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Weekly Roundup: U.S.-Cuba Ties, Brazil's Drought, LatAm Press Freedoms

February 14, 2014

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Venezuela Hit by Protests, Increasing Scarcity of Basic Goods

The Andean country saw opposition protests this week, drawing some of the largest crowds since demonstrations following President Nicolás Maduro’s election last year. Three people were killed, and Venezuela’s interior minister said 80 protesters were arrested. Following the demonstrations, El Universal reported that a Venezuelan court issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo López—a prominent opposition politician—alleging he was to blame for the violence.

On Thursday evening, López tweeted that he was still in Venezuela and would continue protesting. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello wrote on Twitter that López was scheduled to fly to Bogota on Friday morning, though as of Friday at noon, it was not clear he had left the country and a spokesman for the opposition leader told Colombia's RCN early Friday that López is still in Venezuela.

Also this week, Bloomberg reports that the country’s “scarcity index” reached 28 percent in January, the highest level since the index was created in 2005. It means that over one in four basic goods is out of stock at a given time. The Central Bank also released January inflation numbers, showing a 3.3 percent increase from the previous month and a 56 percent increase from a year earlier.

On February 10 at AS/COA in New York, three leading analysts discussed the outlook for inflation and the possibility of a devaluation in Venezuela. Watch a video of the discussion.

In Cartagena, Pacific Alliance Leaders Slash Tariffs and Open Door to Costa Rica

On February 10, the presidents of the Pacific Alliance countries—Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—inked an agreement to eliminate 92 percent of tariffs on goods and services among the four members. The deal will lead to “more investment, more competitiveness, [and] more employment,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, following the leaders’ meeting in Cartagena, Colombia. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla also penned a deal that will enable the Central American country to become a full member to the Alliance. The year-long admission process will be contingent upon member countries approving certain requirements, such as whether Costa Rica adheres to the group’s framework agreement and has complied with various Alliance protocols.

Negotiators Announce Another Step in Colombia’s Peace Process

This week, negotiators and representatives from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced that they made more progress during Colombia’s peace talks. Both sides came to a rough draft agreement on illicit crops—part of a larger discussion on dealing with the drug trade. The negotiators agreed that the solution to illicit crops should be addressed at the community level.

While speaking on February 14 at AS/COA in New York, Colombia’s Agency for Reintegration Director Alejandro Eder discussed the connection between the peace process and reintegrating former guerrillas. Watch the video.

Colombia Oil Auction Could Draw Billions in Investment

Colombia’s National Agency of Hydrocarbons (ANH) will offer 97 blocks for oil and gas exploration in a licensing auction on February 19. The auction is expected to bring in over $2.6 billion in investments, ANH officials say.

Assessing the Impact of Brazil’s Drought

Brazil’s two-year-long drought continues to affect the economy, and may force the government to lower its primary budget surplus target this year, reports Reuters. The lack of rain and low reservoir levels are causing concern about blackouts and higher energy bills. On Thursday, the government’s electricity monitoring committee admitted that reservoir supplies could decline even further in the coming months, though it assured that the probability of a blackout was low. GlobalPost launched a series on Brazil’s drought this week, noting that globally, the drought was the fourth worst natural disaster last year in terms of economic cost.

Brazil: Too Hot for Suits

A heat wave in Brazil could lead to a change in business attire. This week, São Paulo’s Bankers and Financiers Union said it would send a letter to major banks requesting that the use of suits and ties be optional on days of “excessive heat.” This month alone, the union received 118 complaints about air conditioning in the city’s banks.

This summer, high temperatures led to a social media campaign called #BermudaSim, or #YesShorts, to advocate for the use of shorts at workplaces.

2014 Marks Record-Breaking Public Investment in Peru

Peruvian public investment hit an all-time high at nearly $390 million this year, according to a February 11 announcement by Peruvian Prime Minister César Villanueva. This represents a 27 percent increase from 2013, with the transportation and communications sectors receiving the bulk of funds, reports El Economista.

After ICJ Ruling, Chile Considers Withdrawing from Regional Treaty

After the Hague-based International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) January 27 ruling on the maritime border dispute between Chile and Peru, Chilean President Sebastían Piñera signaled his country might withdraw from the decades-old American Treaty on Pacific Settlement. Also known as the Pact of Bogota, the 1948 regional agreement gives the ICJ jurisdiction over disputes among participating governments. “Chile has to evaluate if it will remain in the Bogota Pact or not. We must study this,” Piñera told CNN Chile on February 10. Piñera also sent a formal letter of protest to the Peruvian government this week, laying claim to a small triangle of land created by the ICJ ruling’s new boundaries.

