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Weekly Roundup: Colombia's Drones, Mexico's Energy Reform, and the NSA's LatAm Data Centers

Weekly Roundup AS/COA

August 02, 2013

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Uruguay’s Lower House Approves Controversial Drug Bill

Just before midnight on July 31, Uruguay’s lower house of Congress approved a polemical bill that regulates the cultivation, sale, and distribution of marijuana. The legislation—which received the minimum 50 votes needed to pass—awaits passage in the Senate. If it becomes law, the measure will “provide a big boost to other political leaders in the region seeking to shepherd their own colleagues towards new laws regarding illicit drugs in an attempt to lower violence and address health concerns in their countries,” writes InSightCrime.

Read more about the bill in an AS/COA News Analysis.

Leaked NSA Document Reveals Data Centers in LatAm

Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela were among Latin American countries reported to house servers run by the National Security Agency (NSA) as part of its X-KEYSCORE program, according to a newly leaked document by the Guardian. Foreign Policy’s Passport blog describes the program as having the ability “to vacuum up nearly every move a user makes on the Internet” through a “system that perches on top of communications infrastructure and sucks up streams of data that the X-KEYSCORE system then sifts into a searchable format.” The program is thought to have some 150 sites around the world.

Mexico's Peña Nieto to Introduce Energy Reform

While recovering from a successful surgery to remove a benign tumor, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said on August 1 that his government will introduce an energy reform bill next week. Without providing details, Peña Nieto said the bill aims to "increase productivity and competitiveness, generate jobs, and secure cheaper energy." An overhaul of state-run Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, is one of the most controversial parts of the president’s reform plan, given concerns that the government would privatize the company. Peña Nieto has vowed to keep the company government-run.

Report: Long Wait Times at Border Could Hurt U.S.-Mexico Trade

Long lines at border entry points could hamper trade between Mexico and the United States, a new study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows. The study analyzed six high-volume sites, focusing on wait times from the end of the line to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspection point. The GAO found that CPB data was inconsistent and unreliable, and that more accurate data could lead to better investments in staffing checkpoints. Senator John Cornyn commented on the report, saying: “[B]order wait times are going under-reported or unreported, infrastructure and staff are being stretched too thin and mismanaged, and it is becoming harder and harder to ensure safe and efficient trade and travel.” 

Mexican Government Considers Taxes on Food and Medicine

Within the next month, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will propose applying a value-added tax to certain foods and medicines in a bid to overhaul tax reserves, reports Business Recorder. The proposed taxes would generate an additional $50 billion per year in revenue. The tax would cover processed foods, though food staples like milk, eggs, and beans would be exempt.

Peruvian Protests Continue as Humala Begins Third Year in Office

Student and labor union demonstrators in Lima took to the streets on July 27 and 28, protesting against “unfulfilled promises” on education and employment as President Ollana Humala began his third year in office. Despite the country’s steady economic growth over the past decade, the protests reflect growing social discontent, reports AFP. The demonstrations reflect similar protests in Brazil and Chile, said Luis Benavente, an analyst at pollster Vox Populi. “It’s a power that goes beyond exercising the right to vote, that pressures governments and makes them reverse some of their decisions,” said Benavente.

Colombia Develops Its Own Drones

While Colombia has been using drones to fight drug trafficking since 2006, the Andean country is now developing its own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), reports Diálogo. The drones “monitor vulnerable infrastructure sites, gather intelligence on guerrilla forces and track the movements of ‘go fast’ drug boats,” explains the article. In July, the Colombian armed forces said they use over 50 surveillance UAVs and revealed a flight simulator developed in Colombia to train drone pilots. The military is also developing a drone that can fly at 15,000 feet above sea level.

FARC Demands Political Participation during Peace Talks

The latest round of Colombia’s peace talks began this week in Havana, with political participation on the agenda. Negotiators from guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) outlined 10 proposals, including the right to form political parties, to freedom of expression and dissent, to organize protests, to participate in government institutions like the National Electoral Council, and to create a truth council to investigate abuses by state forces.

