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Latin America Roundup -- April 11

April 11, 2008 |  9:08 am

In Venezuela, Chris Kraul writes about President Hugo Chavez's plan to take over 32 sugar farms in what some analysts are interpreting as a bid to recover his slipping popularity. Venezuelan armed forces occupied the plantations today. The president has seen his approval rating plummet to 37% in March from 50% in June and as high as 66% in December 2005, according to Alfredo Keller & Associates in Caracas, Venezuela.

Cuba_shrugs_off_changes_alejandro_3 Over to Cuba, and reforms announced by President Raul Castro that ordinary Cubans could now buy cellphones, computers and microwave ovens are apparently being met with skepticism by some citizens.

Carol J. Williams writes how consumer items such as a $300 microwave represent a year-and-a-half's worth of income for many on the island, and that urban workers unable to afford the long-banned luxuries contend the government is just eliminating the foreign middlemen who have long obtained cellphones and other electronics for Cubans for a fee.

Photo: A farmer waits for customers at a private produce stand in Bejucal south of Havana. Credit: Alejandro Ernesto / EPA

At the other end of the island, the third Guantanamo defendant in a month has called the military tribunal for detainees illegitimate and is refusing to cooperate further in his own trial. Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud Qosi, a 47-year-old from Sudan, refused to accept legal representation before the Pentagon's military commissions and announced that he would boycott further proceedings, Williams writes.

It was reported this morning that a U.S. Marine suspected of killing a pregnant colleague has been arrested in the small town of Tacambaro in western Mexico. Cpl. Cesar Laurean is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who had accused him of rape. Her burned remains were found in January in the backyard of his home near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Also in Mexico, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, who helped establish renewed Vatican relations with Mexico's government, died in his home at the age of 88. Read the Associated Press report here.

In the United States, rancor around the proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia is continuing after House Democrats yesterday rejected President Bush's timeline on the controversial pact, writes Nicole Gaouette in Washington today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) characterized the 224-195 vote as an effort to push an out-of-touch White House to do more to help ordinary Americans in economic distress. "We certainly should do more for our own economy before passing another trade agreement," she said.

Bush said in a statement: "Today's unprecedented and unfortunate action by the House of Representatives . . . is damaging to our economy, our national security and our relations with an important ally."

Special Order 40 remains in the spotlight in Los Angeles. Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer, is proposing an amendment of the Los Angeles Police Department rule defining when officers can inquire about the immigration status of suspects. Under the new proposal -- due to be submitted to Los Angeles City Council today -- LAPD officers would be required to report gang members found to be illegal immigrants to federal authorities. Read the report here.

Special Order 40 has been in the headlines this week after the family of Jamiel Shaw Jr.,  the Los Angeles High football star who was killed last month, asked for changes to the order. Shaw was allegedly killed by an 18th Street gang member, Pedro Espinoza. Read the story, “Ask and deport, family urges,” here.

We're asking readers to vote on Special Order 40: Should it stay or should it go? The issue prompted these Letters to the Editor yesterday.

Finally, on a sports note, Pete Thomas profiles Maya Gabeira - the 21-year-old Brazilian who is conquering the male-dominated world of big waves.

--Filed by Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo: Maya Gabeira may not fit the mold of a big-wave surfer, but in a sport dominated by men she has established herself at destinations such as Waimea Bay in Hawaii and Teahupoo in Tahiti. Credit: Michael Eaton