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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Latin America

The week in Latin America: Unrest continues in Chile

Chile national strike

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

1 dead in Chile national strike

A two-day national strike in Chile led to hundreds of injuries, more than a thousand arrests and the death of a teenage boy after violent clashes between workers and students and Chilean police. The strike was the latest large-scale demonstration challenging the conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera, Chile's first non-leftist leader since the return to democracy.

What started as a student movement for education reform has grown into calls for a reshaped constitution aimed at what demonstrators call an unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America's most stable economy. Pinera on Friday invited the movement leaders to a dialogue to discuss their demands (link in Spanish). The president's approval ratings have tanked since the demonstrations started.

Casino attack leaves Mexico in mourning

The deadly casino attack in Monterrey on Thursday shocked a nation already too accustomed to narco-related violence. Most of the 52 identified victims were women in their 40s and 50s, demonstrating that gambling in Mexico is a middle-class diversion in a country where the term "terrorism" is now shifting closer to everyday life.

Presidents Barack Obama of the U.S. and Felipe Calderon of Mexico both issued statements condemning the attack, while disdain, sadness, and outrage with the current drug war lit up social networks in Mexico. Read more in recent posts here at La Plaza and in the print version of The Times.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A demonstrator aims a bottle at an armored vehicle in Santiago, Chile, August 25, 2011. Credit: Associated Press

Calderon calls on U.S. society to curb its drug use

Felipe calderon press conference

The White House on Friday issued a rare statement by U.S. President Obama on the deadly attack against civilians in a casino in northern Mexico, while President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered sharp words on American complicity in the violent conflict that has left tens of thousands dead in his country.

Obama's statement said:

I strongly condemn the barbaric and reprehensible attack in Monterrey, Mexico, yesterday. On behalf of the American people, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this difficult time. 

The president called Mexico's campaign against organized crime groups "a brave fight" and said the U.S. "will remain a partner in this fight." The statement renewed a consistent American commitment since President George W. Bush's administration to support Calderon, in office since late 2006, and his government's efforts against powerful drug cartels.

On Friday, Calderon visited the site of the attack that killed more than 50 gamblers and employees at the popular Casino Royale in Mexico's wealthiest city. Calderon again issued a call to the U.S. to do more to tackle the American demand for drugs and the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.

In the prepared remarks released by the president's office, Calderon said the extortion-related attack in Monterrey was due to one primary factor, "the movement and sale of drugs to the United States." Calderon went on (link in Spanish):

Part of the tragedy that Mexicans are living has to do with the fact that we are alongside the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and at the same time, the biggest vendor of weapons in the world, which pays billions of dollars every year to the criminals who supply them with narcotics.

These ... dollars end up arming and organizing the criminals, and places them in their service and against the citizens.

This is why it is my duty, also, to make a call to the society, the Congress, and the government of the United States. I ask them to reflect on this tragedy that we Mexicans and many other countries in Latin America are living, as a consequence, in great part, to the insatiable consumption of drugs in which millions and millions of Americans participate.

Separately, the Obama administration is facing domestic political pressure over the secret gun-tracking program dubbed Fast and Furious, which resulted in hundreds of weapons being "walked" into Mexico and then lost, fueling drug-related violence. Read recent coverage in The Times of Operation Fast and Furious here and here.

Since 2007, when Bush and Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has sent almost $1.5 billion in aid to Mexico for its fight against the cartels, a foreign-aid package similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia that sought to help that South American nation fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.


Searchers comb torched ruins of casino where 52 died

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Emails to White House didn't mention gun sting

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, along with First Lady Margarita Zavala and top officials, Friday, August 26, 2011. Credit:

The week in Latin America: Cattle vs. soybeans

Guachos argentina latimes

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Suit dismissed in Border Patrol shooting

A U.S. judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking damages for the family of a 15-year-old Ciudad Juarez boy who was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent last year, the El Paso Times reports. The death of Sergio Hernandez Guereca occurred on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, and thus out of U.S. jurisdiction, the judge overseeing the suit ruled.