Survey: Confidence in Brazilian Institutions Fell after Protests

An Ibope survey released August 1 reveals that Brazilians have less confidence in institutions after protests rocked the country in June. Since last year, confidence in the federal government fell 23 percent, while confidence in Congress fell 19 percent. “It’s a crisis of credibility,” said Marcia Cavallari, CEO of Ibope Inteligência. “It’s reflective of this moment in the country and the protests.”

Brazilian President Pledges $3.6 Billion for São Paulo Infrastructure

On July 31, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced $3.6 billion in infrastructure investments in the city of São Paulo. The largest share of funds will go toward public transportation and to extend bus corridors. This city helped spur nationwide protests in June over the price and quality of public transportation. "Brazilian cities cannot expect people to spend six hours of their life every day on a bus," Rousseff said.

ALBA Proposes Common Economic Zone with Mercosur and Petrocaribe

Heads of states from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) bloc met in Guayaquil, Ecuador on July 30, in the first summit since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death. Leaders agreed to establish a proposal to create an economic zone between ALBA countries, the Southern Common Market bloc, and Petrocaribe members. Members also discussed expanding use of the sucre, the alliance’s virtual currency.

Learn more about ALBA in an AS/COA Online Explainer.

Chile’s Senate Considers Right to Vote from Abroad

The Chilean Senate’s Constitutional Commission is analyzing a reform that would permit Chilean citizens living abroad to vote. The proposal was announced in June, though expats have fought for this right since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. Currently, 850,000 Chileans living abroad are unable to cast their ballots. Chile’s presidential election takes place in less than four months.

Canada’s Foreign Minister Heads to LatAm amid Cabinet Shuffle

On July 28, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird embarked on a two-week trip to Latin America to meet with his counterparts and business leaders, reports Maclean’s. Baird will visit seven countries: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The trip comes amid a cabinet shuffle that eliminated a junior minister portfolio overseeing the region. Now, the foreign minister will be responsible for relations with Latin America. But Baird said the change doesn’t mean the government plans to end its strategy of engagement. "We'll be speaking loudly with our actions that the Americas not only will remain a priority but we'll be stepping up our priority," he said.

Judge from Ríos Montt Case Evaluates Historic Trial

Guatemalan Judge Yasmin Barrios, who oversaw the genocide trial of General José Efraín Ríos Montt, spoke to Mexico’s La Jornada this week about the historic proceedings. Barrios said the trial showed that “there is judicial independence, that there are judges who are committed, responsible, and have integrity, and who know the law.” However, because the Constitutional Court reversed the conviction and dismissed part of the proceedings, many victims would likely have to testify again once a new trial begins, said Barrios.

(H/T Pan American Post)

Satellite-Imaging Project to Track Caribbean Coral Reef Losses

The new effort by the Catlin Seaview Survey to investigate coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean will use satellite imaging to understand environmental changes in the region, reports Caribbean News Now. Over the last 50 years, around 80 percent of corals in much of the Caribbean have disappeared because of pollution, said Richard Vevers, project director for the survey. The value of shoreline protection provided by coral reefs is estimated at between $700 million and $2.2 billion per year, according to the World Resources Institute.

After Decades-Long Negotiations, Uruguay to Export Citrus to United States

Starting August 9, Uruguay will begin exporting citrus fruits to the United States, reports Espectador. The decision comes after 20 years of negotiations between the two countries which were finalized last month. The agreement, worth $20 million per year, hinged on sanitation, production, and pest control issues. A bacterial disease called citrus greening has devastated citrus crops in Brazil and the United States—the world’s largest citrus producers—in recent years.

Uruguay: Home to World’s Biggest Whisky Drinkers

According to a Euromonitor International ranking, Uruguayans drink more whisky than in any other country. Last year, the South American country consumed an average 2.4 liters per capita.