Chile lawmakers knock down bill to ease abortion rules

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s lower Chamber of Deputies rejected a bill on Tuesday that sought to expand legal access for women to get abortions, legislation that was opposed by the South American country’s center-right government.

At the end of September, legislators in the chamber voted in favor of studying and debating the bill, that proposed legalizing termination of pregnancy up to 14 weeks.

Chile in 2017 legalized abortion for women under conditions where their life was in danger, a fetus was unviable or when a pregnancy had resulted from rape.

“The Chamber rejected a motion that modifies the Penal Code, to decriminalize consensual abortion by women within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The project is shelved,” the lower chamber posted on Twitter after the vote.

Deputy Maya Fernández, who had promoted the bill, criticized the rejection and said it would push women into more risky illegal abortions.

“Many still prefer that there be clandestine abortions where women are subjected to inhumane conditions,” she wrote on Twitter.

A number of countries around conservative Latin America have taken steps to decriminalize abortion, including Argentina last year and Mexico, where the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in September that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Fabián Andrés Cambero; Editing by Adam Jourdan and David Gregorio)

It’s bloom time in Chile’s ‘flowering desert’, despite drought

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – The sand dunes of Chile’s Atacama are once again bathed in vibrant colors following the sprouting of flowers in recent weeks in the world’s most arid desert despite a persistent drought.

The impressive vistas of the so-called flowering desert attract local and foreign visitors each spring in the southern hemisphere, depending on the amount of rainfall received in the winter season.

“This is a natural laboratory, because it lets you see how changes in rainfall affect plant diversity,” said biologist Andrea Loaiza during a tour of the area.

Resistant seeds and bulbs are able to survive Atacama’s extremely dry weather until they flower during the spring.

“If you pick some oil, you’ll find thousands of seeds, thousands of bulbs,” said Gina Arancio, a botanist with the local Universidad de La Serena. She explained that those seeds and bulbs – known collectively as germopolasm – are able to survive during many years even if there is no rain.

Still, while the area is officially protected and people are only allowed to go into designated areas, it is common to see deterioration caused by the transit of vehicles. The threat of plant trafficking is present as well.

Biologist Cesar Pizarro said that the area has tended to receive less and less rainfall over time, with the exception of the years 2007 and 2011.

“Even though the rain is restricted to a small area, it is still impressive to see it in the planet’s most arid desert,” he said.

The water deficit has led to studies in the region that seek to understand the impact that climate change has had over local plant species, as well as the plants’ ability to survive and adapt to the drier environment.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

COVID infections dropping throughout the Americas, says health agency

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The number of new COVID-19 infections has been dropping over the past month throughout the Americas, even though only 37% of the people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

However, Alaska has the most serious outbreak in the United States today that is overwhelming emergency rooms, and while South America is continuing to see a drop in infections, Chile has seen a jump in cases in the capital Santiago and port cities Coquimbo and Antofagasta.

PAHO has closed vaccine supply agreements with Sinovac Biotech Inc and AstraZeneca Plc for delivery this year and next and with China’s Sinopharm for 2022, the agency’s director Carissa Etienne told reporters.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle)

Their prospects dim, Haitian migrants strain Mexico’s asylum system

By Daina Beth Solomon

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico could see asylum applications jump 70% this year compared with 2019 as requests from Haitians soar, though most of those Caribbean migrants do not meet the criteria under current rules, according to Mexico’s top asylum official.

Haiti is currently the second-most common country of origin for asylum requests in Mexico, and is on track to overtake Honduras to claim the top spot for the first time in nearly a decade.

The surge has been fed by political and economic malaise in Haiti and South America, and last month thousands of mostly Haitian migrants crossed into Del Rio, Texas.

Thousands then retreated back to Mexico to avoid being deported from the United States to Haiti.

Most Haitians do not qualify for asylum in Mexico because they left home years ago for economic reasons, said Andres Ramirez, head of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR).