Here's our La Plaza report on the June 2010 incident, in which border agent Jesus Mesa Jr. shot at a group of teens who were allegedly throwing rocks at him. Hernandez's family plans to appeal the dismissal of the case.

Trading cattle for soybeans in Argentina

Special correspondent Chris Kraul tells us about a cattle rancher in Argentina -- a nation synonymous with delicious beef -- and found that the global commodities boom is making soybean production far more lucrative for Argentina's famed gauchos.

The shift is challenging traditions in the Pampas, the wide plains that have inspired Argentine artists and writers for generations. "The Pampas are no longer the open plains with a gaucho sipping mate in the shade," one analyst told Kraul. "Now it's a green industry, motorizing the entire economy."

Peru suspends coca eradiction program

The government of Peru's recently sworn-in President Ollanta Humala has suspended a coca eradiction program, surprising U.S. envoys who seek to help countries in the region scale back the production of cocaine.

Peru says the program, which the U.S. has backed with $10 million this year, is under evaluation as the new president reviews its eradication efforts overall. The Andean nation is the second-largest producer of coca, the base material for cocaine, after Colombia.

Dominican hotel owner suspected in journalist slaying

Authorities in the Dominican Republic are searching for a hotel owner suspected of ordering the killing of a muckracking journalist who published alleged links between organized crime and anti-trafficking prosecutors. Read more in La Plaza.

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Cattle rancher Mario Caceres with his soybean crops in Argentina. Credit: Andres D'Alessandro / For The Times

The week in Latin America: Start-ups grow in Cuba

Cuba businesses customers ap

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Small businesses in Cuba

Reporting from Havana, correspondent Tracy Wilkinson examines a boom in family start-up businesses in Cuba, where President Raul Castro is slowly implementing economic reforms intent on introducing basic free-market capitalism to the Communist nation -- and that includes slashing 1 million people off the government payroll.

"Change, of course, comes in fits and starts," Wilkinson writes. "Most Cubans probably have yet to feel much in the way of new prosperity, and many among the emerging crop of fledgling entrepreneurs continue to complain of burdensome red tape and the taxes they are required to pay."

One of the novelties of a new market-friendly Cuba? Car washes.

Ex-wife presidential candidacy deflated

Guatemala's constitutional court ruled this week that the former first lady is ineligible as a candidate for the Sept. 11 presidential election, a political defeat for current President Alvaro Colom, report Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood. Sandra Torres, the former first lady, divorced Colom last spring in order to get around a rule that bars close relatives of leaders from running for the high office.

Colom's coalition is now left without an apparent candidate for an election that is only a month away. That paves a smoother first-round showing for former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who was a strong front-runner in the race even before Torres was disqualified. Perez was an officer during Guatemala's long U.S.-backed war against leftist rebels.

"Torres' coalition already had begun to abandon her," our story says. "Candidates for lower offices have distanced themselves and party activists have torn down her campaign signs."

A look at the numbers of Mexicans abroad

Did you know that 7,245 Mexicans live in France? That 4,572 Mexicans live in Italy? That 6,688 live in the United Kingdom? And 73 live in Luxembourg? (Luxembourg?) Mexico, in fact, is the biggest source of human emigration in the world, with more than 11.5 million of its citizens living outside the country, according to the World Bank.

Many live in cities that saw significant demonstrations against Mexico's drug war on May 8, a day in which Mexican nationals worldwide stepped up to protest violence that has left about 40,000 dead. Take a look at my latest La Plaza post, which follows an earlier post examining the phenomenon of internal migration in Mexico.

Daniel Hernandez

Photo: A woman waits for customers at a pizzeria in Havana. Credit: Javier Galeano / Associated Press

The week in Latin America: Don't cross this union boss

Elba esther gordillo ap

Here are stories that made top headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Poverty grows in Mexico

Mexico's government and political class struggled to come to terms with new figures that showed poverty is steadily on the rise in Mexico, swelling to nearly half the national population. Of those 52 million Mexicans now identified as poor, more than 11 million live in extreme poverty, the independent findings said. "This government like no other has sought to give opportunity to the poor," President Felipe Calderon responded.

Boom times in Argentina?

