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)

Latin America’s resurgent left and Caribbean spurn U.S. policy on Cuba

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – The United States doubled down on its tough stance and sanctions on Cuba after historic protests in the Communist-run island last month and said it would seek to support protesters.

But many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region which is still scarred by Washington’s backing of coups during the Cold War and has shifted leftwards in recent years, are asking it to back off instead.

President Joe Biden branded Cuba a “failed state” in the wake of the July 11-12 protests over an economic crisis and curbs on freedoms. His administration imposed new sanctions on those who cracked down on protesters and promised the politically important Cuban-American community more actions were coming, like efforts to help Cubans circumvent “censorship”.

While the fresh sanctions are largely symbolic, they suggest a return to a period of détente under former President Barack Obama is not forthcoming.

The right-wing governments of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras joined the United States last week in issuing a statement condemning mass arrests and calling for full restoration of disrupted internet access.

Yet only 20 foreign ministers worldwide joined in signing the letter, signaling how relatively isolated Washington is on its Cuba policy, analysts said. Even U.S. allies like Canada who have condemned the Cuban crackdown and supported protesters’ right to freedom of expression did not sign.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s leftist allies in Latin America and fellow Caribbean island nations have focused their reaction on the contribution of the U.S. embargo to the country’s current humanitarian crisis, urging Washington to lift sanctions. Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia have sent aid.

Some countries in the region have also warned against U.S. meddling in Cuba’s domestic matters.

These regional divisions came to the fore last week when the Organization of American States had to postpone a meeting on the human rights situation in Cuba due to objections by more than a dozen member states.

“Any discussion could only satisfy political hawks with an eye on U.S. mid-term elections where winning South Florida with the backing of Cuban exiles would be a prize,” wrote Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the OAS, Ronald Sanders, in a column published on digital platform Caribbean News Global.

“The task of the OAS should be to promote peaceful and cooperative relations in the hemisphere, not to feed division and conflict.”

He had sent a letter on behalf of 13 countries from the Caribbean Community or CARICOM – which though small, represents a significant voting block in the OAS – urging the body to reconsider the “unproductive” meeting, while other countries sent similar missives.

REJECTION OF OAS, FOREIGN MEDDLING

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last month the OAS should be replaced “by a body that is truly autonomous, not anybody’s lackey”, sentiments echoed by Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez.

He also said he thought Biden must make a decision about the embargo against Cuba given that “almost all countries of the world” are against it, while Fernandez said it was up to no other country to decide what Cubans should do.

Mexico, Argentina and Bolivia all shifted left in recent years, while Peru last month voted in a socialist leader and Chile and Brazil appear poised to move to the left in elections due this year and next.

“We appreciate countries that defended the Latin American and Caribbean dignity,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who has accused U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries of being behind the protests following years of open U.S. funding of democracy programs on the island.

The Chair of the OAS Permanent Council described the objections to the Cuba meeting as particularly unusual.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it was “deeply disappointed” the OAS meeting did not take place, adding: “The people of the Americas have a right to hear from the Inter-American Commission on Human rights about the situation in Cuba”.

“We will continue to work within the OAS to press for democracy and human rights in Cuba and throughout the Americas and are confident this informational meeting will indeed take place in the coming days.”

William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington, said the problem was the OAS had under Secretary-General Luis Almagro “adopted a strident partisan stance totally aligned with U.S. policy”.

Biden was inheriting a regional foreign policy from former U.S. President Donald Trump focused mainly on Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, that had alienated much of Latin America, said LeoGrande, pointing out the Latin barometer opinion poll showed a sharp decline in the image of the United States.

The OAS General Secretariat declined to comment while the State Department spokesperson said “Almagro’s leadership in supporting democracy and respect for human rights in the Americas” had returned the OAS to its original purpose.

Biden, a Democrat, had vowed during his presidential campaign to ease some of the sanctions on Cuba tightened by his predecessor Donald Trump, a Republican, raising hopes of a return to the Obama-era détente.

But analysts say the protests have complicated his leeway to do so, especially after he made a poorer-than-expected showing with voters in south Florida’s anti-communist Cuban-American community, which backed Trump’s tough policies toward Havana and helped him win the presidential election battleground state.

