YouTube Still Profiting From Extremist Huckster Alex Jones

YouTube Still Profiting From Extremist Huckster Alex Jones

Alex Jones, whose Infowars outlet is largely banned from YouTube, is re-emerging on the platform through appearances he and his staff members are making on hugely popular YouTube shows. Many of these programs are monetized through commercials, and YouTube profits off of them because it shares ad revenue with its broadcasters.

On February 27, Jones appeared for nearly five hours on Joe Rogan’s show The Joe Rogan Experience. Rogan and Jones have known each other since the early 2000s and have appeared on each other’s shows. But earlier this year, they were involved in a dispute over comments Jones made about the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. (Jones has definitively declared the shooting a hoax multiple times but has attempted to spin those comments to rehab his image in recent years.) It is hard to say whether the dispute was genuine or just a ploy to attract attention, but they made up before the February 27 show and the episode has been viewed over 5 million times so far.

Notably, at the top of the lengthy broadcast, Rogan attacked critics who say he shouldn’t give Jones a platform before assisting Jones in spinning his past comments on Sandy Hook. The broadcast features multiple commercial breaks, meaning that Rogan’s channel — which itself has over 4.6 million subscribers — and YouTube are sharing advertising profits for the video.

Forbes senior contributor Dani Di Placido described Jones’ appearance on Rogan’s show as “little more than another unhinged speech from Jones, who has enough energy to feverishly rant about aliens, artificial intelligence and Hillary Clinton for almost five hours solid.” He also noted that Rogan views Jones as “the guy who always provides a wild conversation, as long as you can tolerate listening to his rapid-fire fantasies.”

Jones’ appearance on Rogan’s show appears to not be a one-off occurrence but rather a new tactic to skirt the varying bans imposed on him and his outlet by major social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Infowars personality Kaitlin Bennett — aka the “Kent State Gun Girl” — also made a lengthy appearance on the massively popular Impaulsive Podcast on February 25. The channel has nearly 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube, and Logan Paul, the primary personality, has nearly 19 million subscribers on his personal channel.

During the podcast, Paul and his two co-hosts ostensibly sought to debate Bennett, who is known for engagingin ridiculous far-right stunts, on issues related to gun regulation and other topics. Instead, the overall effect of the interview was to normalize her brand of commentary. Paul introduced Bennett by calling her “a very controversial guest, arguably more than myself.” He and his co-hosts then bolstered Bennett’s points at times during their discussion. Show co-host Mike Majlak encouraged Bennett to disassociate herself from Jones, saying Bennett’s “very strong points” are diminished by the association. Toward the end of the video, Paul toldBennett she makes “a lot of valid points” but should consider ways she could be more effective with her message.

Throughout the appearance, Paul and his co-hosts appeared woefully unprepared to debate Bennett on specific claims. At one point, they gave her a veneer of legitimacy after she cited the widely known fact that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not have a very high success rate in confiscating prohibited items during airport security checks; one of the co-hosts fact-checked her and ruled that she was correct in her claim.

Like Jones’ appearance on Rogan’s podcast, Bennett’s appearance on Impaulsive Podcast was monetized.

Even though YouTube has banned Jones’ primary account and many of his related channels, Infowars was able to piggyback on Bennett’s appearance on the platform. YouTube still allows Infowars contributor Millie Weaver to maintain a channel, and she posted a recap of Bennett’s appearance titled “Logan Paul Gets Red Pilled,” referring to a quote from The Matrix that is now mostly used to describe someone being convinced to adopt far-right beliefs. The recap video features Infowars’ watermark and ends with Weaver giving a pitch for Infowars’ website and online supplement store.

Beyond the monetization issue, the forays by Infowars figures back into YouTube show an attempt by Jones to emulate the strategy of other fringe right-wing operations to reach an untapped younger audience. Following her appearance, Bennett appeared on a segment on The Alex Jones Show, and Jones noted that Paul reaches “tens of millions of people,” saying, “It’s kind of the college kids that the tweenies and 13-year-olds look up to.” Jones said he was “glad” Bennett went on the show because it is “important” for Infowars to reach young people. Bennett said that by appearing on the program, she gave Paul’s audience a “perspective on gun rights and the Second Amendment that they probably didn’t think they were ever going to watch. So that’s out there now.”

