Latin America News Round-up
April 30, 2012
Japan and South Korea Plan Big Oil Investments in Venezuela
For the latest news and developments on Haiti, please see CEPR's blog, "Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch."
For archives of past Round-ups, please click here.
Brazil and Southern Cone
US sees South America as possible China counter
Rousseff pressed to veto Brazil forestry law. AFP
Brazil's top court backs racial quotas in universities. AFP
Argentina's YPF pledges to continue gas supplies. AFP
Britain tightens Argentina military exports. AFP
Falklands oil revenue must help develop Argentina not boost UK coffers. The Guardian
First School for Transvestites Opens in Buenos Aires. Inter-Press Service
Northern Andean Region
Venezuela, China team up to build oil refinery. AP
Japan and South Korea Plan Big Oil Investments in Venezuela. EFE
Castro warns against bid to topple Chavez regime. AFP
Colombia: missing journalist wounded in arm. AP
Colombia to Spend $738 Million on Housing Programs. EFE
Colombia Tax Bill May Improve Wealth Distribution, Santos Says. Bloomberg
Support wavering for Colombia's President Santos. Colombia Reports
Western Andean Region
Bolivian sex workers on hunger strike. Al Jazeera
Bolivian natives begin new march in road protest. AFP
US Senate Confirms Adam Namm As New Ambassador To Ecuador. Dow Jones
Newmont chief says Conga gold mine could be abandoned. AP
Peru examines deaths of more than 500 pelicans. BBC
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean
Reporter for Mexican magazine killed. Los Angeles Times
A Race Recast by YouTube and Twitter. New York Times
Chinese Company in Nicaragua Oil Investment. Inside Costa Rica
El Salvador economy minister quits. Reuters
Intel marks 15 years in Costa Rica. Tico Times
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration
US sees South America as possible China counter. AP
Brazil and Southern Cone [contents]
Rousseff pressed to veto Brazil forestry law
Yana Marull. AFP. April 29, 2012
BRASILIA — Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff came under enormous pressure on April 27 from environmentalists to veto a new forestry bill they fear will speed up deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
Brazil's powerful agribusiness sector scored a major victory with congressional approval on April 26 of the forestry code reforms, which Rousseff repeatedly promised to veto while on the campaign trail in 2010.
The current code, which dates back to 1965 and which farmers argue is not respected anyway, limits the use of land for farming and mandates that up to 80 percent of privately-owned land in the Amazon rainforest remains intact.
The new bill would allow landowners to cultivate riverbanks and hillsides that were previously exempt, and would provide an amnesty from fines for illegally clearing trees before July 2008.
Farmers, whose industry represent more than five percent of Brazil's GDP, argue that the existing legislation is confused, putting economic development at risk and costing valuable investment.
They say the new code would promote sustainable food production and bring an end to severe environmental restrictions that have forced many smaller farmers off their land.
Brazil's Chamber of Deputies approved the controversial legislation in a 247-184 vote on Wednesday night. The text now goes to Rousseff for ratification after having been approved by the Senate in December.
Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) warned that if Rousseff did not use her veto, years of successful efforts to rein in the ruination of the Amazon would be jeopardized.
"Without a veto by President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil will lose the gains of the last few years which led the country to curb deforestation. We will lose leadership and credibility," Moutinho said.
Opponents say the bill will mean more deforestation and warn it will embarrass the country ahead of hosting the Rio+20 in June, a UN gathering aimed at addressing global threats to the environment.
"It grants amnesty to loggers and raises the risk of environmental disasters in major cities," opposition lawmaker Ricardo Tripoli said as he left Wednesday night's vote. "Now it is important that the president veto it."
Gilberto Carvalho, secretary-general for the presidency, said Rousseff would weigh the decision "with a lot of serenity, without animosity," adding: "We have a great responsibility toward the country."
A recent study by the University of Brasilia found that the new forestry code would increase deforestation in Brazil by 47 percent by 2020.
Carlos Rittl, a WWF climate expert, called it the "biggest environmental retreat in Brazil in decades," while former environment minister Marina Silva urged the public to join a "VetoDilma" online campaign.
But Assuero Doca Veronez, president of the national environmental commission of the National Farming Confederation, said the present code "has long been incompatible with the changes in Brazilian agribusiness."
The proposed reform threatens 690,000 square kilometers (270,000 square miles) of land and would prevent Brazil from reaching its goal of reducing deforestation by 80 percent, according to the Climate Observatory, a network of 26 non-governmental organizations set up in 2002.
Authorities say key reasons for the deforestation of the world's largest rainforest — a region of amazing biodiversity that is considered crucial to the fight against climate change — are fires, the advance of agriculture and stockbreeding, and illegal trafficking in timber and minerals.
Deforestation has slowed since Brazil declared war on the practice in 2004, vowing to cut it by 80 percent by 2020.
Between 1996 and 2005, 19,500 square kilometers (7,530 square miles) of forest was cut down on average, peaking in 2004 when more than 27,000 square kilometers was lost.
Better law enforcement and the use of satellite imaging saw the lowest rate of deforestation in 2011 since records began three decades ago. Just over 6,200 square kilometers was cut, a 78 percent reduction on 2004.
Brazil's top court backs racial quotas in universities
AFP. April 30, 2012
BRAZIL's Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that racial quotas used in universities are constitutional and are meant to redress inequalities stemming from centuries of slavery.
The ruling issued by the 10-member court concerned the case of the University of Brasilia which in 2004 set up quotes to reserve 20 per cent of admissions to black, mixed-race and indigenous students.
The court decision serves as a precedent for all public universities in Brazil where more than 50 per cent of the 191 million population is of African origin.
Brazil also has 2million Asians and 817,000 indigenous people.
The court ruling followed an appeal lodged in 2009 by the right-wing DEM party which argued that the University of Brasilia quota policy ran counter to the principle of equality and fostered racism by creating privileges based on racial criteria.
But the judges countered that quotas were a legitimate method to redress slavery-derived inequalities and discrimination that still continues to affect Afro-Brazilians.
Rec Coverage 28 Day pass
Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888.
Black groups around the country had mounted an intense lobbying campaign for preservation of the quotas, even enlisting the support of black American film director Spike Lee.
The US director is in Brazil to shoot a documentary titled `Go Brazil GO!' that will chronicle the country's global rise as a key member of the bloc of emerging powers (along with China, India, Russia and South Africa).
In 2001, the University of Rio de Janeiro was the first such institution to introduce racial quotas. Today, Brazil has 98 public universities and more than 70 per cent of them use quotas.
Argentina's YPF pledges to continue gas supplies
AFP. April 29, 2012
BUENOS AIRES — Argentina's YPF oil company announced Saturday it would continue to provide liquefied natural gas to local customers despite the decision of Spain's Repsol to cancel deliveries.
Repsol had been the majority owner of the Repsol YPF business alliance until the Argentine government decided this month to nationalize the company.
The team charged with expropriating Repsol's interest, headed by Argentine Federal Planning Minister Julio de Vido, said in a statement the company would increase supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
"There will be five million additional cubic meters per day" because of greater production and increased purchases from Bolivia, the statement said.
