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Americas

Tag Archives | Americas

China, Nicaragua and the Canal

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President Daniel Ortega and Wang Jing celebrate after agreeing to grant the businessman the rights to develop a waterway to rival the Panama Canal. Source: Washington Times

A Chinese company and a former Sandinista revolutionary leader (three-time and current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega) are teaming up to revive an old idea — create an alternative to the Panama Canal that will traverse through Nicaragua.

President Daniel Ortega and Wang Jing celebrate after agreeing to grant the businessman the rights to develop a waterway to rival the Panama Canal. Source: Washington Times

With this week’s approval by the Nicaraguan legislature of construction of a trans-oceanic canal through the country, the draft agreement between the Hong Kong registered company and the government of Nicaragua stands a decent chance of proceeding. Is it a nutty idea? Not according to the government and project developers, who see it as economically transformational for Nicaragua, the region, and global consumers, who in theory stand to benefit from reduced shipping costs.

Never mind that the 155 mile-long waterway will be three times longer than the Panama Canal, will cost $40 billion to construct, will take an estimated 11 years to construct, or that the Panama Canal is just about to finish doubling its own capacity to accommodate larger ships and heavier traffic. None of that appears to matter to the project developers. So, how many years of shipping fees would it take to recoup at $40 billion investment? Answer: a long, long time. That will no doubt matter to prospective investors.

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Climate Change and the Bahamas

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Kristine Stump
Kristine Stump

Kristine Stump

National policymakers usually measure the effects of global climate change in terms of dollar economic loss—especially when tallying the toll of superpower storms. Scientists often measure climate change by atmospheric concentration; the most recent circular announced that the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400 parts per million (ppm) in CO2 concentration. The magnitude of culture loss from climate change is harder to calculate but just as significant. Its storytelling has just begun. The world’s island cultures are among those most threatened by climate change. Consider the Bahamas, America’s closest Caribbean neighbor, an island chain whose fortunes rise and fall daily with the tide.

About 60 percent of the country’s economy is tourism, while 80 percent of its land lies less than 1 meter above sea level. A 1 meter sea level rise would place more than a third of major tourism properties at risk, as well as 38 percent of airports, 14 percent of road networks and 90 percent of sea ports. As inland regions around the world endure the temporary fury of intense thunderstorms and hurricanes, islands and coastal regions like the Bahamas suffer these effects and more. They see slower-burning climate phenomenon, like saltwater intrusion into the country’s precious freshwater aquifers, coral reef bleaching, and beach erosion.

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Canada’s Gateway Economics

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President Barack Obama, center,  with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon in Guadalajara in 2009.  Pete Souza/White House

On May 24, 2013 Canada concluded the latest round of negotiations for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a grouping of states that includes Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. However, the TPP is only one aspect of Canada’s broader strategy to promote trade and economic growth.

President Barack Obama, center, with Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon in Guadalajara in 2009. Pete Souza/White House

In a recent interview, Ed Fast, Canada’s Minister of International Trade revealed the savvy behind Canada’s macro-economic strategy. While Canada has sought trade relations with a variety of states, the underlying purpose of these linkages is to establish platforms for regional connections. In a recent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Ed Fast referred to the strategy of securing free-trade agreements with the purpose of attaining regional connections in the future as ‘gateways.’ The thinking is brilliantly simple: establish trade links with important regional actors and use that relationship as a springboard to extend economic connection regionally.

States looking to secure free-trade agreements should take a page out of the book Canada’s current government is writing. Particularly in Latin America, Canada has sought a great deal of economic linkages since 2006. Under the leadership of Stephen Harper, Canada has secured comprehensive agreements with a variety of Latin American states that include: Colombia, Honduras, Panama and Peru, in addition to the previously established agreements with Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico. Of the handful of states Canada holds free-trade agreements with in Latin America many of them are members of a regional trade bloc called the Pacific Alliance. Employing Ed Fast’s gateway economics Canada has secured trade deals with states that are interconnected with other regional economies. It is a trade policy that expands through derivation.

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Genocide in Guatemala: The Conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt

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Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court for his participation in crimes against the Mayans from 1982 and 1983.  Source: abc.es

It has been hailed as the first conviction for genocide of a former head of state in his own country, and certainly the first of a former Latin American strongman.

Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court for his participation in crimes against the Mayans from 1982 and 1983. Source: abc.es

Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted by a Guatemalan court on Friday for his participation in crimes against the Mayans during his rule in 1982 and 1983. Montt’s sentences were steep: 50 years for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity. As ever with genocide, evidence of an intentioned plan to destroy a race had to be shown. The three-judge panel led by Yassmin Barrios was satisfied that the definition had been made out, finding that there had been a clear and systematic plan to exterminate the Ixil people. Prosecutors allege that up to 1,700 of the Ixil Maya were killed, in addition to torture, rape and the destruction of villages. The acts had occurred as part of a policy of clearing the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and sympathisers.