Argentina's economy, meanwhile, is booming and expected to grow by 8% this year, reports special correspondent Chris Kraul from Buenos Aires. Exports, construction, and auto manufacturing are on a roll. But trouble spots abound, including a rising inflation rate and capital flight of billions of dollars. "No one questions that the economy is running well," one analyst said, "but it's running on steroids."

This is Elba Esther's world

The poor quality of public education in Mexico is considered a key factor in explaining migration to the United Stats and the lure of organized crime for many young Mexicans. For many people, the failure of the schools has a person's name: Elba Esther Gordillo, the flamboyant chief of Mexico's behemoth teachers union. A profile of the hugely powerful Gordillo by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson -- for which "La Maestra" declined to be interviewed -- lays bare how entrenched power hierarchies in Mexico reinforce crushing class barriers for millions.

A 6,000-year sentence in Guatemala

Four former Guatamalan soldiers were handed a stunning sentence of more than 6,000 years each for involvement in a notorious massacre during Guatemala's long civil war. Although the maximum time anyone can actually spend behind bars in Guatemala is 50 years, the sentences sent a strong message to the international human rights community on the pursuit of justice for wartime atrocities in the small Central American nation. The 1982 Dos Erres massacre that led to Tuesday's sentencing involved the systematic rape and brutal beating deaths of 201 civilians. The former soldiers maintain their innocence. 

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico. Credit: Associated Press

Mexico lags in regional economic growth



Mexico is near the bottom of the barrel in economic growth projections for Latin America, a new report says.

The report, by the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, which is also known by its Spanish acronym, CEPAL), is an annual assessment of the state of economies, what's driving, or slowing, growth, the impact of fiscal and trade policies, and the like.

The good news is that the region's overall recovery, following the global economic slump of 2009, will continue, and Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole are projected to grow by 4.7% this year.

But the less-than-rosy news for Mexico is that it will grow by only 4% annually in 2011 and 2012. ECLAC puts most of the blame on a decline in demand for Mexican exports.

The fastest-expanding economies this year will be Panama (8.5%), followed by Argentina (8.3%), Haiti (8%) and Peru (7.1%), the report says. Mexico is ranked above only a handful of small Central American and Caribbean countries.

ECLAC notes that Mexico grew by 5.4% last year, but that only partially compensated for the huge decline of the year before, a loss of 6.1%. Mexico's economy is closely entwined with that of the United States, and it suffered in the global downturn more than some other countries in the region.

The report projects that Mexico will generate just under a million jobs this year, "insufficient to keep up with the annual increase in the economically active population." It calls for urgent economic reforms to spur growth, encourage investment and enhance productivity.

The full document can be found here in English and here in Spanish.

Separately, Mexico's statistics institute released new data this week that showed that average household income in Mexico plummeted 12.3% between 2008 and 2010.

All told, the grim stats come in contrast to efforts by the government of President Felipe Calderon (link in Spanish) to portray the health of the nation's economy in a more positive light.

 -- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City




The week in Latin America: Peru's African legacy

Susana baca times

Here are stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Significant court ruling in Mexico

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled that human-rights abuse claims against the military must be tried in civilian courts and no longer in closed-door military tribunals.

The ruling presents a test to Mexico's fledgling civilian justice system, still in dire need of reform, as well as President Felipe Calderon's military-led strategy against organized crime. Abuse claims against Mexico's armed forces have skyrocketed since soldiers and marines were dispatched to the streets in 2006 to combat the country's drug cartels.

Searching for the missing children of El Salvador

Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood was recently in El Salvador, where he reported a profile of an organization, named Pro-Busqueda, which uses the modern tools of social media as well as "old–fashioned grunt work" to locate missing children from El Salvador's brutal civil war.

Read the story here

Excavating Afro-Peruvian history

From Peru, Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson offers a look at an acclaimed singer who is seeking to reclaim and celebrate the country's rich history of African migration and culture.

One such icon of the Afro-Peruvian past, says singer Susana Baca, is the instrument known as the cajon, or box, which Baca has incorporated into her records. "A lot of people saw this as the music of the slaves," she explains. "They were ashamed of it."

