Thursday, February 18, 2016

Obama to visit Cuba in March (and Argentina!) (Feb. 18, 2016)

The White House announced that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Cuba in March -- the first visit from a sitting president in 88 years.

It is a dramatic symbol of the ongoing thaw in hostilities between the two Cold War foes, and a continuation of the past year of diplomatic and business rapprochement between the two, reports Reuters.

Recently administration officials have said Obama wanted to make the trip, but needed to see progress on Cuba's human rights record, access to more information on the Internet for Cubans and a bigger role for investment on the island, reports the Miami Herald. There have been advances in latter two priorities especially.

Obama emphasized that there are still human rights concerns. "We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world," Obama said.

The announcement as top Commerce, Treasury and State Department officials were meeting with their Cuban counterparts in Washington for talks aimed at expanding business ties, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker called on Cuban officials to do more to stimulate business between the two countries. "Without specific changes on your side that allow the private sector to engage, our changes will not unlock the opportunities for the Cuban people that both of us want to see."

The March 21-22 visit will have Obama in Cuba when the Tampa Bay Rays play Cuba's national baseball team, notes the Miami Herald.

The visit will also have impact on the U.S. presidential race, notes Reuters. Two of the leading Republican candidates have Cuban immigrant parents and have criticized Obama's policy of reestablishing ties with the island.

Obama will then visit Argentina, where there is excitement about the potential renewal of closer relations between the two countries, reports La Nación.

