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Weekly Roundup: Venezuela's Protests, Mexico's Criminal Code, LatAm Mobile Use

February 21, 2014

Venezuelan Cities See Protest Turmoil; Opposition Leader Is Jailed

Demonstrations continued in the streets of Venezuela this week as the number of those killed rose to eight. President Nicolás Maduro announced on February 16 that he would expel three U.S. diplomats, alleging they conspired to incite the protests. Opposition figure Leopoldo López turned himself over to authorities on February 18, after a court claimed he had incited violence and was responsible for deaths at the protests. Though the most serious charges were later dropped, López is still in prison on charges of arson and conspiracy.

Caracas Chronicles offers an explainer on the protests, describing key players and background on the demonstrations. While the movement started locally among college students, "as the protest movement gained steam, the protests have become as much about civil rights and the right to protest itself," says the blog. In a post for Foreign Policy's Transitions blog, political analyst Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez writes that "Venezuela's gloomy media landscape" has led the international community to think Maduro's government has something to hide. He attributes this to the dwindling independent media and the fact that government took Colombia-based NTN 24 off the air after the channel covered the protests. On Thursday, Maduro warned he may take CNN off the air, alleging the outlet is showing "propaganda" about the protests. He said the government started the process to remove the channel from the airwaves.

Explore AS/COA's resource guide on the protests.

New Scandal Leads to Armed Forces Shake-up in Colombia

On February 16, Colombia's Semana broke a new military scandal, writing that secret recordings revealed senior armed forces officials took kickbacks on military contracts. In one recording, army commander General Leonardo Barrero told army leaders to "form a mafia" against judges investigating human right abuses. Two days later, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos dismissed Barrero and four high-level officers. El Tiempo commended Santos' "historic" purge and his "zero-tolerance" approach.

North American Leaders Gather in Toluca

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama joined Mexican head of state Enrique Peña Nieto for a one-day summit in Toluca on Wednesday. The three leaders released a joint statement outlining cooperation in areas such as trade, security, sustainability, and educational and technical exchange. They also announced a trusted traveler program. However, McClatchy described the summit atmosphere as "cool," noting the lack of resolution between Canada and the United States on the Keystone XL pipeline project while Mexico remains unsatisfied by Canada's visa restrictions for its citizens. COA's Eric Farnsworth, interviewed in the article, said such sticking points create obstacles to developing NAFTA "in a comprehensive and strategic manner."

Get primary source links, multimedia, and more on the summit from AS/COA Online.

Mexico to Harmonize Criminal Code Across All States

On Thursday, the Mexican federal government signed an agreement for the coordination of a unified penal code across all 31 states and the Federal District. The Justice in Mexico Project reports that "[p]erhaps the most significant development of the new criminal code will be the standardization in the classification of crimes in Mexico," meaning that previously a crime classified as "grave" in one state is treated as "common" in another, leading to different levels of sentencing. The new code will also require trial proceedings to be recorded via written documentation, audio, or video. The federal and state governments have until 2016 to fully implement the new code.

Slim Could be Readying for Increased New York Times Stake

Bloomberg reports that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim could double his stake in the New York Times Co. to 19 percent this year. Already the company's second-biggest shareholder, "Slim's bet on the Times is paying off, with the 74-year-old billionaire poised to double his money." The Bloomberg report notes that the publisher is safe from a takeover and that the Ochs-Sulzburger family's portion of voting shares "give them a firm grip on board seats."

Brazilian Senate May Consider Marijuana Decriminalization

In response to a petition on its e-Democracy portal, the Brazilian Senate will assess a proposal to decriminalize marijuana and allow for medical, recreational, and industrial use. The petition received over 20,000 signatures, and the proposals are similar to Uruguay's legalization law passed last year. The proposal will begin in the Senate's Human Rights Commission, and Senator Cristovam Buarque will be responsible for creating a draft bill.

In Brazil, Government Slashes Billions from Annual Budget

On February 20, the Brazilian government announced it would cut $18.5 billion of its annual federal budget in a bid to reduce inflation and to try to meet its primary surplus target. The government also revised its GDP forecast for 2014, down to 2.5 percent from 3.8 percent. The Financial Times says the move is a bid to "win back investors' trust" in the face of an imminent ratings downgrade.

At a February 18 event at AS/COA, experts discussed Brazil's economic volatility and what’s next for emerging markets. Watch the panel discussion.

