Hemisphere Reacts to ‘Explosion’ of Zika Virus

Top Story — The World Health Organization declared Thursday the mosquito-borne Zika virus, linked to thousands of cases of birth defects in Brazil, is “spreading explosively.” The WHO’s Americas division now forecasts as many as 4 million cases of the disease could spread throughout the hemisphere, and governments across the region are scrambling to respond.

The disease, which is spread by bites of female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, has been linked to a sharp spike in cases of microcephaly, in which newborn babies are born with abnormally small heads and without fully developed brains, although a causal relationship has not yet been proven. 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since September, with nearly 1,000 cases, or 1 to 2 percent of all births, recorded in the state of Pernambuco, the virus’ epicenter.

Identifying pregnant women who may be carriers of the disease has been a challenge as 80 percent of all those infected show none of the symptoms: mild fever, rash and red eyes.

With cases of the virus having now been confirmed in 23 countries in the region and a proven vaccine not expected in 2016, countries are responding to the impending health crisis in different ways. In Brazil, embattled President Dilma Rousseff has declared “war” on the virus, promising to deploy 220,000 troops to distribute information about the disease as well as to identify and eliminate stagnant water mosquito breeding grounds. Researchers are also attempting to assess the role that the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will have in spreading the disease, with the International Olympic Committee expected to release guidelines on Friday.

Meanwhile, Brazilian reproductive rights activists, lawyers and scientists have filed a petition to the Brazilian Supreme Court to provide medical exceptions to women seeking abortions, one of the few ways women in the country can access the otherwise illegal procedure. El Salvador, criticized for its exceptionally strict abortion laws, has attempted to address Zika infections in pregnant women by calling on women to avoid pregnancy until 2018.

The virus’ health implications are not yet fully understood. Health officials in Colombia have noted an increase of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects nerve cells and can potentially lead to paralysis, in people infected with the virus. In Venezuela, the sharp increase in Zika cases has placed a strain on an already faltering healthcare system with thousands of infected people without access to treatment drugs. When the drugs are available, some patients pay nearly $100 for black market immunoglobulin treatments.

In the United States, there have been 31 infections — all from travelers to areas affected by the virus — causing U.S. Centers of Disease Control officials to offer precautions about travel while urging those within the country to remain calm.

Headlines from the Western Hemisphere

North America

A U.S. Senate report has found that more than a dozen immigrant children were handed over by the Department of Health and Human Services to human traffickers, after the agency failed to sufficiently vet potential caregivers, and it remains unclear how many more of 90,000 immigrant children may have suffered the same fate in recent years.

Seven Central American women detained in a Texas facility with more than 100 other immigrants taken into custody as part of sweeping ICE raids three weeks ago sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday pleading for freedom, arguing they have been unfairly detained as an example to others.

A new poll from Reuters/Ipsos found that the majority of Americans support Obama’s controversial immigration plan that would allow certain immigrants who entered the country illegally to stay, although the percentage of support drops when Obama’s name is explicitly attached to the question, highlighting the polarization coloring the debate over immigration.

Caribbean

Puerto Rico’s power utility and its bondholders have renewed negotiations to restructure around $9 billion of debt after talks broke down last week following a year and a half of deliberations, raising hopes that a default can still be avoided.

Puerto Rico’s Health Department adopted a policy that allows for the use of medical marijuana in several forms, as well as its distribution and manufacturing, though smoking or cultivating the drug for recreational use remains illegal.

U.S. rabbis visiting the Dominican Republic on Thursday spoke out against the country’s treatment of people of Haitian descent and their threatened deportation, likening the situation to the persecution faced by Jewish people throughout history.

Central America

Guatemala’s Supreme Court voted against lifting the immunity of Édgar Justino Ovalle, an advisor to President Jimmy Morales accused of participating in human rights abuses as a military officer during the country’s civil war, who enjoys immunity from prosecution as a current member of Congress.

A devastating drought has taken its toll in Panama, drying up several major rivers and affecting the agricultural province of Los Santos that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s corn production.

Andes

Colombia’s constitutional court initiated a review process Thursday evaluating a petition to repatriate 122 gold artifacts that were gifted to the Spanish crown in 1893.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview with The Associated Press Thursday, just days before a visit to the White House, that he wants the United States to remove the FARC from its terror list and lift drug warrants against them to help secure a pending peace deal.

