South America’s two largest economies reconciled union disputes and judicial rulings this week, allowing work to continue on major projects.

On Monday, a strike led by unions representing 90 percent of government employees ended in Brazil, on promises to raise public sector wages by 15.8 percent, over the next three years. In another development, work resumed on the Belo Monte dam after Brazil’s Supreme Court reversed a previous ruling that had suspended the project.  The hydro plant will be the world’s third largest, generating from 4,751 MW to 11,233 MW, depending on the flow of the Xingu River.  Upon completion, the project will flood 195 square miles of rainforest, affecting more than 66 communities.

“Stop Belo Monte”

On Tuesday, in Argentina, an alliance of government, unions, and business leaders agreed to raise the minimum wage by 25 percent amid continued inflation and slow economic growth. Monthly minimum wage will rise to 2,670 pesos (US$ 576) on Sept. 1 and to 2,875 pesos (US$ 621)            on  Feb. 1.

But other strikes continue elsewhere in the Americas.  Last week In Colombia, a hunger strike ended, in which four GM workers sowed their lips shut after being fired for contesting the automotive company’s health policy.  The hunger strike marked the culmination of nearly a year of protest.  Strikers accused GM of falsifying the medical records of factory workers, to absolve the company of responsibility for health complications derived from working at the plant.  On Aug. 22, after three weeks of fasting, GM agreed to mediation and protest leaders removed the stitches and dug into a meal of roast chicken and arepas (Colombian pancake).  Despite some progress, the strikers continue to occupy an area surrounding the US Embassy in Bogotá.

And in Chile, students have taken to the streets once more to demand the affordability of higher education.  Tuesday’s protests swelled to over 150,000 supporters.  Last year, students led more than 40 major demonstrations through the capital of Santiago.

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Follow Up

GM’s Hunger Games

Mediation fails to secure compensation for strikers

10 September, 2012

The American Prospect

Under mounting public pressure, Colmotores agreed to negotiations facilitated by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on August 23.

The talks, however, did not result in GM rehiring the workers or compensating them for lost wages. After three and a half days of mediation, the talks were broken off last Friday. The hunger strike and U.S. protests have begun anew, and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Colombian GM worker takes hunger strike to Washington

Strikers take the fight to GM’s its home turf

11 September, 2012

Joey O’Goreman, Colombia Reports

Colombian General Motors (GM) worker Jorge Parra is on hunger-strike again, and this time he is in Washington D.C.

After a mere three-and-a-half days the talks were broken off when GM refused to meet the protestors demands to be rehabilitated and retrained so they could resume working in the company.

“The only thing GM offered was $6,000 to share between the 12 workers, that is not even enough to buy a hot-dog stand,” said Parra.


Uruguayan wind farm

Howling winds across the plains of Patagonia, raging rivers from the mountains to the amazon, and the blistering sun of the Atacama Desert may propel Latin American countries to the forefront of renewable energy production.  Even volcanos offer a significant source of geo-thermal energy for some countries.  The power generated by nature throughout Mexico, Central, and South America could generate enough electricity to wean the Americas from carbon heavy alternatives.

However, Latin America and the Caribbean garnered merely 10 percent of the estimated $260 billion invested in clean energy development worldwide, in 2011.  The US attracted $55.9 billion and China $47.9 billion.  Currently, the region derives 7 percent of its 301 gigawatts (GW) from clean renewable sources.  But these figures conceal the fact that 65 percent of all electrical energy in the region comes from large scale hydropower – a renewable form of energy excluded from the category of clean energy.  By contrast, world reliance on hydro accounts for 16 percent of all electricity produced in 2011.  And Latin America has only tapped 30 percent of its total hydro capacity.

Moreover, improvements in the investment climate of many Latin American countries and other public policy initiatives, which seek to further clean energy development, may finally capture the region’s potential.

Many leaders have pursued ambitious policies to reduce carbon emissions, by encouraging private investment in the clean energy sector.  Costa Rica derives 99.2 percent of its energy from renewable sources, with a whopping 35.7 percent from geothermal.  Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Panama, El Salvador, and Argentina have all launched significant clean energy development plans for the future.

Costa Rica geothermal plant

Within the next three years, Uruguay aims to generate half of its power through renewable means.  A series of 21 wind farms producing 1.2 GW are scheduled for completion in 2015 and will provide 29 percent of the country’s energy.  Argentina also plans to increase its wind power production by 1 GW.  This year, El Salvador revealed plans to construct a 14.2 megawatt (MW) solar farm and a 42 MW wind farm – its first utility-scale wind and solar projects.  Chile recently initiated its largest wind farm project set to produce 115 MW by 2013.  In Mexico, another 396 MW wind farm has been proposed for the windy Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca.  Hundreds of additional projects lie in the works.