Biden Will Travel to LatAm in March

Next month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Chile and the Dominican Republic. In Chile, Biden will lead the U.S. delegation to President-elect Michelle Bachelet's inauguration. In the Dominican Republic, Biden is slated to meet with President Danilo Medina to discuss bilateral and regional cooperation. Biden visited Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago last year.

U.S. Drug Czar Talks Anti-Trafficking Efforts in Guatemala and Honduras

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield visited Guatemala and Honduras this week, meeting with the presidents of both countries. After his sit-down with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, Brownfield said the U.S. government would offer Guatemala an additional $5 million in assistance for technical support to improve security. The U.S. authorities have a “shared responsibility” to stand with the Central American country against organized crime, he said. In Honduras, Brownfield said that the number of narcoplanes flying over Honduras has dropped in the last 18 months, while marine drug trafficking outpaces trafficking by air.

Poll: Americans Are Ready to Normalize U.S.-Cuba Relations

On February 11, the Washington-based Atlantic Council released a poll on U.S.-Cuban relations indicating that regardless of party affiliation, the majority of Americans are ready to normalize bilateral ties between both countries. Nationwide, 56 percent of Americans would like to see a change in Cuba policies, while 63 percent of Floridians are ready for a revamped approach to the island. Likewise, an estimated 60 percent of U.S. adults would like to see all travel restrictions lifted and a diplomatic envoy to Cuba put in place.

AS/COA'S Christopher Sabatini writes that the Cuban government may find a way to undermine closer ties with the United States. Read his post on the Americas Quarterly blog.

EU to Launch Negotiations with Cuba

On February 10, European Union foreign ministers approved an initiative to undertake bilateral negotiations with Cuba. The talks, which are expected to last over a year, could restore full bilateral ties and lead to the end of the “Common Position,” an EU stance that focuses on promoting democracy and fundamental human freedoms. The negotiations will include increasing trade and investments, as well as a dialogue on human rights.

Legislation Introduced to Decriminalize Marijuana in Mexico City

On Thursday, officials introduced a bill in Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly that would, among other measures, pave the way for creation of marijuana dispensaries, allow use of the drug for medical purposes, and increase the amount a person could carry for personal consumption. The city would also follow a policy of “zero prosecution” that would focus on charging drug dealers rather than consumers. It’s not clear if the law will gain approval; a survey by El Universal found that 11 deputies support the measure, 30 oppose, 15 are undecided, and 10 did not respond.

Report: Employment Outlook for LatAm Youth

In Latin America, roughly 8 million youth seeking employment are failing to find it, shows a new report from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The study outlines the employment outlook for Latin Americans between ages 15 and 24 between 2005 and 2011. While the youth unemployment rate has decreased from 16.4 percent to 13.9 percent in that period, youth unemployment remains triple the rate of adult unemployment in the region. The report also notes that informality continues to present a challenge: around 56 percent young people in the labor force work in the informal sector, facing a lack of insurance and low wages.

In Focus: Press Freedoms in Latin America

New reports released this week by international media watchdogs Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) provide insight into press freedoms in Latin America. According to RSF’s annual media freedom index Costa Rica leads the region at spot 21 globally, followed by Uruguay at 26, Belize at 29, and El Salvador at 38. At number 170, Cuba is Latin America’s worst performer. Brazil came in at spot 111, and Mexico at 152.

For the second consecutive year, Ecuador landed on CPJ’s Risk List—which spotlights countries with declining climates of press freedom—because of new legislation that stifles free speech. Measures include the 2013 communications law that gives authorities the power to censor the press and legislation that prohibits media from promoting political candidates 90 days ahead of elections, leading to self-censorship.

Mosquito-Borne Disease Spreading across Caribbean

Locally acquired for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, Chikungunya fever—similar to dengue fever—is making its way throughout the eastern Caribbean. The virus has been found in eight Caribbean countries and infected 3,700 people. Though rarely fatal, effects of the disease like joint pain last longer than with dengue and can incapacitate those infected. Ann M. Powers, a disease specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The New York Times that Central and South America could be the next regions to fall prey to the disease. A map from the Times tracks the spread of the outbreak since January 2014.

Infographic: How Long Do You Have to Work to Afford a Beer?

A February 7 index compiled by Quartz combined the average global prices for beer with the International Labor Organization’s minimum wage data. The resulting infographic shows how many hours a person must work to buy a beer in a given country. While in Mexico it takes 2.2 hours for a minimum wage worker to earn a brew, it only takes 12 minutes in Puerto Rico.