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A policeman patrols the Rocinha Slum in Rio de Janeiro April 4. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

Makeover for Rio's favelas: What is at stake?

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 04.19.12

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Has anyone calculated the total number of people who have ever lived their whole lives in a favela? Since the first one, here in Rio, on the Morro da Favela, occupied in 1897? It’s surely more than six million [...L]iving under constant threat to one’s health, physical safety, mental balance, etc.

[W]e are talking about generations of people who lived in ghettos. People long on the margin, limited in their capacity to fulfill their human potential.

Today, one in five cariocas [a reference to people who live in Rio] lives in a favela, or slum.

This is why we had two big pieces of news this week. First, Governor Sérgio Cabral announced plans to spend $100 million ($70 million of which come from an International Development Bank loan) to serve 40,000 young people in pacified favelas by 2016.

According to the O Globo newspaper, ”the work includes psychological services, job orientation and help for young people returning to school... The idea is to create spaces for youth, to fund groups that will track residents aged 15 to 19.″

Then, Mayor Eduardo Paes presented a new Strategic Goals Plan that extends to the same year. The plan will affect favela residents on many fronts:

  • it reduces waiting time for public medical services and infant mortality
  • it will increase availability of public infant care, the hours students spend in school and literacy
  • it will cut territory occupied by favelas by 5 percent, using 2008 as a base year
  • it improves public transportation; and will build 100,000 new low income housing units
  • it will bring water, sewage disposal, and drainage, among other services, to 156,000 homes and will remove about 25,000 from at-risk areas
  • it improves sanitation in the West Zone and increases trash recycling in the city as a whole
  • it increases services to child crack users
  • it will reduce poverty by way of income transfer programs that complement the federal Bolsa Família


Many will say that all this attention is because of the Olympics. So what, if it actually happens?

Behind this affirmation is distrust dating back over more than a century of exclusion: if it’s the foreigner’s eye that is pushing non-favela cariocas to meet the needs of favela cariocas, how much can one rely on the quality of the attention?


People who live in favelas tend to gather in doorways, on stoops, and stairs. They know their neighbors and depend on their help. They attend community events and party in the street.

“The use of public space builds a certain subjectivity that in a way also builds a specific culture,” says the architect and urban planner of long experience, Sérgio Magalhães, who last year ran the Morar Carioca favela upgrade contest. ”The connection between people is different.”

He makes a useful comparison. “When you are the author of your own house, that you built over the years with your personal effort, when this personal effort is superimposed on the personal effort of the generation that  came before and is superimposed by the one after you, that house is steeped in shared values, which is necessarily different from the house you buy with a mortgage, and sell with a mortgage when you want, when you need to change jobs, when your family gets bigger or smaller, when your income grows or shrinks.”

Public policy should take this difference into account, says Magalhães. “We’re talking about a contemporary value, not a modern one,” he explains. “Modern was about homogeneity, universalization. The contemporary values differences.”

Pressed for time in the 1950s in the US

Except that the athletes, diplomats, advertisers, tourists, officials, and journalists are already arriving. Even the Pope is coming.

So maybe favela residents need to let go of old customs – and take on the more impersonal culture of the formal city. Maybe it’s merely a question of trading in a barbecue on the lage (favela terrace) for a barbecue in the community space of the housing project – or, in the case of those who ascend to the new middle class, in the restaurant? Because maybe that’s what urban integration is about…

Or do favelas have something worth preserving? The concept of community, after all, is central to a fully functioning democracy.

The hurry is there in the goals for 2016, and also in the way people are relocated when necessary. Those who go through the process complain of confusing information and lack of respect. At least a certain amount of negotiation takes place, even if it’s inefficient and not very transparent.

The authoritarian style of some aspects of Rio de Janeiro’s transformation inspires distrust. There’s a reason why the first headlines about the new strategic plan emphasized the reduction in favela territory (in Portuguese). One immediately wondered which ones, where, and how?