As a region with many developing countries, Latin America has the opportunity to use clean energy development to power the future.  Thirty million people currently live without electricity and consumers on the grid continue to demand more.   Latin America has the resources, needs, and ambition to pursue a clean energy future.  The main challenge is resisting an over reliance on abundant fossil fuel reserves, which continue to expand with new discoveries offshore.

First Chilean solar in Atacama Desert

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Follow Up

Three Million in Peru Still Lack Electricity

Latin America Herald Tribune

LIMA – Some 3 million people in Peru’s rural areas still lack electricity and nearly a third of the population is using firewood as cooking fuel, the Energy, Development and Life, or EnDev, project, said

According to EnDev’s national coordinator, nearly 500,000 rural families must use battery-operated lights, candles and cigarette lighters to see at night and spend more than 40 soles (about $15) a month for low-quality power service.

The 1993 census indicated that just 7.7 percent of Peru’s rural population had access to electricity. By 2007, that figure had risen to 29.5 percent and the Energy and Mines Ministry’s latest report shows the proportion now stands at 63 percent, Moreno said.

Cuba power failure plunges millions into darkness – video

10 September, 2012

The Guardian

A large swath of Cuba was plunged into darkness on Sunday night due to a power failure. Weather on the island was clear and calm. No one at the state-owned electrical company could immediately be reached to explain the outage. Blackouts are not uncommon in Cuba, due to its aging electrical system

Gang members surrender arms

The truce among rival gangs that reduced violence in El Salvador by 53 percent still holds firm.  Though, extortion and kidnapping are noticeably down in the capital of San Salvador, these gang related crimes shot up slightly in July.  With 30,000 to 50,000 gang members throughout the country it is difficult to enforce a complete de-mobilization.  By contrast, the country’s military and police forces are composed of about 15,000 active duty personnel each.

During peace talks, gang leaders evoked the agreement of Chapultepec that ended El Salvador’s civil war between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels and government forces in 1992. The war killed over 70,000. De-militarization proved to be the cornerstone of the agreement, separating Public Security from National Defense through the creation of a civilian police force distinct from the military.  By the end of the war, El Salvador had 63,000 soldiers.  An initial reduction plan sought to halve that force to 31,000 members.

But, the end of civil conflict did not stop violence in the country.  Criminal activity filled the vacuum after wartime hostilities ended.  The deportation of young Salvadoran refugees living in the US brought the gang culture present in major US cities to El Salvador.  Meanwhile, economic opportunity remained low and spending on security plummeted, as a result of peace accords.  By 1997, El Salvador was still the most dangerous country in the world, with 140 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.  At the beginning of the year, the country experiences about 65 murders per 100,000.

Though violence continues to grip the nation – once tied with neighboring Honduras, as the world’s most dangerous nation – March peace talks between the rival MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have brought a brief hiatus in a saga of death.  Sources in August estimate the murder rate is on track to fall to 34 homicides per 100,000, by the end of the year.

Peace talks were carried out between gang leaders in a maximum security prison and officiated by a military chaplain and a former lawmaker.  The Salvadoran government agreed to some concessions that granted the imprisoned bosses privileges such as family visits.  But despite the reduction in homicides, disappearances continue to plague the country.  In the first quarter of 2012, there were 692 disappearances – an 8 percent increase from the same period in 2011.

Ironically, the government overseeing the gang true is led by president Mauricio Funes, from the FMLN. The same rebel alliance that fought the government during the civil war of the 1980s has evolved into a modern political party operating in a democratic system.  The continued success or failure of the peace agreements will determine the fate of reconciliation and negotiation as a crime reduction strategy in the region.  Previous policies had taken a hardline, focusing on government led crackdowns and the expansion of law enforcement.  So far, none of El Salvador’s crime ridden neighbors in Guatemala and Honduras have endorsed the ceasefire.  Negotiating with criminal organizations still remains unpopular.

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Follow Up

Murdered schoolboys shake Salvador’s gang truce

Some wish the truce to fail

9 September, 2012

Marcos Aleman, AP

LAS COLINAS, El Salvador – [Five] schoolboys went missing on a Thursday, and it took nearly three weeks for police to discover the mass grave…The killings were the work of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, one of two notorious Salvadoran gangs that regularly visited schoolyards to recruit kids – using the usual method: a big meal with cake and soft drinks.