Jones said that he wants to appear on Paul’s show too: “I would love to invite Logan Paul on the show. I would also love to go on that broadcast because I’d like to be able to speak to my oldest daughter’s audience and tell my daughter, ‘Now, be good, and don’t vape like the other girls.’”

Russia-gate Began Like Watergate — With A Break-In That Few Noticed

Russia-gate Began Like Watergate — With A Break-In That Few Noticed

IMAGE: Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, incoming White House national security adviser, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace “2017 Passing the Baton” conference in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Wayne LaPierre’s Election Message To The NRA: America Is An Unlivable Hellscape

Wayne LaPierre’s Election Message To The NRA: America Is An Unlivable Hellscape

The leader of the National Rifle Association insisted he wasn’t “crazy,” “paranoid,” or “nuts” before ranting to NRA members in an “urgent” video message where he made claims at odds with reality, including claiming that his widely ridiculed prediction that President Obama would come for Americans’ guns “came true.”

During a six-minute get out the vote video, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre described America after eight years of Obama as president in hellish terms unrecognizable to anyone who actually lives here, claiming that the president has “laid waste to the America we remember” causing the country to “completely unravel.”

After describing a calamitous America, LaPierre claimed, “I told you exactly what [Obama] would do. The media said I was nuts. But in the end, America knows I was right.” You decide whether LaPierre was right:

  • LaPierre said his prediction that Obama “would come for our guns and do everything in his power to sabotage the Second Amendment” “came true” following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, when Obama “exploited a horrible tragedy to launch a blizzard of gun bans, magazine restrictions, and gun registration schemes against law abiding gun owners all across the country.” (Nothing proposed by Obama would have violated the Second Amendment as understood in the Antonin Scalia-authored Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller. The background check bill that was voted on in the Senate after the massacre specifically prohibited the creation of registries.)

  • Following terror attacks carried out by ISIS, LaPierre claimed Obama “attacked you harder than he attacked ISIS. He used the terrorism his own weaknesses and failures made possible to try to gut your right to shoot back at the terrorists he refused to kill.” (As commander-in-chief, Obama is actually carrying out a military campaign against ISIS which routinely kills the group’s leaders and fighters. Nothing Obama has ever proposed would bar citizens from shooting back at terrorists.)

  • LaPierre claimed that Obama “has transformed America into a sanctuary nation for felons, criminal gangbangers, drug dealers, repeat offenders, and illegal aliens” and that “our inner cities now rank among the most dangerous places in the world.” (Although there have been upticks as well as dips, violent crime has continued to fall under President Obama.)

  • LaPierre said Obama “handed nuclear bombs to the Iranian mullahs who dream of killing us all.” (In fact, the deal negotiated with Iran will make it much more difficult for that country to make a nuclear bomb.)

  • Under Obama, LaPierre claimed, “Our economy is on life support. Health care is an utter failure. Our schools have never been worse. You can see the despair in every parent’s eyes.” (The economy is growing, the uninsured rate is an all-time low, and the high school graduation rate is at a record high.)

  • LaPierre claimed Clinton “will come for your guns, she will attack your right to carry, she will attack your most basic right to defend your family with a firearm in your home.” (Independent fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked the claim that Clinton opposes gun ownership or that she has indicated she would abolish the Second Amendment.)

If the present-day America described by LaPierre is frightening, the scenario he describes if Clinton were to be elected is outright terrifying. According to LaPierre, Clinton’s election would harken “the creation of a new, post-freedom America that you won’t even recognize” as Clinton twists “a knife into the heart of the one freedom that separates us from the rest of the world.”

Displaying his trademark paranoia, LaPierre — irresponsibly and without evidence — claims that guns would be “forcibly” confiscated during Clinton’s presidency and “if you refuse to witness the self-destruction of the greatest nation the world has ever known” then NRA voters must ensure Clinton’s defeat so that America “will be great again.”

LaPierre offered one more falsehood in his video message: He said that NRA supporters “are the Special Forces that swing elections.” The idea that the NRA has the ability to determine election outcomes has actually been vastly overstated.

LaPierre’s entire paranoid rant:

WAYNE LAPIERRE: I spent my entire life fighting for the Second Amendment and I’ve got the scars to prove it. The media and many in the political class have reserved some of their most vicious, nasty insults for me. Because they truly hate the freedom that I stand for and they hate that I tell the truth. They’ve called me crazy, paranoid, evil, and far worse. But the media is so focused on me, they forgot about you, the tens of millions of gun owners all over America. The men and women who come up to me at guns shows in places like Tulsa and Harrisburg, the mechanics and taxi drivers and Waffle House waitresses who tell me, “Never ever back down.” You give me the strength to speak the plain honest truth in the face of all the hate.