The Democratic National Committee last week launched a digital ad campaign in Florida highlighting Biden’s “commitment to the Cuban people and condemnation of communism as a failed system.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell)

COVID-19 cases worsen in Latin America, no end in sight – health agency

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Cases of COVID-19 may be declining in North America but in most of Latin America and the Caribbean the end to the coronavirus pandemic “remains a distant future,” the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said on Wednesday.

While infections in the United States, Canada and Mexico are falling, in Latin America and the Caribbean cases are rising and vaccination is lagging badly. Only one in ten people have been fully vaccinated, which PAHO director Carissa Etienne called “an unacceptable situation.”

“While we are seeing some reprieve from the virus in countries in the Northern Hemisphere, for most countries in our region, the end remains a distant future,” she said.

Noting that the hurricane season in the Caribbean is arriving at a time when outbreaks are worsening, Etienne urged countries to outfit hospitals and expand shelters to reduce the potential for transmission. Social distancing and proper ventilation become difficult during storms, she said.

The highly transmissible Delta variant has already been detected in a dozen countries in the Americas, but so far community transmission has been limited, said PAHO viral disease advisor Jairo Mendez.

However, it has been found in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Peru, the United States and Mexico, where it has spread in Mexico City, according to PAHO.

Given the presence of such variants, countries in the region should step up vigilance and consider the need to limit travel or even close borders, PAHO health emergencies director Ciro Ugarte said.

According to a Reuters tally, there have been at least 37,441,000 reported infections and 1,272,000 confirmed deaths caused by COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean so far, one third more than in Asia and Africa combined.

(Reporting by Anthony BoadleEditing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Latin America’s pandemic tragedy as death toll nears one million

By Anthony Marina

PISCO, Peru (Reuters) -Hellen Ñañez has suffered enough tragedy for a lifetime. The Peruvian 28-year-old mother has mourned the death of 13 close relatives since the pandemic struck last year: uncles, cousins, a grandfather. Now her dad is fighting for his life.

On a recent day in a dusty cemetery in the Pacific port town of Pisco, Ñañez visited the graves of relatives lost to COVID-19.

“The truth is, I don’t have any more tears,” said Ñañez, who dropped out of studying psychology to work and help pay her father’s medical bills. “This is taking away our family. It’s taking away our dreams, our tranquility and stability.”

Ñañez’s story is a grim reflection of the tragedy unfolding in Latin America, a resource-rich but politically volatile region of some 650 million people stretching from Mexico to the near-Antarctic southern tips of Chile and Argentina.

The region has recorded 958,023 coronavirus-related fatalities, a Reuters tally shows, some 28% of the global death toll. It is set to hit the 1 million mark this month, which will make it the second region to do so after Europe.

But unlike wealthier Europe and North America, Latin American nations have lacked the financial firepower to keep people from sliding deep into poverty; underfunded healthcare systems have strained and inoculation programs have stalled.

Regional leaders from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador have come under fire for their handling of the pandemic, while a string of health ministers have been fired.

“We Peruvians are dying, Mr. President. We are dying every day,” Miriam Mota, a relative of a coronavirus patient in Lima told Reuters, beseeching the country’s leader, Francisco Sagasti, to do more to help bring the crisis under control.

“There are no vaccines. There are no intensive care beds. There are no medicines. Please, for humanity’s sake, help us!”

Peru has officially confirmed 1.85 million COVID-19 cases and some 64,000 deaths, but that toll could be three times as high in reality, experts say. The country’s national death register has linked 171,000 deaths to the virus.

‘PEOPLE ARE FED UP’

Latin America’s crisis has been driven by regional juggernaut Brazil, which has recorded the most deaths globally after the United States and where right-wing President Bolsonaro has long railed against lockdown measures and backed unproven cures.

The emergence of virus mutations in the country, including the more transmissible P1 variant, has been linked to the severity of Brazil’s outbreak. It has also driven surges in infections in neighboring countries, including Uruguay and Bolivia.

Now there are signs that the pandemic, which has torn through regional economies and driven a spike in poverty, will have a longer-term ripple effect, stoking unrest, rattling industries and driving voters at the polls.

Colombia has been roiled by deadly protests over a now-shelved tax reform and poverty; Chile is moving towards a sharp tax hike on copper miners; Peru’s polarized presidential election race is being led by a socialist teacher who is a political outsider.

“People are fed up and obviously tired of everything that has happened lately,” Paula Velez said in front of a burned-out police station in Colombian capital Bogota, set on fire in the protests.