Southern Cone

Brazilian prosecutors investigating corruption at the state oil firm Petrobras said Wednesday they are looking into whether the company laundered money through luxury real estate, a scheme in which former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has denied any involvement despite having considered purchasing one of the suspect apartments.

Argentina and Brazil, neighbors who often compete with protectionist trade restrictions despite joint membership in the Mercosur trade bloc, may seek to liberalize the trade between them in cars and trucks starting in July, a Brazilian newspaper reported.

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Zika Virus Prompts Brazil and El Salvador to Warn Pregnant Women

Top Story — The mosquito-borne Zika virus is wreaking havoc throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, most prominently in El Salvador and Brazil, prompting the two nations’ leaders to issue warnings on Thursday about its possible connection to a rare birth defect.

In a televised address on Thursday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff urged the population to work together to “remove the conditions under which the mosquito reproduces,” while scientists continue to work on a vaccine for the Zika virus.

Since October, Brazil has seen a surge in cases of microcephaly, a rare condition where infants are born with an abnormally small brain that may be linked to the virus, though the link has not been confirmed. The poorer northeastern states of Paraiba, Pernambuco and Bahia have been the most affected, some areas seeing rates as high as one in 100 cases of microcephaly in all newborns.

Salvadoran health officials cautioned women to delay pregnancies for up to two years in order to avoid possible Zika-related birth defects. They advised women who are already pregnant to stay covered outdoors. Like Brazil, El Salvador has also launched an anti-mosquito campaign to curb infections from Zika as well as other mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue and chikungunya.

Though Zika virus is usually mild and generally only causes symptoms in one in five people, in some individuals it can cause the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to paralysis and potentially death. The virus has been sweeping across Latin America, prompting U.S. officials to issue a warning last week advising pregnant women against traveling to Puerto Rico and 13 other Latin American and Caribbean countries until further notice.

Headlines from the Western Hemisphere

North America

Mexico’s homicide rate rose 8.7 percent in 2015, according to initial data released by the country’s Interior Ministry on Wednesday, the first time the number of murders has risen since 2011 and a blow to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign promise to curb violence.

The former governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, is set to go to trial in Spain today as part of an investigation into money laundering charges, accusations that support his reputation in Mexico as a governor who enjoyed impunity even though he was believed to be corrupt and linked to organized crime.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio criticized U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy, saying that the impending influx of Cuban migrants arriving from Costa Rica is evidence of continued oppression in Cuba despite normalized diplomatic relations with the United States.

Caribbean

Thousands marched and celebrated in Haiti’s capital Thursday as part of the lead up to carnival, which officially starts on Feb. 7, the same day Haiti’s new president is set to be inaugurated if the country goes through with its highly contested runoff election on Jan. 24.

Two similar lawsuits over Puerto Rico diverting $164 million in revenue streams meant to pay the island’s debt have been combined in order to save time and money and prevent inconsistencies in the rulings, according to a U.S. federal judge.

Central America

Guatemalan authorities announced that Édgar Francisco Ruiz Paredes, the former mayor of the popular tourist city Antigua, is among the 11 officials and citizens arrested Thursday in a corruption case involving extortion and embezzlement.

Lawyers in the United Kingdom picketed the Honduran embassy in honor of the Day of the Endangered Lawyer and to highlight the challenges faced by attorneys and human rights defenders in the country who are often victims of violent attacks, according to a letter in The Guardian.

Andes

Bloomberg News analyzes how Leopoldo López, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has been imprisoned for two years, maintains a growing support base among the Venezuelan population from behind bars.

Bolivian President Evo Morales celebrated ten years in office during an official ceremony in La Paz, becoming the longest-running president in the history of Bolivia, where presidents have traditionally faced high turnover rates.

Southern Cone

Brazilian businesses eliminated at least 1.5 million jobs in 2015 as the economy contracted, with the majority of layoffs originating from the industrial and civil construction sectors.

Following meetings at the World Economic Forum on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury announced it will no longer oppose loans to Argentina from multilateral banks, an apparent nod to the decision by President Mauricio Macri to renegotiate some $10 billion in disputed debt held mostly by U.S. investors.