When I said Barack Obama would come for our guns and do everything in his power to sabotage the Second Amendment, they savaged me. They called me a liar. But every one of those predictions came true. As soon as it was politically convenient, he exploited a horrible tragedy to launch a blizzard of gun bans, magazine restrictions, and gun registration schemes against law-abiding gun owners all across the country.

I stood in front of the country and said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I said our children deserve at least the same level of protection that surrounds our jewelry stores, banks, office buildings, celebrities, and the political and media elite. They attacked me like never before. But you stood your ground, and you told me to stand mine.

While radical Islamic terrorists shot, bombed, and butchered innocent Americans on our own soil, Barack Obama attacked you harder than he attacked ISIS. He used the terrorism his own weaknesses and failures made possible to try to gut your right to shoot back at the terrorists he refused to kill. Thank God we stopped him in his tracks. But while his term ends in a matter of months, his two Supreme Court appointees, easily among the worst justices to ever sit on that bench, will come after our guns for the rest of their lives. Eight years of his policies have laid waste to the America we remember. Through a deliberate lack of prosecution, he has transformed America into a sanctuary nation for felons, criminal gangbangers, drug dealers, repeat offenders, and illegal aliens. Our inner cities now rank among the most dangerous places in the world. Teenage girls are trafficked in sex trade that begins south of our porous border and ends up right under the noses of the elites in cities like Washington, D.C.

His foreign policy enabled and inspired ISIS, handed nuclear bombs to the Iranian mullahs who dream of killing us all, emboldened Russia, China and North Korea, and left Europe on the brink of absolute implosion. Even the weakest leaders of third-rate countries feel free to publicly mock and disrespect our president while the world’s most cunning, power-hungry negotiators played him for a fool.

Our economy is on life support. Health care is an utter failure. Our schools have never been worse. You can see the despair in every parent’s eyes. Eight years; that’s all it took for our country to completely unravel. I told you exactly what he would do. The media said I was nuts. But in the end, America knows I was right.

So feel free to mark my words: If, God forbid, Hillary Clinton is elected, she will launch an all-out war on the Second Amendment. She will come for your guns, she will attack your right to carry, she will attack your most basic right to defend your family with a firearm in your home. And she will continue the disastrous policies of this administration to their inevitable conclusion: the creation of a new, post-freedom America that you won’t even recognize.

There is no red line President Hillary Clinton will not cross when it comes to attacking your rights and forcibly taking your guns. She dreams of twisting a knife into the heart of the one freedom that separates us from the rest of the world. The only thing that can stop her is you. The NRA’s 5 million members are history’s most committed, most elite defenders of freedom. You are the Special Forces that swing elections, and I need you now more than ever.

Fight with me; stand by my side like you have at all these years. If you cherish the freedom that was won for you at Lexington and Concord and on the shores of Normandy, if you believe that this freedom makes America better and stronger than every other country, if you refuse to witness the self-destruction of the greatest nation the world has ever known, then join me: Arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we will fight for each other, for our children and for future generations, and for our shared dream that American can and will be great again. On November 8th, you are freedom’s safest place.

Photo: The National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, gestures during a news conference in response to the Connecticut school shooting on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 in Washington.  The nation’s largest gun-rights lobby is calling for armed police officers to be posted in every American school to stop the next killer “waiting in the wings.”  (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Mexico Hands Out Free TVs To The Poor In Massive Giveaway

Mexico Hands Out Free TVs To The Poor In Massive Giveaway

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

MEXICO CITY — Cradling a flat-screen television set in her arms, Tomasa Lopez beamed at her good fortune: She’d just taken part in the world’s biggest distribution of free digital televisions.

Lopez, a domestic servant, was among thousands of people who’ve thronged a cavernous tent in the populous working-class Iztapalapa district, one of hundreds of venues across Mexico where the poor are receiving some of the 10 million digital television sets the government is giving away at no charge.

It’s a program costing the Mexican treasury $1.6 billion in a push to convert the nation from analog television signals to a digital format. The United States made the switch in 2009.

