Weekly News Update on the Americas
Facing serious political and economic problems at home, on Jan. 6 Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto made his first official visit to Washington, DC, since taking office in December 2012. A private meeting at the White House with US president Barack Obama lasted longer than was scheduled, and the two presidents didn't take questions when they spoke with the press afterwards. The US has been following the "tragic events" involving seven deaths and the abduction of 43 students the night of Sept. 26-27 in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Obama told reporters, and the US would continue to aid in investigations and in the fight against drug cartels. Obama also praised Mexico's efforts to keep Central American migrants from reaching the US border, especially during the child migrant "crisis" in the summer of 2014. Peña Nieto promised that Mexico would help the US and Cuba normalize relations. (La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 7)
The Missouri-based biotech giant Monsanto Company announced on Jan. 7 that its revenues for September through November 2014, the first quarter of the company's current fiscal year, fell to $2.87 billion from $3.14 billion for the same period the year before. The decline was less than analysts had expected. According to Bloomberg News, this was because the losses, including a 12% drop in corn seed sales, were partly offset by sales of Monsanto's new Intacta soybeans, which the company says are genetically modified to withstand pests in South America. But the losses themselves were "in part, due to the reduction in sowing areas in South America," the Spanish agricultural news site agroinformación.com reported. Agroinformación.com also cited resistance to the construction of a seed processing plant in Malvinas Argentinas in Argentina's central Córdoba province. (Bloomberg, Jan. 7; agroinformación.com, Jan. 8)
The Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation, the world's largest gold producer, faced another setback to its mammoth Pascua Lama gold and silver mine in late December when Chile's Supreme Court rejected its appeal of a lower court's decision on environmental fines. Barrick's Chilean subsidiary, Compañía Minera Nevada SPA, was disputing an environmental court's March 2013 ruling that a fine the government's Environmental Bureau had imposed on Barrick was inadequate. In a decision announced on Dec. 30, a Supreme Court panel rejected the appeal on a technicality: the justices held that Minera Nevada wasn't a party to the original case and therefore couldn't appeal the environmental court's ruling.
On Dec. 10 the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CorteIDH), an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS), notified the Colombian government that the court held it responsible for serious human rights violations in its handling of the seizure of the Palace of Justice by the April 19 Movement (M-19) rebel group on Nov. 6, 1985. The violations included 11 forced disappearances, four cases of torture, one extrajudicial execution and negligence in the investigation of the security forces' retaking of the building one day later, on Nov. 7, an operation in which more than 100 people died, mostly hostages and rebels. The court ordered the Colombian government to pay compensation to the victims, offer a formal and public apology, and produce a documentary explaining what happened.
On Dec. 15 the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation by family members of three union leaders that the 18th Brigade of the Colombian National Army killed in 2004. In the suit, Saldana v. Occidental Petroleum Corp, the family members argued that under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute the US company shared responsibility for the killings by the Colombian military, which originally claimed that the three unionists were guerrilla fighters. Occidental's Colombian subsidiary and the Colombian state-owned oil company Ecopetrol together gave $6.3 million in assistance to the brigade; the companies said the aid was intended to help the brigade protect a pipeline near the border with Venezuela that rebel groups were attacking.
The heads of the three branches of the Haitian government reached an accord late on Dec. 29 aimed at heading off a constitutional crisis when the terms of one-third of the country's senators expire on Jan. 12, leaving the Parliament without a quorum. The agreement—signed by President Michel Martelly, Senate president Simon Dieuseul Desras, Chamber of Deputies president Jacques Stevenson Thimoléon and Superior Council of the Judicial Branch president Arnel Alexis Joseph—extends terms to April for current members of the Chamber of Deputies and to September for current senators. The term extension will be inserted into legislation amending the electoral law and will only take effect if Parliament passes it by Jan. 12. In the event that the long-stalled election law is passed, the government can proceed to form a new Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and schedule legislative, municipal and local elections, which have been delayed since 2011. (AlterPresse, Haiti, Dec. 30)
As of Dec. 11 authorities had closed the Playa Grande beach area in the western region of a national wildlife refuge on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques following the discovery of pieces of inactive munitions there. The US Environmental Protection Agency said the US Navy had removed a projectile, a mortar tail and other objects, although officials insisted that the materials didn't pose any danger to visitors. The munitions are left over from the Navy's use of Vieques for testing weapons from the 1940s until May 2003, when mass civil disobedience by Vieques residents and their supporters forced the Navy to withdraw. A total of 1,640 arrests were made from 1999 to 2003 as activists carried out militant protests, including a yearlong occupation of the bombing range. Federal judges handed down jail sentences to protesters totaling 26 years, along with fines totaling $50,980.
Unknown assailants shot and killed TV news presenter Reynaldo Paz Mayes on the morning of Dec. 15 as he was exercising at an outdoor sports centers in Comayagua, capital of the central Honduran department of Comayagua. A supporter of the center-left opposition Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), Paz owned a small local television station, RPM TV Canal 28, where he hosted a news program known for its criticism of President Juan Orlando Hernández's right-wing government and the June 2009 military coup that removed then-president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) from office. Another station owner, Juan Ramón Flores, said Paz had received various threats, including an anonymous phone call the week before, because of his political views.