There are other doubts. Who defines at-risk areas, and how can one be sure the term isn’t being used for ends other than protecting citizens from natural disasters? How to insure the quality and durability of the apartments where thousands of cariocas will live? Who’ll pay for maintenance? How to guard against favela gentrification, and the impoverishment of residents who’re paying light bills for the first time? What happens to those who leave more central areas for cheaper parts of the city?

And where is the public debate on the needs and dreams of pacified favela youth taking place?

In the post-war period, industrial countries were also in a hurry. For several reasons, soldiers returning from World War II didn’t go live on hills, as did veterans of the Canudos War. Nor was this the case for black families migrating from rural areas to large American cities. For many of these, the solution was the construction of enormous housing projects– that became enormous problems by the 1970s.

Jane Jacobs, Sérgio Magalhães recalls, the wise author of the classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (published in 1961), said that economic development isn’t always the good city’s partner.

“Sometimes, economic growth leads to urban loss. Because money is abundant, easy money suggests great powers, that anything is possible… in a way here we’re living a period [like the 1950s in the U.S.], that anything is possible. It’s not true,” Magalhães concludes.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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Prostitutes walk in front of the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia, April 17. As many as 21 women were brought back to a hotel in Colombia by U.S. Secret Service and military personnel in an incident last week involving alleged misconduct with prostitutes, US Senator Susan Collins said on Tuesday. (REUTERS)

Secret Service scandal: an embarrassment for Colombian city, too (+video)

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / 04.19.12

Many Colombians are snickering at what they see as American media's obsession with a prostitute scandal involving Secret Service agents at the Summit of the Americas – chalking it up to the "Puritan legacy" of the United States. But officials in Cartagena are expressing anger at much of the nonstop coverage, saying it casts their city – a colonial gem of cobblestoned streets, surrounded by the extremes of sprawling slums and high-rise luxury – in a bad light. 

And the media aren't the only outlets attracting their ire. Spirit Airlines has already launched an ad campaign for flights to Cartagena that features Secret-Service-style men, a suggestive slogan, and scantily clad women. “Upfront payment is required,” the ad reads. Some Colombian feminists are calling for a boycott of the low cost airline.

To Mayor Campo Elias Terán, it is too much. “Cartagena women are respectable and you cannot generalize as if the city were filled with prostitutes,” he says.

Prostitution is legal in Colombia and mayors can designate certain “tolerance zones” where the activity is regulated. But that may be more the ideal than the reality: countless male friends and colleagues have told me about taxi drivers, bartenders, and waiters offering to arrange meetings with anyone from call girls to underage girls.

Colombian national television has mostly focused on covering the story about the story, reporting on the fact that US media has gone to town with all the details of what happened. Some 11 Secret Security agents and a handful of soldiers in Colombia as part of President Obama’s advance security detail allegedly violated curfew and protocol, bringing back at least 20 prostitutes to their beachside hotel.  One of the men shortchanged one of the women, according to The New York Times, which interviewed her, and she complained to authorities.

No one argues that the security concerns over wayward agents who are supposed to protect the US president aren't legitimate. Colombia is, after all, home to one of the longest-running Marxist insurgencies in the world, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with 9,200 fighters, according to police intelligence estimates. The FARC, which the US designates as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, could have conceivably planted a woman rebel to seduce the servicemen.

Even FARC leaders, however, probably thought that getting that close to Obama’s security would have been impossible.

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Ecuador: easy base for terrorists and criminals?

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger / 04.18.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, The views expressed are the author's own.

Allegations that Ecuador’s lax immigration policies make it a strategic asset to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda are overblown, overshadowing the real danger: that the country is emerging as a hotspot for transnational organized crime.

Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa was voted into office in 2006 on promises of wide-ranging reforms, vowing to push forward a constitutional referendum. The move was passed by referendum in 2007, and Ecuador adopted a new constitution in 2008. But while Correa has embraced the progressive charter’s guarantees of social and economic rights like access to clean water, education, and universal health care, not all of the document’s reforms have played out so well.

Perhaps the most contentious was Article 416, which declares that Ecuador “upholds the principle of universal citizenship, free mobility of all inhabitants of the planet and the gradual end to the condition of foreigner as transforming element of unequal relations amongst countries, especially North-South.”