“I am happy,” Lopez said. “We’ve always wanted a digital television. We’ll see more channels. The kids will see cartoons.”
Other nations, such as Argentina, have given away digital television sets, but none on the scale of Mexico, and the program has proved controversial. Critics question why the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is giving away 24-inch flat-screen televisions, each costing around $145, when decoder boxes that allow older analog televisions to remain in use — the U.S. solution — cost only about $40.

It’s not just the recipients of TVs who benefit. Television manufacturers clustered along Mexico’s northern border also profit, as do the two powerful media conglomerates that are moving quickly into digital services. The two companies will soon face competition from a third television network mandated into existence in 2013 with a constitutional reform to bring greater competition to the industry.

At the entrance to the delivery tent, a recipient of a television set, Jose Luis Rodriguez, reproached a government official for suggesting the sets were free.

“Stop using that word. It’s paid for with our taxes. It’s not free,” sputtered Rodriguez, who works for the federal social security institute.

Already, the government has given away 4.6 million televisions in a massive operation that requires fleets of trucks to deliver the sets, and masses of workers to check documents, take fingerprints and scan the bar codes of the sets to ensure that each family gets only one.

Recipients are all low-income Mexicans who take part in one of several government social service programs, including Prospera, which is the national crusade against hunger, and Liconsa, a subsidized milk program.

A sense of urgency pervades the program. The constitutional reform enacted in 2013 gives the government a deadline of Dec. 31 to convert the nation to digital television. In recent weeks, government teams have been handing out 30,000 to 40,000 sets a day, but will have to double that figure to meet the deadline.

Administrators for the program say it will have many benefits, among them raising the number of people with access to the Internet and cutting electricity usage.

“An analog television consumes 320 to 340 watts, and if you add a decoder then it’s another nine watts,” said Javier Lizarraga Galindo, an adviser behind the program at the Communications and Transport Secretariat. “An energy efficient digital TV like the ones we are giving out in Mexico consumes less than 40 watts.”

Gabriel Sosa Plata, a professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University and frequent commentator on television issues, said he thinks energy consumption might actually go up. Although analog signals are supposed to end on Dec. 31, he thinks many people will buy decoder boxes and move the old sets into their children’s rooms.

“Instead of having just one television, they will have two, and that means more electricity consumption,” Sosa Plata said.
Skeptics also question whether the TVs really will make the Internet more accessible. The digital TVs offered by the state have USB and HDMI ports, but hooking them to the Internet would require additional hardware and, for now, a contract with a provider, though the government has pledged eventually to offer free wireless service.

Mexico already provides free Wi-Fi at or near public parks, squares and government buildings in most of the nation’s 2,400 municipalities and under the telecom reform is required to expand it to as many as 250,000 sites by 2018. Still only about 50 percent of Mexico’s 120 million citizens regularly access the Internet.

Criticism of the program also has centered on the bidding for the purchase of the television sets. Mexico is the world’s largest assembler of TVs, producing between 35 and 40 million a year. Seven different companies with plants in Mexico, mostly along the U.S. border, have taken part in supplying the program.

“The first stage was not as transparent as it should have been. We were all suspicious,” said Jorge Negrete Pacheco, executive director of Mediatelecom, a consultancy in Mexico City on telecommunications regulation. “It was inevitable to think like this because none of the winners (of bids) were known brands.”

Negrete said the South Korean manufacturer Samsung was disqualified “for offering a better product” than required under the bid conditions. The winner of one bid sold televisions sets under the brand Diamante, largely unknown.

The two television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, are installing digital transmitters around the country. TV Azteca broadcasts on 180 channels while Televisa operates 220 channels. The two companies capture a majority of all advertising spent in the country for all media.

By next year, however, a third network will step into the fray. Grupo Imagen Media, owner of Cadenatres, will begin broadcasting, after winning a bid in March to occupy 123 channels spread across the country.

Negrete said the advent of a third channel “is a democratic message because it will offer a new source of information, different newscasts. This seems very positive.”

While that change may be in the offing, age-old conflicts over where to place the televisions and who gets to hold the remote will still unfold on the home front.