The heart of the defence by Ríos Montt was that, as a political leader, Montt could not be held accountable for military matters conducted in a rural province some few hours northwest of the Guatemalan capital. “I never authorised it, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that race, ethnicity or religion to be attacked. I never did it!” In this, Montt was echoing the sentiments of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was found constructively guilty for having not stopped the massacres that took place in the Philippines.

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Time to Strengthen the Cuban Embargo

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Street scene in Havana, Cuba. rickroma78/Flickr

When thinking of U.S.-Cuba relations, the trade embargo, or el bloqueo, is first and foremost on people’s minds.

Street scene in Havana, Cuba. rickroma78/Flickr

In 2009, President Barack Obama eased the travel ban, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba, and again in 2011, allowing students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba, as recently demonstrated by American pop culture figures, Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z. Despite a history of hostile transgressions, the U.S. is inconsistent with its implementation of the embargo, which sends mixed signals to Havana and displays our weak foreign policy regarding Cuba.

Undoubtedly, Cuba is capitalizing on this weakness by using the embargo as a scapegoat for all of its woes without any immediate fear of reinstated restrictions. Because the goal is to promote Cuban democracy and freedom through non-violent and non-invasive means while refraining from providing any support to the current oppressive Cuban government, the current legislation regarding the embargo and travel ban against Cuba needs to be modernized and strengthened. The need for an embargo has never been more important or potentially effective, even considering the current human rights and economic arguments against the embargo.

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Can Nieto Deliver the Goods?

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Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto

Mexico’s President Nieto was handed a poor set of cards when he assumed power last December.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto

His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, was brought down by a bloody war against the drug cartels that led to more civilian deaths than the total number of U.S. troops killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Mexico’s GDP per capita shrank more than seven percent between 2008 and 2010. And Nieto received just 38 percent of the popular vote representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — which had a corrupt and authoritarian past for much of Mexico’s modern political history. While economic and security conditions have improved under his brief leadership, it cannot yet be said that President Nieto has earned the average Mexican’s trust, or that his honeymoon period will last.

Between December 2012 and March 2013, Mexico’s homicide rate decreased 14 percent year-on-year, but many Mexicans remain justifiably skeptical that this trend will continue given the ongoing drug-related violence in many parts of the country. Early in Calderon’s presidency, the national army was sent to confront the drug cartels and the homicide rate also declined, only to be followed by a surge in killings that cost more than 60,000 lives.

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Justice Delayed: Efraín Ríos Montt trial Suspended

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Pictured: Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala's former dictator

Truth commissions are implemented in countries where the judicial system has been tainted by corruption and malfeasance, typically to find ways to defend or justify the perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Pictured: Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s former dictator

The recent decision to suspend the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala City illustrates the weakness and susceptibility of Guatemala’s judicial system. Guatemala’s progression toward truth and reconciliation began during the 1994 Oslo Accords with the formation of the Historical Clarification Commission. The internationally sponsored commission was created to investigate human rights violations that occurred throughout the 36-year conflict. Its resulting evidence, based upon domestic and international documents, illustrated the state’s devastating assault on the country’s rural, primarily Mayan, communities.

After a five-year investigation, the commission found “that human rights violations caused by state repression were repeated, and…were…especially severe from 1978 to 1984.” Moreover, it was found that the bloodiest period of the civil war occurred “between 1981 and 1983,” where the military, commanded by then-President Efraín Ríos Montt, willingly “committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people.”

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Enrique Peña Confronts Hard Realities

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Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto speaking in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León

With the election of Enrique Peña Nieto late last year, Mexican voters demonstrated that their distrust of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was overshadowed by their anxieties surrounding the pressing issues facing the country.

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto speaking in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León

The PRI claims that its decades-long tenure during the 20th century means that it knows how to successfully run Mexico, and this time Mexican voters agreed by a substantial margin. Setting arguments regarding its record aside, the PRI holds only a plurality in both houses, and so it remains to be seen whether it can be consistent and effective in forming the coalitions necessary to pass meaningful legislation. In his first four months in office Enrique Peña Nieto has quickly set the tone of his administration through a series of bold, attention-grabbing measures designed to build momentum and gain popularity.

Nieto’s progress in taking on telecoms and television monopolies and reforming Mexico’s abhorrent education system has been meaningful and real; it is paramount, however, to not mistake substance for style. Nieto is off to a good start, but if he is indeed serious about succeeding in his ambitions to raise Mexico’s annual growth rate to 6% and to nurture the country into a fully developed power, his battle for reform has only just begun.

