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Weekly Roundup: CentAm Presidential Polls, Brazil's Refugees, Food Access in the Americas

January 17, 2014

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Maduro Reshuffles Economic Team with New Price Control Law Imminent

On January 15, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shuffled his economic team, tapping Rodolfo Marco as finance minister. Marco previously presided over the Public Banks Ministry, which is now merging with the Finance Ministry. The outgoing finance minister—Nelson Merentes—will return to his previous position as president of the Central Bank. Maduro announced the new team during his state of the union address, noting that the new Fair Prices Law—which puts a 30 percent profit margin cap on businesses—would soon go into effect.

Bogota's Mayor Holds on to His Seat—For Now

It's been a rollercoaster of a week for Gustavo Petro, Bogota's embattled mayor. On January 13, Colombia's Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez ratified his decision to dismiss the mayor, claiming Petro had made an unconstitutional move in replacing private garbage collectors with a public-sector service. But the following day, a judge temporarily suspended Petro's removal. Now, Petro will need a definitive court decision to stay in power—though if he does, he will face a recall vote in March. With an infographic, La Silla Vacía explains the next steps in the judicial process.

Read an AS/COA Online news analysis about Petro’s fight to keep his seat.

Ruling Party Candidate Tops Poll in El Salvador

A new CID-Gallup poll released this week puts El Salvador's Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front as the leader ahead of the country's February 2 presidential election. Sánchez Cerén has 49 percent, with San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance polling second with 37 percent. Former president and Unity coalition candidate Antonio Saca came in third with 14 percent. The poll shows that Sánchez Cerén is supported largely by male voters who have a college education, live outside the capital city, and support President Mauricio Funes. Potential voters who live in the capital and believe crime is getting worse tend to support Quijano, the poll indicates. Meanwhile, Saca polls strongly among youth and independent voters.

Read an AS/COA blog post about El Salvador's first presidential debate held on Sunday. 

Mixed Messages: Poll Figures Point to Costa Rica's "Atypical" Presidential Race

Ahead of the Central American country's February 2 presidential elections, a January 14 Unimer poll put the Broad Front's Congressman José María Villalta ahead of his contenders with 22.2 percent of voter support. Johnny Araya, the ruling National Liberation Party candidate and the former mayor of San José, followed closely behind at 20.3 percent. However, a January 16 CID-Gallup poll named Araya the frontrunner with 39 percent—just short of the 40 percent a candidate must garner to avoid a runoff—while Villalta polled at 26 percent. Though Araya said he does "not really believe" the CID-Gallup numbers, political analyst Victor Ramírez told the AFP that one thing is sure: this electoral process has been "totally atypical" as the number of undecided voters continues to grow and party lines shift.

Mexican Forces Struggle to Restore Order in Michoacan

This week, the Mexican government sought to draw down conflict in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan state, where vigilante groups, or autodefensas, have been operating against an organized crime group known as the Knights Templar. The week began with Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong urging vigilantes to lay down their weapons, followed by clashes on Tuesday between soldiers and autodefensas. The federal government also named a new commissioner of security in the state, Alberto Castillo, and by Thursday, federal police claimed security control in 20 municipalities in Tierra Caliente. Still, many of the autodefensas refuse to give up their weapons while local supporters say they offer protection in a state where federal forces have failed to restore peace since the federal government began its offensive against organized crime in 2007. But Castillo shared a warning on Thursday, cautioning that the Familia Michoacana, a cartel that preceded the Knights Templar, also initially portrayed itself as protecting state residents against the Zetas cartel. “[W]hen you start taking control, making decisions and feeling run the risk of reaching that point,” he said in a radio interview.

First Stop, Mexico for U.S. Commerce Secretary

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker's first trade mission takes place next month and she's heading to Mexico, where, from February 3 through 7, she will lead a delegation of 17 companies to the capital city and Monterrey. A press release about the trade mission notes that 22 U.S. states count Mexico as their primary or secondary destination for exports.

Her trip precedes President Barack Obama's travels to Mexico for the North American Leaders summit in Toluca on February 19.

Assessing the Latest on Refugees in Brazil

O Estado de São Paulo reports that the governor of Brazil's Acre state plans to ask the federal government to close the border to Peru and prohibit Haitians from entering. Currently, around 1,200 Haitian migrants are living in a space for 300 people in the town of Brasileia. Since 2012, roughly 15,000 Haitians have entered the state, and the daily number of migrants now stands at 70 to 80 people a day.

In 2013, however, the largest number of officially recognized refugees entering the country came from Syria, with almost 300 people arriving in 2013, reports Deutsche Welle. The Brazilian government began issuing humanitarian visas to Syrians in September 2013, but some refugees are arriving on tourist visas. To gain refugee status once they're in Brazil, Syrians must wait for an interview with the federal police, which can take up to nine months. 