Late last year, Argentine public energy company Enarsa Repsol contracted to buy 10 of the 81 LNG shipments Repsol planned to import into Argentina in 2012 to alleviate a shortage of local production. The first delivery was scheduled for May 14.
During the controversy over the Argentine government's decision to expropriate 51 percent of the shares of YPF from its Spanish owners, Repsol informed Enarsa it was suspending delivery of the LNG.
YPF produces 34 percent of Argentina's oil and 25 percent of its gas, and the company holds some 54 percent of the nation's refining capacity, according to the private Argentine Petroleum Institute.
When President Cristina Kirchner announced April 16 that Argentina would nationalize Repsol YPF, she said the decision was prompted by Repsol's lack of investment in YPF.
As a result, she said Argentina was forced to import about $9.3 billion of oil in 2011, while this year oil imports are estimated to reach $12 billion.
Repsol responded with paid advertisements in Argentina saying the company has invested $20 billion in Argentina, the largest investment in the country's history.
The legislative proposal to nationalize Repsol's interest in the oil company is expected to be enacted next week by Argentina's Congress. The measure has drawn huge opposition from Spain, the European Union and the World Bank.
Britain tightens Argentina military exports
AFP. April 27, 2012
LONDON — Britain announced a clampdown Thursday on the sale of goods to Argentina's armed forces following an escalation in the row over the disputed Falkland Islands.
Business Secretary Vince Cable told parliament in a written statement that, with immediate effect, no export licences would be granted for sales of military goods or items that have a dual civilian-military purpose.
The minister explained the move was in response to Argentina's recent economic targetting of the archipelago.
"The government has reviewed this (export control) policy in the light of recent actions by the Argentine government aimed at harming the economic interests of the Falkland islanders," said Cable.
"We are determined to ensure no British licensable exports or trade have the potential to be used by Argentina to impose an economic blockade on the Falkland islanders or inhibit their legitimate rights to develop their own economy.
"In future no licences shall be granted for any military or dual-use goods and technology being supplied to military armed users in Argentina, except in exceptional circumstances."
Britain has refused to export goods that could be used to improve Argentina's armed forces since 1998, but has allowed transactions which would maintain the military's position.
There are believed to be around £1 million of outstanding contracts.
Argentina's 1982 invasion of the remote islands triggered a 74-day war, which ended in a humiliating defeat for Argentina after British prime minister Margaret Thatcher sent in a naval task force to reclaim the archipelago.
The conflict over the islands, which Britain has ruled since 1833, cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British troops.
Falklands oil revenue must help develop Argentina not boost UK coffers
Jonathan Glennie. The Guardian. April 29, 2012
The future of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas has been in the news again recently, with the 20th anniversary of the conflict between Britain and Argentina and the increasingly bold rhetoric of Argentinian politicians. The discussion is treated in the press as a diplomatic and political issue, but little has been written about it from a development perspective. However, what happens to the Falklands is a much bigger test of the UK's commitment to development than its creditable commitment to meeting the arbitrary 0.7% aid target.
The Falklands question became a development issue in 1998 when oil was discovered. Until then it had little relevance to the material wellbeing of poor people in developing countries. The Argentinian government did not invade the Falklands in 1982 for any economic reason (the main economic motor of the islands at the time was sheep products) but for internal political reasons; to provoke nationalist fervour to shore up a tottering dictatorship.
The outcome of the invasion has always piqued Argentina, but the discovery of oil has added fuel to the fire.
Brazil's former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called the oil reserves found in Brazilian seas in the past decade a "gift from God" – that is pretty much how most Argentinians would like to think of the oil around the Falklands.
With an estimated 60bn barrels of oil to be found around the islands, and the oil price hovering around $100 per barrel, you can do the maths. If Argentina was able to take 25% of any oil sales, it could add up to $1.5 trillion to its coffers over the next few years.
There are two reasons why it is important from a development perspective for Argentina to benefit from this money. First, poverty reduction. Although Argentina is by no means one of the world's poorest countries, and has fairly good human development statistics, its GDP per capita ($9,000) is still only a quarter of the UK's. And it has some worrying social statistics: 13% of Argentinian children (aged 7-14) are economically active, according to the latest figures (for 2004), while 8% are malnourished. Moreover, the multiplier effect of Argentina's wealth would mean benefits for its regional neighbours as well, most of which are poorer.
The case is even clearer if we substitute a much poorer country, such as Haiti, Sierra Leone or Cambodia, for Argentina. It is hard to imagine anyone arguing that oil fields that might have fallen in the marine jurisdiction of these countries should come under a rich country's colonial jurisdiction in similar circumstances. It would be considered grotesque. The difference between this hypothetical situation and the actual one is of scale, not principle. Argentina and its neighbours still require development support.
Second, anti-colonialism. Development is not just about money; it is also about shaking off the past and engaging in new and equal relations between countries. Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in mid-April, the Argentinian foreign minister, Hector Timerman, said: "colonial aggression against one country is colonial aggression against all" and asked for solidarity with "the Argentinian decision to negotiate the return of the islands with the UK". All the 30 or so presidents at the hemispheric conference favour the Argentinian position, except the US and Canada.
The reason the Malvinas issue is felt so keenly across Latin America is that it is a reminder of Britain's history of economic imperialism in the region. The role Britain played in extracting resources and wealth from Latin America over the past two centuries, with little benefit to the local population, is well known, even if it is the Spanish who are most associated with colonialism. As Timerman puts it: "We have 21st-century challenges, and Argentina is still fighting against a 19th-century power." Of course, British people have next to no knowledge of this, just as they know little of their imperial history in general.
As the UK economy continues to falter, the last thing its government wants to do is let go of a potentially large source of revenue. It is even demanding repayment of an odious debt still owed by Argentina for money lent to the 1970s military junta to buy weapons. But these are precisely the bold decisions required to present a new kind of attitude to the world – one founded on solidarity, not on the remnants of an often violently won empire.
The political identity of the islanders is a crucial issue; they should pertain to whichever state they choose, and they are clear that they want to be British. They are also a thoroughly decent group of people (some of whom I have met) and deserve a share of the oil profits. It is not beyond the ken of post-modern bureaucrats to draw up an accord whereby the islanders remain British and benefit from the oil surrounding their home, without denying a developing country the majority of the wealth that rightfully belongs to it.
First School for Transvestites Opens in Buenos Aires
Marcela Valente. Inter-Press Service. April 29, 2012
(IPS) - With 35 students, the first secondary school specifically for transvestites and other members of sexual minorities who face discrimination in mainstream schools opened in March in the Argentine capital.
The "Mocha Celis" Popular Baccalaureate is the name of the tuition-free school supported by nonprofit organisations, which caters especially – but not exclusively - to transvestites, transsexuals and transgender persons over the age of 16.
The school is named after an illiterate transvestite who worked as a prostitute and was an activist with the Association of Argentine Transvestites. A week after Celis went missing, her body was found, showing signs that she had been beaten and shot to death.
Activists suspect that Celis was killed by a federal police officer who had previously threatened her.
In an interview with IPS, Francisco Quiñones, the head of the new school, explained that the idea was "to create an inclusive school, free of discrimination, that takes into account and values the different trans identities, where they can manage to finish secondary school.