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Amid Police Violence Against Brazil’s Black Population, a Protest Movement Grows

Originally published at Latin America News Dispatch

RIO DE JANEIRO — After celebrating 16-year-old Roberto de Souza Penha’s first paycheck on a late November night, Souza and his four friends were shot to death in their car while passing a military police patrol in Rio de Janeiro. As the black youth were driving back home, police allegedly fired on their car over 111 times, the bloodshed taking place just minutes away from the friends’ homes in the Morro da Lagartixa favela where they grew up.

Community members poured out into the streets that very night to protest the killings. With many protests following those next couple of days, there were high tensions around the city. Activists organized and went to several locations with posters, megaphones and strong spirits, chanting, “Homicide will end, if not, the city will stop!”

The black youth had been out celebrating and had bright futures with interests in learning English, engineering and even participating in the military, according to their family members. While the police claim that Souza and his friends opened fire on the officers, the family members of the dead view the killings in a different light. “This was an execution,” Souza’s father said at the time.

According to statistics from Amnesty International, the majority of victims killed by police between 2010 and 2013 in Rio were black men between the ages of 15 and 29. Police in Rio often justify these deaths by reporting them as cases of auto de resistência, or “resistance followed by death.” A classification created in 1969 during the Brazilian dictatorship, declaring auto de resistência allows police, if they feel threatened, to use lethal force without further investigations.

This past year, however, police killings have sparked a number of protests in Rio de Janeiro and across Brazil, denouncing racism and what some protesters have gone so far as to call the “genocide” of Brazil’s black communities. With black empowerment marches and protests gaining momentum in 2015, these police killings and similar ones have started a black power movement similar to the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement — though smaller in size — along political and racial lines.

“The historical relationship between the police and black communities is marked by extreme violence, criminalization and constant human rights violations,” said activist Ana Luiza Monteiro in an email interview with Latin America News Dispatch. “There is a war against the black and the poorest areas in Brazil.”

Monteiro was one of the principle organizers of the “Protest Against the Massacre of Black Youth” on Dec. 4 in Palacio Guanabara, and she says the Black Lives Matter movement has served as inspiration and motivation for the black power movement in Brazil. “People here in Brazil were impressed with the frequency of protests that occurred [in the United States]. With such alarming statistics in Brazil, there are still fewer protests that are less frequent compared to the U.S.”

Activists, though, are hoping that the growing focus on police violence will help the burgeoning movement grow, leading to greater police accountability. “The role of the activists is to give visibility to the situation and pushing for the police to be tried fairly and pressing the state to have another public security policy”, said Monteiro.

Following the November killings, for example, one officer was detained for fabricating evidence after allegedly planting a gun at the scene; three other police officers were detained for the murders of Roberto de Souza Penha, Cleiton Correia de Souza, Carlos Henrique do Carmo, Cleiton Correa de Souza and Wesley Castro, all under the age of 25.

Latin America News Dispatch reached out to the Policia Militar do Estado de Rio de Janeiro, who stated in a press-release style response that the officers are currently in custody in a prison in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, and will be tried in both civilian and military courts.

More recently, however, two cases involving the Policia Militar have further inflamed the growing movement. On Dec. 23, two young boys were killed in crossfire between the Policia Militar and armed community members in the famed Cidade de Deus favela. Then, just days later, eight military police officials were arrested after being accused of the torture and sexual abuse of four boys on Christmas day in the north of Rio de Janeiro. The youth were coming home from a Christmas Eve party in the ritzier southern part of the city when they were allegedly stopped by a Pacifying Police Unit . The youth said they were burned, tortured and threatened.

“The military police’s logic sees the black body as criminal, always,” says Dr. Jaime Alves, an anthropology professor at College of Staten Island who studies racialized police practicing, mass incarcerations and urban black life in Brazil and Colombia.

According to Dr. Alves, he believes that the violence and displacement of black communities that occurred in the build-up to the 2014 World Cup parallels today’s preparation for the 2016 Olympics, implicating more killings.

The spotlight of the Olympics, however, also presents an opportunity for the movement to strategize the international gaze on Brazil and bring these issues to light.

Featured image: A protest against police violence and racism in Rio de Janeiro. (© Sara Gehren)

Brazil Court Grants Rousseff Temporary Reprieve on Impeachment

Top Story – Brazil’s Supreme Court issued two decisions Thursday that will assist embattled President Dilma Rousseff in her attempts to thwart impeachment proceedings.

