens the dollar against Brazil's real and other currencies in the region.
Aloizio Mercadante, Brazil's minister of science, technology and innovation, said Rousseff's tough talk went over well.
"Her alert [about the harm caused by the weak dollar] received support from many other countries," Mercadente told reporters in Cartagena prior to his return to Brazil.
The currencies of Brazil, Colombia and several other countries in the region have appreciated dramatically against the dollar in recent years. This has brought benefits, such as making imported television sets and automobiles much more affordable. But it's also made it very difficult for Latin America's manufacturing and export sector to succeed in global markets, as their products become too expensive to compete.
During the summit, Brazil's Rousseff also spoke out on other issues that were at odds with the U.S. government's position. She said, for example, Cuba needs to be fully supported as it transitions away from hardline Communism and begins to create somewhat-more liberalized markets.
Cuba wasn't invited to the summit at the insistence of the U.S. government, which said only democratic nations with free elections can attend such conferences.
The summit ended without a joint declaration by the 33 nations, as consensus couldn't be reached on key issues, including Communist Cuba's possible participation in future summits, and how to best combat drug trafficking and its related violence.
"There were difficulties in coming to a consensus," said Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, who was also in Cartagena. "This reflects the current times, in which relationships among member nations in the region are evolving and maturing."
-By Luciana Magalhaes, Dow Jones Newswires; +5511 3544-7072; email@example.com
Treat Latin America as an equal: Brazil tells US
AFP. April 16, 2012
CARTAGENA: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, speaking on the sidelines of a weekend summit of Western hemisphere leaders here Saturday, urged her US counterpart Barack Obama to treat Latin America as an equal.
"In Latin America, we have a huge space to make our relationship one of partnership but partnership between equals," said Rousseff, whose country has gained mounting international clout as the world's sixth largest economy and Latin America's dominant power.
"This is a very relevant factor between the most developed country of the region and Latin American countries," she added, in veiled criticism of Washington's past dealings with an area it used to view as its own back yard.
She spoke at a business forum shortly before most democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere launched two days of talks on expanding regional trade amid division on controversial issues such as alternatives to the failing war on drug trafficking, and relations with Cuba.
"It is remarkable to see the changes that have been taking place in a relatively short period of time in Latin, Central America and in the Caribbean," Obama told the same forum.
"We've seen enormous progress. Trade between the United States and Latin, Central America and the Caribbean has expanded 46 percent since I came to office."
And acknowledging the region's growing assertiveness and independence, he said in response to Rousseff's remarks: "I think often times in the press the focus is on controversies. Sometime those controversies date back to before I was born ... to the 1950's ... Yankees, and the Cold War, and this and that.
"That is not not the world in which we are living today, the US leader said. "My hope is that we all recognize this enormous opportunity that we have."
While the world has changed swiftly, the United States in the post-Cold War era has not kept or rebuilt what for centuries was its role: active pan-American regional leader.
The United States has seen its influence across the Americas eroded as China's importance as a trade and economic partner has surged.
Meanwhile US credibility as a defender of democratic values in a region that has had more than its share of military and authoritarian rule, was seriously hurt by US handling of the 2009 coup in Honduras. Washington was achingly slow to react, and widely seen as not actively defending democratic rule when the person ousted (elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya) was not a US ally.
And after 50 years of US diplomatic confrontation with Communist Cuba that has not ended the regime in Havana, many Latin leaders are baffled by continued US refusal to change failed policy toward Cuba, the United States' next door neighbor.
Rousseff also defended her government's measures to protect the Brazilian industry in the face of what she calls a "monetary tsunami" waged by rich countries.
Brazil has been reeling from the appreciation of its currency, the real, against the dollar, resulting from the influx of cheap dollars generated by easy credit which hurt the competitiveness of Brazilian goods.
Rousseff raised the issue during her visit to the United States early this week.
The huge monetary supply flooding Latin American countries in search of stable markets is also fueling the appreciation of other currencies such as the Colombian peso.
"This amounts to exporting your crisis to us," summit host and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said. He called on countries of the hemisphere to adopt a common stance on the issue at the G20 summit of developed and emerging nations in Mexico in June.
Rights group: One gay Brazilian murdered per day
Alex Pearlman. GlobalPost. April 13, 2012
Despite its reputation as one of the greatest party countries on the planet and home of the world's largest gay pride parade, Brazil has a startling violent streak directed at the LGBT community. Hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are incredibly common and despite calls from rights groups, the violence hasn't abated.
Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), the country's oldest and largest gay rights advocacy group, reports there was a gay hate crime every 36 hours in 2011, and the numbers are only growing. In the first weeks of 2012, 75 people have already been murdered — just for being gay.
Brazil allows same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and even includes gender reassignment surgery in state-sponsored medical procedures. But GGB's report suggests the truth is different than what meets the eye, in that many Brazilians are stridently homophobic.
The murder of Edson Neris de Silva by 18 skinheads in a public square in 2000 caught the country's attention and brought the issue of gay hate crimes into the open. De Silva's death sparked a call for anti-hate crime legislation.
Ten years later in 2010, a 14-year-old was strangled and beaten to death by skinheads in Sao Paulo. His mother said to the BBC, "Brazil is a very hypocritical society, it pretends to be tolerant but it isn't. We have the best Carnival in the world and it appears that everyone lives together harmoniously, yet gay couples still can't kiss in public." She added, "Every time we have a march to promote tolerance, the Church groups organize an even bigger one in the name of the family."
Luiz Mott is the founder and head of GGB, and a long-time gay rights activist. In two 2009 and 2010 interviews with Terra Magazine, Mott blamed evangelical religious groups for country's lingering culture of hate.
There is “a whole cultural and institutional homophobia that still exists and has, in evangelical churches and Catholic churches, the great manufacturing centers for such ideological weapons,” he said. "Christian churches in general have their hands stained with blood, the intolerance that spread in pulpits and on television. They provide ideological ammunition to those who have hatred for homosexuals, so that this hatred will increase."
Mott also attacked former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for not doing enough to combat the homophobia coming from the other side of the aisle for fear of alienating the churches.
“Lula had a lack of political will to pass nearly a dozen laws in Congress aimed at full homosexual citizenship,” said Mott. “To enact such laws, political will and pressure by the executive on the legislature were necessary. Lula, unfortunately, lacked the courage and boldness to press his power base.”
Much of the violence seems to originate away from the Church, however. Many of the murders and attacks on gay men, women, and transgendered people have been perpetrated by skinheads and neo-Nazis as retaliation for passage of pro-gay legislation such as a gay marriage law, and recently in retaliation for controversial "gay kits," which were to be used in schools to teach children about homosexuality. (The kit was lauded by gay rights advocates and later vetoed by President Dilma Rousseff.)
There is presently no hate crime law in Brazil that addresses homophobia, although there is one that criminalizes prejudice on on the "grounds of race, colour, religion, or national origin," according to the BBC, and President Rousseff faces trouble from her party for not doing enough to combat this violent homophobia.
"Brazil is at a pivotal moment in its history," said Amnesty International's US blog. "The new administration can choose between allowing hate crimes to continue festering the nation’s stance towards human rights, or promote respect and equality for all."
Argentina storms out of Americas summit
Al Jazeera. April 15, 2012
Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner has stormed out of the Summit of the Americas in protest against a perceived lack of regional support for her country's claims in the dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands.
The summit in Colombia had already been marred by a lack of consensus among attendees, with Latin America countries opposing the decades-old US isolation of communist Cuba.
Several countries put pressure on Barack Obama to end the ban, as the US president continued to be plagued by a US secret service scandal involving prostitutes.
Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman, reporting from Cartagena, said the summit was at risk of "falling apart" after Kirchner's exit.