Correa initially supported the initiative with enthusiasm, calling for an end to "those 20th century inventions, passports and visas." However, it soon provoked a huge influx of migrants from regions such as Southeast Asia and East Africa, many of whom used Ecuador as a stepping stone to enter the United States or Brazil.

Last week, former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich wrote a scathing critique of this initiative for Foreign Policy, arguing:

The disarray created in Ecuador's immigration policy has permitted transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups -- possibly including al Qaeda -- to potentially use the country as a base of operations with the ultimate objective of harming the United States.

Although Reich goes on to note that Ecuador tightened its immigration policies somewhat in 2010, he claims that there is “no evidence of Correa wanting to stem the flow,” and warns that some of the most common routes still used by migrants into the country are “Pakistan/Afghanistan-Iran-Venezuela-Ecuador, and Somalia-Dubai-Russia-Cuba-Ecuador.” To him, this represents a security problem for the entire hemisphere.

At first glance, Reich’s allegations seem to justify concerns about the potential use of Ecuador as a terrorist operations base. As further proof he cites the May 2011 arrest of Yaee Dawit Tadese, said to be a cousin of deceased al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who ran a migrant trafficking ring out of Guayaquil. But while Ecuador’s immigration policy represents a logistical nightmare, its contribution to terrorism in the region is much less of a menace than Reich contends. In a response to Reich’s piece, Ecuador's ambassador to the US Nathalie Cely points out that the presence of individuals from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the country hardly constitutes an automatic danger.

The real security threat in Ecuador lies in the heightened profile of organized crime in the country. As InSight Crime has reported, transnational criminal organizations have been steadily building up influence in Ecuador. Last summer Jay Bergman, the director of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) activities in the Andes, told Reuters that Ecuador is becoming a melting pot for international organized criminal groups, most of which specialize in drug trafficking. "We have cases of Albanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese organized crime all in Ecuador, all getting their product for distribution to their respective countries," said Bergman.

Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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People refuel their vehicles at a YPF gas station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, April 16. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

Challenges facing Argentina after oil firm nationalization

By James BosworthGuest blogger / 04.18.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

A slap at Spain: In order to nationalize YPF, Argentina will nationalize 51% of the company from the 57% currently owned by Repsol. Spain has promised retaliation. This could be a long and ugly fight.
Ideology shift: As several media outlets noted yesterday, Cristina Kirchner supported the privatization of Argentina's oil in 1992. Her shift on the issue mirrors the shifts in ideology of the Peronists over the decades.
The fracking question: This isn't just about oil. Argentina has the third largest technically recoverable reserves of shale gas in the world after the US and China. They have the potential to be a natural gas giant. YPF controls some of the biggest stakes in this emerging industry. This move by Argentina is going to scare many of the potential investors in this sector, but it also gives them control of large potential reserves. Fracking is both environmentally controversial and technically difficult, but the gas reserves would be a huge economic boom for the country.

Welcome to a very tough distribution market: The government wants YPF's exploration, drilling and refining capacity. What they get on the side is YPF's service stations. President Kirchner should find that running a gas station in Argentina is a tough business under the current government policies.  One third of Argentina's gas stations have closed in the past decade (from about 6,000 to about 4,000). Companies big and small are jumping ship on the distribution side. Just last year, 49 YPF stations closed in the country. Gasoline and natural gas shortages are a regular event. The government used to be able to point fingers at foreign firms and criticize the stations for their shortages. Now that they own the biggest company in the business, they get to either show how it's done or take the political blame.
Watch the provinces: If you're an investor in Argentina you need to understand politics at the provincial and local government level, not just the national picture. This YPF nationalization was not a top-down affair the way it has occurred in Venezuela or Bolivia. Various provinces revoked concessions one-by-one, building momentum for the national move. While the opposition media portray this as a planned operation controlled and directed by the president, the details were driven by local politics moving the national agenda.
Watch China: Argentina believes that China will pick up the slack for any investments lost to Western firms or governments that avoid the market. China wants Argentina's energy and food and has invested big in the country in recent years. But even China is starting to wonder about Argentina's investment climate. The Argentine government is far more independent and nationalistic than the African governments that China likes to work with. China worries about the more radical elements of Kirchner's political base demanding more control over Chinese-controlled assets. It worries about the state governments that it doesn't quite understand. It also worries about the opposition flipping policies if they regain power. China should be as confused and concerned about Argentina's business climate as everyone else.
Watch Brazil: Petrobras is one of the other big energy investors in Argentina. Over the past year, it's quietly moved away from the market, selling a refinery and gas stations. The Kirchner government has at times placed Petrobras in the same league as YPF, Shell and Exxon in terms of foreign firms to be blamed for Argentina's energy problems. Two weeks ago, Petrobras lost a concession in the province of Neuquin, the sort of move that was a prelude to the YPF nationalization. The response to the YPF nationalization from Petrobras and Brazil will be important. Argentina will certainly want its Mercosur ally to stand with them in any economic dispute with Spain, but Brazil has a lot to lose here as well.
For those wanting to read more in English: NYT, Reuters, Bloomberg. Additionally, the Beyond Brics Blog at FT has done an excellent job covering this issue in recent weeks.

– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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Police from the Special Operations Battalion patrol as a resident looks on during a security operation in the Manguinhos slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 11. City officials launched a 'pacification' program in 2009, in which security forces clear heavily armed gangs from slums and establish a police presence with the aim of reducing violence in Rio before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. (Felipe Dana/AP)

What are Rio's security crackdowns accomplishing?

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 04.17.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

How much can a city change? This is the question underlying doubts arising in the last two weeks regarding Rio’s public safety policy.

You may believe that the values, habits, and assumptions of a city and its inhabitants, developed over the course of generations, are static; immutable. In this case, the police and politicians are forever corrupt and criminals are constantly crooked, while innocent citizens are always at the mercy of both. Rio’s 2008 public safety policy is for show, a temporary lockdown until the Olympics are done.

Or you may think that change occurs when systems no longer provide what they were created to do; when new demands crop up that they can’t meet. In this case, police and politicians become enlightened, criminals have fewer options, and innocent citizens find themselves called on to adapt their own values, habits and assumptions. Rio’s 2008 public safety policy is part of a larger socioeconomic turn of the tide and the fabrics of the city’s favelas, or slums, and its formal neighborhoods are turning from patchwork to a single weave.

When the new public safety policy was conceived, officials knew that drug traffickers would flee to other favelas. Police occupation is announced beforehand, after all. Over the last three years we’ve seen criminals run to Complexo do Alemão and Rocinha, among other [favelas]. Now that these have been occupied, the fallout is occurring within a wider radius.

State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame admitted yesterday for the first time that increased crime in the city of Niterói, across the bay from Rio, is due to police pacification and occupation in the state capital (all links in Portuguese unless noted). Military and civil police have also turned their sights on the mountain towns in the state of Rio de Janeiro, on Manguinhos and Jacarezinho favelas, and on allied activities of Rio and São Paulo traffickers, to transport drugs and weapons.

Manpower has always been an issue for public safety officials, and it’s gotten  more serious as the geography involved widens. Rocinha is now partly policed by new pacification police recruits, though it’s under BOPE (elite squad) command, still in the occupation phase.

“Is it possible to institute new police practices with police who are accustomed to the old ways?” asks Cecília Oliveira, communications coordinator for Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré, a highly successful NGO in the Maré complex of favelas and housing projects, next on Beltrame’s list. “The new officers have sixty days of training, and the old ones, old practices,” she adds.

Corruption came to the fore in Rocinha, where it became clear that the police hadn’t occupied the authority vacuum left by trafficker Nem because they were on the take. It’s probably everywhere, to some extent. The fact that this week Mangueira favela shopkeepers followed an order (given by a cruising motorcyclist) to close as a sign of mourning for a deceased drug trafficker indicates similar troubles there.

Beltrame is grappling with both issues; today he was expected to announce a series of measures to deal with crime in and around Niterói.