The Court voted to invalidate the results of a secret ballot vote in the election of the impeachment commission and ordered a new open ballot vote, which likely be “more favorable” to Rousseff, the Wall Street Journal reported. The judges also voted to let the Senate review the impeachment case against Rousseff brought by the lower house.

The decisions, along with the fact that Brazil’s legislature will be in holiday recess until February, have offered Rousseff a temporary reprieve from impeachment proceedings, which are formally based on charges she illegally distorted government accounts to hide budget deficits.

Also on Thursday, Vice President Michel Temer, who is slated to become president should Rousseff be impeached, denied allegations that he is plotting against her. Temer admitted that his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, a key coalition ally of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, is split over whether to push for her removal.

The leader of the impeachment proceedings, the lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is also a member of Temer’s party and who has battled his own graft allegations, was also implicated this week in additional corruption allegations. Those claims, first reported by the magazine Época, stem from bribes allegedly paid to Cunha to secure funding for the redevelopment of Rio de Janeiro’s port area ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Headlines from the Western Hemisphere

North America
For the first time since 2008, Mexico’s central bank has decided to raise its interest rates to 3.25 percent, as have Peru and Chile, all citing the U.S. Federal Reserve’s increase this week of its own benchmark rate.

Following earlier denials, the governor of Mexico’s Guerrero state said on Thursday that he had heard from a federal prosecutor that the remains of around 20 people have been found, although it remains unclear if the remains belong to any of the 43 students who went missing last year in Guerrero.

Mexico on Thursday announced that in September 2016 it will hold an auction for deep-water oil and gas exploration, set to be the first auction of its kind since a 2014 reform which has so far only resulted in the sale of land-based and shallow-water blocks.

Caribbean
The U.S. military has imposed stricter restrictions on media access to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will now only allow journalists to visit the facility via organized tours held once every three months.

After the United States and Cuba agreed to restore regular commercial flights between one another, they will soon allow as many as 110 scheduled flights a day, which could lead to a surge of U.S. visitors to the island.

Following calls to delay the publication of official electoral results, Haiti’s President Michel Martelly ordered the creation of a special commission to assess the highly contested presidential election results from Oct. 25.

Central America
El Salvador’s strict anti-abortion law, which can carry a 40-year prison sentence, not only incarcerates women for having or seeking out abortions, but also increasingly affects women suffering from miscarriages, which are treated as suspected abortions, The Guardian reports.

A Salvadoran fisherman who famously survived 14 months adrift at sea has been sued for $1 million by the family of his deceased shipmate, who argue the survivor ate their relative in order to survive.

Andes
A former top aide to Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro said in an interview with Reuters that the government must make some economic adjustments and reel in its more aggressive claims about opposition meddling to avoid further polarizing the country.

The nephews of Venezuela’s first lady appeared in a U.S. court Thursday, where they pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

The remains of 29 Colombians killed during the 51-year internal conflict were returned to relatives on Thursday, following a deal between the Colombian government and FARC leaders that led to the bodies being exhumed and examined by forensic scientists for identification.

Southern Cone
The value of the Argentine peso plummeted on Thursday following a move by President Mauricio Macri’s new administration to lift the unpopular limits on purchasing foreign currency, which will open the country’s economy to global markets to levels unseen in more than a decade.

A Thursday morning appeal in a Brazilian court overturned a ruling to shut down the wildly popular mobile messaging service WhatsApp for 48 hours, following the company’s alleged failure to comply with a criminal investigation.

A Brazilian surfer has become the second person from his country to claim the world’s top prize in the aquatic sport, after another Brazilian won the country’s first title in 2014.

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Brazil Attorney General Calls for Speaker’s Ouster for ‘Obstructing’ Investigation

Top Story — Brazil’s attorney general on Wednesday called for the Supreme Court to remove House Speaker Eduardo Cunha from office, arguing Cunha has used his position to obstruct a series of corruption probes against himself.

Cunha, who himself initiated impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff on Dec. 2, faces charges that he was linked to a kickback scheme at the state oil firm Petrobras.

In his written request to Brazil’s Supreme Court, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot argued Cunha has used his position to “embarrass and intimidate fellow deputies, witnesses, lawyers and civil servants in an attempt to stall investigations against him,” according to a statement posted on the Attorney General’s website.