"Public schools, which are governed by rules that cater to heterosexuals, drive these people away," and they end up dropping out of school at much higher rates than the rest of the population due to discrimination, which can even go as far as physical violence, he said.
Quiñones said transvestite students in the new school have talked about their own past experiences, such as being forced to go to the boy’s rest room, where they were sometimes attacked. "Some never went to the bathroom because they were too terrified," he said.
For that reason, the Mocha Celis school was welcome news. "For me it’s like a door to the world," said Laura Barrionuevo, 29, who had to drop out at the age of 15 from the vocational high school she was attending.
"I was from Ituzaingó, in the (northeastern) province of Corrientes. When I started to dress as a transvestite, a tsunami was unleashed in the school and in the town, and I had to leave. When I was older, I registered in other schools, but I felt like people looked at me as if I were a monster," she told IPS.
She now rents a room 35 km from the Mocha Celis school in Ezeiza, a district in the southern part of Greater Buenos Aires. It takes her a total of nearly six hours a day to commute to and from school, Monday through Thursday, but she says she is happy.
Barrionuevo enjoys sewing, and she and other students plan to save up money to buy sewing machines and material to make their own clothes. "I wasn’t made to work standing on a street corner; if I was any good at that I would have earned a fortune by now," she said, alluding to prostitution.
Once the school gains recognition from the Education Ministry of the City of Buenos Aires – a process that is taking longer than it should, according to Quiñones – the students will be able to graduate after three years, with a high school diploma showing that they specialised in community development.
The coursework at the school prepares the students to be community leaders or to set up cooperatives. But once the school gains official recognition, the diploma will also allow them to continue their studies.
"I like radiology, and journalism too," Barrionuevo said.
The school is operating in a building that is on loan from the Asociación Mutual Sentimiento, a community development NGO, and was registered by the Fundación Diversidad Divino Tesoro, a non-profit organisation that defends the interests of sexual minorities.
Classes are taught by 25 teachers, who also helped refurbish the building.
The symbol chosen for the school was Argentine statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), a former president who was the driving force behind the development of public education in this South American country. But the painting of him on the wall has undergone a transformation: he is wearing a blond wig and pink lipstick.
In the first-year classroom, the seats are arranged in a circle rather than straight rows of desks. "Here, what the students know is as valid as the teacher’s knowledge," Quiñones said.
The curriculum is the same one that is used in conventional adult education classes, but "with a broader focus," he clarified. There are a few additional courses, such as classes on cooperatives or "trans history", that take a look at the activism of the trans community.
The idea for the school emerged from an assessment of the conditions faced by transvestites in Argentina, which was published in a 2005 book, "La Gesta del Nombre Propio" (roughly, "the epic struggle for a name of one's own"). The book described the intolerance, humiliation, marginalisation and attacks suffered by transvestites.
One of the chilling statistics provided by the book was that 64 percent of the 302 transvestites interviewed had not completed primary school. And of those who had managed to finish, only 20 percent graduated from high school.
That lack of education effectively bars members of the trans community from gaining access to quality jobs, and pushes the majority (79 percent of the study sample) into prostitution as their main source of income.
The study also found that while only 11 percent of the respondents were studying at the time, 70 percent said that they would have liked to, but that they were not willing to hide or deny their true sexual identity.
The report showed that as a result of the discrimination they face on so many fronts, many members of the trans community die young. Of 420 who had died in recent years, mainly of AIDS or murder, 69 percent were between the ages of 22 and 41.
But the idea is not to limit the school to members of the trans community. "Of the 35 students registered in the Mocha Celis school, there are 10 who do not identify as trans, but are people who live on the streets or are very poor, who feel excluded from mainstream schools," Quiñones explained.
"Although we made it clear to them that they would have to take classes like ‘trans history’, they told us that for them it wasn’t easy to find a warm place free of discrimination where they could finish secondary school, which is why they have come here," he added.
Northern Andean Region [contents]
Venezuela, China team up to build oil refinery
AP. April 28, 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela and China are teaming up to build an oil refinery in southern China.
Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez attended a ceremony on Friday marking the start of construction in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The refinery is to be completed in 2015 and is to cost $8.3 billion.
Ramirez said the refinery will be able to process up to 400,000 barrels of crude a day, and is the first of three refineries Venezuela plans to help build in China.
China National Petroleum Corp. is partnering with Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA.
Ramirez said in a company statement that Venezuela is currently selling China about 600,000 barrels of oil a day.
China has also agreed to lend Venezuela about $38 billion in exchange for oil shipments.
Japan and South Korea Plan Big Oil Investments in Venezuela
EFE. April 29, 2012
CARACAS – Japan and South Korea plan to invest nearly $14 billion in various energy projects in Venezuela, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
“In total between Japan and Korea we have investments for the country of $13.95 billion ... with the biggest companies in the world in the technology and petroleum sectors,” Ramirez told the official VTV network by telephone Saturday from China.
Ramirez said he signed a series of agreements during a tour that has taken him to Japan, South Korea and China.
Agreements were signed with South Korea covering “four very important projects,” including the design and construction of a deepwater terminal in the northeastern Venezuelan state of Sucre, infrastructure projects in the Orinoco Belt, technology for a refinery in Barinas state and coke-burning power plants, Ramirez said.
Coke is a solid by-product of heavy crude that is used in the iron and steel industry, thermoelectric power plants and cement production.
Four agreements were signed with Japan “that have to do with petroleum development” in Venezuela “associated with some $2.5 billion in financing,” Ramirez said.
Venezuela is working with Japan on three 900 MW thermoelectric power plants, as well as on a technology cooperation agreement, the energy minister said.
Venezuela signed an agreement for a $1 billion loan with a Japanese state bank and other Japanese firms, with $800 million to be used to expand a refinery and the remaining $200 million going toward petroleum services, state-owned oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, said last week.
The loan agreement was signed during a meeting in Tokyo between Ramirez and Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano, PDVSA said in a statement released last Monday.
The cornerstone is in place for the joint financing of the construction of a refinery by PDVSA and China National Petroleum Corporation, the largest oil company in China, in the southern Chinese province of Canton, Ramirez said.
“We are going to have the capacity to process 400,000 barrels per day of crude from the Orinoco Petroleum Belt,” Ramirez, who is also PDVSA’s chief, said.
The Orinoco Belt, located in east-central Venezuela, is believed to hold the world’s largest petroleum reserves, with proved and certified reserves totaling some 297 billion barrels.
Most of the oil, however, is heavy and extra-heavy crude that is more expensive to refine because it requires additional processing.
Castro warns against bid to topple Chavez regime
AFP. April 28, 2012
Cuban leader Fidel Castro warned Saturday that a US attempt to overthrow ailing President Hugo Chavez would unleash ‘a river of blood,’ and said ‘the oligarchy’ will never rule Venezuela again.
Castro’s strong warning in an article published by the Cuban press comes as Chavez is battling cancer and faces a tough re-election fight in October elections with the opposition united behind a single candidate, Henrique Capriles.
‘The oligarchy would never be able to govern this country again,’ Castro wrote. ‘That’s why it is worrying that the United States should decide under those conditions to promote the overthrow of the Bolivarian government.’