Rio’s public safety policy is clearly messing with long-entrenched markets, attitudes and relationships, and many of the stacked dominoes aren’t in plain view. Drugs aren’t in the purview of favelas only, as a fellow combatant reminds us:

“When I was minister of defense, we were very successful. We took down all the members [on] the list of high-value targets in the drug trafficking, all of them. They are either in jail or dead. We confiscated unprecedented amounts of cocaine. We eradicated unprecedented amounts of hectares of coca, and the DEA director came here and congratulated me and congratulated our people, saying we are doing very well, ” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos told the Washington Post this week (in English).  ”And you know how success was defined? By the price of cocaine in Los Angeles or in New York or in Washington. And so, because the price went up, we were being successful. But at the same time, if the price goes up, the incentive goes up. So there is a structured sort of contradiction in the whole setup.”

It’s probably exactly that incentive which has led competing drug gangs to pay off the cops and engage in warfare in Rocinha. Quite likely the success of   occupation and pacification rest on the state government’s ability to clamp down on this – a place so much at the heart of Rio de Janeiro.

Of course the two lines of thinking described above aren’t mutually exclusive. The picture is muddy, and the way we see it is colored by our experience and preconceived notions. Some of the actors are diehards, some are chameleons, and maybe a few are Brazilian Galileos.

For now, Beltrame has the last word.

“I see that things may not be very good, but they’re better than they were,” he told O Globo newspaper yesterday.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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Evidence markers stand on the pavement next to parked taxis at a crime scene in the municipality of Guadalupe in Monterrey April 10. Gunmen shot dead seven taxi drivers on the outskirts of the industrial hub of Monterrey, which has become one of Mexico's most violent cities during a turf war between rival drug cartels. (Daniel Becerrill/Reuters)

8 taxi drivers killed in Mexico: why are they targeted by cartels?

By Patrick CorcoranGuest blogger / 04.16.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, The views expressed are the author's own.

The murder of eight taxi drivers in a Monterrey suburb appears to be the latest assault by organized criminal groups against transport workers in Mexico, with the Zetas fingered as the killers.

The drivers were killed by a group of gunmen in two attacks on taxi service stations in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon, on Tuesday afternoon. Two others, including a minor, were injured in the attacks. Local and federal authorities mobilized in response to the killings, but no suspects have been located so far. The two shootings occurred roughly 6 miles from one another, in a marginal section of Guadalupe that relies on pirate taxis to connect residents to the city center.

Long considered to be among Mexico’s safest and most cosmopolitan cities, Monterrey and the surrounding region has turned into one of its most notoriously violent over the past two years. In 2010, the number of murders leaped to 828 across Nuevo Leon, up from 267 the previous year. The figure jumped once more in 2011, to a total of 2,003. While much of Mexico has grown more violent in recent years, Monterrey’s status as Mexico’s industrial capital, its third largest city, and home to some of its wealthiest neighborhoods made its decline particularly alarming.

The violence has been driven by a split between two powerful former allies, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, who operate in the region. The fight originally began in Tamaulipas, which borders Nuevo Leon, after the Gulf assassinated a Zetas boss and refused to hand over the perpetrators. The battle spread across Mexico’s northeast, and Monterrey has been the site of some of the most notorious acts of violence in recent years.

Perhaps the most infamous incident was the murder of 52 casino patrons in August 2010, the result of a fire set by the Zetas as punishment for an unpaid extortion fee. It was the most deadly single attack in recent Mexican history. The outcry over the mass murder was heightened by the emergence of a video showing the brother of Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal apparently collecting an extortion payment from a Monterrey casino.

It remains unclear precisely why the taxi drivers were targeted, but initial reports fingered the Zetas. The group has steadily encroached upon a growing list of illicit activities, from pirate merchandising to oil theft. It would not be out of character for the Zetas to move into the pirate taxi racket as well, which could provoke violent incidents like the Guadalupe attacks.

Taxis also often serve as "halcones" or lookouts for criminal groups, warning of police deployments and guarding against other groups making inroads into a given city. If the pirate taxis were working for a criminal group, they would be targets for retribution from rival gangs. Some reports, citing anonymous police sources, alleged that the murdered men worked as lookouts for the Zetas (in Spanish).