Cunha is accused of accepting at least $5 million in kickbacks in connection with a corruption scheme at Petrobras. Brazil’s federal police searched Cunha’s residences in the capital Brasília and Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday, the same day that the ethics committee of the Chamber of Deputies, which Cunha presides over, authorized an investigation into whether he lied about the existence of Swiss bank accounts in his name.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Cunha described Janot’s request for his removal from office as a “smokescreen” to divert attention from the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, asserting the millions of dollars found in his Swiss bank account were procured legally.

Cunha has emerged as Rousseff’s main rival in government, having left the government coalition between his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and her Workers’ Party in July. At the time, Cunha accused Rousseff and Janot of conspiring to rope him into the widening Petrobras probe, which has ensnared key members of the Workers’ Party as well as some of Brazil’s most prominent businessmen since it was revealed in March 2014.

Headlines from the Western Hemisphere

North America
Mexican activists say they have evidence of three instances in which private railroad security guards killed migrants attempting to ride freight trains to the U.S. border, and additionally that five migrants were killed by police in recent months following the Mexican government’s efforts to crack down on immigration.

A Mexican national who owns two newspapers was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department Wednesday for alleged links to the Los Cuinis drug trafficking organization.

Mexico City’s trendy Roma and Condesa neighborhoods have been affected by violence in recent days, shattering the illusion the upscale districts are immune from crime.

Caribbean
A funding bill approved by the U.S. Congress on Wednesday does not include any direct debt relief for Puerto Rico, despite calls that the U.S. territory should be allowed to file for bankruptcy.

Haiti’s last sitting senators have called on President Michel Martelly and the electoral council to suspend the publication of final election results, scheduled for release today, until an independent commission can officially audit the contested vote.

The United States and Cuba have agreed to restore regularly scheduled commercial flights within months, which if confirmed would be the biggest business deal between the two countries since they announced a year ago today they would seek to normalize relations.

Central America
The United Nations’ highest court ruled that Nicaragua must compensate Costa Rica for establishing a military presence in a disputed waterway.

The gunmen behind the murder of Honduran football star Arnold Peralta on Dec. 10 have been identified, according to Honduran officials.

El Salvador’s foreign minister expressed concern over the recent influx in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing that if the root causes of migration are not soon addressed there could be a repeat of the 2014 border crisis.

Andes
The Colombian Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed the conviction against ex-military officer Alfonso Plazas in a 5-3 vote, finding that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement in the “disappearance” of 12 hostages during an infamous guerrilla raid in 1985 on the same court’s building.

Newly-elected Venezuelan lawmaker Marialbert Barrios defies the stereotype of an opposition politician, having grown up in poverty in Caracas in a family loyal to former President Hugo Chavez, Reuters reports.

Southern Cone
An Argentine radio journalist said in an interview with the Associated Press Wednesday that he and his family were attacked in his home outside of Buenos Aires by assailants who suggested he halt any future reporting about drug trafficking, highlighting Argentina’s often-overlooked and growing public security challenges.

A Brazil Supreme Court justice said Wednesday that the impeachment committee stacked with opponents of President Dilma Rousseff is legitimate, the first voice to come from the court, which will vote on the controversial committee Thursday.

The Argentine Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gray announced Wednesday an end to currency controls for the peso as part of new President Mauricio Macri’s comprehensive economic reforms, a key departure which has many bracing for a potentially painful devaluation.

A Brazilian court ordered cell phone service providers on Wednesday to block for 48 hours the use of the Facebook-owned messaging service Whatsapp, used by 93 million Brazilians, allegedly because the service failed to comply with an order to turn over data relevant to a drug investigation.

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Today in Latin America: December 9, 2015

Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Suspends Impeachment Proceedings Against President

Top Story — Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin made the decision late Tuesday night to suspend impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, just hours after lawmakers dealt Rousseff a serious setback by approving a 65-member impeachment committee stacked with Rousseff’s opponents.

The decision provides the embattled president relief after lawmakers voted 272-199 by secret ballot in favor of a list of members drafted by both the opposition and pro-impeachment members of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, the largest party in Rousseff’s government, which has been split over the impeachment since the process started last week. However, Fachin said that he suspended the proceedings “to avoid acts that could eventually be invalidated by the Supreme Court,” according to Reuters. The vote had been considered an obvious defeat for Rousseff, who has been battling historically low approval ratings amid the ongoing Petrobas corruption scandal and a deepening economic crisis.

