Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mercosur Summit Concludes Despite Suicide of Argentine Trade Official

The summit meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc was briefly suspended Tuesday following the sudden death of an Argentine official. Deputy Trade Secretary Ivan Heyn, who was 33 years old, was found hanged with a belt in his hotel room in Montevideo. Uruguayan authorities said he had committed suicide, but had not left a note. He had taken part in summit meetings the previous day.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Heyn had been a “rising star” in a pro-Kirchner group known as La Campora, which is headed by the son of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner. The president was very distressed by the news, and had to seek medical attention, according to reports in Argentine media.

The conference concluded Tuesday, after a brief suspension of activities due to Heyn’s death. The planned photo of the heads of state was canceled following the news, and a press conference was suspended, reports Bloomberg Business Week.

Kirchner went ahead with a ceremony of receiving the rotating presidency, handed over from Uruguay, despite reports that she might return to Buenos Aires early due to the shock of Heyn’s death.

One of the main results of the summit was that the Mercosur member countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay -- will raise trade tariffs on imports by 35 percent, in an effort to protect the region’s producers from the global financial crisis, amid concerns about a flood of cheap goods from Asia. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff said that the measure was necessary to fend off "an avalanche of predatory imports that jeopardize growth and employment," reports Reuters.

The trade bloc, which has been in effect since 1991, signed a free trade pact with the Palestine territories, following a similar agreement with Israel in 2007. The WSJ noted that the tariffs and the Palestine deal were the only real agreements made at the summit, after efforts to make Venezuela a full member of the group were squashed by Paraguay’s Congress, where opposition politicians are blocking the move on the grounds that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was not sufficiently democratic.

The summit was a victory of a different sort for Chavez, as his first official foreign trip since his struggle with cancer this year. He told reporters that he was back in good condition after his illness; "I've overcome the most difficult phase of this cancer," he said. "I'm fully back on my feet and here to make a strong play for Latin America's integration and unity."

Mercosur also issued a ban on boats bearing the “illegal” flag of the UK-controlled Falklands Islands (known in Argentina as the Malvinas), prompting disapproving commentary from the UK government. Kirchner struck another blow against London with criticism of its governance of the territory, warning that “They are taking our energy and fishing resources out of the Malvinas and when they require more resources ... they who have [armed] forces will go and seek out those resources wherever and however they see fit." She called on the UK to enter into dialogue over the future of the territory.

News Briefs

  • The New York Times looks at Brazil’s establishment of a Truth Commission to look into abuses committed under previous governments, including the 1964-85 military dictatorship. Dilma Rousseff, who was herself tortured as a young guerrilla fighter against the regime, signed a law creating the commission in November. It is set to start work in January, but there are challenges from members of the military, who want to see it derailed, and from the existence of a 1979 law granting amnesty for many crimes committed under the military regime. Other countries in the region are ahead of Brazil in this regard, with Uruguay, for example, recently repealing an amnesty law for crimes committed under its military dictatorship. The NYT notes that Brazil, “despite emerging as Latin America’s rising power and the world’s fourth-largest democracy, still trails its neighbors in prosecuting officials for crimes that include murder, disappearance and torture.” 
  • The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has published a lengthy report on its recent trip to Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico and perhaps the world, and its counterpart across the border; El Paso in Texas. They found that Juarez’s drug violence has not spilled over into El Paso, “in part because the drug traffickers do not want it to do so,” while the movement of drugs across the border has remained at a constant level, despite a massive security build-up in El Paso. They also note a very pronounced drop in apprehensions of migrants trying to make it over the border, suggesting that fewer are trying. This is driven by the faltering US economy, the danger posed to migrants by drug gangs, and tighter controls from the authorities, WOLA says.
  • The Obama administration will cut the number of National Guard troops deployed to the Mexican border from 1,200 down to 300 in 2012. Their focus will shift from ground patrols to air patrols; “We are basically going from boots on the ground to boots in the air,” deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection told the Associated Press. An article earlier this month from the Washington Post questioned the effectiveness of the National Guard, saying that they have cost a lot of money and delivered only limited security gains.  The newspaper calculated that the troops cost more than $6,000 for each migrant apprehended, as noted in a previous post. In 2012, the cost will drop from $160 million to $60 million. Obama sent the troops in July 2010 in response to fears about crime and increased illegal migration in the border region.
  • Meanwhile, over the border in northern Mexico, police have unearthed 10 bodies from clandestine graves in Durango, close to the state capital. This brings the total number of bodies found in mass graves in the state this year to 287, reports the AP. Another set of corpses discovered in Durango in May were thought to be the victims of fighting between different factions aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, including a drug trafficking group known as Los M, according to InSight Crime.
  • The NYT hosts a debate on drug laws, posing the question “Should Teenagers Get High Instead of Drunk?” It notes the rising popularity of marijuana over alcohol, cocaine, and tabaco, and asks experts to give their opinion on the issue. One contributor says that “marijuana is about a hundred times safer than alcohol or cocaine” in terms of how likely it is for someone could die of toxicity, while another argues that “Contrary to much public perception, marijuana is a serious public health threat facing this age group. It is associated with difficulty in focusing and paying attention and in performing cognitive tests.”
  • The Committe to Protect Journalists released a report saying that at least 43 journalists died while doing their job in 2011. One trend it noted was the rise in violence against online journalists, with eight murdered for their work this year. It highlighted the death of Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, an adminstrater of website Nuevo Laredo En Vivo, in northern Mexico. Her mutilated body was left in the city in September, along with a note saying that she had been killed for working against the Zetas.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics looks at the authorities’ attempts to cut the number of assassinations by placing tight restrictions on who can travel on a motorbike, preventing two men from riding one at the same time. The idea is that hitmen often work in pairs, with one driving and the other shooting while seated behind, though the blog says that so far many citizens are ignoring the new restrictions.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has declared that he had no part in the 2006 false demobilization of a group pretending to be members of the FARC rebel army. Former peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo is facing charges for allegedly collaborating in this process. Like the allegations that people systematically faking being displaced from their land or losing relatives in massacres, (though far more credible) the scandal over these fake demobilizations is another demonstration of the many obstacles facing Colombia’s peace processes. 
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that Colombia’s coffee harvest is under threat from a fungus afflicting the country’s crops, in what could be a heavy blow for that country’s farmers in a season of torrential rains.
  • The 2012 apocalyse predicted by the Mayans is good news for some, with southeastern Mexico set to take advantage of the unusual tourist attraction. The Associated Press reports that the tourist board is predicting 52 million visitors will come the area to experience the build up to the end of the world first hand -- twice the number the country as a whole normally gets in a year.

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