Carlos Ponce, an expert on crime for the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, says the truce is a sham.

“It’s all a lie, the gangs continue to operate, people continue getting killed, people keep disappearing and the gangs get stronger and stronger,” he said.

Often the quest to advance social justice causes social disorder.  Consequently, the desire to restore order can provoke the degradation of social justice.  Protestors and activists disrupt the flow of society to raise awareness of where society functions ineffectively.  Law enforcement often forgoes due process and human rights, when the equilibrium of daily life is thrown off by mass demonstration.

In repressive regimes, government crackdowns warrant international condemnation.  However, in countries with solid democratic credentials, we have more trust that law enforcement will protect basic human rights.  Decisions taken by the courts are similarly given more credibility than dictatorial show trails.

But, what happens when democracies fail to respect citizen rights in responding to social movements?  In countries with a long history of civil rights activism under representative forms of government, there exist many well established organizations that fight for the rights of citizens – most notably the ACLU in the US.  Yet, in new relatively young democracies there are fewer such institutions.

Amid more than a year of mass protests against Chile’s exclusive educational system, volunteers have stepped up to monitor the actions of riot police.  Dressed in blue helmets labeled DDHH (derechos humanos/human rights), a cadre of volunteers record police tactics that violate the rights of demonstrators.

One monitor amid the fray

Many detained by police during the protests have reported sexual humiliation, torture, and other acts of police brutality.  Beyond teargas, rubber bullets, and high powered fire hoses with chemically infused water, protestors “reported having their heads forced into the toilet, guns pointed against their heads, being beaten unconscious, and a police officer pulling down his pants to show them his genitals.”

The work of objective monitors helps create at least some accountability for the actions of law enforcement.  Armed with a camera and notepad,  one volunteer commented, “[w]e don’t intervene, we don’t try to take detainees away from them, but we do let them know when they’re doing something illegal or irregular, that they can’t beat people up, and that we are watching and have their names and ranks. They pay attention.”

Monitors post updates via twitter and through their website.  In some cases, evidence generated by observers has been used successfully in court.  One lawyer submitted records to courts in February, when he represented a student who accused the police of torture while in detention.

Given, Chile’s history of activism against autocratic oppression under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, these monitors facilitate the consolidation of democracy, by protecting citizen rights and increasing governmental accountability.

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Follow Up

Tens of Thousands March in Chile for Better Schools

At it again this week.

30 August, 2012

SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students and their supporters packed the streets of this capital on Tuesday for a march to demand improvements to Chile’s poorly funded public education system.

Organizers estimated the number of participants in Tuesday’s event at more than 150,000, while authorities cited a figure of around 50,000

Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times in 2011

Who knew that dried endangered seahorse powder works as the perfect aphrodisiac and cure for asthma?  Just a pinch of the stuff is equivalent to popping a Viagra and taking a hit off an inhaler at the same time.  It is important to make sure that the product is endangered; do not be fooled by imitators boasting a ‘vulnerable’ status.

But, the market for ground seahorse medicine took a hit yesterday when Peruvian Police seized more than 16,000 dried seahorses before they could be exported illegally to Asian countries.  The warm waters off the northern Peruvian coast make the perfect breeding ground for slow moving, yet ironically horse-shaped sea creatures.

Authorities say the shipment weighed 160 kilos.  At $6,000 per kilo, the cargo could have been worth nearly $1 million at street value.  However, other sources put the total retail price at around $250,000 – a figure based on values from the 1990s, when the underground market was first publicized in detail.

Last year, law enforcement seized a total of 20 tons of dried seahorse throughout the world, with half a ton found in Peru.  The extensive trade is estimated to be a $20 million annual industry, with Hong Kong as the hub for sales to mainland China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan.  However, Australia and the United States also import hundreds of thousands of dried seahorses every year.

Seahorse medicine has been around since the Ming Dynasty began raising the creatures for consumption in the 14th century.  But in the late 20th century, the animals were declared endangered due to over collection and the industry moved underground.  All specimens used for medicinal purposes come from the genus Hippocampus and vary in size for 10 to 300 millimeters or 3 to 25 grams.

Though we rarely hear about this illicit market, busts such as the one in Peru reveal the extensive black markets outside the world of narcotics.  Profitable illegality pervades all types of products throughout the world and no seahorse or snow leopard is safe.