The committee was drafted to determine whether Rousseff committed an impeachable offense by allegedly breaking budget rules to boost social spending in an election year. Reuters called the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party’s move to support an oppositional committee a “slap in the face” to party leader Leonardo Picciani, who has supported Rousseff following impeachment proceedings, and it underscores the divide within the party as confidence in the Brazilian government has plummeted.

The fact that 199 lawmakers voted for the pro-government committee list is still an indication that Rousseff may have the support needed to block a final impeachment vote before the full Congress. However, Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer also publicly criticized Rousseff and submitted a letter of complaint to the president, which was published in O Globo newspaper. Temer controls a number of important moderate votes in the Democratic Movement Party, and his move puts him in a position to potentially take over for Rousseff if she is suspended or removed from office.

The impeachment proceedings, if they are allowed to continue, are expected to be a lengthy process that will last long into 2016.

HEADLINES FROM THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

North America

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled on Tuesday a $23 billion plan to update the country’s oil refineries and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of an energy reform law signed in 2014.

The first pedestrian bridge to link a foreign airport to the United States will open on Wednesday between San Diego and Tijuana International Airport in Mexico.

Caribbean

Cuba and the United States have initiated compensation talks as part of the two countries’ restoration of diplomatic ties, with U.S. firms demanding about $10 billion in payment for properties confiscated after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and Cuba demanding over $100 billion in damages from the U.S. economic embargo.

Cuba, meanwhile, returned a fugitive wanted on firearms charges back to the United States on Tuesday after the man had attempted to escape to Cuba, marking the first time the Cuban government has sent a fugitive back to the United States since the two countries restored diplomatic ties last December.

Central America

Belize on Tuesday turned down Costa Rica’s request that 3,000 Cubans currently stranded on the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua be allowed to travel to Belize to continue their journey to the United States. Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow called the plight of the Cuban migrants a regional issue that should be dealt with accordingly.

Al Jazeera America takes an in-depth look at the drought that has affected Guatemala and other Central American countries in the past three years, which the United Nations estimates has already affected 2.5 million people.

Andes

Venezuela’s opposition leader Jesús Torrealba said in a news conference Tuesday, “We urge the government to stop crying and start working” after his right-wing Democratic Unity coalition won a supermajority in Sunday’s legislative elections.

The Associated Press reports on the fears many of Venezuela’s poor residents have after Sunday’s victory for the opposition, whose promises to do away with price and currency controls may alleviate widespread food and medicine shortages in the long term, but will expose the poor to the country’s massive inflation in the short term.

After Spanish authorities said they want to negotiate their rights to a 1708 shipwreck discovered last month off of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected their claims, saying that the precious contents belong to Colombia rather than Spain, and will be put in a museum to be built in nearby Cartagena.

Southern Cone

An Argentine official told reporters Tuesday that outgoing President Cristina Fernández will not attend the ceremony later this week inaugurating her successor Mauricio Macri, even after representatives from both camps met for conciliatory talks after weeks of conflict.

Chilean officials have confirmed the death of the wealthy conservationist and businessman Douglas Tompkins, who perished of hypothermia from a kayaking accident in the country’s Patagonia region, where he had supported environmental protection since the 1960s through profits from his outdoor-clothing company, The North Face.

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Today in Latin America: December 3, 2015

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to Face Impeachment Proceedings

Top Story — Speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, introduced impeachment proceedings against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday. The charges stem from an October ruling by an audit court that found Rousseff’s administration allegedly broke fiscal responsibility laws by using funds from the state-run bank to fill budget deficits and fund social programs ahead of the 2014 presidential elections.

The decision by Cunha, who many describe as Rousseff’s political nemesis, comes as the country’s worst recession in 25 years deepens following a Tuesday announcement that the economy contracted 1.7 percent in the third quarter.

Rousseff and her Workers’ Party have been plagued by corruption scandals surrounding state-run oil company Petrobras, which have contributed to the recession and the lowest presidential approval ratings in the country’s history.

In a televised address to the country, Rousseff claimed that she had done nothing wrong. In a direct challenge to Cunha —who is himself under investigation for allegedly hiding millions in Petrobras kickbacks in Swiss bank accounts— Rousseff said, “I don’t have any offshore bank accounts, I have no hidden assets.”