Sylvia Perez Gonzalez, 32, said her young son and daughter were already pestering her. “They say, ‘Mama, who is this going to be for, for you or for us?’ ”

Photo: Tomasa Lopez and her 11-year-old daughter Susana show off the new digital television set they were given at a government distribution center in Mexico City on Aug. 6, 2015. Mexico’s government hopes to provide the 24-inch television sets free of charge to some 10 million citizens by the end of the year. (Tim Johnson/McClatchy DC/TNS)

Castro, Obama Shake Hands In Panama, Set Meeting For Saturday In U.S.-Cuba Thaw

Castro, Obama Shake Hands In Panama, Set Meeting For Saturday In U.S.-Cuba Thaw

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

PANAMA CITY — The thaw in the lengthy diplomatic freeze between the United States and Cuba quickened Friday, with President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro shaking hands at an evening reception ahead of a more substantive face-to-face meeting set for Saturday.

The two leaders’ greeting included no other significant interaction or substantive conversation, a White House official said. But it was closely watched as the first time Obama and Castro have encountered one another since they announced in December that their two countries were working to re-establish diplomatic relations severed in 1961.

U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a one-sentence statement that the two leaders “greeted each other and shook hands.” Photos showed Obama facing Castro, who was accompanied by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

The handshake capped what Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, had described earlier as a ratcheting up of contacts between the two countries’ officials that would have been “unimaginable a year ago.”

Rhodes said Obama and Castro had talked earlier in the week by phone, disclosing a previously unannounced conversation. In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Rodriguez held a lengthy meeting late Thursday night that was billed as the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials in nearly six decades — a distinction it will lose when Obama and Castro hold their one-on-one discussion “on the margins” of the Summit of the Americas on Saturday.

“We’ve already had the first interaction, the first meeting, between our foreign ministers since 1958. That happened last night. We’ve had the first phone calls between the president of the United States and the president of Cuba that I’m aware of since a similar time frame,” Rhodes said.

“We’re in new territory here.”

Rhodes said Kerry and Rodriguez discussed “very practical, specific, and sometimes technical issues” related to restoring embassies in their respective countries.

Asked if Washington wants the government of Cuba, ruled by either Fidel Castro or his brother Raul since 1959, to be toppled, Rhodes dismissed the suggestion.

“We’re not focused on overthrowing the Cuban government. We’re not focused on changing the existing regime at a time when we’re engaging that government,” he said.

The phone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro on Wednesday was not particularly long, Rhodes said, while Kerry’s contact with his counterpart was broader and deeper.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 following the Cuban Revolution, which sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans into exile, setting off a tense relationship that has become a major factor in both U.S. domestic politics and international tensions. Cuban-Americans are an influential voting bloc in battle-state Florida, and the U.S.-Cuba rivalry has had repercussions for decades, from the Western Hemisphere to Africa.

Obama and Castro have shaken hands before, in 2013 at the memorial service for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. But while that one was the first such courteous gesture in half a century between the country’s leaders, Friday night’s hand clasping of hands seemed to portend even more momentous changes in a relationship that has split not just the two countries, but the Western Hemisphere. Until this year, no Cuban leader had been invited to a Summit of the Americas, a gathering of all the Western Hemisphere nations, since the event was initiated in 1994.

Vestiges of the strained relationship were on display in the early afternoon as Cuban dissidents and their supporters clashed with backers of the Castro government outside a Panama City hotel in a second day of violence.

Protesters pushed, shoved and shouted at one another outside the Hotel Panama, a luxury hotel in the city’s banking district where a forum was being held to bring together civil society leaders from across the Americas. Many waved Cuban flags. Panama’s main television network called for police to restore order.

Cuba was not the only source of tension. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro arrived in Panama in the afternoon and headed directly to the working-class neighborhood of El Chorrillo, where he laid a wreath at a monument in honor of Panamanians who died resisting the 1989 U.S. invasion that toppled then-dictator Manuel Noriega. Bombing during the invasion heavily damaged high-rises in El Chorrillo.

At midmorning, with temperatures already soaring to the high 80s, Obama toured the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, itself a reminder of the United States’ long, sometimes acrimonious relationship with Latin America. Wearing sunglasses, Obama climbed the control tower that oversees movement of vessels, then walked along a narrow pedestrian walkway that traverses the locks chambers.
Secret Service agents were aboard vessels nearby as Obama crossed the canal.

Between 12,000 and 14,000 ships transit each year between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the canal, which was controlled by the United States until the 1970s, when a treaty surrendered jurisdiction to Panama.