Argentina to Investigate Brazilian President's Death

Folha de São Paulo reported this week that Miguel Ángel Osorio, an Argentine federal prosecutor, opened an investigation into the 1976 death of João Goulart, who served as Brazil's president between 1961 and 1964. The unprecedented decision to investigate the death of another country's president came after Osorio received dictatorship-era documents in which Brazilian authorities requested that their Argentine counterparts monitor Goulart and other Brazilians living in Argentina. The inquiry will form part of Argentina's larger investigation about Operation Condor, an alliance between military governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay during the 1970s and 1980s.

Peruvian President Concludes Visit to Middle East 

​This week, President Ollanta Humala traveled to Israel, Palestine, and Qatar, meeting with heads of state to discuss investment as well as science and technology development. During his meeting with Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he focused on strengthening bilateral ties and promoted Peru's new trade office in Israel, reports EFE. Humala's brief trip to Palestine marked the first visit by a Peruvian official since Peru recognized the country in 2011.

Chile Prepares to Build Latin America's Longest Suspension Bridge

Construction of Chile's Chacao Channel Bridge—expected to be Latin America's longest suspension bridge—is slated to begin in February 2015, reports La Nación. The bridge will connect Chiloe Island to Chile's mainland and will employ an estimated 2,000 workers per year, said Minister of Public Works Loreto Silva. At over 3,000 feet high and 9,000 feet long, the bridge will be first of its kind in the region. The consortium awarded with building the $680 million structure includes Brazilian, South Korean, and European companies.

The Potential of the Pacific Alliance

​Four Latin American countries have the potential to "redraw the economic map" for the region, writes Moisés Naím for The Atlantic. As a group, this bloc—made up of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru—represents the world's eighth largest economy and seventh largest exporter, and maintains the region's highest growth rates and lowest inflation rates. The Alliance has been able to avoid economic crises and the fallout of differing political agendas, says Naím. Still, it is too early to tell whether the bloc will manage to achieve economic unity or "become one more regional zombie," he writes.

Panama Canal Expansion Resumes after Budget Spat

Reuters reports that Panama's canal expansion project resumed construction on February 20 after a more than two-week hiatus. The Spanish-led consortium said that through arbitration with the Canal authorities, it resolved a disagreement about $1.6 billion in cost overruns. However, the stoppage means the project will not be completed until at least December 2015.

Governing-Party Candidate Leads Polls in El Salvador

Polls released this week show Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) ahead of Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance in the country's presidential race. A University of Technology survey puts Sánchez Cerén at 54.9 percent against 45.1 percent for Quijano, while a CID Gallup survey gives the FMLN candidate 58 percent and 42 percent for his rival. Meanwhile, a New Link poll found that the number of undecided voters stands at 12.9 percent. Sánchez Cerén earned roughly 10 percent more votes than Quijano in the first round and the two will face each other for a runoff on March 9.

Learn more about the February 2 election results and the candidates from AS/COA's 2014 Election Guide.

DR Immigration Bill to Take "Humanitarian Approach"

This week, The Miami Herald published initial details about Dominican President Danilo Medina's immigration bill, which he will unveil during his state of the union speech on February 27. Dominican Ambassador to the U.S. Aníbal de Castro said the legislation will provide a path to citizenship for those "who can prove they were born in the Dominican Republic, that they have been living there all of their lives." He added: "This solution will respect human rights and take a humanitarian approach." A September DR constitutional court ruling left hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Haitian descendants "stateless," and the decision has come under scrutiny from regional leaders. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to the island in March.

Report: Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela Top Mobile Users in LatAm

Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela lead Latin America in cell phone and smartphone use, shows a February 13 Pew Report. The survey of 24 countries reveals that 91 percent of Chileans own a cell phone, while the numbers in Venezuela and Argentina stand at 86 percent and 83 percent, respectively. In all three countries, at least 30 percent of cell phone users own a smartphone. While texting and taking pictures were the main activities of cell phone owners, those with internet access use it largely for social media.

LatAm Becoming Hub for Green Innovation

Latin America's rapid urbanization is making the region a hotspot for green innovation and attracting foreign companies interested in partnering with the clean technology industry, writes The Guardian. Renewable energy is the focus of innovation: Brazil has the world's largest potential in wind resources while Mexico leads the region in solar power reserves. "Latin America already has an energy matrix that is cleanest of all regions: in terms of power generation, we have almost 70 percent renewables—three times the world average," the Inter-American Development Bank's energy specialist Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho told the daily.

The latest issue of Americas Quarterly focuses on sustainable cities, covering how urban areas across the hemisphere are focusing on efforts ranging from reducing carbon emissions to the role of local governments in green policies.