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Catch up on the news with Open Americas! 

In the headlines: Argentina's corruption investigation, a Colombian referendum, El Salvador cuts ties with Taiwan, a new NAFTA deal, and more.

Following the discovery of detailed accounts of money laundering earlier this month, a massive corruption investigation is sweeping through the Argentine political system. The notebook belonging to Oscar Centeno, the former driver of Roberto Baratta - a powerful official in the Planning Ministry during the Kirchners’ reign - detailed how Centeno drove bags of money between construction companies, the Public Works Ministry, the Kirchners’ private residences, and safe houses. Numerous powerful business and government figures have come forward to describe the system of kickbacks from government contracts that occurred during the administrations of both Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, from 2003 to 2015. The notebook accounts for almost US $36 million in bribe money, but other estimates claim the amount could  be as much as $200 million with the overall cost of corruption reaching even $36 billion. Former president Cristina Kirchner’s residences were raided following a majority vote supporting the raid in the Senate last week, despite Kirchner’s 45-minute speech to the Senate claiming corruption is a way of life in Argentina. She has denied all allegations and claims that the investigation is a politically motivated distraction from the economic recession under President Mauricio Macri.

Colombia held a referendum over the weekend to vote on new laws preventing and prosecuting corruption. The new laws included enforcing jail time for those convicted of corruption, changing how public contracts are awarded, reducing Congress members’ salaries by 40 percent, requiring politicians to report their income, and changing term limits. The vote, which was held after citizens collected 4 million signatures on a petition to have officials fund the referendum, had the support of 11.7 million Colombians, but it was not enough to reach the 12.1 million-person mark to implement the laws. Nevertheless, activists believe the vote will still have an effect, as it showed immense public support to change the country’s culture of corrupt politics.

El Salvador
El Salvador cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan last week and established ties with China. President Salvador Sanchez Cerén said the decision was made as an acceptance of “inevitable trends of our times,” and declared that “extraordinary opportunities were to come with the recognition of China.” El Salvador is the third country this year to cease ties with Taiwan - Panama broke ties with Taiwan in 2017 and the Dominican Republic followed in May 2018. The United States spoke out against El Salvador’s decision, stating that it calls for “a reevaluation of our relationship.” The United States is accusing China of using economic incentives to persuade the countries in need of economic support. The United States did not speak out when Panama and the Dominican Republic established ties with China. Only 17 countries still officially recognize Taiwan, 9 of which are in Latin America.

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
After weeks of negotiations between the United States and Mexico under NAFTA talks, the US and Mexico reached an agreement that they say they are ready to sign with or without Canada. Canada is set to re-enter talks this week, after backing out for a couple weeks to let the US and Mexico work out bilateral issues. US President Donald Trump boasted about the deal, giving Canada the ultimatum of signing the deal or putting tariffs on cars. Mexico has wavered on its determination to move on without Canada, emphasizing the desire for a trilateral deal, but has also expressed its willingness to proceed if Canada does not sign onto a deal by the end of the week. Canada is eager to re-enter negotiations, but maintains that it will only sign an agreement that is “good for Canada.” Trump’s eagerness to push the bilateral deal with Mexico has received criticism from lawmakers and business groups, who state the deal must be trilateral.

The political crisis in Nicaragua continues.The United Nations recently released numbers indicating that around 200 Nicaraguans are applying for asylum in Costa Rica daily and up to 23,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica since the protests began in April. Many Nicaraguans are escaping the violence and political persecution of the government, which passed a law last month that has been criticized for criminalizing protests. The Nicaraguan government has been criticized of human rights abuses as well, and the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs met with the United Nations Security General this week to discuss the need to respect human rights. While some Costa Ricans are not happy with the influx of Nicaraguans, Costa Rica has been a country with a reputation of welcoming migrants and many demonstrated this in a solidarity march this week.

Puerto Rico
The official death toll from Hurricane Maria was released yesterday, stating that 2,975 deaths were caused by the Hurricane. Initially, the death toll was recorded as 64, but after an extensive study by George Washington University and University of Puerto Rico, it was counted that 2,975 people died from causes directly or indirectly related to the Hurricane. The study compared predicted mortality under normal circumstances and compared it to the deaths recorded between September 2017 and mid-February 2018. The estimate found was 22 percent higher than the normal mortality rate. While the report’s findings are still an estimated number, the Puerto Rican government is accepting it as the official number of lives lost.
As President Nicolás Maduro works to ease the country’s economic crisis, Venezuelans continue to flee the country without hope of a peaceful solution. The United Nations released an estimate that 1.6  million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015, many seeking asylum in neighboring countries and others traveling to Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, and the United States. Peru sees about 3,000 Venezuelans arriving daily to its border, despite new laws requiring passports to enter the country. The UN has compared the current refugee crisis to that in the Mediterranean in 2015 and has begun working with other groups to help ease the burden on the region. Meanwhile, Maduro offered Venezuelans abroad an all-expense-paid flight home under his “Return to the Homeland” initiative. Some took the free flight home from Peru, while most others chose to remain abroad.

Exacerbating the effects of the economic crisis, last week there was a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit off of the coast of the nation that was felt by neighboring nations. No injuries or deaths have been reported from the earthquake.
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