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Understanding Hugo Chávez’s Legacy

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Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in Fort Tiuna, Venezuela in 2011. Source: Venezuela's government

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez in Fort Tiuna, Venezuela in 2011. Source: Venezuela’s government

In early December 2001, I was searching through my files looking for a column topic. At the time I was writing on foreign policy for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the town’s two dailies. A back page clip I had filed and forgotten caught my attention: on Nov. 7 the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the U.S. State Department had convened a two-day meeting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Venezuela. My first thought was, “Uh, oh.” I knew something about those kinds of meetings. There was one in 1953 just before the CIA and British intelligence engineered the coup in Iran that put the despicable Shah into power. Same thing for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.

Hugo Chávez had reaped the ire of the Bush administration when, during a speech condemning the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he asked if bombing Afghanistan in retaliation was a good idea? Hugo Chávez called it “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” not a very good choice of words, but, in retrospect, spot on. The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraqi War have been utterly disastrous for the U.S. and visited widespread terror on the populations of both countries. Upwards of a million Iraqis died as a direct and indirect effect of the war, five million were turned into refugees, and the bloodshed is far from over. Much the same—albeit on a smaller scale—is happening to the Afghans.

Would that we had paid the man some attention. But for the Bush administration, Chávez’s statement presented an opportunity to rid itself of a troublesome voice. In came the White House’s Latin America “A Team.”  The top gun in that odious outfit was Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and former Reagan Administration point man for the 1981-87 Contra War against Nicaragua. The General Accounting Office had nailed Reich during the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal for “prohibited convert propaganda,” planting false stories and opinion pieces in newspapers. A Cuban exile, Reich had helped spring Orlando Bosch in 1987 from a Venezuelan prison where Bosch was in jail for bombing a civilian Cuban airliner and killing 73 people. Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, also a Cuban exile and former chief of staff for the Contras, was the Pentagon side of the team.

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Print Media on Hugo Chávez’s Death

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The news of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death understandably made headlines across the world. Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday after a long fight against cancer. In his place, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will assume the presidency until new national elections are held.

To Chávez’s credit or detriment, he stirred opinion across the political spectrum. Following Chávez’s death, Venezuela has announced a week of mourning. Chávez died at the age of 58 after 14 years serving as Venezuela’s president. Thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to grieve his passing. As Chávez’s body was being transported to the Military Academy, thousands came out to greet the procession. As expected, his fellow leaders began arriving in the country’s capital, Caracas, to pay their respects. Among them, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

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Venezuela’s More Moderate Future after Hugo Chávez

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluting during the Venezuelan independence bicentenary celebrations at the National Pantheon of Caracas, Venezuela.  David Fernandez/EPA

“That’s what Chávez means to us and to our history; our Chávez is the 21st Century liberator.” – Vice President Nicolás Maduro

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluting during the Venezuelan independence bicentenary celebrations at the National Pantheon of Caracas, Venezuela. David Fernandez/EPA

Much will be written and said in the coming days and weeks about what the future of Venezuela, and Latin America for that matter, will look like following the death of Hugo Chávez. Can Chavismo survive without Chávez? Will the Venezuelan Court demand elections be called or will Vice President Nicolás Maduro retain power? If elections are called, can the opposition reorganize itself quickly enough to pose a serious challenge? While these and many other questions exist and remain to be answered, one can confidently assume that the Venezuela of the future will be a more moderate state than the current Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela that Chávez leaves behind.

This assumption stems primarily from the economic conditions that the new government, whatever form it may take, inherits. An unsustainable deficit problem, an unresolved currency dilemma, and deteriorating infrastructure along with a number of other economic challenges will force the Venezuelan government to rein in the expenditures on a number of the social improvement programs Chávez loved so much. Cuts like this are likely to erode support for the new government from Chavez’s strongest constituency. The only foreseeable financial savior for Venezuela is the oil economy that has supported the state so well in the past.

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Will Rafael Correa Inherit the Leadership of Latin American Socialism?

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Will Ecuador’s Rafael Correa be able to fill the leadership vacuum that will emerge in a post-Castro/post-Chavez era?

With Hugo Chavez apparently near death, the question of who will inherit his legacy as the vanguard of 21st century socialism in Latin America is foremost in the minds of many.

Will Ecuador’s Rafael Correa be able to fill the leadership vacuum that will emerge in a post-Castro/post-Chavez era?

With Chavez soon out of the picture, and the Castro brothers in Cuba not far behind him, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa - who has an established record of promoting socialism, has effectively challenged conventional wisdom in the region, and who is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with — seems a natural choice to fill that role. During last month’s presidential election, in which he won 57% of the vote, Rafael Correa secured a mandate to advance his “Citizen’s Revolution”. But the head winds associated with fluctuating oil prices, a worsening foreign investment climate, rising violent crime, isolation from international financial institutions, and a growing domestic opposition will undoubtedly have an impact on his ability to be as successful as he has been in the past. If Correa plays his cards wisely, and has a bit of luck, he may still be able to pull it off.