Taxis also frequently serve to facilitate retail drug sales, and another explanation links the killings to a taxi driver who was recently fired after being caught with drugs (in Spanish). According to this version, based on testimony from a surviving taxi driver, the fired employee threatened his co-workers with vengeance from the Zetas.

Whatever the motive for the crime, it is not the first time that transport workers have been targeted by organized crime groups in Mexico; indeed, this has grown increasingly common. The same day as the Guadalupe killings, five taxi drivers were killed in the southern resort city of Acapulco. In February, five Monterrey taxi drivers were gunned down as they chatted while waiting for fares outside of a furniture store. Last year, scores of taxi drivers were murdered in Acapulco, with organized crime groups presumed to be responsible (links in Spanish).

Buses have also been targeted. Last year, for instance, two buses in Juarez were burned after their owners refused demands from extortionists (in Spanish). The long-distance bus system has been linked to some of the most brutal incidents of the previous year: most of the hundreds of bodies found in mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, last spring had been passengers on buses passing through the region.

– Patrick Corcoran is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.. Find all of his research here.

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Americas Summit: Will there be consensus on Cuba?

By Melissa Lockhart FortnerGuest blogger / 04.15.12

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

This weekend’s Summit of the Americas may not include representation from Cuba, but Cuba is by no means absent from the summit.

Leading up to the meeting, general policy toward the island appeared to be the most significant issue dividing the Hemisphere: Latin American nations saw Cuba’s continued exclusion from the summit as counterproductive, while the United States insisted that as long as Cuba continued to fail to meet the democratic requirements of the Organization of American States, its leaders could not be involved in any of the organization’s events (including the Summit of the Americas). With diplomatic aplomb, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos solved the issue by proposing to make Cuba’s future participation a topic for discussion at the Summit.

So Raúl Castro is not in Cartagena, but the nations of the Hemisphere are discussing whether he could be invited in the future. And the leaders of the countries of ALBA that were threatening not to show up to the summit actually agreed to attend following this resolution (all except Rafael Correa of Ecuador). The way is paved for the United States to maintain its opposition respectfully, while stepping aside to allow future policy to be determined by the apparent consensus of most all other countries in the Hemisphere.

Is that what will happen? Not yet, certainly. The meeting of foreign ministers that considered a proposal to invite Cuba to future summits ended after the United States and Canada delivered their veto.

But the conversation did not end there, and it appears to be coming to a head, as ALBA countries have drawn the line on excluding Cuba. Bolivia’s Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, has stated: “This is the last Summit of the Americas unless Cuba is allowed to take part.” The foreign ministers of Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay have all declined to sign the summit’s final declaration unless the United States and Canada remove their veto of future Cuban participation. And the most moderate, conservative Latin American nations are taking a stand as well. President Santos of Colombia and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil have both agreed that there should be no more Americas summits without Cuba included. President Santos opened the summit with a critique of Cuba’s absence, saying that the exclusion was an anachronism of the cold war. He is a well-respected leader, and a strong ally, of course, of the United States.

Will the United States and Canada test the resolve of all of these leaders and maintain their veto? Or will they take advantage of this opportunity to step aside and accede to the majority consensus in a Hemisphere demanding exactly this kind of signal from its northern partners?

As President Obama noted, media tend to sweep over the progress made at these kinds of summits in favor of focusing on the “flashier” controversies. He’s right: there are a wide range of issues upon which the nations of the Hemisphere are finding means to cooperate during these meetings, under the theme of “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity” — from expanding access to information and communication technology for development to bolstering middle class populations. It would certainly be a shame to overshadow all of that by remaining stubborn on the Cuba issue.

--- Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior Programs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. You can read her blog here:

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Dreamers flock to Rio: A Sarajevan learns to samba in Brazil

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 04.13.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

British train robber Ronald Biggs made Rio de Janeiro famous as a hideaway in the 1970s. To support himself and his family, he used to hold barbecues for tourists, at his Santa Teresa home.

Nowadays foreigners arrive in droves, armed with their own money to invest. They also have ideas and business experience. And they aren’t so much into backyard barbecue as tapasburritosdiner fare, or gelato— novidades for many locals.

