Poster showing support for Colombian businessman Alex Saab in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo: Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press
This Week in Latin America

Key Maduro ally extradited to US, government and opposition negotiations suspended

October 17, 2021 By Staff

THIS WEEK IN LATIN AMERICA

VENEZUELA: The United States extradited a high-profile business associate of the Venezuelan government, Alex Saab, on Saturday to face money laundering charges. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded by suspending negotiations with the opposition that were meant to resume on Sunday. 

Saab is accused of funneling more than $350 million in corrupt government contracts through the U.S. banking system, including a scheme that defrauded a state-run food subsidy program. He was arrested in Cape Verde in June of 2020 while stopping to refuel his plane en route to Iran on an alleged diplomatic mission for the Venezuelan government. 

The Venezuelan government has called Saab’s arrest a “kidnapping,” and retaliated by detaining eight oil company executives – five of whom are U.S. citizens – who had been under house arrest in Venezuela. In September, President Maduro named Saab, a Colombian citizen, as a member of its negotiating team in talks with the opposition being held in Mexico. While the extradition is seen as a victory for the U.S., it threatens to derail the negotiations aimed at resolving Venezuela’s political impasse and securing a path towards free and fair elections. 

SOUTHERN CONE

BRAZIL: Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced on Friday the withdrawal of military troops from the Amazon. The troops had been stationed there since the end of July to tackle illegal logging and arson in the rainforest.

Mourão, also head of the National Amazon Council, justified the withdrawal stating that environmental protection agencies were now better equipped to handle patrols with employees returning to full hours as COVID-19 cases declined. He also stated that the Environment Ministry’s budget would be doubled for the next year. Congress has yet to approve the 2022 budget.

Multiple military deployments have done little to slow the rate of deforestation. Brazil’s management of the world’s largest rainforest is likely to come under scrutiny at next month’s UN Climate Conference.

CHILE: President Sebastián Pinera decreed a state of emergency on Tuesday in southern regions of Chile, where armed Mapuche resistance has intensified in recent weeks. The order restricted the right to congregate in public spaces and freedom of movement within four provinces in the regions of Araucanía and Biobio. Military forces have also been sent in to “support” local police operations.

Pinera stated that it was necessary to protect residents of the region. Truckers had also staged roadblocks demanding more measures to ensure their safety traveling through these regions.

Mapuche activists claim rights to ancestral territory in southern Chile. Armed resistance groups have been known to commit arson and destroy equipment belonging to mining and forestry companies, in addition to occupying land.

ANDES

COLOMBIA: The U.S. State Department is investigating complaints made by at least five families connected to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia of brain ailments associated with the “Havana Syndrome.” Symptoms of the mysterious illness include headache, dizziness, nausea, head ringing, and memory loss. 

More than 200 U.S. government officials have been afflicted with the illness since 2016, when it first emerged in Havana, Cuba. More than half of the victims have been from the intelligence community, with cases reported from diplomatic missions in Vietnam, Germany, China, Australia and Taiwan. 

Last week, President Biden enacted the Havana Act to provide financial support to victims of the illness, and has assigned task forces to further investigate its origins. 

CARIBBEAN 

CUBA/REGION: Belize shipped the first of two humanitarian donations to Cuba on Saturday in support of the island’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government of Belize cited the combined effects of COVID-19 and “a strengthened embargo” as motivation for the aid. The shipment, consisting of food and hygiene products, is worth approximately US$100,000.

The Cuban government also announced the arrival of 10 shipping containers of corn flour and five containers of rice from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Ambassador of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in Cuba during a handing over ceremony stated that it was “moral obligation for all Caribbean islands” to assist Cuba as the U.S. embargo intensified during the pandemic.

HAITI: A gang in Port-au-Prince on Saturday kidnapped a bus of North American missionaries, including children. It is believed that 16 U.S. citizens and 1 Canadian citizen were abducted after visiting an orphanage just outside the capital city.

This incident is the latest in a wave of kidnappings that has afflicted the island in recent months, with the vast majority of victims being Haitian. According to a local human rights monitoring group, kidnappings increased almost 300% between July and September.

Insecurity and violence have forced thousands of Haitians to flee their Port-au-Prince homes and seek refuge in shelters across the capital.

CENTRAL AMERICA

NICARAGUA: U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said Thursday that next month’s presidential elections in Nicaragua “have lost all credibility.”  Price concluded that Ortega will secure the presidency, adding that the November elections “are a sham.” 

Price referred to President Daniel Ortega’s recent undemocratic and authoritative actions. Starting in May, Ortega began arresting almost all public figures who opposed him. Families of the 155 arrested said that their loved ones were subjected to “mistreatment and torture.”

Ortega seeks his third consecutive reelection, alongside his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice president. The U.S. has placed economic sanctions on Nicaraguan officials, including several of Ortega’s and Murillo’s children. 

PANAMA: Several bags containing human remains have been exhumed from a mass grave at the Monte Esperanza cemetery in the city of Colón, officials said on Thursday.  The exhumation began on Oct. 5, 2021. 

The remains are believed to be the victims of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. “We plan to keep doing the work to dig in the earth and see how many more bags could be there,” Attorney General Geomara Guerra said. The remains were found inside of bags that U.S. military personnel used for burials, he added. 

The U.S. military operation took the lives of 300 civilians. Human rights organizations have stated that the actual number of victims could be much higher. 

NORTH AMERICA

MEXICO:  Mexico will once again impose visa requirements for Brazilians who enter the country. According to a document from Mexico’s interior ministry issued on Thursday, the action will be temporary.  

Mexico’s new visa policy stated that the requirement was made to curb U.S.-bound migration from Brazil. Officials noted that Brazilians were entering Mexico for reasons other than tourism, transit or business.

No specific date has been determined as to when the action will take effect. Officials only noted that the start date could be late November or early December of this year.

US/REGION: The State Department announced on Friday that the U.S. will provide more than $20 million in additional assistance to help meet urgent humanitarian needs for the nearly 700,000 asylum-seekers, refugees, and vulnerable migrants in Central America and Mexico. 

This is the administration’s approach to provide much needed support to the ongoing migration crisis. The State Department said that the funding will support more access to international protection, mental health support, legal assistance, shelter, and healthcare including prevention and treatment of COVID-19. 

For fiscal year 2021, the U.S. has provided more than $331 million in aid for Central America and Mexico.