Ahead of Brazil's World Cup, Supply and Demand in the Spotlight

The Brazilian National Aviation Agency (ANAC) authorized nearly 2,000 new flights between June 6 and July 20 of this year to fulfill demand for the World Cup. According to ANAC, the decision should bring ticket prices down, as only 4 percent of seats for this period have been sold, according to Marcelo Guaranys, president of the agency. But demand isn’t the only issue; high prices are, too. At least two airlines agreed to put a price cap on domestic flights during the event, and the government is seeking more transparency for hotel prices. The National Consumer Secretariat requested hotels in the 12 host cities publish their high season rates on their websites in order for tourists to compare them with World Cup prices. But the government has not gone as far as to impose price controls. 

After Five-Year Wait, Chile’s Piñera Approves Pharmaceutical Law

This week, President Sebastián Piñera approved legislation, under consideration since 2009, that targets pharmacies and regulates prescription drugs sales, reports La Tercera.  Reforms include making medications less expensive by requiring pharmacies to stock generic drugs, and also ensuring that other retailers will carry medicine in communities with no pharmacy. The reform is a welcome change in a country where more than one million citizens live in cities without a pharmacy, making Chile home to the lowest number of pharmacies per capita in Latin America, notes The Economist's Americas View blog.

Peru Moves ahead with Controversial Gas Project

The Camisea gas project—Peru's largest energy development—is one step closer to expanding operations in the Amazon in spite of UN recommendations against it, writes The Guardian. Pluspetrol, the company behind the project, plans to drill 18 wells and undertake seismic tests in an area reserved for indigenous peoples near Manu National Park where Unesco says biological diversity "exceeds that of any other place on Earth." UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya expressed concerns during a visit in December about the impact on the indigenous population, and recommended that the government "shouldn't proceed with the proposed expansion without previously and conclusively establishing that their human rights will not be violated."

Bolivia's President Appoints New Heads of Senate and House

On January 16, President Evo Morales elected Eugenio Rojas as the new president of the Senate and Marcelo Elio as the new head of the House of Representatives, reports Infolatam. Both Rojas and Elio had the support of the Movement for Socialism party, which has a majority in both houses. Rojas and Elio will officially start in their positions when the new congressional session begins on January 22. 

Guatemala's State of the Union Overshadowed by Powder Attack of VP

This week, President Otto Pérez Molina gave his state of the union speech, outlining improvements in security, health, and housing, among other topics. Plaza Pública points out, though, that given numbers in the president's first state of the union last year, it appears acute child malnutrition rose 30 percent. The speech was overshadowed by an attack by two women who threw lime powder at Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s face, leading to her brief hospitalization. (H/T Pan American Post)

Four Years after Earthquake, Has U.S. Aid to Haiti Helped?

Four years after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, a GlobalPost analysis shows limited U.S. aid impact, despite $3.6 billion in U.S. aid pledged to help rebuild the country. Only 5.4 percent of U.S. aid in Haiti through fiscal year 2012 reached Haitian organizations or companies, and only 2,649 of the 15,000 homes promised by the United States have been built. Economic investments have also fallen short of expectations: the $170 million the United States invested in the Caracol Industrial Park created fewer than 3,000 jobs, and the $37 million credit loaned to Haitian banks was rarely distributed to women and first-time borrowers. While Haitians are living longer and have better healthcare access compared to a decade ago, aid programs fall short of having a “durable” impact, says Harmel Cazeau of Haiti's National Coordination for Food Security.

Visualizing LatAm Protest Themes

Using keywords in the English-language press, the Global Database of Events, Languages, and Tone blog employed the Global Knowledge Graph to show top themes in Brazil's 2013 protests and compared them to protest themes throughout Latin America. The terms "education" and "economy" were the most mentioned themes in Brazil’s protests—as they also were in 11 other countries in the region. The blog cautions that the themes don't necessarily reflect protesters' demands, rather the themes of the protests' media coverage.

Riding the Entrepreneurship Wave in Latin America

A wave of entrepreneurship is part of the changing culture in Latin America, reports BBC. In Peru, for example, people historically started businesses as a last resort, "but now, for the first time, people are choosing to be entrepreneurs," says owner of online platform Gary Urteaga. Still, the region faces challenges as few people speak English compared to in Africa and Asia, and countries are pressured to invest in healthcare and education rather than technology and innovation.

How do the Americas Rank on Food Security?

Argentina ranks first in Latin America as the region's best place to eat, followed by Colombia, OxFam's new Global Food Index shows. Using an interactive graphic, the index provides a global snapshot of 125 countries and ranks them based on four factors: access to food, food affordability, food quality, and health outcomes such as diabetes and obesity. Top performers in the region include Venezuela for access to food, Mexico for affordability, and Argentina for food quality. In the diabetes and obesity category, all North American countries showed higher rates than their South American counterparts.