Later, Obama said he “saw the extraordinary progress that is being made” on a $5.2 billion project to expand the canal, scheduled to conclude early next year.

“It really is a symbol of human ingenuity but also Panama’s central role in bridging two continents and bringing the hemisphere together,” Obama said.

Panama held out hope that the summit, which concludes late Saturday afternoon, would not only showcase the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States but help mend tense U.S. relations with Venezuela.

“Where there are differences, let us create bridges,” said Martin Torrijos, a leftist former president of Panama.

Torrijos recalled Panama’s history as a facilitator of peace talks in the 1980s aimed at ending wars in Central America and said, “I hope this can repeat itself.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Day Donaldson via Flickr

Many Cubans Optimistic — And Cautious — About New U.S. Ties

Many Cubans Optimistic — And Cautious — About New U.S. Ties

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff (TNS)

HAVANA — Francisco Gavez, a barber, shoved a newspaper into a visitor’s hands.

“Have you seen how the newspapers are covering this? Take a look at Granma,” he said.

The mouthpiece of Cuba’s Communist Party, Granma reprinted the entire speeches of Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announcing the imminent restoration of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations after more than five decades.

The upshot, Gavez said, is that Cuba will have a brighter future. Other measures to relax the U.S. economic embargo, established in 1962, cannot be far behind, he believes.

“One feels a lot of hope,” Gavez said. “More flights will come in. The flow of tourists will grow. There will be more money.”

His optimism is widespread — but not universal — in Cuba’s capital. Everyone is aware of the surprise change in policy, if not the details of how Washington will allow Cuban exiles to send more money home to relatives on the island and loosen a ban that has blocked most Americans from visiting Cuba.

Some young people and those deeply opposed to the socialist rule of the Castro family said the regime would find a way to keep them under its thumb. But the majority of those interviewed after the joint announcement in Havana and Washington Wednesday said they expect life to get easier in the not-too-distant future.

“Since I was little I’ve been trained to think that we have the best system in the world,” said Leosdan Guiamet, a 20-year-old accountant who now hawks souvenirs. “I believed it when I was little. But I began to realize it wasn’t so.”

For the young, he said, the renewal of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties brings promise of improvements.

“It gives me hope that the government will allow more democracy and freedom,” Guiamet said.

Yamil Alvarez Torres, one of three owners of a 50-seat private restaurant in Old Havana, Paladar Los Mercaderes, said Cuba would do well to follow the open-market policies of China and Vietnam, which are both still ruled as one-party socialist states.

“We Cubans say that Vietnam was at war with the United States, and now they are friends. We were never at war with the United States,” Alvarez said.

He dreams of the day when U.S. travel restrictions are abolished.

“I’ve heard that 5 million Americans will come to Cuba within the first two years of when they lift all travel restrictions,” he said. “This is a really huge number.”

For a visitor who had been in the city numerous times in the 1990s, but had not returned in 15 years, the renovations to colonial Old Havana, a prime tourist area, were startling. Freshly painted buildings house shops that sell chocolate, handbags; even aquariums. Boutique hotels cater to European, Canadian and Latin American tourists.

“There is a restaurant boom in Havana now,” Alvarez said. “Hundreds of restaurants have opened in the past two years. When we opened in December 2012, there were 116 restaurants (in Havana) listed on TripAdvisor. Now there are 486.”

Still, it may be some time before U.S. tourists flock to Cuba. Broad restrictions on U.S. travel to the island remain in effect, although senior U.S. officials said Wednesday that the administration would loosen 12 categories for exempted travel. These include trips with educational, religious and professional purposes; artistic, journalistic or humanitarian endeavors; and family or business visits.

Francisco Garcia is far less optimistic than some. He said the Cuban security apparatus makes sure that people like him are kept away from the tourists who bring the hard currency that can make the penuries of Cuban life more bearable.

Not long ago, when he approached a foreigner for conversation near the landmark Hotel Nacional, police arrested him. His fine: 1,500 Cuban pesos, or about $56, a fortune in Cuban terms.

“Isn’t it my right to speak to you?” asked Garcia, who is 39.

Some Cubans say a relaxation of the U.S. embargo — or its lifting — would put pressure on Raul Castro, undercutting the regime’s key argument for why life remains tough for the citizenry.