Most resettled in Brazil and Chile after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake and are heading north due to poor economic prospects in their adopted countries, Ramirez told Reuters.

“They’re not really refugees, they don’t even want to be refugees,” Ramirez said in an interview on Monday. “The majority want to get to the United States.”

Haitians were seeking asylum because they had no alternative, but the demand had brought COMAR to a standstill, which was “detrimental to genuine refugees, who we can’t serve because there are too many Haitians,” he added.

Asylum applications are now taking six to seven months, at least twice the time they should take, he said.

In the southern border city of Tapachula, where most migrants request asylum, COMAR is scrambling to lighten the load by canceling appointments of applicants no longer there.

COMAR is in talks with Mexico’s migration authorities and international aid organizations to see if Haitians have options for staying in Mexico aside from asylum, Ramirez said, such as humanitarian visas that let migrants work and travel freely.

Lasting one year and renewable, that visa is currently only available to migrants after they apply for asylum with COMAR.

“What concerns me is when I know someone isn’t a refugee, and they come to us because they have no other option,” Ramirez said. “But there could be another way… there is a precedent.”

Mexico distributed humanitarian visas in early 2019 when thousands of Central Americans arrived in migrant caravans, but stopped after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose trade tariffs if Mexico did not curb the flow of people.

The Biden administration is also putting pressure on Mexico to stem migrant traffic, even as it gradually rolls back Trump-era measures and promises more humane migration policies.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute did not immediately respond when asked if it was considering issuing humanitarian visas to Haitian migrants.

Asylum applications in Mexico from all nationalities reached 90,300 by September. Ramirez estimated the number could surpass 120,000 by year’s end.

Suppressed by the coronavirus pandemic, applications tumbled to just over 41,000 last year, but rose for Haitians, who filed 5,957 requests. From January to September 2021, the number of Haitian applications leapt to 26,007.

An increase in requests from Brazilians and Chileans has been fueled by children born to Haitians in those countries, Ramirez said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dave Graham and Alistair Bell)

Chile police bust crime ring smuggling Haitian children to U.S., Mexico

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean police have dismantled a crime ring that helped smuggle hundreds of children of Haitian migrants, sometimes without their parents, from Chile north to Mexico and the United States, Interpol said on Monday.

The transnational group orchestrated a complex, cross-border network that smuggled an estimated 1,000 Haitian migrants out of Chile, including 267 Chilean children under the age of six, all born to Haitian migrants, according to the global police co-ordination agency.

Some of the children, police said, were not traveling with their real parents, while others were found abandoned or their parents had died en route.

“It is horrifying to think what these vulnerable children, some just a few years old, have suffered,” said Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock.

The harsh realities of migration in Latin America have come under the spotlight recently after thousands of Haitian migrants formed a large impromptu border camp at the Mexican-U.S. border. Some have been flown back to Haiti, while others are waiting to have their cases for asylum heard in the United States or remain scattered across Latin America seeking refuge.

Many of the Haitian migrants had initially settled in South American countries like Chile and Brazil, where some say they had difficulty finding work and experienced racism. Protests in Chile have flared in recent weeks against Venezuelan migrants who have set up camps in city squares and even beaches.

Their home nation of Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has been battered by political crises and natural disasters.

The smuggling ring promoted their services to Haitians via messaging service WhatsApp, Interpol said, then helped to covertly transport migrants into Peru from Chile, after which they embarked on their journey north.

Chilean police arrested nine suspects involved in the operation, including four Chileans, two Venezuelans, one Peruvian, one Haitian and one Paraguayan.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Chile lawmakers take ‘first step’ towards easing abortion rules

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s lower Chamber of Deputies approved on Tuesday a plan to debate a bill that would expand the legal access for women to get abortions, despite opposition from the South American country’s center-right government.

