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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: trade

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

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:

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

Who is responsible for the casino tragedy in Mexico?

Monterrey protest

Four days after the deadly casino attack in Monterrey in northern Mexico, the owner of the burned-out Casino Royale has not emerged in public or spoken with authorities.

In fact, little is known about the owners and operators of the casino, despite initial reports (later contradicted) that said emergency exits in the establishment were blocked, contributing to the high death toll of 52. The dead included one pregnant woman, and over the weekend, as families buried their loved ones, another large demonstration against violence and insecurity took place in Monterrey (link in Spanish).

The demonstration ended in scuffles for some as activists made competing calls for the resignations of the Monterrey mayor, the Nuevo Leon state government, and President Felipe Calderon (video link in Spanish).

Nuevo Leon authorities said the investigation into the arson blaze is ongoing. On Monday, Gov. Rodrigo Medina announced the arrest of five men suspected of being involved in the attack. The suspects were identified as Zetas, the drug gang that is seeking control over Monterrey in a campaign that has spread fear and violence in the affluent industrial city.

Authorities said they were eager to speak with Raul Rocha Cantu, a Monterrey businessman identified as one of the owners of the casino. One newspaper said the casino owners had not complied with an extortion demand of 130,000 pesos a week, or about $10,000 -- common deals that often lead to brutal attacks against bars and other businesses in Monterrey.

Another report said Rocha has lived in the United States for at least the last two months, but no location was specified (link in Spanish).

In a series of interviews since Friday, the casino owners' lawyer, Juan Gomez Jayme, said attorney-client privilege would not permit him to divulge where Rocha was or whether he would present himself to Nuevo Leon authorities as they have requested (link in Spanish).

Gomez defended the establishment, saying the casino operated lawfully under municipal, state, and federal regulations. Yet questions were raised almost immediately about word of blocked emergency exits, which were reported by the chief of civil protection in Monterrey after firefighters put down the arson blaze.

Continue reading »

Zara contractor in Brazil accused of slave labor

Zara store brazil

Brazil's labor ministry is investigating a supplier for the Spanish clothing brand Zara for allegations of slave-labor conditions at sweatshops in Sao Paolo, and is also opening labor investigations against other international companies, reports O Globo, a Brazilian daily newspaper (link in Portuguese, in automatic translation). 

Zara's parent company, Inditex, said it was unaware of what it called "unauthorized outsourcing" for Zara clothing in Brazil. The company faces fines and possible sanctions against future economic activity in the country. Zara maintains more than 1,000 stores worldwide, including retail locations across Latin America, Europe, Asia, the United States and the Middle East.

In Sao Paolo, migrants primarily from Bolivia -- including minors and undocumented immigrants -- were found to be producing Zara clothes in sweatshops with poor ventilation and hygiene and unacceptable fire risks. Workers were being paid a little more than $1 for jeans that would eventually retail at more than $100, and some were locked into paying their wages to human traffickers who smuggled them into the country, reports said. The clothes, made by a supplier identified as AHA, were destined for Zara stores in Brazil.

Brazilian labor authorities are now expanding their investigation by requesting information on work conditions from several other major companies producing clothes in Brazil, including Ecko and Billabong, O Globo reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Zara storefront in Brazil. Credit: O Globo

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

Hotel owner sought in Dominican journalist killing

Dominican prosecutors procuraduria santo domingo

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have alleged that a hotel owner is a key conspirator behind a plan to kidnap and assassinate a prominent muckraking journalist who made allegations of links among drug traffickers, antidrug prosecutors and business leaders in the small Caribbean nation.

Jose Silvestre, publisher of the Voice of Truth weekly newspaper and host of a radio program of the same name (link in Spanish), was shot to death while four suspects attempted to kidnap him on Aug. 2 in the city of La Romana. His body was found later on a roadside east of Santo Domingo. 

Authorities suspect businessman and resort owner Matias Avelino Castro ordered Silvestre's murder and remained at large. Avelino wanted Silvestre dead after a July report in the Voice of Truth referred to the alleged criminal links of several of the businessman's associates, Dominican prosecutors said in a statement (link in Spanish). Four arrests have been made in the case, Dominican Today reported.

The Dominican Republic is becoming a key drug-trafficking route from South and Central America into the United States.