Gun scandal grows in the United States

With wide implications for Mexico and its conflict against organized crime, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal continued to reverberate north of the border. This week, the federal government imposed a tougher rule for the reporting of semiautomatic weapon sales in border states.

Revelations from the scandal, in which deadly weapons were knowingly "walked" into Mexico by U.S. agents, confirm that the United States government has been essentially arming both sides of the drug war in Mexico.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Peruvian singer Susana Baca, left, in the village of Santa Barbara, Peru. Credit: Giancarlo Aponte, For The Times

Despite photos, doubts remain on health of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez

Hugo chavez venezuela fidel raul castro government photo

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has not been seen in public for more than two weeks following an operation for pelvic swelling in Cuba. His absence has prompted widespread speculation about his health and his ability to govern, report special correspondents for The Times.

The Venezuelan and Cuban governments insist Chavez is OK and recovering at an undisclosed location. Cuba's Communist government released photos of President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro visiting Chavez in what appears to be a hospital room, but the Venezuelan leader has otherwise been absent from public view.

Chavez's Twitter has also largely been inactive since earlier this month, although on Friday a flurry of messages appeared. These made no mention of the president's health or location.

Speculation persists in the opposition news media over whether "Chavez has a life-threatening disease such as cancer, and even whether he is alive," The Times reports. 

As Chavez's absence enters its 17th day, political opponents in Venezuela have ramped up criticism of the government's silence. The opposition is demanding Chavez delegate power to his vice president while he recovers. Relatives, including Chavez's mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, have asked that Venezuelans pray for his recovery (link in Spanish).

Chavez, who is 56, leads one of the world's biggest oil-producing nations and is an ardent antagonist of the United States. He hopes to be reelected in 2012 but faces rising domestic problems — including crime, inflation, and energy woes — that have hampered his ability to lead a leftist anti-U.S. bloc in the region at large.

Cuba is known to release photographs of the Castro brothers, ages 80 and 84 respectively, when public doubt rises over their health. In the past, such photos have come under scrutiny by bloggers, who have claimed they were faked. (The Chavez photos, in a medium resolution, are reproduced here.)

If Chavez remains in Cuba for "10 or 12 days" more, as his brother Adan Chavez said Sunday, and he does not delegate presidential powers, he will have governed Venezuela from afar for more than a month.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and current President Raul Castro of Cuba, in a photo released on June 17, 2011. Credit: Government of Cuba 

Officials retake prison from rioting inmates in the Dominican Republic

Prison guards using rubber bullets and other means fought back rioting inmates Wednesday to regain  control of a lockup in the Dominican Republic, an official said.

The guards managed to keep the prisoners from controlling a cellblock at San Felipe prison in the northern province of Puerto Plata, the Associated Press reported. Dozens of inmates had reportedly electrified their cell doors with wires.

The melee left sixteen inmates belonging to the Nacion Los 42 gang wounded, said Ismael Paniagua, penitentiary security director. No fatalities were reported.

— Emal Haidary

A growing list of Latin American nations moving to recognize a Palestinian state

Sebastian Pinera Mahmud Abbas gob chile

Joining a widening trend across Latin America, Chile and Paraguay are poised to recognize a Palestinian state based on borders before the 1967 Middle East War, reports in Israel and Latin America said.

In recent weeks, several countries in the region have declared their recognition of a Palestinian state half a world away. Led by the rising global player Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela have all done so, reports the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The move by these governments to recognize a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders appears to be an uncoordinated response to requests that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made to Latin American leaders, reports said. "There is no obvious coordination but quite a few Latin American governments are suddenly recognizing the Palestinian state in a very short amount of time," notes the Latin America-focused blog Two Weeks Notice.

On Saturday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera met one-on-one with Abbas in Brazil during the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president. Abbas attended the inauguration in Brasilia to "thank the presidents" that have recognized the Palestinian state, reported the Chilean daily La Tercera (link in Spanish).

Chile is home to a significant population of about 350,000 mostly Christian Palestinians (link in Spanish). Like many of its neighbors, Chile also has a large Jewish community. A Jewish leader in Chile called the decisions to recognize a Palestinian state "imprudent" (link in Spanish).

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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson