Regional news update
Cautious optimism greets Obama victory
Congratulations poured in from Latin American leaders, media and the general public in response to the election of Barack Obama to the White House in November. For Latin Americans, the victory represented a capacity and desire for change many had believed impossible under the previous inertia of the US electoral system. Afro-American communities in Latin America celebrated with extra enthusiasm.
There is cautious optimism the new administration will end the divide-and-rule
bullying of the Bush administration, which attempted to coerce Latin American
countries to accept the Washington economic model through “free trade” agreements and foreign policy initiatives driven by counter-terrorism and the war on drugs.
Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Evo Morales in Bolivia called for an end to the “unjustifiable embargo of Cuba”, and Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner called for a commitment to multilateralism. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, accepting Obama’s offer to sit down and negotiate, expressed hope for a “constructive bilateral agenda”.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega described Obama's victory as a “real miracle”, which opened up the possibility of a beneficial change in ties between Latin America and the United States.
Further information: americas.irc-online.org
Soaring food prices
El Salvador’s consumer price index has risen dramatically over the past year, with food prices up 11.7 percent and transport up 9.1 percent. This year’s record-high oil price has also led to huge increases in the cost of fertiliser, making it unaffordable for many coffee farmers, stoking concerns over the viability of next year’s crop. According to a World Food Programme study (Price Rises, Markets and Food and Nutritional Security in Central America), inflation pushed more than 100,000 Salvadorans below the poverty line between September 2007 and June 2008. The prices of basic foodstuffs, including eggs, rice, corn and beans, have risen by more than 30 percent in the last few months, alongside large increases for cooking oil and firewood. People living below or just above the poverty line cannot cope with rapid price rises for essential items, and today many can afford only half of what they could buy a year ago. On October 18, a large march was held in the capital, San Salvador, calling on the government to improve El Salvador’s food security and reverse damaging agricultural policies. The rally was attended by a number of organisations representing rural campesinos, trade unions and consumers, united in their fight against inequality and hunger.
Wheat companies fined
In September, El Salvador's Superintendent of Competition announced $4 million in fines for two companies, MOLSA and HARISA. They were found guilty of conspiring to divide up the wheat market to keep prices artificially high. The companies’ actions worsened food insecurity among the already over-stretched population by keeping the cost of flour high at a time of rising hunger. In February, more than 3,000 bakers marched in protest against the flour price.
Bus fares lead to protest
The transport sector is heavily subsidised in El Salvador, with the government capping fares to ensure an affordable bus service. A recent law raising the maximum fare has led to an increase of $0.10 within El Salvador’s urban centres and interdepartmental fares are up 40 percent, exacerbating the financial hardship caused by rising food prices. In June, a group allegedly made up of University of El Salvador students set fire to two buses near the campus in protest against fare increases.
Financial crisis to hit exports, remittances and jobs
Central Bank President Antenor Rosales and US Ambassador Robert Callahan have said the crisis in international financial markets will have repercussions for Nicaragua, mainly in terms of exports and remittances. Callahan noted that the US is Nicaragua’s principal trading partner and the origin of the majority of Nicaraguan family remittances, urging patience over what he described as a “temporary problem”. Total family remittances for 2007 were $739.5 million, with nearly $600 million coming from the US. Callahan made his remarks at the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry where he delivered a letter pledging $5 million for the eradication of child labour in Nicaragua. Decreased consumption in the United States has already caused the cancellation of textile factory orders in Nicaragua's Free Trade Zones (FTZs), resulting in the loss of around 15,000 jobs.
While the National Commission of Free Trade Zones reported the zones’ highest-ever employment level at 87,500 workers over the past year, the president of the Nicaraguan Association of Textile Manufacturing (ANITEC), Dean Garcia, said factories have recently reduced personnel, consolidated operations and in some cases closed due to heavy losses. Garcia strongly condemned government’s decision to raise the minimum wage by 50 percent over the past 18 months, which still leaves Nicaraguan workers with the lowest wages in Central America. He also criticised the government for enforcing labour laws against the ANNIC factory, which fired 1,950 workers after it was censured for forcing staff to work 12-hour shifts four days a week. Garcia said the practice allowed ANNIC to accelerate production and hire twice as many workers. An appeal has been made to Nicaragua’s Supreme Court.
Illiteracy falls below 10 percent
Education Minister Miguel De Castilla reported in October that illiteracy now stands at 9.9 percent, the lowest level in Nicaraguan history. The Ministry of Education used the Cuban literacy program "Yes I can" to achieve the dramatic reduction from 35 percent when President Daniel Ortega took office. De Castilla said the great National Literacy Campaign of 1980 had reduced illiteracy from 52 percent to 12.9 percent but it had climbed again under neoliberal governments since 1990. The goal is to achieve 100 percent literacy by the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution on July 19. Next year, the education ministry plans to focus on progress in mathematics and science.
Healthcare access skyrockets
Minister of Health Guillermo Gonzalez said in October that use of public hospitals and health centres has grown by 40 percent in 2008 after rising 50 percent in 2007. “The lack of doctors has been a struggle we are confronting,” he said. “It is a complicated subject that can only be solved with financial investment.” He added that the demand for free medicine and treatment has put pressure on the health care system, leading the ministry to request a budget increase for 2009. Gonzalez said the government is investing millions of dollars to develop hospitals and health centres that focus on the wellbeing of people and their communities rather than just treating injuries and illness, which he described as “the re-establishment of a right” of the population.
Third Social Forum of the Americas
In October, over 10,000 people came together for the third Social Forum of the Americas in Guatemala. The forum, which took place in Central America for the first time, had a special focus on issues facing Latin America’s indigenous peoples. In a formal declaration, the participants called for the removal of US military bases across the region and condemned US and European policies that criminalise Latin American migrants fleeing poverty and marginalisation in their countries of origin.
Five beheaded in prison fight
According to Associated Press, a prison fight in late November left seven inmates dead, including five who were decapitated. National prisons systems spokesman Rudy Esquivel said authorities found the five heads after the fight in the Pavoncito prison in Guatemala City. Two other inmates died in hospital of gunshot wounds.
Presidential surveillance scandal
President Álvaro Colom of Guatemala sacked his security chief after the discovery of seven unauthorised listening devices and video cameras in the presidential office and residence. An investigation into who planted the devices is underway but Colom, a businessman who took office in January, has pointed the finger at organised crime.
Ex-leader extradited to Guatemala
Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo has been extradited from Mexico to face corruption charges. Portillo is wanted over the disappearance of $15m (£8.5m) earmarked for the Guatemalan defence department. The ex-leader, who served as president from 2000 to 2004 before going to Mexico, denies any wrongdoing.