Avelino uses several aliases including Joaquin Almeida, Franklin Linaira and "Daniel." News outlets in the Dominican Republic identify him as a leader in a group known as the Samana cartel, named for the Samana peninsula where his Las Galeras resort is located (link in Spanish). That hotel's website presents it as a luxurious tropical getaway and has information in five European languages.

Silvestre was jailed for six days this year on libel charges after he published allegations linking a local antidrug prosecutor to narcotics trafficking. The journalist sometimes made criminal allegations against officials and others without sourcing the claims, the Associated Press said. Prosecutors also said they have testimony from three people who claim Silvestre was paid to publish some of his allegations.

Nonetheless, the journalist's killing has received attention from Amnesty International and other rights groups. According to a sibling, shots were fired at Silvestre's house in May, Amnesty International reported, and because of the threats against the journalist, the Dominican Republic's national press workers union had requested police protection for Silvestre, which was never granted.

-- Daniel Hernandez

Photo: Prosecutors in the Dominican Republic hold a news conference on Aug. 9 detailing updates in their investigation into the death of journalist Jose Silvestre in Santo Domingo. Credit: Procuraduria General de la Republica Dominicana

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

Internal migration flows below the radar in Mexico

Bernal queretaro monolith daniel hernandez

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

A few weeks ago, I took a late Friday night bus from Mexico City to Queretaro to visit friends.

I spent the weekend relaxing at bars, cafes and restaurants. I took a day trip to an officially designated "pueblo magico," Bernal, where an ancient stone monolith is a regional tourist draw. I finished the weekend in a crowded "college-style" bar to watch a big soccer match for Mexico over a BBQ hamburger and a Mexican lager, with U.S. school pennants hanging overhead.

Queretaro is welcoming and clearly prosperous. Over two days, I met Mexicans who had moved there from Chiapas, Veracruz, Guanajuato and elsewhere.

"Why do you live here?" I asked a guy outside a bar one night.

"They pay better than in Veracruz," the fellow replied. "And, well ... it's safe, right?"

The exchange stuck with me. Contradictions abound in Mexico, especially when it comes to the country's current overall stability.

Mexico's economy is growing at a healthier pace than that of the United States and has a lower official unemployment rate (5.3%) than its northern neighbor (9.2%), though the joblessness rate is deceptive because it doesn't include millions of Mexicans who work in the poorly paid informal economy as sidewalk vendors, day laborers and the like. 

Yet, at the same time, Mexico is home to more than 52 million people living in poverty, nearly half the national population. That figure is up by 3 million from three years ago, according to an independent government study released Friday and reported in The Times. Overall, Mexico's recovery from the 2009 global recession is among the slowest in Latin America, a disappointing figure after a decade of free-market policies under federal governments led by the National Action Party, or PAN.

In other words, realities on the ground in Mexico are often more complicated and contradictory than the headlines or government propaganda can tell us.

Continue reading »

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




U.S. opens the door further on travel to Cuba

Cuba tourbus reuters

For the second time since taking office, President Obama eased restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. The relaxed rules are scheduled to take effect by the end of this week.

The policy change announced Friday will, according to the White House, promote "people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."

The changes allow students, academics and religious organizations to more freely request a trip to Cuba, as well as "specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities." In addition, people in the U.S. are now allowed to send up to $500 in remittances to Cuba every three months, or a maximum of $2000 a year. In 2009, the Obama administration eased restrictions to allow Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island.

Here's the White House announcement and the Cuba entry policy page at the U.S. State Department.

Obama relaxed rules that were imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had tightened travel rules liberalized by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, a swinging policy in consecutive U.S. governments over an issue that has confounded American interests for more than 50 years. Cuba is only 90 miles from the coast of Florida yet remains one of only a handful of Communist countries in the world.

But for how long?

A gradual string of market economy reforms have taken effect on the island. Small businesses are popping up. More tourists are arriving. A few weeks ago, a large cruise liner took port in Havana to much fanfare. More U.S. airports will be making flights available. Before, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York were allowed to originate flights destined for Cuba.

The Cuban government hailed the new travel changes as a positive step in a statement, but said they did not go far enough to ease economic pressure generated by the long U.S. trade embargo (link in Spanish).

Cuba, governed by President Raul Castro, brother to former Communist leader Fidel Castro, is mired in corruption, according to a recent Wikileak disclosure. The country also faces widespread criticism for its human rights record, despite the release last year of a group of political dissidents who were released to exile in Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Tourists ride on a double-decker bus along Havana's shorefront 'Malecon' boulevard, November 2010. Credit: Reuters


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