‘An error by (US President Barack) Obama, under these circumstances, would unleash a river of blood in Venezuela,’ he said.
Cuba has an enormous stake in the survival of the Chavez government.
Since coming to power in 1999, the leftist Venezuelan leader has become Cuba’s most important ally, providing the communist-ruled island with crucially needed oil and investments while hosting thousands of Cuban advisers, doctors and technicians.
What happens if Chavez loses his grip on power, either to cancer or to electoral defeat, is a big unknown for Venezuela, where every major institution, from the military to the courts to the Congress, has long been dominated by the 57-year-old former army paratrooper.
Castro said it was a ‘dirty lie’ that a desperate struggle for power was under way within the Venezuelan leadership over who would lead the government if Chavez dies.
He accused Venezuela’s opposition of ‘multiplying its efforts to slander and hurt’ Chavez, who has been undergoing radiation treatment in Cuba for cancer.
The true state of Chavez’s health has been uncertain since he underwent surgery in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvic area in July 2011.
After five rounds of chemotherapy, the cancer returned and he underwent surgery again on February 26. So far, he has undergone four rounds of radiation therapy in Cuba.
Chavez returned home early Thursday after a nine day absence in Cuba for what was to have been his last round of radiation treatment, but the president said he would return to Cuba for yet another round later.
Chavez, who has never disclosed the type or severity of the cancer, telephoned Venezuela’s state-run television on Monday to quell rumors he was dying.
Castro said Venezuelans can ‘have faith’ that Chavez has not neglected his obligations despite his illness.
‘His obligations are not out of his mind for a single minute, at times to the point of exhaustion,’ he wrote.
Colombia: missing journalist wounded in arm
VIVIAN SEQUERA. AP. April 30, 2012
BOGOTA, Colombia -- A French journalist who went missing during combat between Colombian troops and leftist rebels suffered a bullet wound in the left arm during the firefight, Colombia's defense minister said Sunday.
A survivor of Saturday's attack by leftist rebels saw Romeo Langlois, 35, sustain the wound when troops he was accompanying on a mission to destroy cocaine labs was attacked by guerrillas protecting one of their targets, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters.
France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, was quoted by his office as saying Langlois was kidnapped. But Pinzon indicated uncertainty and said he did not know Langlois' whereabouts.
Pinzon said it appeared that during a firefight that lasted much of Saturday morning Langlois decided to remove his helmet and bullet-proof vest. Pinzon said he identified himself as a civilian and headed toward guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish initials FARC.
"That's all the information we have about him. We don't know for sure at this moment what happened to him," Pinzon said during a briefing at the Larandia military base in the southern state of Caqueta where the combat occurred.
"Someone who was with him up until the last moment told me that at one point Romeo was hit by a bullet in his left arm," said Pinzon.
Three soldiers and a police officer were killed and six wounded in Saturday's firefight, the Defense Ministry said.
Pinzon said some of the rebels wore civilian clothing and fired from homes. He said that due to bad weather the unit that came under attack could not immediately be reinforced that some troops dispersed into the thick jungle.
"The journalist was taken prisoner" during the clash, Juppe's press office quoted him as saying. Juppe's spokesman, Romain Nadal, offered no details about who was holding Langlois or whether they were in contact with French or Colombian authorities.
Langlois is a freelancer with years of experience in the region who was on assignment for France 24 television, the all-news network said in a statement. Calls by The Associated Press to his cellphone went unanswered.
Pinzon said Langlois had 12 years of experience covering Colombia's conflict and was with a counternarcotics unit that had destroyed one cocaine lab and was en route to another when attacked. Authorities said the firefight occurred in the hamlet of Buena Vista in the municipality of Montanita.
Before French officials announced Langlois had been kidnapped, France 24 said in a statement that it hoped Langlois was "safe and sound."
"We know that it is a dangerous region. We are of course worried, but we trust Romeo, who knows the area well and has a lot of experience," Nahida Nakad, chief international news editor for the network, said in the statement.
The French government was in contact with Langlois' family, a French Foreign Ministry official said. Ministry policy does not authorize the official to be publicly named.
Langlois has also written for the daily Le Figaro. His most recent article, published April 20, profiled a former child soldier for the FARC who later deserted.
The FARC, founded in 1964, is Latin America's last remaining major insurgency. Funded largely by the cocaine trade, it has in recent years been seriously weakened by Colombia's U.S.-backed military. It is believed to number about 8,000 fighters.
Earlier this month, the FARC released 10 soldiers and police who it said were its last remaining "political prisoners." It has pledged to halt ransom kidnapping as a good-faith gesture it hopes will presage peace talks.
But President Juan Manuel Santos has said he is not yet satisfied that the FARC has met conditions for such talks.
The rebels have been blamed for the kidnapping last June of four Chinese oil workers in the same southern state where Saturday's incident occurred.
The last known instance of a foreign journalist being detained by rebels in Colombia occurred in 2003, when two journalists on assignment for the Los Angeles Times were held for 12 days before being released unharmed.
Colombia to Spend $738 Million on Housing Programs
EFE. April 29, 2012
BOGOTA – Colombia plans to invest 1.3 trillion pesos (about $738.13 million) in housing programs “for the poorest of the poor,” which it is adding to the plan to provide 100,000 homes free to the most vulnerable among the population, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
The president explained his housing strategy in his so-called “Agreement for Prosperity” No. 70, on Saturday in Inirida, capital of the jungle province of Guainia, which borders Venezuela and Brazil.
The announcement made last Monday to build the 100,000 free homes within 24 months is in addition to his plan to subsidize the construction programs for 1 million of the so-called “social homes,” Santos said.
To date, the Housing Ministry has built 246,000 homes in accord with that plan, which Santos called the “push” for the investment of $738.13 million approved in recent days by the Finance Ministry because it will guarantee the continuation of that program in the coming years.
The government is now seeking to give priority to housing as a tool in its strategy to reduce the inequality that causes so much “embarrassment” to the president, and that is the reason for the implementation of the plans and the recent change made by Santos at the head of the Housing Ministry.
Santos last Monday made public the replacement of Beatriz Uribe with German Vargas Lleras, who was the interior minister up until this time, calling him an “official of high quality.”
These announcements came days after a survey revealed that the Colombian president’s approval rating had fallen to 58 percent and is 15 points below the level he attained three months after assuming power in August 2010.
In that regard, Santos said that he is not paying any attention to the results of such surveys because “political capital is to be invested and he who lives by the surveys winds up making a mistake.”
Although he admitted that some of the “alerts” that the polls cause disturb him, he concluded that “I musn’t worry if my popularity is up or down.”
Colombia Tax Bill May Improve Wealth Distribution, Santos Says
Andrea Jaramillo. Bloomberg. April 28, 2012
Colombia will send a tax bill to Congress in the next few days that will seek to improve wealth distribution, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
“We have sufficient funds, we don’t need more funds,” Santos said yesterday, according to a statement on the presidential website. “Our tax system doesn’t help to improve wealth distribution and what we want is for our system to be fair.”
The government will propose keeping in place a wealth tax, and is reviewing taxes on foodstuffs and some capital gains taxes, Congressman Angel Cabrera, a member of a congressional finance committee, said April 19 after a meeting with Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry. Colombia’s central government budget deficit this year may be 2.4 percent of gross domestic product, below the 2.6 percent target, Echeverry told reporters yesterday.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Jaramillo in Bogota at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at email@example.com.
Support wavering for Colombia's President Santos
Christan Leonard. Colombia Reports. April 29, 2012
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos cannot count on reelection, according to polling data reported by W Radio and newspaper El Tiempo.
Poll numbers indicate that Colombians are extremely polarized in their views of the president with only 47% saying they would like to see President Santos complete a second term. Only 44% thought he would be reelected.
The survey indicated huge popular support for Santos's former ally turned bitter rival, ex-President Alvaro Uribe, with 53% naming him the best of the last seven Colombian leaders. Just 19% chose President Santos.
Colombians are divided over Santos' management of security issues and economic matters, while a decidedly larger portion of the country approves of his foreign policy.
Almost half those surveyed, 47% said they supported Santos' management of the security situation in the country, while 48% disapproved. Just under a third, 29%, said they felt the country was safer than when Santos' came into office two years ago, while 49% said they thought it was less safe.
Santos' handling of the economic situation is even less highly regarded with 65% saying they disapproved of his management of unemployment. Just 47% said they thought the economic situation in the country had improved since Santos took office.
Santos' actions in the international arena get greater approval with 66% saying they were happy with his foreign policy toward Venezuela and 58% happy with his handling of relations with Cuba.
Almost two thirds, 64%, thought the recent Summit of the Americas was a positive move for Colombia and around the same amount approved of Santos' management of the event.
The poll also asked which of seven recent presidents was the best with the responses as follows:
Alvaro Uribe 53%
Juan Manuel Santos 19%
Belisario Betancur 5%
Cesar Gaviria 4%
Ernesto Samper 3%
Virgilio Barco 3%
Andres Pastrana 1%
And the worst:
Andres Pastrana 41%
Ernesto Samper 21%
Alvaro Uribe 12%
Cesar Gaviria 6%
Belisario Betancur 4%
Virgilio Barco 2%
Juan Manuel Santos 3%
Western Andean Region [contents]
Bolivian sex workers on hunger strike
Al Jazeera. April 29, 2012
Sex workers in the Bolivian city of El Alto have gone on hunger strike to demand a solution to the month-long doctor's strike which has forced the closure of public hospitals across the country.
About a dozen male and female sex workers, many with their faces covered, crowded into the lobby of a neighbourhood health centre on Sunday, vowing to continue their action until the situation is resolved.
At times they chanted "Useless minister, we want a solution!", a reference to Bolivian Health Minister Juan Carlos Calvimontes.
The workers claim their personal health, as well as that of the wider community, is at risk as they are not receiving their weekly check-ups at local public hospitals and clinics because of the doctor's strike.
Bolivian doctors are on strike over the length of their working hours.
"We used to have our weekly check-ups, but now that there's a strike, it's been more than a month since we've been checked," explained Lilli Cortez, president of the Organisation of Night Workers, a local group formed by sex workers to defend their rights.
"There could be an outbreak of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) or HIV/AIDS if the women aren't checked," she added.
There are about 45,000 sex workers registered in Bolivia.
The country's laws require that they undergo free weekly check-ups in order to work on the streets and in brothels.
"We hope this will be solved once and for all because they are playing with our lives, with our health," said Jacqueline, one of the sex workers participating in the hunger strike.
"You can't play with health," she said. "It's a time bomb that is going to explode at any moment. The lives of the entire population is at stake here."
According to authorities in El Alto, a town 12km from the capital La Paz, there are about 2,500 bars and brothels in the local area, only 350 of which are legal.
Bolivian natives begin new march in road protest
AFP. April 28, 2012
TRINIDAD, Bolivia (AFP) - Some 500 indigenous people began a mammoth march from the Amazon region to the Bolivian capital La Paz to protest government plans to build a highway through their ancestral homeland.
The marchers expect to take six to eight weeks to walk the 600-kilometer (370-mile) route, in a repeat of a similar march last year that saw a few thousand demonstrators make the trek in protest of the use of indigenous land by President Evo Morales's government.
Planners had wanted the controversial Brazil-financed road to run through the TIPNIS indigenous territory, leveling an ancestral homeland inhabited by 50,000 native people from three different native groups.
Amazon natives feared that landless Andean Quechua and Aymara people -- Bolivia's main indigenous groups and Morales supporters -- would flood into the road area and colonize their land.
Morales, the country's first elected indigenous president, has however insisted that the 300-kilometer (190-mile) highway was vital for economic development. A different set of marchers who supported the government project have also made a similar long journey to demand its construction.
US Senate Confirms Adam Namm As New Ambassador To Ecuador
Dow Jones. April 27, 2012
QUITO (Dow Jones)--The U.S. Senate confirmed Adam E. Namm as ambassador to Ecuador Friday, replacing ambassador Heather M. Hodges, who had been declared persona non grata.
Ecuador's Ambassador to the U.S. Nathalie Cely said Friday in a press release that the confirmation of Namm as U.S. ambassador in Quito allows the completion of the process of restoring full diplomatic relations between the two nations.
In April of last year, Ecuador asked Hodges to leave the country. Two days later, in a retaliatory move, the U.S. expelled Ecuador's then ambassador in Washington, Luis Gallegos.
Hodges was asked to leave Ecuador following the release of a diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks that was published by Spanish newspaper El Pais. In the 2009 cable, Hodges discussed widespread corruption in Ecuador's police and alleged that President Rafael Correa had knowledge of corruption among police leadership, which was denied by the Correa's government.
"It is in the interest of the Ecuadorian government to promote a relationship with the United States based on mutual respect," said Cely. "The arrival of Ambassador Namm in Ecuador will help encourage a healthy bilateral dialogue that will allow us to continue strengthening our relationship."
According to the Ecuadorian ambassador, vital topics for such a dialogue include five issues: trade and development; cooperation; security; immigration and the environment.
A career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, Namm has served as a management counselor in Islamabad, a human resources officer in Bogota, a general services officer in Dhahran and Santo Domingo, and a consular officer in Bogota and Santo Domingo, among others.
The U.S. is an important destination for Ecuador's exports. Last year, Ecuador's exports to the U.S. totaled $10 billion.
-By Mercedes Alvaro, Dow Jones Newswires; 5939-9728-653; firstname.lastname@example.org
Newmont chief says Conga gold mine could be abandoned
AP. April 28, 2012
LIMA, Peru - The president of Newmont Mining Corp. said Friday that the U.S. company could halt investment in a major gold mining project in Peru's north if modifications sought by the government significantly affect its profitability.
Newmont's Richard O'Brien said in an earnings call with analysts that if the $4.8 billion project cannot be developed "in a safe, socially and environmentally responsible manner" while also earning shareholders "an acceptable return" Newmont will "reallocate that capital to other development projects in our portfolio, including opportunities in Nevada, Australia, Ghana, and Indonesia."
The project faces stiff opposition from residents of the heavily mined northern state of Cajamarca who say they fear for their water supply.
It has been suspended since December, when Newmont halted work out of concern for employee safety after a series of violent protests.
Last week, President Ollanta Humala said Newmont, the majority investor in Conga, should heed recommendations of government-hired environmental experts who said two mountain lakes slated for destruction should be preserved.
Humala also said the project should create 10,000 jobs and quadruple the amount of water in reservoirs the company has offered to create to replace four lakes that would be destroyed.
O'Brien said Newmont was evaluating the recommendations of the environmental experts as well as the Peruvian government.
"Conga's development would be a significant source of revenue for the government of Peru, along with significant employment," O'Brien said.
Newmont is the majority stakeholder in Conga as well as in nearby Yanacocha, Latin America's biggest gold mine.
Yanacocha, which is nearing the end of production, has a history of troubled relations with neighbouring farmers who claim it has harmed their water supplies.
Peru's economy depends heavily on mining, which accounts for more than 60 per cent of its export income.
Peru examines deaths of more than 500 pelicans
BBC. April 30, 2012
The government of Peru is investigating the deaths of more than 500 pelicans along a 70km (40-mile) stretch of the country's northern coast.
Officials say most appeared to have died on shore over the past few days.
Scientists have also found the carcasses of 54 boobies, several sea lions and a turtle.
They were found in the same region where some 800 dolphins washed ashore earlier this year. The cause of their death is still being investigated.
The Peruvian government said it was "deeply worried".
A preliminary report said that there was no evidence to show the pelicans had died at sea, but rather on the beach where they were found.
But it said further tests would be needed to establish the cause of death.
The Peruvian Maritime Institute (Imarpe) said so far 538 dead pelicans and 54 boobies had been found in various stages of decomposition, although most appeared to have died recently.
In addition, five badly decomposed sea lions and a turtle carcass had been found on shore, Imarpe said.
Local media reports suggest more than 1,200 dead pelicans have been found in the Piura and Lambayeque regions.
Between January and April of this year, some 800 dead dolphins washed ashore in Lambayeque, according to government figures.
Peru's Deputy Minister for Natural Resource Development, Gabriel Quijandria Acosta, said a virus might have killed the dolphins.
A viral epidemic outbreak was linked to similar deaths of marine wildlife in Peru in the past, as well as in Mexico and the United States.
Analysis on the dolphins so far suggested they had contracted a morbillivirus, which belongs to the same group as the measles virus in humans, Stefan Austermuehle of a local NGO, Mundo Azul, told the BBC.
"We know that in other cases in the United States up to 50% of populations were killed by the virus," he said.
"What we also know...is that in previous cases animals that have higher loads of pollutants in their body will fall easier victims to these kind of diseases because their immune system is weakened."
Imarpe scientists said results of tests carried out on the dead dolphins would be released in the coming days.
Mexico, Central America and Caribbean [contents]
Reporter for Mexican magazine killed
Los Angeles Times. April 28, 2012
MEXICO CITY -- A reporter for a muckraking newsweekly magazine in Mexico was found dead in her home Saturday, apparently beaten and strangled, authorities said.
The journalist, Regina Martinez, covered crime and drug trafficking for Proceso magazine in the gulf state of Veracruz, where authorities said her body was found in the bathroom of her home in Xalapa, the capital. The magazine is known for high-profile coverage of narco-related crime and corruption.
State officials in Veracruz said police went to the house after receiving a telephone call. Martinez’s body showed signs of blows to the face and body and she appeared to have died of strangulation, the state prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
Mexico’s drug war has made it a dangerous place to work as a journalist, especially for those who cover the drug trade and organized crime. More than 40 Mexican journalists have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which has pressed for greater protections for journalists in Mexico.
Martinez was a veteran reporter, according to Mexican media reports. Her recent work was dominated by crime stories. On Friday, an online story carrying her byline described the arrests of nine municipal police officers suspected of drug ties. A day before that, she wrote about a shootout and the arrest of a woman suspected of commanding hit men. Earlier articles described proceedings against a mayor arrested on suspicion of links to drug traffickers.
Mexican journalists in volatile drug-trafficking areas, such as Veracruz, face high risks because they live in those communities and are often easily tracked down by crime gangs. Mexican lawmakers recently passed a constitutional reform that would beef up protection of journalists by making attacks against them a federal crime. The measure requires approval by more than half of Mexico’s 32 states.
A Race Recast by YouTube and Twitter
RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD and ELISABETH MALKIN. New York Times. April 29, 2012
MEXICO CITY — It sounds like the typical hardball, American-style campaign. The presidential candidate from the incumbent’s party calls the front-runner a “liar” in television and Internet advertisements. Supporters of the front-runner retaliate with a Web site and Twitter posts that say his top opponent “lies.” And the third-place candidate wraps the gaffes of both of them into a YouTube video cheekily titled “Excuses Not to Debate.”
State-of-the-art, no-holds-barred political warfare, perhaps, except that after President Felipe Calderón narrowly won a divisive race here six years ago that featured ads calling his opponent a danger to the country, Mexico’s political establishment had vowed that it would tolerate no more of that.
But a law passed in 2007 that was intended to keep campaigning orderly and clean — it bans the Mexican equivalent of political action committees, limits spending, regulates language in advertisements and tightens the official campaign period to just 89 days — has been undercut by the unpredictable and uncontrollable Web.
On Web sites and in the online social media, a parallel battlefield has emerged as candidates vie for the support of voters, more than a quarter of whom, polls say, have not made a choice as the July 1 election nears. Many of the undecided are part of the fast-growing bloc of young middle-class Mexicans who tend to be more politically independent and may prove pivotal in determining the country’s next president.
“If you want to win a campaign you need to win every space of the terrain,” said Agustín Torres Ibarrola, a 34-year-old lawmaker who coordinates the digital strategy for Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of Mr. Calderón’s National Action Party, or PAN, who trails by double digits in the polls.
Mr. Torres was sitting beside a large screen displaying his TweetDeck page, which manages Twitter and Facebook accounts, as a handful of young campaign workers hunched over laptops monitoring social media sites and posting material related to a dispute with the campaign of the front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Recently, Mr. Torres used his Twitter account to take a veiled swipe at Mr. Peña Nieto, alluding to suspicions that his party, which governed Mexico for seven decades until 2000, would make deals with drug gangs. The election, Mr. Torres wrote, was “about choosing between politicians who fight drug trafficking or politicians who tolerate it.”
“Which country do you want?” he asked.
Just under a third of Mexico’s population regularly uses the Internet (compared with 80 percent in the United States). But the campaigns have seen how social media sites can help shape public opinion — newspapers here closely track and publish the number of each candidate’s Twitter and Facebook followers — and they skirt the heavily regulated airwaves.
Often using automated programs or armies of volunteers, the campaigns battle to land trending topics on Twitter and celebrate them as important discussion points. Last Wednesday, “Josefina gets confused,” a reference to a verbal gaffe by Ms. Vázquez Mota, was a popular topic for much of the day.
So far, the weighty problems facing Mexico — the drug war, feeble job growth, persistent poverty and the failings of the police and judicial system — have received little attention and generated only vague pronouncements.
Instead, the campaigns expand and refine their digital attacks, often using hard-to-trace and easily disavowed volunteers and supporters to do the dirty work.
Aurelio Nuño Mayer, the media director of the Peña Nieto campaign, said his operation relied on about 20,000 volunteers to post Twitter messages and drive up the popularity of favored topics. While the volunteers are ordered not to undercut Mr. Peña Nieto’s positive message of efficiency — he is broadcasting new ads this week equating the divisiveness in the race this year to that of the 2006 campaign — Mr. Nuño Mayer acknowledged that the campaign could not always control them.
“Twitter is like a jungle,” he said. “With the anonymity, it is like a free-for-all.”
A dizzy spell by Ms. Vázquez Mota during a speech and her failure to directly answer a student’s question on education policy ricocheted across YouTube and Twitter, though none of it carried the signature of her opponents’ official campaign or party.
Mexico has taken one of the more aggressive approaches toward regulating campaign speech, with the result that parties are repeatedly complaining to the election commission about opponents’ ads and remarks, and then calling the decision biased when it goes against them.
Some on the sidelines have said the effort to rein in negative advertisements is misguided; such ads serve a purpose when based on fact and “give more information about a candidate and their record,” said Jeffrey Weldon, chairman of the political science department at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
As the campaigns test the limits of the law, the election commission has publicly wrestled with the rules, with some members acknowledging that the Internet is impossible to regulate and that the agency is loath to infringe on freedom of expression.
Commission members, in a split decision, decided to allow a television commercial by Ms. Vázquez Mota’s party attacking Mr. Peña Nieto for failing to fulfill promises he made as governor of Mexico State.
“We believe for the benefit of having a more informed citizenry, our role as an authority should not inhibit and silence the discussion of relevant issues so voters can make a decision,” Benito Nacif, an election commissioner, told the newspaper Excelsior in an effort to explain why the agency permitted that ad, which called Mr. Peña Nieto a “liar.”
The Internet and social media, with their immediacy and the opportunities to communicate directly with voters, have also made it easier for candidates to buff their images.
Mr. Peña Nieto, facing off against the first woman to represent a major party, has deployed his wife, a soap opera star, in the technology fight. He has posted videos shot with her iPhone showing him “behind the scenes,” enjoying cupcakes with his children and in seemingly spontaneous chats with voters at events.
The third candidate in the race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, narrowly lost the 2006 election. His battering by advertisements calling him a “danger” to Mexico prompted the changes to the election law. In this race, he has used social networks to give himself a political makeover.
Mr. López Obrador, running third and moving away from his rabble-rouser persona, uses his own Web site, AMLO.si, to show down-to-earth images of him taking the subway, cuddling babies and chatting with peasants.
“The idea is to get the information on the Internet and then to get it out onto the streets,” said Jesús Ramírez, who is charge of the campaign’s Web strategy.
The López Obrador campaign has also asked its supporters to take photos of Mr. Peña Nieto’s political posters, which seem to be everywhere, and send them in to provide evidence for a complaint that Mr. Peña Nieto is exceeding spending limits.
For her part, Ms. Vázquez Mota, a former education secretary, has made no apologies for her tactics and seems unconcerned about the divisiveness of the race. “It is,” she told reporters the other day, “a campaign of contrasts.”
Chinese Company in Nicaragua Oil Investment
Inside Costa Rica. April 28, 2012
Chinese Camc Enterprises will built a hydrocarbons base in Nicaragua, with storing capacity for 1.8 million barrels of oil, by means of a contract to be signed Friday.
Francisco Lopez, vicepresident of Nicaraguan ALBA Nicaragua S.A. (Albanisa) and Shen Wei, general vice manager of Camc Enterprises, announced that the project is valued in 183 million dollars, and will take 20 months of construction, in a press release here Friday.
Lopez said the Chinese company won the tender for the execution of the project, which is just part of a mega-investment in the Nicaraguan north-western department of Leon: a big refinery conceived for the economic links between the member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alba).
Located in Miramar, close to Puerto Sandino, the base will permit to double the national reception capacity, as much as more storing and distribution for the Nicaraguan and other Central American countries.
Shen Wei, the Chinese executive, talked to Prensa Latina, and he said the base would comprise 15 tanks for fuel oil, diesel, jet-al (aviation fuel), gasoline and liquid gas.
Quick distribution of fuel oil and a system against fires will also be part of the base to be constructed, together with mechanisms to take advantage of sea water in case of fires, emergency plants and plants for treatment to water.
Engineer Deibris Aguilera (Venezuela), working in the Project, said the preparation for the land to be used for the construction of the base -103.78 acres- might be finished on May 15, after finishing all geological studies, quality control operations, study of the topographic features and others, to reduce costs and environmental impacts.
It is expected that the base will give direct social benefit, contributing to the increase of jobs.
Seventy to eighty percent of the people hired by Albanisa are living in Miramar or Puerto Sandino right now.
The execution is estimated in 50 million dollars and will ensure the arrival of ships carrying from 10,000 to 74,000 tons.
It might process 150,000 daily barrels, and it is calculated that the construction of the refinery might require a total of 6 billion dollars, 50 percent for petrochemical activity.
Finally, Lopez said it will improve the roads, thanks to the finishing of two sections of highways, with costs of 5 and 14.5 million dollars.
El Salvador economy minister quits
Reuters. April 27, 2012
(Reuters) - El Salvador's economy minister, Hector Dada, quit on Friday citing discrepancies with President Mauricio Funes over the economic direction of the tiny Central American nation.
El Salvador failed to meet some public spending goals in 2011, which led the International Monetary Fund to suspend a $750 million loan to the country this week.
The international agency said El Salvador's economic growth of 1.5 percent last year was lower than projected, while public spending and debt soared past expectations. The country's gross domestic product is seen rising between 2.0 percent and 2.5 percent this year.
Funes appointed deputy commerce and industry minister Armando Flores to succeed Dada.
(Reporting By Nelson Renteria; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Intel marks 15 years in Costa Rica
Matt Levin. Tico Times. April 27, 2012
In 1995, as Costa Rica faced diminishing foreign investment, the Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE) decided to chance it all.
Around the world CINDE offices had been closed due to dwindling funds, since the association no longer received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In the mid-1990s, the number of employees at CINDE dropped from 300 to 80. The only foreign office that stayed open was in New York City. And rumors circled that the New York office would be shuttered, and CINDE would be shut down completely.
The government insisted to CINDE’s head, Enrique Egloff, that the agency should be focused on attracting investment from apparel and garment makers. Instead CINDE chose to “bet their salaries” on a firm so big that Costa Rica barely had the room to support such a gigantic operation, recalled Armando Heilbron, head of the New York City CINDE office at the time.
After 19 meetings between Costa Rican officials and Intel, the U.S. company based in Santa Clara, California, agreed to build a 52-hectare microchip plant in Belén, a city with tax-free-zone incentives northwest of the capital. The initial investment represented $115 million.
“It was so unlikely that it got press around the world,” Heilbron said. “When it gets press around the world you get your little country put on the map.”