Yet Rio feeds all kinds of appetites. RioRealblog’s first profiled foreigner bearing carioca dreams is more hungry for rhythm and melody, than for food.

Born in Sarajevo, raised partly in Kuwait, Devla Imperatrix (her real middle name, honoring the Karl Orff opera Carmen Burana) speaks no less than eight languages.

After years of dancing and teaching flamenco in Europe, Devla came to Rio with samba in mind. To her surprise, a samba school existed by the name Imperatriz Leopoldinense, or Leopoldian Empress. Devla had no doubt her destiny lay in the North Zone Ramos neighborhood.

On the samba school’s dance floor last year, a director chewed out the 5-foot-ten-inch beauty for wearing flats. “A passista (official samba school dancer) has to wear heels,” he warned.

Devla wasn’t a passista – yet. After lessons from famed teacher Carlinhos de Jesus, she won a spot on an Imperatriz float in this year’s Carnival parade.

“I may have been the first foreign musa (muse) in a Carnival parade,” she notes. “But because I’m fluent in Portuguese and feel possessed by samba, people didn’t really notice!”

The parade was no slice of cake. Devla’s dress was ready only 45 minutes before the samba school began moving down the avenue. Her skirt came unpinned; experienced dancer and performer that she is, Devla focused on moving her arms, transmitting the magic of samba with what she calls “a contained presence”, until she could fix it.

One dream ticked off her list, Devla now aspires to create and perform a fusion of gypsy dancing and samba. She also wouldn’t mind a role in a Globo novela, or soap opera… and meanwhile, she’s using her business degree and savvy at Global Vision Visas, specializing in customized immigration solutions for multinational oil and gas companies.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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People gather on Paseo de la Reforma avenue, after being evacuated from their buildings following an earthquake in Mexico City on April 11. (Alejandro Dias/Reuters)

Series of quakes hit Mexico: What's going on?

By Staff writer / 04.12.12

Yesterday, at my favorite taco stand, a woman who cleans houses in the neighborhood struck up a conversation with the vendor. "I keep thinking I am dizzy, that the earth is shaking," she said. He nodded in agreement. "Ah, that earthquake," he said.

By now, weeks after the March 20 earthquake rattled Mexico City with a magnitude of 7.4 – the strongest the city has felt since a devastating 1985 quake that killed thousands – most residents here would have forgotten the temblor that struck just after noon, swaying buildings and sending residents into the streets. There were two deaths and plenty of damage, a reminder of how seismically vulnerable we all are.

But the quakes haven't seemed to stop, becoming a reoccurring conversation topic at taco stands, gyms, hair salons, parks, and water coolers across the city.

In fact, just four hours after the woman, munching on a taco of hard boiled egg and rice, complained of her imagined dizzy spells the earth shook again. Yesterday, a 6.4 magnitude quake struck western Mexico, and caused Mexico City, 200 miles away, to rattle. It is the fourth earthquake or aftershock of a magnitude over 6.0 to impact the city in four months. (Separately a 6.9 quake hit the waters of northern Mexico last night at 12:15 a.m.)

What is going on? This is what people are wondering: Is it just random? Does it mean the earth is releasing tension, meaning a mega quake like the 1985 one is less likely? Or is it the prelude to something bigger? Some have even joked on social media that this is a sign that the Mayan calendar slating 2012 as the end of the world, according to some beliefs, is actually true. Most of all – we all want to know – when are we going to start feeling like we live on stable ground again?

In reality, there is no good answer to these questions, says Don Blakeman,a geophysicist with the Colorado-based US Geological Survey. An earthquake is by nature the release of stored energy. So it's unlikely that another one in the exact same spot will occur right away. But it doesn't mean that enough energy was necessarily released to stave off quakes in other spots along the fault line. And sometimes it causes shifts that can create other potential risk areas. And of course over time the energy builds up again.

So what of the fact that four quakes have struck Mexico City in four months? It has resulted in bloggers writing about what it means and adding to the murmurs of concern on the street, but in truth, "it doesn't really mean anything," Mr. Blakeman says.