Although Rafael Correa’s record in office is mixed, his popularity is attributable to greater political stability, poverty reduction and greater economic equality. No Ecuadorian president in the past century has remained in power as long as Correa, nor has had the ability to actually implement a long-term agenda. Although nearly one in three Ecuadorians currently live below the poverty line, this is five percent lower than in 2007. And the share of income earned by the wealthiest ten percent declined from 43% to 38% from 2007 to 2009.

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America’s Goals and Opportunities in Latin America

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President Barack Obama participates in the CEO Summit of the Americas panel discussion at the Hilton Hotel, Cartagena, Colombia, April 14, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

“I know there are frustrations and that some call for legalization. For the sake of the health and safety of our citizens - all our citizens - the United States will not be going in this direction.” – President Barack Obama, speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia

President Barack Obama participates in the CEO Summit of the Americas panel discussion at the Hilton Hotel, Cartagena, Colombia, April 14, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

This past December marked the 190th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 policy declaration by President James Monroe that essentially made Latin America the exclusive reserve of the United States. And if anyone has any doubts about what lay at the heart of that Doctrine, consider that since 1843 the U.S. has intervened in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay, Grenada, Bolivia, and Venezuela. In the case of Nicaragua, nine times, and Honduras, eight. Sometimes the intrusion was unadorned with diplomatic niceties: the U.S. infantry assaulting Chapultepec Castle outside Mexico City in 1847, Marines hunting down insurgents in Central America, or Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa through Chihuahua in 1916.

At other times the intervention was cloaked in shadow—a secret payoff, a nod and a wink to some generals, or strangling an economy because some government had the temerity to propose land reform or a re-distribution of wealth. For 150 years, the history of this region, that stretches across two hemispheres and ranges from frozen tundra to blazing deserts and steaming rainforests, was in large part determined by what happened in Washington. As the wily old Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz once put it, the great tragedy of Latin America is that it lay so far from God and so near to the United States.

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Iran’s Inroads in Latin America

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Reading the text of a bill that was recently signed into law by President Barack Obama would instill fear in the hearts of ordinary Americans. Apparently, barbarians coming from distant lands are at work. They are gathering at the US-Mexico border, cutting fences and ready to wreak havoc on an otherwise serene American landscape.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Never mind that crazed, armed to the teeth, homegrown American terrorists are killing children and terrorizing whole cities. It is the Iranian menace that we are meant to fear according to the new law. When compounded with the other imagined threats of Hezbollah and Hamas, all with sinister agendas, then the time is right for Americans to return to their homes, bolt their doors and squat in shelters awaiting further instructions, for evidently, “The Iranians are coming.”

It is as comical as it is untrue. But “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” which as of Dec. 28 is an official US law, is not meant to be amusing. It is riddled with half-truths, but mostly complete and utter lies. Yes, Iran’s influence in Latin America is on the rise. However, by US standards, the expanding diplomatic ties, extending trade routes and such are considered a threat to be ‘countered’ or per Forbes magazine’s endless wisdom, ‘confronted.’

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The World’s Most Dangerous People: Apolitical Narco-Terrorism and the Maras

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Brazilian police patrol a favela in Rio De Janeiro. Marcelo Sayao/EPA

Where would you guess is the most dangerous place in the world. Iraq? Afghanistan? Maybe Colombia or Mexico with its spate of cartel violence?

Brazilian police patrol a favela in Rio De Janeiro. Marcelo Sayao/EPA

Actually, it’s none of the above. In fact, in comparison to the world’s most dangerous nation - Honduras - Mexico seems downright cushy. A citizen of Honduras is over six times more likely to be murdered than a Mexican national. While a young man in Honduras is roughly 91 times more likely to be violently killed than a young man in Western Europe. Even the world’s second most dangerous country, El Salvador, has only about 2/3 of Honduras’s murder rate. Why are these Central American countries so violent? As is always the case - there isn’t a single, simple answer but there are definitely some undeniable contributors. Chief among these is the increasing size and escalating violence of entrenched, drug-trafficking, cartel-connected street gangs- Central America’s “Maras.”

While more than 900 Maras reportedly operate between South America and Mexico, with anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000 members, two of them are responsible for a huge percentage of the violence- Mara Salvatrucha (aka MS-13) and 18th Street (aka Mara-18, M-18, Calle 18, Barrio 18, etc.). MS-13 is fairly well known, having received a considerable amount of press, often as a variation of “The World’s Most Dangerous Gang,” 18th St., however, is far less likely to draw the attention of media outlets, and mentions that are made usually manifest as a name in front of a bullet point on a list of big gangs. This is a strange oversight as 18th St. is at least as violent, cartel connected and organized as MS-13 and far larger- twice as big by some estimations.

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