"I suppose the collapse shouldn't be too surprising. There was complete disagreement about signing a final statement but the nail in the coffin came when Cristina Kirchner stormed out of the summit followed by Bolivia's Evo Morales.
"[Kirchner] was furious, we are told, because of the lack of full, complete support for Argentina's claim of control of the Falkand Islands," Newman said.
"We understand she was very, very angry that [leaders] didn't even mention the dispute over the islands with the UK."
"She was overheard saying, 'This is pointless. Why did I even come here?'"
Seeking to woo a region whose trade could help create US jobs, Obama has instead had a bruising time at the two-day hemispheric gathering attended by more than 30 heads of state in historic Cartagena.
Brazil and others bashed Obama over monetary expansionism and he has been on the defensive over calls to legalize drugs.
The disagreements came as 16 US security personnel were caught in an embarrassing prostitution scandal at the summit.
Eleven agents from the Secret Service were sent home, and five military servicemen grounded, after trying to take at least one prostitute back to their hotel the day before Obama arrived.
The incident is a major blow to the prestige of the service and turned into an unexpected talking point at the meeting.
For the first time, conservative US-allied nations like Colombia are throwing their weight behind the traditional demand of leftist governments that Cuba be in the next meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Diplomats said the dispute could block the final declaration planned for Sunday at the closing of the meeting, and originally intended as a hemispheric show of unity.
"The isolation, the embargo, the indifference, looking the other way, have been ineffective," Juan Manuel Santos, the summit host and Colombian president, said of the Cuba issue.
A major US ally in the region who has relied on Washington for financial and military help to fight guerrillas and drug traffickers, Santos has become vocal over Cuba despite his strong ideological differences with Havana.
Al Jazeera's Newman said: "There will not be a final statement, at least one signed by all the nations.
"All the nations, except the US, have insisted there will not be another summit if Cuba is not included.
"This was not the harmonious meeting many had hoped for. There will be no final declaration at the end."
Cuba was kicked out of the OAS a few years after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, and has been excluded from its summits due to opposition from the US and Canada.
"All the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean support Cuba and Argentina, yet two countries refuse to discuss it," Eva Morales, Bolivia's president said, referring to widespread support for Argentina's claims to sovereignty over the British-ruled Falkland Islands.
Morales said: "How is it possible that Cuba is not present in the Summit of the Americas? What sort of integration are we talking about if we are excluding Cuba?"
Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, boycotted the meeting over Cuba, and fellow-leftist Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also stayed at home.
The leftist ALBA bloc of nations, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and some Caribbean nations, said they will not attend future summits without Cuba's presence.
"It's not a favor anyone would be doing to Cuba. It's a right they've had taken away from them," Ortega said from Managua.
"At this meeting in Cartagena, I think it's time for the US government, all President Obama's advisers, to listen to all the Latin American nations."
Although there were widespread hopes for a rapprochement with Cuba under Obama when he took office, Washington has done little beyond ease some travel restrictions, saying democratic changes must come on the island before any further steps can be taken.
Obama has not spoken of Cuba in Colombia, though he did complain that Cold War-era issues, some dating from before his birth, were hindering perspectives on regional integration.
"Sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions, or at least the press reports, we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War,and this and that and the other," the 50-year-old Obama said. "That's not the world we live in today."
Obama and CFK leave trade issues aside and want to continue as ‘friends and partners’
Mercopress. April 15, 2012
President Cristina Fernández and US President Barack Obama agreed to work upon trade differences “which in no way conform the central aspects of the bilateral relationship” during their Saturday afternoon half hour meeting with an “open agenda” at the 6th Summit of the Americas hosted by Colombia.
After the bilateral meeting on the sides of the summit, Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and presidential spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro said that both Heads of State agreed on the fact that the trade relation must be handled by experts and that any existing differences will be worked upon.
“Even if differences may exist, they in no way will be the centre of the bilateral relationship. Other matters, including international terrorism, scientific endeavours and the environment are more important,” the government officials assured.
The meeting which was requested last Thursday by US officials was attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Restrepo.
“We want to continue being good partners and friends” was the message from President Obama said Timerman who did not reveal if the Falklands/Malvinas and Cuba issues were addressed. However “President Cristina did refer to the Cuban situation during the presidential plenary, since Argentina considers necessary the presence of Havana in the summit”, added Timerman.
The meeting takes place three weeks after the Obama administration decided to suspend Argentina from the preferential tariffs system in reprisal for the lack of “good faith” regarding the abidance of arbitration rulings which favour US corporations with over 300 million dollars in compensations and remain pending.
“All we’ve talked here is on the record and please tell the media there was no demand on the trade issue”, said Obama according to Timerman. The US president insisted that both sides must continue “to work together and maintaining a direct dialogue, and if there are small trade differences between us, in no way will they be the centre of the relation”.
Earlier in the day the Argentine president shared the lunch table with her peers from Colombia Juan Manuel Santos; Bolivia’s Evo Morales; Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff; Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Argentine delegation to the summit has convened 30 leaders of the 34 countries (Cuba and Ecuador were absent and Venezuela and Nicaragua were represented by their Foreign ministers).
The Argentina delegation to the summit includes Industry minister Debora Giorgi; the legal and technical secretary of the Presidency Carlos Zaninni; Secretary General of the Executive Carlos Parrilli and Timerman and Scoccimarro. There are also four members of Congress, two from the Lower House and two Senators.
Spain's Repsol urges talks in Argentina YPF oil tension
BBC. April 16, 2012
The head of Spanish oil giant, Repsol, has urged the Argentine government to enter a dialogue amid reports that its YPF subsidiary could be nationalised.
"The only way is to talk and talk," said Antonio Brufau, who has been in Argentina since last week.
YPF has come under sustained criticism from the Argentine government, which accuses it of failing to invest enough in local oil fields.
Spain and the EU have voiced concern at reports of a possible state takeover.
Repsol currently owns a majority 57.43% stake in YPF.
"You've got to talk... not impose," Mr Brufau told Radio Mitre.
"Things should be taken care of in the office and by talking".
The Argentina authorities have accused YPF of not investing enough to increase its output and so lessen the need for imports, an accusation it rejects.
The company has been stripped of a number of leases, including in some of the biggest oil fields in the country.
In recent weeks, speculation has grown that the Argentine government is planning to force through a bigger state role in the firm.
However, there has so far been no clear idea of how the government would achieve this.
The uncertainty grew after an expected announcement by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on YPF's future last week did not materialise.
Spain has warned Buenos Aires that a takeover of YPF could have consequences for Argentina's international image.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has made it clear it backs Spain's position.
"We hope Argentina respects its international commitments on the protection of foreign investments on its soil," commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters.
In November last year, YPF, which was privatised in 1993, announced a major find of 1bn barrels of shale oil.
Argentina has some of the world's largest reserves of shale oil and gas, hydrocarbons trapped deep underground.
It is ranked number three in the world in terms of recoverable resources, behind China and the
US, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
U.S. warns Argentina on intervening in YPF
MarketWatch. April 15, 2012
MADRID -(MarketWatch)- The U.S. would complain to the World Trade Organization were the government of Argentina to nationalize the country's former state oil company and now a unit of Spain's Repsol YPF SA , a spokesman for the White House told the Argentine newspaper Clarin this weekend, the newspaper said.
Speculation in recent weeks has suggested that Argentina's government is considering some kind of state intervention in YPF SA YPF +2.51% , Argentina's leading oil and gas company and 57% owned by Repsol.
The newspaper said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting at the White House, indicated in a briefing at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia that the U.S. would complain to the WTO if Argentina violates international rules, just as the U.S. has about import limits Argentina has imposed.