On 21 Aug., Mitt Romney announced a trade policy “focused primarily, but not exclusively, on Latin America.”  The presidential hopeful outlined his desire to rekindle the flames of a Pan American free trade zone, a fire smothered in 2005 by opposition from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Dominica.  The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposed in 1994 by President Clinton, would have created a 34 nation trading bloc – arguably the largest and most ambitious in the world, given the variability of development profiles among potential member states.

Widespread opposition to the plan contested the viability of free-trade between countries of such unequal economic power.  Latin American states feared the destruction of domestic production, in the face of highly competitive US firms.  The failed FTAA, partly inspired Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Dominica to form their own bloc, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA): a trade agreement based on a reciprocal barter system.  Meanwhile, even US congress shied away from the proposal, over concerns that cheap labor costs in Latin America would lead to outsourcing, as well as the erosion of US agriculture to the farming giants of Brazil and Argentina.

The logo that never made it

Romney’s new plan seeks to build upon a network of smaller free-trade agreements (FTAs) already in place between the US and individual Latin American countries.  He proposes, joining these agreements to create a larger zone.  For example, separate FTAs between the US and Panama, and the US and Chile would be combined – requiring Chile and Panama to lower trade barriers with each other.

However, such a plan would most likely fail or produce an impotent version of an original proposal. Simply put, the US has little power to sway the Brazilian giant, which already scrambles to protect its resilient, yet troubled domestic industry.  Additionally, the US would bypass Argentina and other left-leaning ALBA states from an agreement.  Under these conditions, a Pan American free trade zone would include Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico.  But the US already has regional FTAs with Central America and Mexico, and Bilateral ones with Peru, Colombia, and Chile.  So essentially, a positive outcome means exactly what we already have, but under a different name.  Similarly, a negative outcome means exactly what we already have, plus another diplomatic failure.

Free Trade with the US is just plain unpopular.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers at the gain of US industrial agriculture.  The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is not any better.  Moreover, increased economic power in Latin America combined with a historical distrust of US proposals, makes a comprehensive plan lead by the US extremely unlikely.  With Romney representing the hardline conservative face of US diplomacy in the Americas, Latin American leaders would be even more skeptical of a ‘mutually beneficial’ agreement.

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Follow Up

Peru Wants to Negotiate Free-Trade Pact With Indonesia

Peru finds new Asian partners

10 Septemeber, 2012


LIMA, Peru–Peru wants a free-trade pact with Indonesia, adding to the number of other trade liberalization agreements the Andean nation has signed in recent years.

“Indonesia is a large south-east Asian nation with about 250 million persons. It is a multicultural nation and has an extremely large market.”—minister-20120910-01096

Ever since Argentina expelled Spain’s Repsol from developing the country’s oil fields, trade relations between the two nations have deteriorated.  Spain has since retaliated by denying many Argentine imports, most notably biodiesel, which composes 20-30 percent of all Argentine trade with Spain.

In response to the Spanish announcement – meant to protect the local production of alternative energy – Argentina filed a complaint with the WTO.  Argentina’s Foreign Ministry contested the Spanish decision as “an attempt to stop developing countries gaining more control of global value chains and evolving beyond their role as suppliers of raw materials.”  The government lamented the potential loss of $1 billion per year in export earnings, lambasting the Spanish policy as “protectionist.”

While the new barriers do block developing countries such as Argentina and Indonesia from selling their biodiesel to Spain, the intention was not to suppress development.  When certain countries conduct poor trade relations with others, they are liable to retaliation.  Back in April, the Argentine Government seized all 57 percent of Spanish Oil Firm Repsol’s stake in the development of oil resources.  Nationalization, which replaced Repsol with state-owned YPF, was made without proper compensation.  Moreover, Argentina has repeatedly increased tariffs and raised import barriers over the last decade.

This year alone, Argentina has been hit by a triple complaint at the WTO, joining China, which faces a similar hat trick maneuver.  The EU, Japan, and the US have all cried foul play to the WTO.  They criticize Latin America’s No. 3 economy of a policy of “trade balancing,” which requires importers to purchase equivalently valued Argentine goods to make up the difference in trade.  Argentina is expected to post a $674 million surplus for July, on resilient farm exports, despite an ongoing drought.

The triple complaint reflects a larger trend of trade disputes arising in 2012.  So far, the WTO received 18 complaints this year, more than double the eight complaints filed over the previous year.  The spike in disagreements reflects global uncertainty in the face of continued Euro Zone crises and a potential slowdown in Asia.  Countries have leaned towards protectionism to combat rising and persistently high unemployment.

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