‘I DON’T WANT TO LOSE HIM’

Public health experts say Latin America has suffered an outsized hit from the pandemic, both in terms of health and growth, rattling fragile economies with high debt levels, steep inequality and where many work in less secure informal jobs.

Unlike North America, Europe or Asia, the region has also lacked the high-tech infrastructure to rapidly develop or manufacture vaccines.

A deal to produce the Oxford University-AstraZeneca Plc COVID-19 vaccine by firms in Argentina and Mexico has been stalled by manufacturing hold-ups, and many Latin American countries are reliant on insufficient supplies of Chinese and Russian vaccines.

A cottage industry has developed for wealthier Latin Americans to travel to Florida and Texas to get their shots. But for the less affluent, that is not an option.

“I have been looking for work for a year and a half and I can’t wait for my vaccine,” said Rio de Janeiro resident Marco Antonio Pinto, who like others in the city was disappointed last week when an immunization center quickly ran out of vaccines.

“They are playing with the people, thinking that we are animals. We aren’t animals: we are human beings. We pay taxes. We pay for everything,” he said.

Back in Peru, Ñañez is now fighting to save the life of her father, who has been in the intensive care unit of a hospital for more than two weeks, receiving medicine to reduce the ravages of the disease and on a mechanical respirator.

Ñañez, who has a two-year-old child, has turned to making soap at home and selling it on the street or in shops in Pisco, a coastal town set amid arid desert landscapes.

She said her bank loans had run dry and the family had incurred enormous debts of some 100,000 soles ($26,500) to buy medicines, medical oxygen – and funeral expenses. While hope was low, she was determined to battle for her dad.

“I’m not going to lose him. I don’t want to lose anyone else. My dad can’t leave me,” Ñañez said, sobbing, outside the hospital where she has come to check on the health of her father, who is in a coma.

“I have been standing here for 17 days in front of the hospital and I know that he is going to make it. I do not think that life can be so unfair if it has taken so much from me and now it also wants to take away my father.”

(Reporting by Anthony Marina in Pisco; Additional reporting by by Herbert Villarraga and Javier Andres Rojas in Bogota, Enrique Mandujano in Lima and Sergio Queiroz in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Marco Aquino and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)

Brazilian firm to produce Russian vaccine without regulatory approval

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The Brazilian pharmaceutical company that plans to produce Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine will start making it next week even before health regulator Anvisa gives approval for use in Brazil, the company’s chief executive said on Friday.

União Quimica’s facility in São Paulo has been certified by Anvisa for good production practices and the vaccine will be made for export to countries that have approved it, said CEO and founder Fernando Marques.

“We intend to start production next week with a view to export,” Marques said. He said Sputnik V will not be used in Brazil until it is approved, but neighboring Latin American countries have approved the vaccine and want deliveries.

Anvisa last week held off approving imports of Sputnik V sought by Brazilian state governors amid a second wave of the virus that has killed more than 415,000 Brazilians.

In a setback for the Russian vaccine, the regulator’s technical staff warned of “flaws” in the development and clinical testing of Sputnik, said the data presented on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy was incomplete.

Marques on Friday told a Senate commission on COVID-19 that União Quimica expects to receive a batch of active ingredient from Moscow next week to start making the vaccine for export at its plant near São Paulo’s Guarulhos airport.

“So, the situation today is this: we will start production, obviously when we receive the active ingredient, and we will wait for the registration to make the local production available for use in Brazil,” he told senators.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund that is marketing Sputnik V developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute has plans to supply the vaccine to Latin American countries from Brazil.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by Grant McCool)

Brazil’s P1 coronavirus variant mutating, may become more dangerous: study

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s P1 coronavirus variant, behind a deadly COVID-19 surge in the Latin American country that has raised international alarm, is mutating in ways that could make it better able to evade antibodies, according to scientists studying the virus.

Research conducted by the public health institute Fiocruz into the variants circulating in Brazil found mutations in the spike region of the virus that is used to enter and infect cells.

Those changes, the scientists said, could make the virus more resistant to vaccines – which target the spike protein – with potentially grave implications for the severity of the outbreak in Latin America’s most populous nation.

“We believe it’s another escape mechanism the virus is creating to evade the response of antibodies,” said Felipe Naveca, one of the authors of the study and part of Fiocruz in the Amazon city of Manaus, where the P1 variant is believed to have originated.

Naveca said the changes appeared to be similar to the mutations seen in the even more aggressive South African variant, against which studies have shown some vaccines have substantially reduced efficacy.