The lower house passed the motion with 75 votes in favor versus 68 against and two abstentions, which allows it to move forward examining the bill that proposed legalizing termination of pregnancy up to 14 weeks.

The bill still faces a lengthy process before it could become law. Chile in 2017 legalized abortion for women under conditions where their life was in danger, a fetus was unviable or when a pregnancy had resulted from rape.

“We are happy and excited because we have taken a tremendous step, which we did not expect, to be honest, in terms of the rights of women,” said lawmaker Maite Orsini, one of the promoters of the bill.

“This is a first step and we are not going to stop fighting until abortion is legal, free and safe for all women in Chile.”

The bill will now have to be reviewed by the legislative body’s Commission for Women and Gender Equity and then be voted on again in the Chamber of Deputies, before moving up to the Senate.

A number of countries around conservative Latin America have taken steps to decriminalize abortion, including Argentina last year and Mexico, where the Supreme Court unanimously ruled this month that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Nick Macfie)

PAHO warns younger people filling up intensive care COVID-19 wards

BRASILIA (Reuters) – COVID-19 infections continue to spread fast across the Americas as a result of relaxed prevention measures and intensive care units are filling up with younger people, the director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Carissa Etienne said on Wednesday.

In Brazil, mortality rates have doubled among those younger than 39, quadrupled among those in their 40s and tripled for those in their 50s since December, she said.

Hospitalization rates among those under 39 years have increased by more than 70% in Chile and in some areas of the United States more people in their 20’s are now being hospitalized for COVID-19 than people in their 70’s.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle)

AstraZeneca vaccine safe and effective in new trial data

FRANKFURT/LONDON (Reuters) – AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine developed with Oxford University was 79% effective in preventing symptomatic illness in a large trial in Chile, Peru and the United States, the company said on Monday, paving the way for it to apply for U.S. approval.

The vaccine was also 100% effective against severe or critical disease and hospitalization, and was safe, the partners said on Monday, releasing results of the late-stage human trial study of more than 32,000 volunteers across all age groups.

The data will give credence to the British shot after results from earlier, separate late-stage studies raised questions about the robustness of the data.

It will also help to allay safety concerns that have disrupted its use in the European Union after a small number of reports of rare blood clots in people who received the vaccine.

After briefly halting its use, many European countries have resumed using the shot in their inoculation programs after a regional regulator said it was safe, while several country leaders are also taking the vaccine to boost confidence.

AstraZeneca said an independent safety committee conducted a specific review of the blood clots in the U.S. trial, as well as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), which is an extremely rare blood clot in the brain, with the help of an independent neurologist.

The London-listed company said the panel found “no increased risk of thrombosis or events characterized by thrombosis among the 21,583 participants receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. The specific search for CVST found no events in this trial.”

“These results are great news as they show the remarkable efficacy of the vaccine in a new population and are consistent with the results from Oxford-led trials,” Andrew Pollard, who runs the Oxford Vaccine Group, said.

AstraZeneca said it was preparing to submit the data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and for a launch in the United States should it win Emergency Use Authorization.

University of Oxford professor Sarah Gilbert told BBC radio that work to prepare the submission will take a few weeks.

The efficacy read-out was above a rate of about 60%, cited by the European Union’s drugs regulator in its December recommendation.

It was, however, in line with the maximum efficacy found by Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), based on cases with a three-month gap between the first and the second dose.

In the trial, participants received either two standard doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine or a placebo vaccine, at a four-week interval.

Amongst participants in the interim analysis, about 79% were white/Caucasian, 8% black/African American, 4% native American and 4% Asian, and 22% of participants were Hispanic, the company said.

About 20% of participants were 65 years and over, and approximately 60% had co-morbidities associated with an increased risk for progression of severe COVID-19, such as diabetes, severe obesity or cardiac disease.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Pushkala Aripaka and Muvija M in Bengaluru; Editing by Josephine Mason, Mark Potter, Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Edmund Blair)

In Dominican Republic, proposal to ease abortion ban polarizes nation

By Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) – As the abortion rights movement gains pace across Latin America, the issue is heating up in the Dominican Republic – one of the few countries in the region with a total ban on abortion – where activists were camped for an eighth day on Friday outside the president’s palace.