“Listen to me: if there’s no embargo, I should get a raise,” said Roberto Suarez, a 46-year-old who mends shoes at a stand in central Havana. “The embargo is the ‘reason’ I can’t have a car. If there’s no embargo, I should be able to travel.”

Suarez described himself as a “Fidelista,” a believer in the ideals of Fidel Castro, who led the 1959 revolution that brought Soviet-backed socialism to the island, and the brother of Raul Castro. But Suarez advocated for further change, including allowing more private-property rights for Cubans.

“Without private property, there’s no development,” he said.

Suarez’s wife, Dayami Rio Pena, listened intently. She’s waiting to start a job as a financial auditor for a police unit. Even as Raul Castro allows more Cubans to work for themselves, much remains out of reach of average citizens.

“You can only go to a restaurant if you have money,” she said.

Good jobs in tourism also aren’t easily available for black Cubans like herself, she said.. But she praised the revolution: “Medical care is good. The hospitals are free.”

And no one is starving.

“You may only eat rice and an egg,” she said, “but at least you eat.”

Suarez noted that his 73-year-old mother-in-law is a widow in frail health. He said he hopes Cuba changes slowly, but steadily.

“Everyone who is older than 45 can’t handle a radical change,” he said. “You have to go making adjustments along the way.”

Photo: A vendor tends to an open-air stand selling postcards of Cuba’s revolutionary heroes in Old Havana on December 19, 2014. (Tim Johnson/McClatchy/TNS)

U.S. Export: Central America’s Gang Problem Began In Los Angeles

U.S. Export: Central America’s Gang Problem Began In Los Angeles

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Andy Romero remembers when a tattooed man showed up in his neighborhood with baggy pants, T-shirts with rock band logos and sneakers like none he’d seen before.

“His clothes were totally different,” Romero recalled of that time, in the late 1980s. “He wore kerchiefs on his head. His hair was all shaved off.”

He had a nickname — Scorpion — and had showed up after arriving on a flight of deportees from Southern California. Thousands of other gang members would follow Scorpion back to Central America, deported by U.S. immigration authorities.

American politicians now are debating how the United States should respond to the arrival in Texas of tens of thousands of adolescents and children, many of them fleeing violent gangs that have come to virtually control many parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. What that debate generally has lacked is a recognition that U.S. immigration policies played a major role in creating the gangs that now are driving young people to flee to the United States.

Those who study the history of Central America’s gangs say there’s plenty of blame to go around, and that strategies those countries adopted to deal with the returned gang members backfired. But there’s little debate that the gangs originated in the United States among a huge refugee population, then were exported back to Central America — often with little concern for the likely impact.

If one were to hunt for a beginning to the story of major gangs in Central America, it might involve the most mundane of settings: a convenience store parking lot on Westmoreland Avenue in Central Los Angeles where bored Salvadorans, offspring of refugees from this country’s civil war, gathered to pass the time.

“It started as what we refer to out here as a stoner gang: a bunch of kids hanging around and getting stoned all the time,” said Wes McBride, the executive director of the California Gang Investigators Association.

The stoner group assimilated into gangs that already existed, particularly the 18th Street gang, which had emerged among Mexicans in Los Angeles in the 1960s. By the early 1980s, Salvadoran youth broke off from 18th Street to form their own gang. They called it Mara Salvatrucha. “Mara” means gang, “salva” comes from the name of the country, and “trucha,” which means “trout,” also signifies “vigilant.”

Constant travel between the Los Angeles area — a major hub of emigre Salvadorans — and Central America meant that 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, got a foothold in El Salvador in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s why Andy Romero saw a deported gang member and eventually joined the Mara Salvatrucha himself.

A watershed moment for gang development in El Salvador occurred in 1996. That was the year the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, radically altering how deportations were handled. Before the act, immigrants could be deported only if they committed aggravated felonies that carried jail sentences of five years or more.

The new law allowed U.S. law enforcement officers to deport migrants for crimes such as shoplifting, minor drug possession, or even speeding. What followed was a surge in deportations of gang members back to El Salvador, rising into the thousands annually for the rest of the 1990s.

The move rid Southern California of part of its gang problem. But it overwhelmed El Salvador, where the civil war had been settled only in 1992 and institutions of government were just beginning to be established, including a new police force to be cobbled together from equal numbers of former police officers, former guerrillas, and a third group unconnected to the other two.

