Weekly News Update on the Americas
Starting on the evening of March 25, thousands of Paraguayan unionists, campesinos and students participated in a 24-hour general strike to protest the economic policies of President Horacio Manuel Cartes Jara. Union sources said the action shut down transportation, schools and most businesses in Asunción. This was the country's first general strike in 20 years, and the first major demonstration against the government since President Cartes' inauguration last August. Cartes, a member of the rightwing Colorado Party, was elected in April 2013; the previous elected president, the left-leaning former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, was removed from office by Congress in a de facto coup on June 22, 2012, one year before the end of his term.
Silvia Carrera, the traditional leader (cacica) of Panama's indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé, announced on March 30 that she would present an appeal the next day to the Supreme Court of Justice concerning land expropriated for the controversial Barro Blanco dam. She said this would be part of a legal action against Law 18. Passed on March 26, 2013, the law allows the Public Services Authority (ASEP) to expropriate, evict and indemnify the population living beside the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí, where the dam is being built. According to Ngöbe-Buglé activists, some 3,000 people will be relocated because of the project, which is now said to be 64% complete.
After 75 years of state control over oil and gas production, the Mexican government is planning to open up about two-thirds of its reserves to bidding by private companies, according to information that Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico's state-owned oil monopoly, passed on to potential bidders on March 28. This is the first indication of what can be expected from President Enrique Peña Nieto's controversial "energy reform" program. Changes to the Constitution enabling the program were passed by Congress and a majority of states in December, over strong opposition from grassroots organizations and parties on the left; doubts about contracting out oil and gas exploitation increased following fraud allegations against a major Pemex contractor, Oceanografía SA de CV.
In a four-hour extraordinary session on March 29 attended by President Raúl Castro Ruz, the 612 deputies in Cuba's unicameral National Assembly of Popular Power voted unanimously to approve a new law governing foreign investment. Replacing a measure put in place in 1995 under then-president Fidel Castro, the Foreign Investment Law will allow foreign companies to operate in Cuba independently, rather than in joint ventures with state enterprises, according to a report in the Cuban daily Juventud Rebelde published shortly before the legislation was passed. Most foreign companies will be required to pay a 15% tax on profits, half the current rate, the article said, and they will enjoy a tax moratorium for the first eight years of their operations in Cuba. Rates may be higher for companies that exploit natural resources, such as nickel or fossil fuel.
Opposed by the media, the city government and their own union, street sweepers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second largest city, won a 37% raise and an increase in benefits on March 8 after an eight-day wildcat strike that left streets littered during Rio's famous Carnaval celebrations. The settlement reached by the municipal government and the strikers' committee increased the sweepers' base monthly pay from 802 to 1,100 reais (US$338.61 to $466.64). The sweepers also gained an increase in their daily meal tickets from 12 to 20 reais ($5.09 to $8.49), payment for extra hours, and increases for medical and dental care. The settlement included a guarantee that no workers would be fired for taking part in the strike.
Alma Delia Olivares Castro, an announcer on the La Cabina community radio station in Omealca municipality in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz, was arrested on Feb. 28 and was held in a federal prison in Nayarit state for five days on charges of "auditory contamination." The authorities released Olivares Castro on March 4 after her family put up 25,000 pesos (about US$1,893) in bail, but she still faces criminal charges. After realizing that "auditory contamination" is not an offense under Mexican law, the authorities changed the charge to "undue use of a national good" (the airwaves). The station has already been closed and fined 29,000 pesos (about US$2,199) under the Federal Radio and Television Law, which regulates the licensing of radio and television stations.
Chanting "We're Dominicans and we're staying here," hundreds of people of Haitian descent and their supporters gathered in front of the Congress building in Santo Domingo on March 12 in the latest protest against Decision 168-13, a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal (TC) last September declaring that no one born to undocumented immigrants since 1929 was a citizen. Among the groups participating in the "Day of Fasting and Prayer" were the Bonó Center, a Catholic human rights organization, and Reconoci.do, a youth movement that has been organizing demonstrations for two years on the 12th day of the month to demand papers for the Dominican-born children of immigrants. Manuel María Mercedes and other members of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) joined the protest, as did legislative deputies Hugo Tolentino Dipp and Guadalupe Valdez and former labor minister Max Puig.
Dockworkers at the Port of Portland in Oregon walked off their jobs at the container yard on March 4 to honor a picket line set up by a small group of Honduran dockworkers protesting what they said were labor abuses at the Puerto Cortés port in northern Honduras. The picketers were members of the Dockworkers Labor Union (SGTM), which has been in a dispute since last year with Operadora Portuaria Centroamericana (OPC), the Honduran subsidiary of the Philippines-based International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI). A US subsidiary of ICTSI operates Terminal 6 in the Oregon port, and the dockworkers there, who are represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), have had their own disputes with the company.