Some analysts have said that proceedings will pass a congressional ethics committee but are unlikely to have the necessary two-thirds vote of the lower house to remove Rousseff from office permanently.

HEADLINES FROM THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

North America

Swiss officials conducted early-morning arrests Thursday of several top officials from soccer’s governing body FIFA as part of a broader corruption investigation led by the U.S. Justice Department. Charges are expected to be filed against 12 officials, including the presidents of the two regional Latin American confederations, who were arrested this morning. Soccer officials from Latin America are expected to be the focus of this new round of charges, which will double the already large number of FIFA officials accused in the investigation.

Coca-Cola Mexico has withdrawn and apologized for a controversial Christmas ad that advocacy groups say is offensive to indigenous people. In the ad, light-skinned volunteers are seen donating bottles of the soft drink to members of an indigenous community.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto came out against marijuana legalization during a speech on Tuesday, the same day that Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced that a national debate on the issue will be held in January with a series of public forums.

Caribbean

A Dominican cardinal is facing public outcry in response to comments he made about an openly gay U.S. diplomat who criticized corruption in the country. The cardinal said the diplomat should “focus on housework, since he’s the wife to a man.”

Three mayors in Puerto Rico are facing accusations of illegally raising their salaries as the U.S. territory faces a historic economic crisis.

Central America

Momotombo volcano in Nicaragua erupted for the first time since 1905 on Wednesday and is expected to remain active for the next several days, although officials said that the eruption does not present immediate dangers.

The number of massacres in Honduras has increased at the same time that the number of murders has gone down — statistics that point to organized crime becoming increasingly responsible for the murders committed in the country, according to InSight Crime.

Andes

A Datanalisis survey preceding Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela indicates a boost in popularity for incumbent candidate Nicolás Maduro, but still projects that the opposition will defeat the ruling United Socialist Party due to pervasive dissatisfaction with high inflation rates and product shortages.

The interior minister of Venezuela said in a press conference that the Nov. 25 killing of an activist from the Democratic Action opposition party was the result of a territorial gang dispute rather than a targeted political murder, as the opposition group’s leader has alleged.

Southern Cone

The Associated Press has conducted a second round of environmental testing in Rio de Janeiro’s waterways, which demonstrate toxic levels of certain pathogens from raw-sewage runoff that pose significant health risks to athletes competing in the 2016 Olympic games held in the city.

Argentine Foreign Minister and former United Nations advisor Susana Malcorra said Wednesday that the Venezuelan government should ensure strict democratic standards for its Sunday parliamentary election, comments that came after Argentina’s President-elect Mauricio Macri urged to have Venezuela excluded from the regional trade organization Mercosur for allegedly abusing rights.

Scientists flying over the Patagonia region of Chile in June discovered one of the largest recorded whale beachings of over 337 carcasses, a biologist told the AP Tuesday. There is currently no explanation for why the deaths occurred.

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Today in Latin America: November 6, 2015

16 Feared Dead, Hundreds Displaced After Mining Dams Burst in Brazil

Top Story — Two dams holding iron-mine wastewater broke in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on Thursday, flooding the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues with water, mud and potentially toxic mining tailings. Authorities have confirmed one death, though some local news sources report as many as 16 dead and many more missing.

Rescuers continued the search for survivors in the decimated town this morning. Officials said Thursday that 600 residents are being evacuated to higher elevation, but there are also concerns about more enduring effects of contamination to the local water source because of the dams’ proximity to a river.

The incident is likely to reinforce public concerns about Brazil’s expanding infrastructure projects. Estado de Minas, a newspaper in the state’s capital city Belo Horizonte, reports that in 2014 the Minas Gerais State Foundation for the Environment found that 8 percent of structures containing toxic mining tailings in the state are unsafe.

Thursday’s episode echoes controversy about flooding and watershed contamination associated with other mining and hydroelectric projects in the country, some of which have also resulted in mass displacement. At least four similar accidents have occurred in Minas Gerais state since 2001, leaving many dead and causing large-scale environmental damage and homelessness.

A statement issued by the Samarco mining company, which operates the Germano mine where the dams are located, said the cause for the break is still unknown.

HEADLINES FROM THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

North America

Pope Francis is expected to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border in February, according to a top advisor to the pontiff, in a move that would be in line with Pope Francis’ emphasis on immigration reform.