Newspaper website: www.clarin.es
Madrid Bureau, Dow Jones Newswires; 34 91 395 8120.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Hugo Chavez skips summit, citing doctors' orders
JORGE RUEDA. AP. April 15, 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez skipped the Summit of the Americas for medical reasons Saturday and headed to Cuba to continue with cancer treatment that is increasingly forcing him out of the international spotlight.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced the decision from Colombia, where he was attending the summit in Chavez's place. He told state television that Chavez decided not to attend on the advice of his doctors.
The decision headed off a potential face-to-face confrontation with President Barack Obama, and also raised questions anew about the effects that Chavez's cancer could have on his political future and his international ambitions.
Chavez has often used such regional summits as a platform to amplify his criticisms of U.S. influence and press for his vision of Latin American integration. At the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Chavez took center stage when he shook Obama's hand and gave him a book that he encouraged him to read: "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.
"Chavez's decision not to attend the Cartagena summit will only fuel speculation that he is seriously ill. It would have suited him politically to attend. The Colombians wanted him to be there, as did others," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "For more than a dozen years he has been at the center of attention at these hemispheric gatherings. His cancer, coupled with political problems at home, constrains his regional and global role."
Maduro said the president is in the midst of a "careful, disciplined treatment."
Chavez appeared briefly on television Saturday night as he waved goodbye to aides at Caracas' international airport and climbed the stairs of the presidential jet, heading to Havana for another round of radiation treatment. He didn't make any comments, but a message on his Twitter account said: "Here we go, to continue doing battle! And to continue overcoming! ... We will live and we will win!"
Chavez, who is running for re-election in October, told a crowd of supporters on Friday that the radiation therapy has affected his strength but said, "I'm doing well."
Chavez began radiation treatment in Cuba in late March after undergoing an operation in February that removed a second tumor from his pelvic region. The first was taken out last June. He has kept secret some details of his illness, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors.
Chavez said on Friday that his stay in Cuba will be longer this time.
"Since we're going to enter the second and last phase of treatment, and that treatment is rough ... I'm thinking of asking for permission not to return in the middle of the week next week, but rather stay in Cuba all of this next week to receive the complete treatment and not have to be going and coming," he said.
The National Assembly held a session Saturday to grant approval for the trip. Venezuela's constitution requires the president to obtain approval from lawmakers when leaving the country for more than five days.
Doctors say common side effects of radiation therapy include fatigue and damage to areas exposed to the radiation beams, as well as nausea and diarrhea in cases such as Chavez's in which the pelvic area is treated.
"His physical condition isn't allowing him to do the things he used to do," said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Venezuela's Simon Bolivar University.
He said the illness is clearly limiting Chavez's international role because in the past, "if there's something the president has tried to do, it's projecting his international image."
Since having a baseball-size tumor removed in the initial June surgery in Cuba, Chavez has usually sought to appear active and in charge even while coping with his treatment. In December, when his head was still shaved to a fine stubble after chemotherapy, Chavez hosted a summit in Caracas where Latin American and Caribbean leaders formed a new bloc including every nation in the Western Hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada.
Carrasquero said Chavez's absence from this weekend's summit raises questions about whether he'll be able to make it through the presidential campaign.
"What we're watching for is when Chavez is going to announce that he's not going to run," Carrasquero said.
Chavez's political allies, however, insist that Chavez remains their candidate and that there is no backup plan for the Oct. 7 election, when the president is seeking another six-year term.
Opposition lawmaker Edgar Zambrano said Chavez's decision to return to Cuba is a "humanitarian issue," and the president's opponents joined pro-Chavez lawmakers in granting permission for the trip.
Zambrano also said, however, that even after months of cancer treatment, knowing "the magnitude of the president's illness still hasn't been possible for anyone."
"What would be logical is for the state of health of the president to be widely known. That's what happens with any president or head of state in other countries," Zambrano said.
Some Venezuelans in both political camps said the announcement that Chavez wouldn't attend the summit raised new doubts about his health.
"I want to believe him, but the president has already said he's well, and later that he isn't," said Ricardo Pena, a Chavez supporter who was selling vegetables from a truck on the street. "I hope he returns safe and sound. We need him."
Cristina Flores, a clothing store owner who opposes Chavez, said she doesn't believe what he says publicly about his illness.
"He shouts as always, but always from far away on television. I think Chavez didn't want them to see him weak, sick from close up," she said.
Obama clears way for Colombia free trade pact
Christi Parsons and Matea Gold. Los Angeles Times. April 16, 2012
CARTAGENA, Colombia — Despite strong opposition from his allies in the U.S. labor movement, President Obama said Sunday that he trusted Colombian authorities to improve protections for workers and union leaders as he cleared the final obstacle for implementation of a free trade agreement next month.
The decision marks a victory for the U.S. business community, which has pushed the White House to increase commercial opportunities in Colombia's growing economy. The pact eliminates duties on most exports, eases travel restrictions and strengthens intellectual property rights.
"We all know more work needs to be done, but we've made significant progress," Obama said at a news conference. "It's a win for our workers and the environment because of the protections it has for both — commitments we are going to fulfill."
The announcement came as the weekend Summit of the Americas ended in some disarray. Talks among the leaders were upstaged by the unfolding scandal of 11 Secret Service agents who were ordered home for misconduct, including allegedly bringing prostitutes to their rooms.
The summit also concluded without the customary joint declaration because of deep divisions over communist-ruled Cuba, and Argentina's claims to the British-held Falkland Islands. The U.S. and Canada refused to adopt a final statement specifying that Cuba be invited to future hemispheric summits.
"There is no declaration because there is no consensus," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told reporters. The next summit is scheduled to be held in Panama in 2015.
Obama's decision to go ahead with the free trade deal led to applause from U.S. business leaders, some of whom accompanied the president to Colombia, and sharp criticism from labor leaders who normally support the administration.
Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the deal would open the way to job creation, welcome words for a president battling high unemployment in an election year.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk called the deal "a significant milestone" that advances U.S. economic and strategic interests.
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said she met with Colombian labor leaders to address their concerns. She said efforts to protect workers' rights are "a work in progress," adding, "I remain confident."
Labor leaders sounded far less buoyant. The AFL-CIO has endorsed Obama's reelection, but his support for the Colombian deal could damp enthusiasm by union members to get out the vote on his behalf.
U.S. labor leaders oppose the deal because of widespread harassment and violence in Colombia as trade unions have tried to organize workers. Dozens of union organizers and activists have been killed in the last three years.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the announcement "deeply disappointing and troubling."
"We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions," he said in a statement.
The AFL-CIO joined Colombian labor organizations CUT and CTC in condemning the deal, saying the government had not done enough to stop violence against workers groups. "We fear that prematurely declaring the plan a success will not only halt progress, but lead to backtracking," the unions said in a joint statement.
When the pact takes effect May 15, most industrial and manufactured products exported from the U.S. and Colombia will immediately become duty free, making it cheaper for American businesses to sell their goods in Colombia. More than half of U.S. agricultural exports to Colombia will also become duty free.
US, Colombia announce regional security plan
AFP. April 15, 2012
US President Barack Obama and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos agreed Sunday to deepen their security cooperation in the Western Hemisphere and West Africa.
The efforts, formalized under a US-Colombia Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation, are a response to "increasing insecurity generated by transnational organized crime," the US State Department said in a statement.
It said the plan draws on "Colombia's established and expanding expertise and capacity for countering this threat and shared US responsibility to address the demand for illicit narcotics."
Through increased cooperation, "coordinated Colombian and US law enforcement and defense support can more effectively counter the threats of transnational organized crime and strengthen partner institutions," the statement added.
Colombia and the United States will conduct a series of "frequent" meetings to coordinate their security operations under the plan, with a focus on drug trafficking, combating crime, strengthening institutions and fostering "resilient" communities.
The expanded coordination, which involves bolstering civilian law enforcement capacity and capabilities, "will support whole-of-government strategies and produce a greater effect throughout the hemisphere and West Africa," the State Department said.