News Briefs
  • Argentina agreed to pay two creditors more than $1.1 billion to resolve claims over defaulted debt, as part of the country's efforts to resolve long-running litigation over its 2002 default, reports Reuters. But the offer, which represents a 27.5 percent to 30 percent discount for creditors, still has not been accepted by four other leading debt holders including Elliott Management's NML Capital Ltd and Aurelius Capital Management LP.
  • And Argentina has reached a deal with lawyers pursuing a U.S. class action lawsuit over defaulted debt to resolve the case, announced a court-appointed mediator earlier this week. Exactly how many bondholders are covered by the class action settlement would be known in several weeks, reports Reuters.
  • In the meantime, Argentina is currying favor with U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa, and has asked him to drop orders that bar it from repaying foreign debt until the country reaches a settlement with disgruntled creditors from its 2001 default, reports Bloomberg.
  • As the long debt battle nears conclusion, "there are no real winners in this sorry affair," writes Steven Davidoff Solomon in the New York Times. He reviews the convoluted economic and legal issues of the case which has been going for over a decade and notes that "It all highlights how an entire country has been subject to the vicissitudes of luck and litigation strategy."
  • Protesters blocked major roads in Argentina yesterday in demonstrations calling for the release of a detained civil rights group leader, Milagro Sala, reports AFP. There were over 200 cuts around the country, reports La Nación. The leader of the Tupac Amaru indigenous rights movement, was jailed in January on public disorder charges over a street demonstration in her northern province of Jujuy. She now also faces charges of drug-trafficking and of fraud related to her campaign's social welfare projects.
  • The villainous Aedes aegypti mosquito spreading the Zika virus is also behind Argentina's worst dengue outbreak (possible epidemic) in the past seven years, reports the New York Times.
  • Contraception could be justified in regions affected by the Zika virus, said Roman Catholic Pope Francis yesterday. The statement could reignite a debate over the church's prohibition of the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus, according to the Wall Street Journal. But The Catholic church restated its opposition to abortion in all circumstances, reports theGuardian.
  • The outbreak, which has swept through the region in recent months, will have an economic impact of $3.5 billion in Latin America this year, the World Bank said today. Those that are most highly dependent on tourism could experience losses of more than 1 percent of GDP, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's Health Ministry confirmed 46 additional cases of infant microcephaly in the past week, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The epidemic "is also drawing attention to chronic diseases that have still not been defeated by one of the 10 biggest economies in the world," writes Eliane Brum in a Guardian op-ed. The mosquito "is unmasking a country characterised by huge inequalities, a fragile public health system and a shameful lack of basic sanitation, where less than half of the population has access to sewage collection. [It] also exposes a society contaminated by a religious morality that oppresses women."
  • A key ally of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was elected as the leader in the lower house of Congress yesterday. Leonardo Picciani was confirmed as PMDB house whip, strengthening Rousseff's chance of defeating an impeachment proposal in the Congress, reports Reuters.
  • It appears the proceedings against Rousseff have lost momentum, but her supporters are still worried, reports Bloomberg. The nearly two-year-long probe into a scheme of kickbacks in return for political favors at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, has implicated corporate executives, a billionaire banker and officials from the ruling Workers' Party -- some of whom remain in jail. And reports are now linking former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with rumors of corruption, though he has not been charged with any crime. 
  • The Honduran branch of Casa Alianza NGO denounced gang extermination squads that"that systematically carry out a strategy of social cleansing in order to create fear among the population." Their report came after the killing of five youths over the past week, killed in shootouts east of Tegucigalpa, reports the Latin Correspondent. "Records of violence show that at least 81 children and young people are killed every month in the country and more than 98 percent of crimes remain in total impunity," said Casa Alianza in a press release
  • An Honduran policy of capture and extradition to the United States of drug cartel bosses has contributed to a decrease in the country's notoriously high homicide rate, according to the U.N. backed National Autonomous University of Honduras' Observatory of Violence program. The murder rate dropped to 60 per 100,000 people from the 2014 rate of 68 per 100,000 people, also due to the dismantling of gangs of hitmen, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced long awaited economic reforms: an increase in the price of gas and a devaluation of one of the multiple exchange rates. Gas prices could rise by as much as 6,086 percent -- the first increase in nearly two decades, reports theGuardian. The official exchange rate used for food and medicine imports will weaken to 10 bolivars per dollar from 6.3, as of Thursday, while a second rate will be allowed to float.  While Maduro assured supporters that it is not part of an austerity plan, experts say the modest adjustments will have little success in lifting the failing economy, reports the Associated Press. The Central Bank said yesterday that inflation hit 181 percent last year, and the economy shrank by nearly 6 percent.
  • More predictions of Venezuela's imminent sovereign debt default from the Economist. The country is due to pay $2.3 billion, mainly to hedge funds and investors that specialize in emerging-market debt, next week. While that payment will likely be met, the risk of default on the remaining $64 billion of foreign-currency denominated bonds will rise sharply afterwards. (See last Thursday's and Tuesday's posts.)
  • A new conflict is brewing at Peru's La Bamba copper mining project, where families that were relocated to create the mine have occupied their former lands, reports Reuters. Earlier this month the Economist had a piece on conflicts between mining, hydrocarbons and infrastructure companies and communities in Peru and in the region in general. "Battles over the exploitation of natural resources have become common throughout Latin America. The Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America, a coalition of NGOs, logged 215 of them in 19 countries in 2014, led by Mexico, Peru and Chile."
  • Earlier this week Peru's electoral board did not determine whether "outsider" presidential hopeful Julio Guzmán will be able to participate in April elections. He is now seen as the biggest threat to front-runner Keiko Fujimori, and has tapped a well of support from Peruvians hoping to vote for someone new in a race dominated by well-known but unpopular politicians, reportsReuters. Peru's electoral board has blocked Guzman's party from registering for this year's race and could invalidate his candidacy if it rejects his appeals. Guzmán yesterday said that street demonstrations would keep him in the race to April elections if his lawyers fail to keep him from being thrown out on a technicality, reports Reuters in a subsequent piece.
  • About 200 former soldiers and officers demonstrated in uniform outside El Salvador's Supreme Court to demand the release of four former soldiers wanted in Spain for the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, reports the Associated Press. (See Feb. 8's briefs.)
  • Six people died of asphyxiation in a fire caused by a mob of protesters in the municipal building of El Alto, in Bolivia, reports EFE.
  • The U.S. Department of State accepted a request by Bolivian authorities to begin the extradition process for former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who would face charges over his alleged role in the deaths of Bolivians during a social uprising in October 2003, reports TeleSur.
  • Earlier this week Bolivia said the U.S. had cooked up an influence-peddling scandal that has embarrassed the president by disrupting multimillion-dollar trade deals by Chinese companies. President Evo Morales has said he is considering expelling the top U.S. diplomat in the South American country, Peter Brennan, over the affair, reports AFP.
  • Prosecutors in Colombia are investigating more than 100 reported cases of disappearances from La Modelo jail in Bogota between 1999 and 2001. Parts of the prison were controlled by inmates at the time, and prosecutors think inmates and visitors may have been killed, their bodies dismembered and thrown into the jail's sewers, reports the BBC.

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