Following a first round of presidential elections May 29, "between two populisms" is the catchphrase being used by Colombia's media for an unprecedented moment. A pair of political "outsiders" are to face each other in the June 19 run-off: Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla leader and Colombia's first leftist presidential contender, versus Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate whose pugnacious swagger inevitably invites comparison to Donald Trump. Hernández, an independent candidate and the former mayor of Bucaramanga, rose precipitously in an ostensibly anti-establishment campaign driven by social media, winning him the epithet "King of TikTok." But Colombia's political establishment is now lining up behind him to defeat Petro. The former mayor of Bogotá and a veteran of the demobilized M-19 guerillas, Petro is the candidate of a new progressive coalition, Colombia Humana, emphasizing multiculturalism and ecology as well as more traditional social justice demands.
Hondurans last month elected Xiomara Castro of the left-populist LIBRE Party to be the country's first woman president, defeating Nasry Asfura of the conservative National Party. Taking office next month, Castro is to replace the National Party's President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose term has been plagued by scandal and accusations of ties to narco-trafficking. The wife of Manuel Zelaya, the populist president who was removed in a coup in 2009, Castro seems poised to revive his program—and take it much further. "Never again will the power be abused in this country," she declared upon her victory. She has proclaimed herself a "democratic socialist," and pledges to govern through a new model of "participatory democracy," placing a series of reforms before the voters through referenda or "consultas."
The Darién Gap, a dangerous jungle route used by a growing number of migrants trying to reach the United States from South America, has become even deadlier, according to Panama's Forensic Sciences Institute. It has reported over 50 migrant deaths to date in 2021, although the figure is believed to be far higher. Towns on the Colombian side of the border are swelling with migrants waiting to cross the Gap—mostly Haitians, Cubans and Venezuelans, but some from as far afield as Afghanistan and Burkina Faso. Colombian authorities say 67,000 migrants have passed through the border zone so far this year, more than 15 times the number in 2020. Former paramilitaries operating in the area are now preying on the migrants, who face rape, armed violence and extortion. (TNH)
The Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR-UK) on Nov. 28 called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), especially concerning the recruiting of foreign nationals to serve in an army of mercenaries. AOHR-UK sent letters to the governments of Australia, Chile, El Salvador, Colombia and Panama, all countries where the recruitment has taken place, asking that they "withdraw their citizens from these dangerous formations and take measures against the UAE in accordance with the International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries of 1989." (See text of Convention.)
Panama announced June 13 that it is breaking its long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing relations with China—a clear political coup for Beijing. The Panamanian statement said it recognized "only one China" and considers Taiwan to be part of it. The change was spurred by an unavoidable fact: China is the second most important Panama Canal user after the United States. Last year it sent 38 million metric tons of cargo through the interoceanic waterway, accounting for 19% of its traffic. The announcement of the diplomatic switch also comes just as Chinese enterprises began building a container port, with natural gas terminals, in Panama's Colón province, on the Atlantic side of the canal. "I think Dominican Republic and Nicaragua will soon follow," Mexico's former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted soon after the announcement.
Panama has opened the long-awaited $5.4 billion expansion of its inter-oceanic canal, completed after nearly a decade of work and forecast to boost global trade. China's container ship Cosco Shipping Panama was the first to pass through the expanded canal, crossing from the Pacific to Atlantic June 26, emerging at a ceremony attended by thousands of onlookers and foreign dignitaries. The expansion is designed to accommodate the huge "neo-Panamax" ships to move far greater quantities of cargo through the canal—also dubbed "mega-ships." But the Spanish-led consortium that carried out the expansion is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. And there are long-term concerns about available fresh water to feed the expanded canal's new locks. The expanded canal is relying on the same water sources as the original canal—which are already under stress. During this year's El Niño-related drought, shippers had to significantly lighten their loads through the canal. Jorge L. Quijano, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority, has been pressuring Panamanians to conserve water to assure the functioning of the new mega-canal. (China Daily, June 27; Radio Australia, June 26; NYT, June 22; Miami Herald, June 20; American Shipper, March 22)
Some 50,000 Peruvians filled Lima's Plaza San Martín to recall the April 5, 1992 "autogolpe" (suspension of civil government) by then-president Alberto Fujimori—and to repudiate the presidential ambitions of his daughter Keiko Fujimori, front-runner with the election just five days away. (La República) The mobilization came just as candidate Fujimori (of the right-wing Fuerza Popular party) and three of her rivals have been implicated in the "Panama Papers" revelations. Prime Minister Pedro Cateriano announced via Twitter that the revelations must be investigated promptly. The 11 million documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca name political figures from around the world as hiding assets in offshore accounts. Peruvian public-interest media outlet Ojo Publico was a key conduit for the leak. (PeruThisWeek, Andina)
Panamanian vice president and foreign minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado announced on Feb. 9 that the country's National Environmental Authority (ANAM) had ordered the temporary suspension of work on the $130 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. ANAM attributed the suspension to the owners' failure to comply with requirements in an environmental impact study, including those for clear agreements with affected communities and a plan approved by the National Culture Institute (INAC) to protect archeological relics likely to be flooded by the dam. ANAM officials also cited the owners' handling of hazardous waste without an environmental impact study and the lack of a plan for the management of sediments.