"Both countries are working to identify new areas for collaboration and committed to coordinate more closely with partner nations throughout the hemisphere."
The United States and Colombia already operate jointly to help build capacities in the Americas and West Africa.
Under Operation Martillo, a US task force coordinates air and maritime operations with the Colombian Navy and Air Force to detect and disrupt transnational organized crime cells in Central America.
The Colombian National Police also provides training and assistance in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, while the United States trains prosecutors in those countries.
On Friday Santos signed a law approving a free-trade agreement with the United States that brought to fruition a 20-year effort to boost bilateral ties, after Obama signed off on the pact in October following a long-running debate on reforms, labor rights and security in the South American country.
Obama to witness land title handover to black Colombians
AFP. April 15, 2012
CARTAGENA - Visiting U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday was to join his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos at a ceremony here to hand over land titles to descendants of the country's runaway African slaves.
The ceremony in Cartagena's old colonial district, was to take place on the sidelines of the Summit of Americas which both Obama and Santos are attending along with 29 other democratically elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere.
The attendance of the first black American president at the event was seen by White House officials as having high symbolic value, given the large Afro-Colombian population in the Cartagena region.
Representatives of some 1,000 Afro-Colombian families descended from runaway slaves were to receive ownership titles to more than 3,350 hectares (8,200 acres) of ancestral land they occupy.
The families hail from the nearby towns of San Basilio de Palenque and La Boquilla.
San Basilio de Palenque, located in a jungle area near Cartagena, was founded centuries ago by runaway slaves. Its residents speak a unique local language, called Palenquero derived from African languages. Cartagena was one main ports for the slave trade during Spanish colonial rule.
Colombia has South America's second largest black population after Brazil, and the largest in the Spanish-speaking Americas, but the black community here is much less well known than the one its Portuguese-speaking neighbor.
Experts estimate that Colombians with African ancestry, including those mixed with white or native American heritage, comprise about 20 percent of the country's population of 45 million people.
In addition to the Afro-Colombians who inhabit the Atlantic coast in places like Cartagena, blacks predominate in the Pacific region called El Choco, an area largely populated by descendants of enslaved blacks set free after Colombia abolished slavery in 1851.
The land restitution program in the spotlight on Sunday is one of the major challenges facing the Santos government which in 2010 passed a law aiming at returning nearly two million hectares to peasants, who had been expelled by right-wing paramilitary militias battling communist guerillas.
Over the past 15 years, between 1.2 and 5.5 million hectares of land are believed to have been seized by paramilitary militias, guerrillas and drug traffickers.
Some 4.2 million people have been displaced due to the internal conflict, making Colombia one of the countries with the largest displaced population behind Sudan and equal with Iraq.
Obama was to fly home late Sunday after the close of the two-day summit.
Western Andean Region [contents]
New Twist for TIPNIS Road: Bolivia Cancels Highway Contract
Emily Achtenberg. NACLA. April 16, 2012
President Evo Morales announced last week that Bolivia will revoke its contract with Brazilian company OAS to build the controversial highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), due to construction delays and other irregularities. A $332 million loan committed by Brazil’s national bank to finance 80% of the $415 million project is also in jeopardy.
The cancellation applies to all three segments of the Beni-Cochabamba road, which are covered by a single contract. According to Morales, only 5% of the work on the two sections leading to and from the TIPNIS park has been completed over the past 10 months, while the contract calls for 20% completion. Work on the TIPNIS section has been paralyzed, due to the law passed last October at the behest of anti-highway protesters that declared the reserve “untouchable.” Two other OAS roads under construction in Bolivia, Morales noted, have not been delivered on schedule.
The announcement comes just two weeks ahead of the national march in defense of the TIPNIS, scheduled for April 25,911 Morales announces contract cancellation. Credit: La Razón. and just a month before the government-sponsored “consulta previa” (prior consultation) on the road, which many TIPNIS communities (who regard it as “ex-post facto”) have pledged to resist. But thus far, the surprising new development has done little to defuse tensions.
For one thing, the government has assured that while it is revoking the contract, it is not cancelling the Beni-Cochabamba highway project, which remains a “strategic necessity.” Once consent of the affected communities is obtained through the consulta, which the government insists must go forward, alternative construction and financing options will be pursued—though significant delays are anticipated.
For their part, leaders of the TIPNIS and the lowland indigenous federation CIDOB have vowed to continue the march unless the consulta is cancelled, truly returning the road project to “ground zero.”
“Our problem is not with OAS or with any other contractor, but with the road itself, which must not pass through the TIPNIS,” says Fernando Vargas, president of the TIPNIS Subcentral.
“We respect their right to march, but it’s no longer about the highway,” says Vice-President Alvaro García Linera. “Now they are marching against the consulta, for political ends. It will be the first march against democracy in Bolivian history.”
With respect to the OAS contract, the government insists that Bolivia will benefit economically from the rescission. The $20 million performance bond that Bolivia will claim will more than cover the $16.6 million that the government says it has paid OAS to date from Bolivian funds. (For unexplained reasons, it appears that none of Brazil’s $332 million loan has yet been disbursed.) And according to Minister of Economy and Finance Luis Arce, in today’s market, alternative financing may be obtainable on terms even better than those committed by Brazil (3.87% interest for 15 years).
Critics claim that Bolivia has actually disbursed as much as $83 million to OAS, and that the outcome of any litigation or international arbitration of the case is far from predictable. Historically, according to former road agency head José Maria Bakovic, foreign construction companies in Bolivia—especially Brazilian ones—have profited more by abandoning roads than by completing them, by negotiating hefty indemnities.
Many believe there are larger political factors behind the decision to revoke the contract. TIPNIS protestors accuse the government of seeking to undermine the march by “legitimizing” the consulta as newly “previa,” while continuing to manipulate the process in order to obtain indigenous community support for the road.
Other sources indicate that the cancellation was actually initiated by Brazil. While Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has formally protested the decision as “not constructive,” Brazilian news reports suggest that Brazil demanded a new contract soon after the TIPNIS was designated “untouchable” under Bolivian law. But the parties could not agree on the value of the contract reduction to reflect the excised TIPNIS portion of the route. Concerned with its own potential exposure, the Bolivian government may have decided to take the high ground by asserting its own claims against OAS.
Still another theory is that the contract was cancelled by mutual agreement between Brazil and Bolivia in anticipation of the violent confrontations that are likely to result if the TIPNIS road is built, which a foreign construction company’s presence would only exacerbate. Under the circumstances, Bolivia might prefer to have the road built by its own state construction company operating under the aegis of the Armed Forces, created last March with financing from China.
Meanwhile, ahead of the march and the consulta, the pattern of shifting alliances, divisions, and contradictions between and within lowland indigenous communities continues. While the government claims to have signed programmatic agreements with at least 10 CIDOB affiliates who have agreed to boycott the march, CIDOB leaders say the march will include representatives from at least 10 of its 13 regionals, in some cases taking a position at odds with their directors.
Last week inside the TIPNIS, President Morales personally delivered outboard motors and promised 30 houses and a sports stadium to the community of Gundonovia, where indigenous leaders from 41 TIPNIS commmunities recently convened to authorize the April 25 march. Gundonovian authorities later reaffirmed their community's continued commitment to the march.
Elsewhere in the TIPNIS, a pro-road faction is actively contesting the anti-road leadership of the Sécure Subcentral, representing 16 communities that have been divided on the issue. According to the draft protocol just issued by the government for the consulta, the number of communities to be consulted has now increased from 63 to 67, including 19 in the southern portion of park that are affiliated with the pro-road CONISUR (up from 12-16, based on previous estimates).