Latin America, where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries, has some of the most stringent abortion laws in the world. Argentina legalized the medical procedure in December and abortion rights activists hope it will give impetus to a regional movement.

In the Dominican Republic, a group of presidential advisors on Tuesday recommended a pending update of the country’s 19th century penal code – stalled since the end of the 1990’s over the issue – revise its stance.

The advisors recommended the code allow terminations when a woman’s life is in danger, the pregnancy is not viable or in cases of rape or incest – similar to the easing of abortion laws conservative Chile approved in 2017.

But the justice commission of the chamber of deputies rejected that on Wednesday, proposing instead that the penal code allow abortion only where the mother’s life is threatened.

Although the proposal is not yet scheduled for debate, it has sparked the ire both of religious groups that want to maintain the total ban and abortion rights activists who say abortion should be allowed in all three circumstances proposed by the presidential advisers.

Without change, abortion rights activists say, women will simply continue resorting instead to dangerous clandestine abortions that account for 13 percent of maternal deaths in the Caribbean country.

“We are the women dying, we are the women in danger,” said Margarita Mercedes, one of the dozens of activists that set up camp seven days ago outside the national palace in downtown Santo Domingo.

Their protest comes ahead of a march some Christian and civil society groups plan on holding in the capital on March 27 to show support for upholding the absolute ban on abortion.

“All three instances (in which the advisors suggested allowing abortion) are murder,” the Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Francisco Ozoria, said on Thursday. “If they approve any one of them, whichever it is, it’s a murder.”

Christian groups already once thwarted an attempt to ease the country’s abortion ban, when they won a case at the Supreme Court challenging a new penal code approved by Congress in 2014 on the basis of errors in legal proceedings.

The update to the penal code was subsequently withdrawn and the debate over abortion died down – until now.

(Reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo; Writing by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Chile announces fresh lockdowns

By Aislinn Laing and Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile’s health authorities on Monday announced a fresh lockdown in the capital Santiago after coronavirus cases spiked 18% in the past week.

Health Minister Enrique Paris said the measure, which will involve a full lockdown on weekends and restricted activities during the week, was designed to avoid a full quarantine.

The coronavirus first hit Chile, population 19 million, in March, and the country reached a peak in June, with more than 5,000 cases daily and ranking only behind Qatar globally for cases per capita.

In August, authorities began lifting the lid on lockdowns covering the capital suburb by suburb, using a step-by-step rule, while the focus of cases bounced from the mine-heavy north of the country to the south, where hospitals continue to be saturated.

However, a steady uptick in cases that culminated in this week’s 18% rise has prompted a change in strategy.

Paris said the return to partial lockdown was a “preventative step” to avoid a return to the previous full and lengthy lockdowns that caused significant economic hardship.

“Given the number of inhabitants of the Metropolitan Region, that (18%) figure is shocking and worries us a lot,” he said.

The announcement is complicated, however – and Paris faced tough questions at his regular news conference – because a picture emerged over the weekend of Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera posing for a selfie with a bystander without wearing a mask.

Pinera has apologized, and a government spokesman explained he had been walking alone along the beach in the upmarket central Chilean resort of Cachagua where he has a house, but was surprised by a bystander.

Chile has strict rules that require the wearing of masks in all public places including outside, and violations are punishable with sanctions that include significant fines and even jail terms.

Spokesman Jaime Bellolio said the president would report himself to the health authorities.

Gaffe-prone Pinera has previously been pictured eating pizza on the night fierce social protests broke out in Santiago in October last year, and posing for pictures at the square that was the hub of the demonstrations after the pandemic forced its clearance.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; editing by Jonathan Oatis)