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October 2014, Volume 21, Number 4

Latin America

Central America has 45 million people in seven countries, ranging from 16 million in Guatemala to 400,000 in Belize. The big three, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, include two-thirds of all Central Americans and have become a major new source of immigrants to the US.

Few Central Americans moved to the US until fighting displaced thousands in the 1980s, some of whom migrated to the US. The US granted asylum to Nicaraguans fleeing a government that the US opposed, but not to Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing governments the US supported.

Courts and legislation allowed most Central Americans in the US to eventually become immigrants and US citizens. These anchors, plus Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001 that prompted the US to grant "temporary protected status" that included the right to work in the US, brought more Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans to the US. (

TPS has been renewed since, and there are now large Central American communities in Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC. As of 2013, some 271,000 Salvadorans in the US before 2001 had TPS, as did 83,000 Hondurans and 4,300 Nicaraguans in the US before 1999. Of the three million Central Americans now living in the United States, however, over 60 percent are in the US illegally.

Central Americans were in the news in summer 2014, as women and children traveled through Mexico and entered the US in south Texas and applied for asylum. Most were given a date to appear in immigration court and released to live with US relatives.

The arrival of the Central Americans prompted reactions similar to those about unauthorized migration generally. Restrictionists urged that they be returned immediately to discourage more, while admissionists argued that many deserve refuge in the US because of drug-related violence at home.

Not all Central Americans are eager to move to the US. Panama is booming, attracting immigrants, including some Americans. Costa Rica is the only Latin American country with more Americans living there than Costa Ricans living in the US.

Miami has become the business capital of Latin America, the place where successful Latin Americans have second homes and is a favored shopping mecca for the middle class. The influx of South Americans has diminished the dominance of Cuban Americans in the Miami area. Colombians are almost five percent of the Miami-Dade area population, followed by Argentines, Peruvians and Venezuelans.

Over half of Miami's residents are foreign born, and 63 percent speak Spanish at home. Cubans are half of area Hispanics and a third of the total population of Miami-Dade.

Panama. The 50 mile north-south Panama Canal was opened to ships August 15, 1914. The US government built the canal and operated it from the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone until 2000. A 1977 treaty turned the canal over to Panama on December 31, 1999.

About 1,000 ships a month pass through the canal today, paying $1.8 billion in tolls in 2013, of which almost $1 billion went to the Panamanian government.

So-called Panamax ships can hold about 5,000 shipping containers. Many cargo ships are too large to pass through the 1914 locks; 45 percent of the world's cargo capacity is in ships too large for the canal, including oil tankers than can carry 230,000 tons of oil and container ships with 18,000 containers.

Panama in 2006 voted to expand the canal, and new and larger locks are expected to be completed in 2015 that will allow ships with 14,000 containers to pass through the canal. Grupo Unidos por el Canal bid $3.1 billion to build a new set of locks to accommodate larger ships, but work stopped in February 2014 when the project was 70 percent complete as a result of a dispute over how to divide $1.6 billion in cost overruns between Grupo, led by Spain's Sacyr, and the Panamanian government.

About $13 trillion worth of goods is transported by ship each year, 70 percent of total freight. Until 2000, the largest cargo ships could carry about 5,000 standard 20-foot-long shipping containers. Triple E ships, the largest cargo vessels today that cost $190 million each, can each carry 18,000 containers, 10 rows below deck and 10 above, but their 194-foot wide hull makes them too large to pass through the Panama Canal. Large ships traveling at 16 to 18 knots save fuel and move far more containers than smaller ships.

On Triple E ships, the cost of a 25-30 person crew is 25 percent of operating expenses, followed by 20 percent for fuel.

Earlier in 2014, the Nicaraguan government announced plans to build a route between the Atlantic and Pacific bankrolled by a Chinese billionaire that would accommodate Triple E ships.

Brazil. Brazilians went to the polls October 5, 2014 to elect a new president. Current President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party won over 40 percent of the vote, Senator Aecio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party won 34 percent of the vote, and environmentalist Marina Silva, who became the presidential candidate when its leader was killed in an August 2014 plane crash, won 21 percent of the vote. Voting is mandatory for Brazilians 18 to 70.

Silva, daughter of rubber tappers who was raised in the Amazon rain forest, is the first Black or pardo to run for office in Brazil, a country that imported over four million of the 10 million slaves brought to the Americas and did not end slavery until 1888. Some 53 percent of Brazilians said they were Black or pardo in 2013, including many mixed-race residents. However, few national politicians are Black or pardo, and whites earn twice as much a month, an average of $800 a month, than Black or pardo Brazilians.

Deforestation in the Amazon emerged as an issue just before the election. Highway BR-163 crosses the rainforest to connect the agricultural heartland of Mato Grosso with the port of Santarem. Novo Progresso, a settlement along the road, sees daily battles between land speculators who try to burn forest and the environmental police who try to catch them and destroy their equipment, including tractors and logging trucks. Optimists say that Brazil has reduced illegal deforestation as much as possible, while pessimists say that the government must do more.