For groups opposed to the TIPNIS road, these developments reflect the heavy hand of the government as it seeks to manipulate the outcome of the TIPNIS controversy. According to the on-line periodical Bolpress, government political operatives have drafted a 4-page “Strategy To Undermine Opposition to the Highway” that offers a detailed tactical blueprint for coopting, dividing, and subverting local communities to gain support for the road. This confirms anti-road protesters' worst suspicions, reinforcing their resolve to fortify the march and resist the consulta.
Despite the intransigence on both sides, the revocation of the OAS contract—and the probable cancellation of its financing—could provide the framework for a paradigm shift in the TIPNIS conflict, if the parties were so inclined. With the highway project effectively suspended, most likely for a significant period of time, this could be a convenient opportunity to return to ground zero, cancel both the consulta and the march, and undertake the necessary feasibility and environmental studies to analyze the true costs and benefits of alternative routes, followed by a legitimate consulta previa. Whether or not the government anticipated this outcome in revoking the construction contract, it would be an extremely fortuitous result.
Read more on the TIPNIS conflict on Emily Achtenberg's blog, Rebel Currents. See also, the January/February 2011 NACLA Report, "Golpistas! Coups and Democracy in the 21st Century;" the September/October 2010 NACLA Report, "After Recognition: Indigenous Peoples Confront Capitalism;" or the September/October 2009 NACLA Report, "Political Environments: Development, Dissent, and the New Extraction." Or subscribe to NACLA.
Peru backs the US in the war on drugs
Simeon Tegel. GlobalPost. April 14, 2012
LIMA, Peru — This weekend, heads of state at the Summit of the Americas are expected to discuss the emerging Latin American consensus for an alternative to the “war on drugs.” Many leaders are fed up with the violence, and highlight how it has even failed to stop rising demand in the US and their own countries for cocaine and other illegal highs.
Yet one key country continues to back Washington’s prohibitionist approach to narcotics: Peru.
According to the most recent United Nations statistics, this Andean nation is on the point of overtaking Colombia as the world’s No. 1 grower of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine and crack.
Thousands of impoverished farmers depend on the crop for a modest cash income of a few hundred dollars a year. Meanwhile, the violence that has long plagued the remote, rugged cloud forests where the plant is traditionally grown is increasingly spilling onto the streets of the capital, Lima.
Yet despite briefly flirting with a new approach, President Ollanta Humala — a former army officer who once commanded a garrison in a coca-growing region — has privately ruled out legalizing cocaine production or consumption, according to Ricardo Soberon, his former anti-drugs czar.
Soberon headed the government agency charged with combating illegal drugs — the National Council for the Development of Life without Drugs (or DEVIDA by its Spanish initials) — but his tenure only lasted five months. Having spent two decades as a narcotics analyst, including providing advice to coca growers’ organizations, he adopted a softer approach.
“I knew legalization was not an option so I focused on other areas,” says Soberon. He opted for the “reduction” of coca crops rather than “eradication.” In practice, that meant broadening the approach from soldiers searching for and destroying coca plants to helping impoverished growers switch to alternative crops. Soberon also targeted the chemical ingredients and money laundering that are key to the drugs trade.
According to the most recent UN statistics, in 2010, Peru had a total of 61,200 hectares (over 150,000 acres) dedicated to growing coca, just 800 behind Colombia. Significantly, the Peru figure represents an almost 50 percent rise in the previous five years, while the Colombian number is actually down by a third over the same period.
Soberon's approach wasn’t popular among conservative media and politicians, who attacked him for allegedly sympathizing with the coca growers. The US ambassador in Lima, Rose Likins, bypassed him in her contacts with the Peruvian government. He was removed from DEVIDA as part of a major cabinet reshuffle in December.
That shake-up also saw Prime Minister Salomon Lerner, a left-wing businessman, replaced by Oscar Valdes, a conservative former army colonel. Soberon now credits Valdes with Peru’s orthodox, law-and-order approach to the drugs trade.
Since 2003, Peru has had a law on the statute books that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use. However, both police and the public here appear unaware of legislation, and officers continue to arrest people for using those drugs.
Peru’s stance was recently summed up by Defense Minister Alberto Otarola, at a meeting of the Washington, DC think-tank Inter-American Dialogue, where he said the “frontal combat against drug trafficking dominates” Peruvian national security thinking.
“Humala’s fundamental problem is that he thinks the military clearly understands the narco-traffickers, when they do not,” says Soberon, a stocky, graying man in the cramped office of the Lima-based Drugs and Human Rights Research Center (CIDDH by its Spanish initials) where he now works.
Latin American leaders, including the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, have called for debate about legalizing and regulating aspects of drug production, trade or use. The push has gained unprecedented support in the lead-up to this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, although the topic is not officially on agenda.
“The position of Peru will be very difficult to anticipate before the event,” Soberon says.
“It is a very sensitive issue and there is already a prejudice, of the president himself … [the Humala administration] are surely going to have a very typical position, of a direct fight with the drugs trade. But I hope and believe that there is still space to convince them regarding the need to at least have the debate.”
As he talks, Soberon chews a fat wad of coca leaves. “It helps me work,” he says of the habit, which is legal and widespread in Peru. It provides a mild buzz, similar to an espresso, and alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness, not to mention a hangover, headache, tiredness and even menstrual pains.
Andeans have indulged in it since long before white people arrived in the region, and few here accept its stigmatization as a result of the havoc wrought by the modern, Western inventions of heavily processed cocaine and crack.
Soberon now argues for subsidies and tax breaks to encourage alternative crops such as coffee or cacao. And with the drugs research center, he is working to introduce stevia, the natural, spectacularly sweet alternative to sugar, as a new crop.
He also believes the Peruvian government needs to make a greater effort to integrate rural communities into Peru’s dramatic economic growth, including more schools and better medical attention in the Andes.
In Aucayacu, one of the main coca-growing areas, some 400 miles east of Lima, in a typical high-school class of 120, just two will ever make it to university, says Soberon.
And most of the other top-performing students will end up either sucked into the drug trade, prostitution or some form of dead-end work such as driving a moto-taxi.
“That has to change,” he says.
Peru Expected To Release Conga Mine Water Use Report Monday
Dow Jones. April 13, 2012
LIMA – A report by three international experts on the Minas Conga copper and gold project will likely be turned over to the Peruvian government by Monday at the latest, a government official said Friday.
The government is expected to quickly make public the report, which has examined projected water use by the $4.8 billion project and will likely be a key determinant on whether the stalled project will proceed.
Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM) and the Peruvian government late last year suspended work on the project following violent protests in the Cajamarca region where the deposit is located. Protesters say the project will hurt water supplies, although the company disputes that.
Newmont runs Minera Yanacocha, which owns the Minas Conga deposit as well as the already operating Yanacocha gold mine, the largest in South America.
Anti-mining groups this week led more protests against the Minas Conga project, while the government sent troops and police to help keep order.
Political analyst Carlos Reyna wrote in La Republica newspaper Friday that the anti-mining protests this week were likely a test run for more protests once the report is made public, should the recommendations of the experts permit the project to proceed.
"The perspectives for an escalation of the conflict is looking more and more probable," Reyna said.
An environmental impact study for the project was approved in 2010.
Political analysts say ending the Minas Conga project would hurt the investment climate in Peru, which is one of the world's largest producers of copper, gold, zinc, silver, tin and other minerals.
Yanacocha hopes to have production up and running at Minas Conga by the end of 2014 or early 2015. Production is expected to be an average annual output during the first five years of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper.
Newmont has a 51.35% interest in Yanacocha, while Compania de Minas Buenaventura SA (BVN, BUENAVC1.VL) has a 43.65% stake in Yanacocha, while the International Finance Corp. has a minority stake.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Mexico's Pena Nieto extends lead over main rival
Reuters. April 15, 2012
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto has widened his big lead over struggling ruling party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, with just 2 1/2 months to go until the July 1 election, an opinion poll showed on Sunday.