“This is particularly worrying because the virus is continuing to accelerate in its evolution,” he added.

Studies have shown the P1 variant to be as much as 2.5 times more contagious than the original coronavirus and more resistant to antibodies.

On Tuesday, France suspended all flights to and from Brazil in a bid to prevent the variant’s spread as Latin America’s largest economy becomes increasingly isolated.

The variant, which has quickly become dominant in Brazil, is thought to be a large factor behind a massive second wave that has brought the country’s death toll to over 350,000 – the second highest in the world behind the United States.

Brazil’s outbreak is also increasingly affecting younger people, with hospital data showing that in March more than half of all patients in intensive care were aged 40 or younger.

For Ester Sabino, a scientist at the faculty of medicine of the University of Sao Paulo who led the first genome sequencing of the coronavirus in Brazil, the mutations of the P1 variant are not surprising given the fast pace of transmission.

“If you have a high level of transmission, like you have in Brazil at the moment, your risk of new mutations and variants increases,” she said.

So far vaccines, such as those developed by AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac, have proven effective against the Brazilian variant but Sabino said further mutations could put that at risk.

“It’s a real possibility,” she said.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca, writing by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Steve Orlofsky)

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)

North America sees drop in COVID-19 cases, Brazil surge worrying, says PAHO

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – New COVID-19 cases continue to decline in North America, but in Latin America infections are still rising, particularly in Brazil where a resurgence has caused record daily deaths, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned on Wednesday.

“We are concerned about the situation in Brazil. It provides a sober reminder of the threat of resurgence: areas hit hard by the virus in the past are still vulnerable to infection today,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in a briefing.

She said cases are on the rise in nearly every Brazilian state, with Amazonas state especially hard hit.

A new variant first discovered late last year has led to a surge in new infections there that have overwhelmed the health care system, which continues to experience widespread shortages of medical supplies, including oxygen, she said.

Brazil needs “very strict” public health measures to curb the surge that is overwhelming hospital ICU wards, PAHO’s incident manager Sylvain Aldighieri said.

Brazil reported a record 1,972 deaths from COVID-19 in 24 hours on Thursday. Brazil has the second-highest total number of deaths behind the United States.

The United States and Canada continue to see a drop in new cases of COVID-19, PAHO said.

Cuba, the Bahamas, Saint Lucia and Guadeloupe are facing a rise in infections, and in South America Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile are reporting an increase in new cases, while Peru and Bolivia are finally seeing declines, PAHO said,

Vaccines have begun to arrive in Latin America through the COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization to provide equitable access to shots, with 28.7 million doses allocated to the region over the next three months.

But PAHO warned that vaccine supply is limited, due to manufacturing constraints and high demand, and some countries will have to wait several months until they receive theirs.

According to a Reuters tally, Latin America has recorded around 22.3 million coronavirus cases, and 704,000 deaths, almost double the death toll of Asia and Africa combined.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Franklin Paul and Lisa Shumaker)

Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Mexico publishes medicinal cannabis regulation, creating new market

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s health ministry on Tuesday published rules to regulate the use of medicinal cannabis, a major step in a broader reform to create the world’s largest legal cannabis market in the Latin American country.

The new regulation was signed off by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and will now allow pharmaceutical companies to begin doing medical research on cannabis products.

The cannabis reform taking place includes the recreational use of marijuana, and will create what would be the world’s biggest national cannabis market in terms of population.

The new medicinal rules state companies who wish to carry out research have to obtain permission from the Mexican health regulator, COFEPRIS, and this research has to be done in a strictly controlled and independent laboratories.

The regulation also sets rules for the sowing, cultivation and harvesting of cannabis for medicinal purposes, which would allow businesses to grow marijuana legally on Mexican soil.

Foreign weed companies from Canada and the United States have been looking at Mexico with interest. Many had delayed making investment decisions due to policy uncertainty and were waiting for the final regulation to be published.

Mexico’s lawmakers are also in the final stages of legalizing recreational use of marijuana, with the bill expected to pass in the next period of Congress.

The regulation comes several years after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers must legalize use of cannabis.

The legislation marks a major shift in a country bedeviled for years by violence between feuding drug cartels, which have long made millions of dollars growing marijuana illegally and smuggling it into the United States.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Additional reporting by Raul Cortes Fernandez; Editing by Dave Graham)