During a rally Thursday in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on Congress to ensure Puerto Rico gets its “fair share of Medicaid dollars,” saying the situation on the island was “a humanitarian crisis in the making.” A number of New York politicians, including state Governor Andrew Cuomo, took part in the rally, which called for Puerto Rico’s equal treatment on federal health care.

A 2002 transparency law in Mexico has allowed journalists to expose corruption scandals and investigate the disappearance of the 43 student from Guerrero over this past year, contributing to the Mexican public’s perception that their media is reliable, according to a piece in the Christian Science Monitor.

Caribbean

Haiti’s electoral council announced Thursday the two candidates that will advance to a runoff presidential election on Dec. 27: government-backed candidate Jovenel Moïse and former state construction chief Jude Célestin. Several major candidates, however, have alleged fraud in the days following the Oct. 25 primary election.

Authorities in Haiti have closed St. Joseph Home for Boys, an orphanage in the capital city Port-au-Prince that was founded thirty years ago by a U.S. citizen currently facing accusations that he sexually molested boys under his care.

The Associated Press takes a close look at the recent wave of migration from Cuba to the United States, which has brought some 100,000 Cubans to the United States since 2013, when the Cuban government eliminated the need for exit permits to leave the island.

Billboard interviewed Robin Pedraja, a young Cuban who created his country’s first music magazine, discussing how he navigated loopholes in existing state policy, as well as the current trends and opinions of young people on the island.

Central America

Guatemala’s Congress raised the country’s minimum legal age for marriage in a Thursday vote following pressures from children’s rights groups. The new legal age of 18 was increased from the previous age of 14 for girls and 16 for boys.

Belize’s newly elected Prime Minister Dean Barrow said Thursday that he is confident a territorial disagreement with neighboring Guatemala can be resolved once Guatemala’s President-elect Jimmy Morales assumes office.

El Salvador’s former President Francisco Flores appeared in court Thursday to face charges of embezzlement and the misappropriation of $15 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador following a 2001 earthquake.

Nicaragua has approved the HKND Group’s environmental and social impact studies for its controversial interoceanic canal project, allowing the Chinese firm to begin the construction process.

Andes

Bolivia’s Supreme Court justices voted Thursday to make Justice Pastor Mamani the court’s president, making him the first indigenous person to hold the office.

U.S. carmaker General Motors has announced plans to invest some $100 million in Colombia over the next four years, with plans to export cars to Brazil.

Southern Cone

Argentina’s exchange-traded stock fund is experiencing a boost in investments amid optimism over a potential change in government and its promises to increase growth and check inflation rises.

Eduardo Cunha, Brazil’s speaker of the lower house, will be facing a hearing led by the country’s congressional ethics committee over Cunha’s secret Swiss bank accounts, an investigation that forms part of the greater probe into a large kickback scandal.

Chile’s Interior Ministry acknowledged in a statement Thursday that it is “highly probable” that leftist Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda was killed in the wake of the country’s 1973 coup, which brought the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power.

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Bike Angels

Riding a bike is a great way to get around. But sharing the road with cars and trucks is dangerous, especially through the busy streets and highways of Brazil’s cities. Meet the Bike Angels: a group of Brazilian cyclists who teach people how to safely navigate city biking.

Photo by Melaina Spitzer

The Rolezinhos Take Over Brazil’s Malls

If you are a teenager and you live in one of Brazil’s urban informal settlements,or favelas, there’s not a lot of places you can go to hang out with your friends. Recently, teens have taken to organizing rolezinhos – mass meet-ups in upscale shopping malls, organized via social media.

Over time, these innocent gatherings have become something more. As protest movements grow in Brazil in the lead up to the World Cup, the rolezinhos have taken on a political character – a forum for combating the racism and social exclusion that pervades Brazilian society.

 

contributors1

Melaina SpitzerMelaina Spitzer is a freelance reporter living in Brazil.  Based in South America since 2008, Melaina has reported from Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil on the environment, human rights, and social conflicts. Her radio reports have aired on the BBC/PRI’s The World, NPR’s Morning Edition, and APM’s Marketplace.  In addition to her work as a journalist, Melaina is the Director of the Academy of the Sea, a non-profit dedicated to socio-environmental education and innovation in Brazil’s coastal communities.

 

 

 

Feature photo by Melania Spitzer