The latest voter survey by polling firm BGC for Mexican newspaper Excelsior showed support for Pena Nieto, a member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), running at 50 percent, according to BGC's Website.
That score was 3 percentage points higher than a previous BGC/Excelsior poll published on March 26.
Vazquez Mota, the candidate from President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN), slipped one point to 29 percent. Third placed contender and 2006 runner-up, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, fell back two points to 20 percent.
Pena Nieto has led the polls for more than two years and is widely expected to put the PRI back in power after more than a decade on the sidelines. The centrist faction ruled Mexico for 71 years straight until the PAN ousted it in 2000.
Pena Nieto, 45, has had his share of troubles along the way.
The ex-governor of the State of Mexico, a populous region flanking the capital to the north, made a number of gaffes at the end of 2011, most notably when he struggled to name three books that influenced him.
In January, he admitted he cheated on his first wife, fathering two children out of wedlock with different women.
But none of this has done lasting damage to his bid, because voters believe he is more likely to end the violence plaguing Mexico and reinvigorate the economy.
Vazquez Mota is trying to shake off discontent with the PAN, whose reputation has suffered due to a surge in lawlessness that followed the army-led offensive Calderon launched against drug gangs shortly after he took office in December 2006.
More than 50,000 people have since been killed in fighting between the gangs and their clashes with security forces.
Many of the victims have been young people lured by the prospect of quick cash from the gangs. The PAN has also struggled to create enough jobs for Mexico's growing population.
Vazquez Mota's campaign has been undermined by squabbling within the PAN, as well as a number of mishaps on the election trail, including the botched staging of a major rally last month that left her addressing a half-empty stadium stands.
Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, is still trying to win back voters he alienated after his narrow loss to Calderon in 2006. He accused the PAN of robbing him and declared himself the rightful president of Mexico, launching massive street protests in the capital that eroded his support.
The latest poll for Excelsior surveyed 1,200 registered Mexican voters from Monday through Wednesday and had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points, BGC said.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Five Killed in Honduras Land Dispute
EFE. April 16, 2012
TEGUCIGALPA – An ongoing struggle over land in the Caribbean coastal province of Colon claimed five more lives this week, Honduran police said Friday.
Three employees of agribusiness firm Quimicas Dinant, owned by mogul Miguel Facusse, were fatally shot on Thursday while driving between the towns of Olanchito and Saba, the National Police said in a brief statement.
That attack came a day after a peasant was found slain on a dirt road in the conflictive Bajo Aguan area, where one peasant was killed and four others wounded in an ambush on Tuesday.
More than 50 people have died in Colon during the last four years in a conflict pitting landless peasants against private security guards employed by the province’s palm-oil barons, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
Most of those killed have been peasants.
The fighting continues despite a Feb. 17 pact among the government, landowners and peasants meant to resolve the issue once and for all.
The dispatch of extra police and troops to Colon last October also had little impact on the level of violence.
Human rights groups say the answer to the problem in Bajo Aguan lies not in deploying security forces, but in providing the peasants with land and social services.
An accord signed almost a year ago by the Honduran government, plantation owners and an organization representing the peasants called for more than 4,000 hectares (9,876 acres) of land to be distributed among landless families.
The agreement has yet to be implemented. EFE
El Salvador heralds 1st murder-free day in nearly 3 years
Nelson Renteria. Reuters. April 15, 2012
SAN SALVADOR, April 15 (Reuters) - No one was murdered in El Salvador on Saturday, officials said, in what was the first homicide-free day in nearly three years for the Central American country plagued by violent drug gangs.
"After years when the number of murders reached alarming levels of up to 18 per day, we saw not one homicide in the country," President Mauricio Funes said in a statement released on Sunday. The murder-free day was the first recorded since leftist Funes took office in June 2009.
At the beginning of Funes' term, the country had an average of 12 murders a day, but that tally climbed closer to 18 per day in early 2012.
Rival gangs operating in El Salvador called a truce last month and bloodshed between the country's two most powerful gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and gang Mara 18, has abated. [ID: nL2E8EO0HF]
According to United Nations data, El Salvador has recently tallied a homicide rate of 66 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world.
Much of that violence is blamed on Mexican drug cartels that use the country as a transit point.
Funes, who attended this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, credited his government's security measures for the drop in violence.
Funes has recently ordered the military to pick up routine security duties.
(Reporting By Nelson Renteria; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Guatemalan president says drug war has failed
Al Jazeera. April 16, 2012
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has told Al Jazeera that the regional war against drug trafficking is being lost and requires new research, dialogue and a change in strategy.
"I find that crime, corruption and violence have grown in my country, while the cartels have spilled over from Mexico to Guatemala," he told Al Jazeera in an interview on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, on Friday.
Given his experience in combating drugs as Guatemala's intelligence chief 18 years ago, Perez offered a candid view when he stated that the so-called war on drugs was lost and called for a debate to discuss alternatives.
"Our institutions have been weakened. And this is happening elsewhere. So now I'm asking myself, are we doing things right? Do we have the right strategy? Or do we have to reflect and sit down to find new alternatives to fight drug trafficking?" he said.
Perez added: "What I am putting on the table here today at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena is a call for a debate, a dialogue, where we have statistics, studies, serious analysis of the subject.
"Based on the results, we must find new alternatives, not more of the same things that we have done for 40 years with results that clearly show us that we are not winning the war against drugs."
Perez is due to meet Central American counterparts on Saturday on the sidelines of the summit.
In March, at the instigation of Washington according to some reports, the presidents of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras boycotted a summit called by Perez in the Guatemalan city of Antigua to discuss his proposal.
Perez said then that any new strategy to combat rampant crime from drug trafficking must end the "taboo" against decriminalisation.
"We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss it, discuss it, debate it," Perez said as he hosted the leaders of Costa Rica and Panama, and delegates from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
First Cuba offshore well going slowly, mid-May finish seen
Jeff Franks. Reuters. April 13, 2012
HAVANA, April 13 (Reuters) - Drilling of the first well in the long-awaited exploration of Cuba's offshore oilfields has gone slower than expected, but should be completed by mid-May, sources close to the project said on Fri day.
They said drillers had encountered harder rock beneath the sea bed than expected, which combined with other minor problems, had slowed progress.
When drilling began on Feb. 1, Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF said the average deepwater well takes 60 days to complete, but that many drag on much longer, depending on conditions.
A Repsol spokesman could not confirm on Friday the projected mid-May completion date.
This well, which is in 5,600 feet (1,706 metres) of water off the communist-run island's northwest coast, is the first of five currently planned, Cuban officials say.
Cuba has said it could have 20 billion barrels in its offshore fields. It needs the oil to end its dependence on Venezuela, which ships it 114,000 barrels a day.
Cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is Cuba's top ally, but island leaders worry that the oil flow could stop if he dies or loses his bid for re-election later this year.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated Cuba may have 5 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas offshore, but its study covered only part of the Cuban zone.
Various sources said Repsol has been encouraged by its findings thus far, but the company has said results will not be known until the well is finished and studies are conducted.
Oil experts say it will take three years or more to bring the Cuban oil on line, if enough is found to justify production.
After Repsol completes its well, it will hand the Scarabeo 9 drilling rig over to Malaysia's state-owned Petronas and its Russian partner Gazprom Neft for a second well.
Then it will go back to Repsol, which has a consortium with Norway's Statoil and ONGC Videsh, a unit of India's ONGC, for another well.
The massive, Chinese-built rig, which is more than 20 miles (32 km) offshore but visible from Havana, is being leased from owner Saipem, a unit of Italian oil company Eni .
Due to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, no American oil companies are involved in the project.
Repsol drilled a well in Cuban waters in 2004 and found oil, but said it was not commercially viable. Technological limitations imposed by the embargo made it difficult to find another rig for work in Cuba, industry sources have said.