Heilbron remembered stories that proclaimed “from banana chips to microchips.” Intel’s decision shocked Latin American
rivals like Mexico, Brazil and Chile. In choosing to invest in Costa Rica, Intel altered the economy of the small Central American country. Costa Rica no longer relied on exporting fruits and coffee to sustain itself. The high-tech computer processor company is the No. 1 exporter in Costa Rica in 2012, a contribution that stands for 6 percent of gross domestic product.
On Wednesday night, Intel hosted a gala at the Central Bank Museum in San José, celebrating Intel’s 15th anniversary in the country. President Laura Chinchilla spoke. High-ranking government officials, Intel managers and U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Anne Slaughter Andrew were in attendance. The presentation included two studies demonstrating Intel’s influence on Costa Rica’s growth.
“Intel’s arrival can be seen as a bridge between the country’s future and the country’s past,” Chinchilla said.
The numbers signified the monumental changes brought to Costa Rica’s economy. Intel has invested $900 million since 1997, and the number of local employees has grown from 500 to 2,800. The company exports an average of more than $2 billion in products per year.
Still, the major announcement of the night came when Chinchilla challenged Intel to put more capital into Costa Rica, asking for $500 million over the next five years. She wants the Costa Rican government to work closely with Intel managers to find out what is necessary to make that massive figure a reality.
But the force of Intel’s arrival extends beyond the numbers. The computer technology leaders changed the landscape of education, business practices and foreign investment in Costa Rica, the fourth most competitive country in Latin America according to a report this week.
Since Intel’s move, more Costa Ricans have graduated with degrees in highly skilled areas like engineering or tech design. Costa Ricans went from knowing almost nothing about electronics to experts. There’s a greater emphasis on the sciences, math and technology in education curriculums, and many students learn English at a young age. One study showed that before Intel came to Costa Rica, 3,000 grade school students participated in the annual science fair. Now 600,000 students take part.
Workplace standards, infrastructure and safety measures have been enhanced since 1997. Workplaces are better-regulated in an attempt to stack up to international standards.
More than anything, Intel transformed the focus of the economy. After CINDE convinced Intel to invest here, other companies started wondering what the country had to offer. Costa Rica soon became the call center capital of Latin America. IT call centers and support centers for major business have hubs in the Central Valley. The free zones turned into a prime location for U.S. medical supply manufacturers like Boston Scientific. IBM also invested here.
One weakness the studies pointed out is the education system needs to keep advancing. Costa Rican schools seem to be falling behind the rapid pace of improving technology.
In addition, Costa Rica must cooperate better with Intel to not miss out on the company’s newest projects. In recent years, major investments that could have gone to Costa Rica went to Argentina, Mexico and Vietnam.
During his speech praising the relationship between Intel and the Costa Rican government, Intel Costa Rica General Manager Mike Forrest implored officials in attendance to focus on further developing its education system.
“A strong partnership between industry, government and academia is critical to achieving this goal,” Forrest said. “I look forward to continue partnering with the country in this challenge.”
If Intel ever did choose to leave, Costa Rica – whether due to an increase in production costs or a hike in taxes on free-zones companies – Heilbron believes the company’s influence would not be forgotten. The absence would leave a big hole in Costa Rica, Heilbron said, but there’d still be “a lot of things happening around it.”
The investment even has made it into textbooks, and is a popular case study in business programs and government policy courses. Heilbron, who works for the World Bank Group in the United States, said he’s met plenty of Ivy League graduates who learned the Intel case in Costa Rica in college.
The move even influenced other investment promotion agencies in the region, which learned from CINDE’s flexibility and forward thinking more than 15 years ago. ProNicaragua, named the best investment promotion agency in the world this month, picked up aspects of its investment strategy from Costa Rica, Heilbron said.
Seeing other successes both in Costa Rica and in the region is what leads Heilbron to think that Intel’s mark will be felt in Central America for a long time.
Said Heilbron: “There’s a transformation of footprints that are here to stay.”
Region: Trade, Security, Economy and Integration [contents]
LOLITA C. BALDOR. AP. April 29, 2012
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — In these days of shrinking U.S. defense budgets, the Obama administration is looking to South America to help monitor and protect the Asia-Pacific region in the years ahead.
During visits to Colombia, Brazil and Chile this past week, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta underscored their importance as military partners in the Pacific, where China is challenging U.S. influence in a number of countries. As those defense relationships grow, officials say it can only help U.S. economic and political ties across South America.
Panetta's talks also focused on how the United States can support their military efforts, including those directed at the expanding threat of cyberattacks, according to several senior defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were private.
U.S. officials left the region thinking that at some point there may be opportunities to talk with South American nations about helping to train Afghan forces after NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014. Officials would provide no details on which countries might eventually be willing to take on some of the training mission, which will need advisers as other NATO nations withdraw their troops.
With the U.S. turning its focus from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon's new military strategy puts more importance on the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea is a growing threat while China is building its military and working to expand its political and economic influence.
The Pentagon is poised to move more forces to the Pacific, including rotating units in and out of Australia. The U.S. has long provided training, equipment, assistance and a security umbrella for many of the region. With looming budget cuts that will reduce the size of the military, the U.S. is looking to South American countries to be more active global partners.
"The United States, just like other countries, are facing budget constrictions, which are going to affect the future," Panetta told reporters at a news conference in Brazil. "And what we believe is that the best way to approach the future is to develop partnerships, alliances, to develop relationships with other countries, share information, share assistance, share capabilities, and in that way we can provide greater security for the future."
Panetta would like to see South American countries use their greater military capability to train some Central American nations that are not as advanced.
Defense chiefs Juan Carlos Pinzon of Colombia, Celso Amorim of Brazil and Andres Allamand of Chile brought up cyberthreats as a major concern, including incidents of hacker attacks and data thefts, U.S. defense officials said.
The three countries, said one official said, want help from the U.S. in hardening their computer networks against breaches and increasing their technological skills. The official said there is a recognition of how vulnerable they are, and they want to learn more about the nature of the threat and how to combat it.
That threat is likely to involve China, which is steadily gaining as a top trading partner and economic developer in South America. It's surpassing the U.S. in trade with Brazil, Chile and Peru, and is a close second in Argentina and Colombia.
For the first time, U.S. intelligence officials publicly called out China late last year as a significant cyberthreat. While they did not directly tie attacks to the Beijing government, they said the Chinese are systematically stealing American high-tech data for their own economic gain. The unusually forceful public report seemed to signal a new, more vocal U.S. government campaign against the cyberattacks.
The Pentagon's clandestine National Security Agency is an acknowledged world leader in cybertechnologies. U.S. officials have struggled to work out ways for the government to help other nations as well as the private sector in the United States shore up critical networks.
To date, however, countries around the world have not come up with any detailed agreements on how best to work together. These issues present legal and political challenges, including conflicting laws and the lack of broadly accepted international guidelines for Internet oversight.
Panetta made it clear that cybersecurity was "a whole new arena" that all the nations are concerned about. He also encouraged South American nations to expand their security efforts to other regions, including Africa.
"The United States must remain a global power," Panetta said during a speech in Brazil. "But ... more and more nations are making and must make an important contribution to global security. We welcome and encourage this new reality because frankly it makes the world safer and all of our nations stronger."