Thursday, April 23, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 23, 2015

Papal diplomacy

Observers are excited about an upcoming papal visit to Cuba, scheduled before his September visit to the U.S. -- and speculate what other diplomatic miracles for Latin America might be up his sleeve.

The Vatican announced Pope Francis' Cuba trip yesterday. The visit will highlight his role in the thawing of relations between the two countries and will provide a boost for further reconciliation efforts. Though Obama's policy has received flak at home, the Washington Post reports that the pope's Latin American provenance might have given him more perspective on the anachronistic nature of the U.S. embargo.

The Post also notes that the Catholic Church is the "only significant independent institution" on the island and the pontiff's popularity will give him an important platform to pressure the Cuban government towards further relaxing economic and political controls.

The trip also reflects the Pope's "commitment to helping Latin America come to terms with the role the Cuban Revolution played in the region," according to the Los Angeles Times. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would later become Pope Francis, wrote a book about the first papal visit to the island in 1998, entitled "Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro," which included topics such as socialism, atheism, liberty, democracy and the embargo.

The visit will also help break Cuba's isolation, according to a Vatican expert quoted in Página 12. Since the U.S.-Cuba talks started, the Cuban Foreign Minister has been in France and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs has been in Havana, negotiating a cooperation agreement expected by the end of the year.

But will the papal diplomatic influence extend region-wide? Jean Louis De La Vaissiere, director de la Agence France Presse at the Vatican says it's unclear whether the trip will have indirect impact on Venezuela. "The Vatican has tried a mediating role, but sometimes President Maduro's choices are viewed with concern by Rome," he told Página 12.

A little further off the radar, in a Nueva Sociedad piece examining the Bolivia-Chile conflict over oceanic access, Sergio Molina Monasterios says the Pope's visit to Bolivia this year might impact the apparently intractable problem. Chile captured the lands that allowed Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean in 1883, and sealed the deal with a pact in 1904. Though talks between the two countries were held under Bachelet's government, they stalled under the Piñera administration, and Bolivia opted to sue Chile in International Court of Justice in the Hague. Bolivia hasn't officially asked Pope Francis to mediate, but Molina says such an intervention would be Chile's worst nightmare, as Chilean diplomats continue to believe they got the worst end of the stick in 1978 when Pope John Paul II intervened to stop an imminent war with Argentina.

News Briefs

  • The U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala's (CICIG) should continue to operate in Guatemala for two more years, concluded a presidential commission put together to evaluate the groups' continuity. The president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court and member of the evaluating commission, Josué Baquiax, said the "utility and objectivity" of CICIG's work since its 2007 creation determined their recommendation to continue its work. President Otto Perez Molina has questioned the CICIG in terms of sovereignty, saying Guatemalan's must fix their own justice system (see Monday's post). But the group's successes -- it has helped bring 161 public officials to trial for corruption -- notably leading to 20 arrests last week in relation to a customs bribery ring -- has led to an outpouring of support for its mission (see yesterday's post).
  • The fight over the polemic Tía María copper mining project in Perú continued to intensify yesterday: a protester was killed in clashes with the police and several other protesters were wounded. Protesters, mainly farmers who grow crops for export, say they fear the proposed $1.4 billion mine will pollute nearby agricultural valleys in Peru's southern region of Arequipa, reports Reuters. Tia Maria has been stalled since 2011 after three protesters died in similar rallies. La Mula reports that the scene was "warlike" and notes that protest strikes in the province of Isay have been ongoing for nearly a month, and yesterday the broader Arequipa region joined in the strike. La Mula published background to the project last month.
  • The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the Brazil Action Plan, approved in December, is an example of migrant policy that should be exported to the rest of the world. The region-wide agreement covers new migration tendencies, and how to face new challenges, such as forced displacement related to organized crime and refugee protection, reports EFE.
  • Over 4,000 Chileans have been evacuated after the Calbuco volcano surprisingly erupted twice, after four decades of inactivity. So far only ash has been observed -- no lava or hot rocks -- but the volcano, about 1,000 km south of Santiago, is considered one of the three most dangerous in the country. 
  • Chile's Congress is evaluating a proposal to legalize up to six marijuana plants for cultivation per household, medicinal marijuana use of with prior medical authorization and possession of up to 10 grams for personal consumption. Chile would become the second country in the region to legalize marijuana, after Uruguay. The Latin Correspondent reports that the current drug enforcement system in Chile tends to catch low-level consumers rather than drug traffickers. Cannabis activists worry that personal consumption is overly penalized, and question whether the proposed law goes far enough. 
  • Animal Político sums up four proposals under debate in Mexico's Senate for a new law on forced disappearances in Mexico. Presented by the PRI, the PRD, the PAN, and organizations of civil society, all four proposals agree that authorities must act automatically in the case of forced disappearances (without needing victims' families to initiate action), and that nearly anybody can report a forced disappearance. 
  • Though the Mexican government has punished at least 101 public functionaries for corruption and imposed sanctions for over $22 million, not a cent has been paid and barely a dozen have bothered to challenge their accusations, according to an internal report accessed by El País.
  • Sixty percent of Latin America's youth work informally, according to a new International Labor Organization, reports EFE. Though unemployment is not as dramatic as in other regions, some 27 million workers aged 15-24 are informally employed.
  • Amnesty International and other organizations of civil society presented El Salvador's government -- all three branches -- with 300,000 signatures asking the country to depenalize abortion. El Salvador's abortion policy is particularly draconian, with no exceptions for rape, incest, danger to the mother's health and fetal inviability. 
  • "The political storm in the DEA is a blow to U.S. drug policy credibility," Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter told EFE, in reference to Michele Leonhart's resignation in light of agents' sex scandal revelations. "The main challenge for the next director will be to reestablish the credibility of the agency and that won't be easy."
  • Argentina's Memoria Abierta released the video archive of the 1985 Trial of the Juntas, in which members of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 were judged for their role in the Dirty War that "disappeared" over 30,000 people. At the time only brief selections of the films were aired on national television, and without sound. 
  • An NBA delegation will open a four-day basketball training camp in Cuba. The athletic diplomacy trip, possible thanks to new relaxed permissions for Americans to visit the island, aims at top-level players as well as youths, reports the AP.

  • Ecuador's government is betting on abstinence for its teens, reversing course on a national family planning strategy which distributed free birth control to youths. President Rafael Correa considered that the program encouraged "hedonism," according to El Páis, criticizing health fairs where condoms are given out "like gum." 

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