The project has raised environmental concerns in the United States, particularly in Florida, which is 90 miles (145 km) north of Cuba and fears its shores could be damaged if there is an accident similar to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. (Editing by Eric Walsh)
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
JACKIE CALMES and WILLIAM NEUMAN. New York Times. April 15, 2012
CARTAGENA, Colombia — A summit meeting of Western Hemisphere nations ended without a final statement of consensus on Sunday, after the United States and some Latin American nations remained sharply divided over whether to continue excluding Cuba from such gatherings.
President Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, the host, each proclaimed the Summit of the Americas a success at a joint news conference afterward, though the gathering yielded no major achievement. The meeting, the first since 2009, served mostly as a forum for leaders from more than 30 nations to air their positions on energy, trade and drug trafficking.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Santos each lauded their nations’ separate accord over labor rights in Colombia, which cleared the way for Mr. Obama to allow the free trade agreement that the two nations concluded last year to take effect on May 15.
The developments made for a decidedly mixed result for Mr. Obama this weekend. By refusing to sign a statement that would have called for the next summit meeting to include Cuba, Mr. Obama avoided antagonizing some Cuban-American voters in Florida, a crucial battleground state in this year’s presidential election. But he angered his political allies among American union leaders and liberal groups, who had urged him not to certify that Colombia had met its obligations on labor rights. They cited continued human rights violations and even killings of union organizers in Colombia.
“We regret that the administration has placed commercial interests above the interests of workers and their trade unions,” Richard S. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a statement.
For the American side, the entire summit meeting was clouded by an episode involving a group of Secret Service agents and officers. They were sent back to the United States on the eve of the meeting for investigation of misconduct allegedly involving prostitutes. Mr. Obama, while praising the Secret Service generally, said on Sunday that he expected a “rigorous” investigation. He said, “of course I’ll be angry” if the allegations proved true.
“We’re representing the people of the United States,” he said.
Representative Connie Mack, Republican of Florida, who led a Congressional delegation on the sidelines here, said that the episode was an unwelcome distraction. “We’re trying to have a dialogue about big, important issues,” Mr. Mack said, “and those activities are very shameful, and unfortunately have become a big part of the buzz around the summit.”
The issue of Cuba’s exclusion from events like the Summit of the Americas gathering has been a perennially divisive one, and increasingly so lately, more than 50 years after the United States imposed its embargo of the island nation after the military takeover by Fidel Castro in 1959. While the push to include Cuba was led by leftist governments in the region, including Venezuela and Bolivia, Mr. Santos also joined in the effort, calling the American position a cold war anachronism.
Mr. Obama himself alluded on Saturday to unspecified regional issues that seemed “caught in a time warp,” but at the news conference on Sunday he defended the United States’s stance on Cuba, which had support from Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.
“Cuba, unlike the other countries that are participating, has not yet moved to democracy,” Mr. Obama said. And referring generally to other Latin American countries’ success in overcoming dictatorship and oppression in favor of democracy, Mr. Obama asked “why we would ignore that same principle here.”
Mr. Obama denied acting out of electoral concern over Florida, saying that his position on Cuba had been consistent through his political career. He cited steps that his administration had taken to broaden relations between the American and Cuban people, including allowing Cuban-Americans to send money more freely to relatives in Cuba and to travel there more easily.
The leftist leaders of Ecuador and Nicaragua stayed away from the meeting, at least partly because of the Cuba issue, which also blocked agreement on a consensus statement at the last Summit of the Americas in 2009. Another obstacle this time was Argentina’s unsuccessful demand for language in it that would support its claim of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, a British dependency in the South Atlantic that Argentina calls the Malvinas. In that dispute, which boiled over into a war between Argentina and Britain in 1982, Mr. Obama said the United States remains neutral.
Before his news conference with Mr. Obama, Mr. Santos told reporters, “The fact there is no declaration is not a failure — just the opposite.” He said that “the fact that these topics were discussed is a success,” and added, “Hopefully within three years we will have Cuba as part of the summit.”
With the backing of several other Latin American leaders, Mr. Santos gave prominence on the summit agenda to a discussion of whether the longtime, United States-led “war on drugs” ought to be replaced with some potentially more effective strategy, perhaps even decriminalization.
The leaders agreed to direct the Organization of American States to name a group of experts to study the issue. President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, who favors legalization, said in an e-mail message after the summit that drug use and trafficking was the only topic the leaders discussed at their final closed-door meeting on Sunday. In the discussion, he said, Mr. Obama reiterated his opposition to decriminalization.
“It is a very positive outcome, in the sense that we have to explore what else we can do to find new avenues” to combat the drug trade, Mr. Perez said.
The attention paid in the American and Latin American media to the drug debate tended to obscure another message that Mr. Santos was eager to convey as host of the summit meeting: Colombia’s progress on economic and security issues. “It was never intended for this issue to be ‘the’ issue of the summit,” he said at the news conference, referring to illegal drugs.
Still, Mr. Obama said, “It is wholly appropriate for us to discuss this issue,” and he called the exchanges “good and useful.”
Despite the less-than-showy results, Mr. Obama’s decision to spend nearly three days here, in a city that was a major slave-trading port during Spain’s colonial rule, was a subject of favorable comment in the Colombian news media. A local reporter, in a question to Mr. Obama, noted that he was the first American president to spend this much time in Colombia.
Obama concludes Summit of the Americas on the defensive about inviting Cuba
Scott Wilson. Washington Post. April 15, 2012
CARTAGENA, Colombia — President Obama concluded a contentious hemispheric summit on the defensive Sunday as it ended without agreement on whether Cuba’s Communist leaders should be invited to the next meeting, something the United States firmly opposes.
The standoff meant that the sixth Summit of the Americas ended without an official declaration — a negotiated statement of shared principles from the hemisphere’s heads of state — and left open the question of whether there would be a seventh such meeting.
The ambiguous conclusion underscored the fact that Obama, while pledging a new relationship with the United States’ leery southern neighbors, has had little success in bridging significant policy differences that have divided the region for decades.
With the scandal involving a number of Secret Service agents and prostitution coloring the weekend meeting, Obama departed here with the U.S. image mildly blemished and the enduring political differences between the hemisphere’s wealthy north and rising south firmly intact.
“I’m not somebody who brings to the table here a lot of baggage from the past, and I want to look at these issues in a new and fresh way,” Obama said during a Sunday news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “I am sometimes puzzled by the degree to which countries that themselves have undergone enormous transformations, that have known the oppression of dictatorships or have found themselves on the wrong side of the ruling elite, and have suffered for it, why we would ignore that same principle here.”
Cuba and the decades-old U.S. embargo against it, which Latin American and Caribbean leaders derisively call a “blockade,” has been a traditional bone of contention between the United States and much of the rest of the region.
But it emerged here as only one of several issues, including U.S. anti-drug and monetary policy, that together illustrated how far the United States remains outside the hemisphere’s political consensus.
The summit was more buttoned up than the previous one three years ago, largely because several of the region’s most anti-American leaders did not attend. The cultural programming around the meetings showcased this lovely seaside city and the progress made by Colombia, where an array of drug-funded armed groups has faded in recent years.
Santos attributed Colombia’s success in part to the billions of dollars in U.S. aid over the past decade. But the open criticism directed toward the U.S. approach to several issues also underscored the new confidence felt by Latin American leaders as they guide a region that is improving economically while the United States struggles to find its financial footing.
Although Obama has presented the United States as a more equal partner in hemispheric affairs and has spoken forcefully on issues such as inequality that have defined Latin American politics for years, some of his policies fall outside the region’s mainstream. He defended them staunchly, nonetheless.