Mexico's seismological service has reported close to 400 aftershocks since the March 20 quake, according to the Associated Press.

I for one am right with the woman from the taco stand: The ground keeps moving as far as I am concerned. I felt it twice yesterday while working in a coffee shop, the same place I was when the earthquake struck March 20. I looked up. No one seemed to move. It must be my imagination, I thought.

But when I got home, the woman who cares for my baby also thought she felt the house tremble, at about the same time. So maybe we aren't going crazy: maybe we are just hyper aware of the earth's movements now.

In any case, we all just want a reprieve. Now. (And when I say now, I do mean right now – I feel the earth moving.)

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An aerial view of the port city that will host the sixth Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia, Thursday. Western Hemisphere leaders will gather for the summit this weekend. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

How 'socially inclusive' is Latin America? New indicator ranks countries.

By Staff writer / 04.12.12

For the past decade, Latin American politicians have centered their campaigns and policies on inclusiveness. Starting with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, hardly any leader can seek office today – whether they're on the left, right, or smack in the center – without promising to be an advocate for the marginalized and the poor.

But with new political empowerment for the poor, expanded social programs, and continued promises of inclusion: Are people in Latin America better off today?

There are poverty and inequality statistics to measure this, but they only tell part of the story. A new indicator unveiled by the policy journal Americas Quarterly seeks to provide a fuller answer to that question by measuring “social inclusion” across 15 variables in 11 countries.  The social inclusion measurement looks not just at jobs and access to goods and education, but also considers perceptions of political freedom and government efficacy.

Unfortunately Venezuela is not included in the report (nor is Argentina) because of the availability of quality data. But some of Venezuela's allies, like Bolivia and Ecuador, are listed. While these two countries fall in the middle of the pack for the cumulative ranking of overall “social inclusion,” when it comes to specific variables there are some interesting findings.

In terms of government responsiveness, Bolivia, a majority-indigenous country that elected its first indigenous president Evo Morales to office in 2005, scores among the top, at No. 2.  Ecuador, with left-leaning President Rafael Correa, sits at No. 6, and by comparison, the US is at No. 11, with only Guatemala ranking behind it. Uruguay ranked No. 1.

Government responsiveness is a standard measure that, in this case, is drawn from 2010 AmericasBarometer survey data, based on the statement, “Those who govern are interested in what people like you think."

For civil society participation, Bolivia sits at the very top, and when measuring the percent of GDP spent on social programs it is No. 3. When it comes to personal empowerment, Nicaragua is at 3, with Ecuador at 5, and Bolivia at 6 (Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Colombia all fall behind these three).

"People's sense of frustration with their government is lacking in Ecuador and Bolivia," says Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly in New York. There is a high level of political participation there, and people sense the government is responding to their needs, and they sense their own power to change things, says Mr. Sabatini.

Ecuador and Bolivia's overall ranking is hurt by lower scores on measures of access to housing and formal jobs, where countries such as Chile and Uruguay are at the top. This accounts for why Chile and Uruguay score No. 1 and 2 respectively on the overall ranking. These southern cone countries also score highest on measures such as political rights and civil rights, as well as access to housing, education, and formal jobs. (The US was not included in the final ranking because data was not collected for all 15 variables.)

Brazil sits at third place on the overall ranking, but there is a notable disparity in the scores of the top two countries and the third, which means that despite its global rise, Brazil has a long way to go (as does the rest of the region).

While civil society participation is highest in Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay figure at 10 and 11 respectively (the US is at 8). These rankings might express a sense of contentment: Why protest when things are going alright? But over time a less participatory society can break down bonds of trust across groups, says Sabatini.

When the leaders of the hemisphere convene this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia for the Sixth Summit of the Americas, poverty reduction and closing the gap on inequality – one of the region's most enduring problems – will be on the agenda.

Countries can tout a lot of gain, but, says Sabatini, “while we've seen a lot of important changes in terms of economic growth, it's not time to be too self-congratulatory. There are many rights or political participation or discrimination that has to be addressed to consolidate these changes.”

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