Many leaders here pushed for a new strategy to combat the illicit drug trade, fueled by U.S. demand. Some proposed legalization — for possession and by regulating the trade — but Obama made clear here that he does not believe it would prove more effective than the law enforcement approach funded by the United States.
“I think it is wholly appropriate for us to discuss this issue,” Obama said, adding that while Colombia is emerging from a “wrenching period,” several “smaller countries” in Central America are “starting to feel overwhelmed” by drug violence. “It wouldn’t make sense for us not to examine what works and what doesn’t.”
New leaders emerging
As the Castro brothers in Cuba grow old, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez battles cancer and other important regional leaders leave office, Latin America is determining which new leaders will emerge.
A tacit competition has shaped up between Brazil and Colombia, both growing economically and benefiting from a skilled business class. The summit showcased their leaders, who were sometimes at odds with Obama.
Santos and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who visited the White House last week, publicly criticized U.S. monetary policy for devaluing the currencies of developing countries.
And Santos worried aloud whether America is “exporting unemployment” to Latin American countries that have weathered the global economic downturn better than the United States.
“We all have the feeling of the enormous opportunities we have to work together,” Santos said at his news conference with Obama, putting the best light on their differences.
There were moments of agreement, too. Obama announced here Sunday that Colombia has complied with a key condition of the free-trade agreement passed last year that is designed to better protect labor activists from political violence.
The labor certification allows the deal to take effect May 15. U.S. exports to Colombia last year totaled $14.8 billion, and the agreement will eliminate tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial goods bound for the country and phase the rest out over the next decade.
But the election-year decision has angered U.S. labor leaders, who say Colombia has not made enough progress in protecting union activists in Colombia and in punishing those who commit crimes against them.
In a letter to Obama last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote that “less than 10 percent of the nearly 3,000 cases of trade unionists murders since 1986 have reached a conviction,” and that “none of the 29 labor activists killed in 2011 had their cases resolved by a successful prosecution.” The labor group endorsed Obama for president last month.
“We all know that more work needs to be done, but we have made significant progress,” Obama said of Colombia’s labor rights record.
Cuba issue still resonates
Cuba, a historic wedge issue between the United States and its closest political allies in the region, overwhelmed the summit’s final day.
Under U.S. pressure, Cuba’s Raul Castro was not invited to this meeting, and many influential regional leaders, led by Rousseff and Santos, indicated that they would not attend another without Cuba.
Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, declined to attend the summit in protest, and other leading leftists close to Cuba, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, did not show up.
Chavez, who usually thrives on the attention of regional forums, was also not present, because of illness.
But the issue still resonates throughout Latin America, evoking the Cold War-era political divide between left and right that Obama on Sunday said had ended.
“The fact of the matter is that Cuba, unlike the other countries participating, has not moved to democracy, is not respecting human rights,” Obama said. “I’m hoping the transition takes place.”
US secret service scandal overshadows Obama trip
Dominic Rushe. The Guardian. April 15, 2012
President Barack Obama said he would be "angry" if accusations that his security staff hired prostitutes at a key political summit in Colombia proved true.
Speaking for the first time about the scandal, Obama said agents represent the United States and are supposed to conduct themselves with the highest levels of dignity.
"Obviously, what's been reported doesn't match up to those standards," Obama said in a news conference wrapping up his appearance at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Cartagena.
The prostitution scandal has overshadowed Obama's trip. It came to light after US secret service agents allegedly took prostitutes back to their hotel in Cartagena before Obama arrived for the meeting this weekend. Eleven agents have been sent home and put on administrative leave while the scandal is investigated.
On Saturday the US defence department said a further five military personnel, staying at the same hotel, had been confined to their rooms after violating a curfew and "may have been involved in inappropriate conduct," .
A written statement said: "The conduct is alleged to have occurred in the same hotel where the recalled US secret service agents were staying."
The scandal has proved a major embarrassment for the White House at a meeting where Obama was discussing trade and the economy with 32 other heads of state. The president has come under fire at the meeting over
the impact of US monetary policy on the region and its attitude towards Cuba.
"I expect that investigation to be thorough, and I expect it to be rigorous," Obama said. "If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I'll be angry … We are representing the people of the United States, and when we travel to another country, I expect us to observe the highest standards."
Republican representative Darrell Issa called for a wide ranging investigation on Sunday. He told CBS's Face the Nation programme that there may have been more agents involved.
"The investigation will not be about the 11 to 20 or more involved, it will be about how did this happen and how often has this happened before," Issa told CBS. "Things like this don't happen once if they didn't happen before."
Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told NBC on Sunday: "This was wrong from the beginning to the end. If the facts are what they seem to be, it cannot be tolerated."
Prostitution is legal in Colombia in designated "tolerance zones". Local police were called to the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena's upmarket Bocagrande neighbourhood after a dispute with a woman in the room of one of the agents.
According to media reports, the agents had been drinking heavily before the president's arrival and taken women back to their hotel last Wednesday night. In the morning the woman involved in the dispute "freaked out" after she was not paid and banged on walls and doors in the hotel hallways.
King, who has been briefed on the situation, described a calmer scene to the Washington Post, which broke the story. He said that under hotel policy, overnight guests must leave photo identification at the front desk and leave the hotel by 7am the next morning.
According to King, the woman at the centre of the dispute had not left the hotel by 7am. Hotel officials called the police when the agent refused to open his room.
The woman refused to leave until she was paid, the agent disputed that he owed her any money. The incident was reported to the US embassy and then referred to the secret service.
The agents were recalled and replaced before Obama's arrival in the city on Friday afternoon. King told the Washington Post that "everything they did was a violation of proper conduct".
"First of all, to be getting involved with prostitutes in a foreign country can leave yourself vulnerable to blackmail and threats," King said. "To be bringing prostitutes or almost anyone into a security zone when you're supposed to protect the president is totally wrong."
The Hotel Caribe is less than 1,000 metres from the Cartagena Hilton where Obama was staying.
Secret service assistant director Paul Morrissey said in a statement that the situation had "no impact on the secret service's ability to execute a comprehensive security plan for the president's visit to Cartagena".
"This incident is not reflective of the behaviour of our personnel as they travel every day throughout the country and the world performing their duties in a dedicated, professional manner," he said. "We regret any distraction from the Summit of the Americas this situation has caused."
The incident is the biggest embarrassment for the US secret service since 2009 when two aspiring reality TV stars gatecrashed Obama's first state dinner at the White House and were photographed with the president.
Michelle Bachmann, former Republican presidential candidate, said:
"Americans should be outraged." She told NBC's Meet The Press that the White House had "clearly been embarrassed by this".
Obama pledges to tackle immigration reform early in 2nd term if reelected
AP. April 15, 2012
CARTAGENA, Colombia – In his most specific pledge yet to U.S. Hispanics, President Obama said Saturday he would seek to tackle immigration policy in the first year of a second term. But he cautioned that he would need an amenable Congress to succeed.
"This is something I care deeply about," he told Univision. "It's personal to me."
Obama said in the television interview that he would work on immigration this year, but said he can't get support from Republicans in Congress. Obama also tried to paint his Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, as an extremist on immigration, saying that Romney supports laws that would potentially allow for people to be stopped and asked for citizenship papers based on an assumption that they are illegal.
"So what we need is a change either of Congress or we need Republicans to change their mind, and I think this has to be an important debate during -- throughout the country," Obama said.
Romney aides have said that the former Massachusetts governor supports laws that would require employers to verify the legal status of workers they employ.
"President Obama only talks about immigration reform when he's seeking votes," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Then-candidate Obama promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year. More than three years into his term, America is still waiting for his immigration plan."
Hispanics are an increasingly important voting bloc in presidential elections. Obama won a sizable majority of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 election and his campaign is hoping for similar results this November.
Obama spoke to Univision, a network widely watched by Latinos in the United States, while in Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.