Many deported gang members, who’d arrived in the United States as young children, were unfamiliar with their country of origin. They barely spoke Spanish, and with gang tattoos on their arms, faces, and necks, they found few job opportunities. They sought out other gang members.

“The culture of Los Angeles gangs fell on fertile soil here,” said Edgardo Amaya, a lawyer who writes a blog on security issues.

Photo via WikiCommons

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Mexican Opposition Holds Energy Revamp Hostage To Political Changes

Mexican Opposition Holds Energy Revamp Hostage To Political Changes

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

MEXICO CITY — Amid charges of political arm-twisting, an opposition party has held passage of legislation vital to an overhaul of Mexico’s energy sector hostage to its demands for a political revamping.

The tactic by the opposition center-right National Action Party threatens to delay for weeks — or even months — enactment of a plan to open the energy sector to foreign investment, crucial to economic revitalization.

“This isn’t blackmail,” Sen. Jorge Luis Preciado, the head of the party’s faction in the Senate, told foreign correspondents. “This was agreed upon from the beginning: first this, then that.”

His party’s refusal to debate framework legislation has sent prospects for the energy overhaul into an 11th-hour free-for-all. The legislative session concludes at the end of June and doesn’t reconvene until September.

Without the support of the opposition party, which is known by its Spanish initials as the PAN, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, can’t garner sufficient votes to usher the framework legislation through the Senate, where the PRI and an allied party hold only 62 of 128 seats.

The energy overhaul is the cornerstone of a drive by Pena Nieto to remake Mexico, altering nationalist policies that the PRI set up during nearly three-quarters of a century of rule before it lost power in 2000 and stayed on the sidelines for 12 years.

Preciado said the dispute dated to December 2012, when Pena Nieto came to office. It was then that his party and two major opposition parties announced an unprecedented accord to carry out a series of revisions called the Pact for Mexico.

“In 18 months, we achieved 18 major reforms that hadn’t been achieved in the previous 90 years,” Preciado said.

But Preciado said the PAN was dismayed at 2012 state elections in which the PRI governors of a handful of states, controlling state electoral apparatuses, disallowed PAN complaints about the use of public money for campaigns and other matters.

“The way the governors operated was absolutely brutal,” Preciado said. “Our objective was to dismantle the feudal control of the governors.”

As a result, he said, his party obtained a signed addendum to the Pact for Mexico that committed the ruling party to ushering through a political reform package before matters such as the energy overhaul would come up for a vote.

Photo: OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development via Flickr

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily newsletter!

Central America Turmoil, Not U.S. Policies, May Be Behind Surge Of Child Migrants

Central America Turmoil, Not U.S. Policies, May Be Behind Surge Of Child Migrants

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

ARRIAGA, Mexico — Wilson Coxaj, looking braver than his 16 years might merit, left his village in Guatemala’s highlands earlier this month and is making his way to the United States. It is a perilous journey.

If he’s successful, he’ll join what U.S. officials are calling “the surge” — the dramatic increase in child migrants flooding across the U.S. border, creating what President Barrack Obama calls an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Coxaj, whose thick black hair and short stature denote his Mayan roots, spoke with the determination of someone needing to provide urgent economic support for his single mother and younger brother. He said he would find his way alone.

“I am not with a coyote,” he said, referring to the paid human traffickers who usher some migrants northward. “I’m just trying to guide myself through instinct.”

Children from the northern tier of Central America and from Mexico are flooding into the United States — 47,017 from October 1 to May 31, the Department of Homeland Security says — cramming Border Patrol stations and forcing U.S. officials to set up temporary facilities for the children at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.

Nearly all the child migrants are crossing the border at the southernmost tip of Texas, U.S. officials say, meaning they travel through Mexico’s lawless Tamaulipas state, an area under the firm control of organized crime. The only likely way for them to do so is to travel with coyotes working in collusion with crime groups.

Republican lawmakers have blamed Obama for the influx, saying lenient enforcement of immigration laws and the holding out of potential amnesty is drawing migrants from Central America, particularly children looking to be reunited with a parent already in the United States.

“President Obama is responsible for this calamity,” Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said last week.

But visits to a temporary Catholic-operated shelter in Mexico City and permanent ones in Ixtepec in Oaxaca state and Arriaga in Chiapas state indicate that the cause of the influx is far more nuanced, and that much of it is driven not so much by U.S. policies as by the turmoil in Central America that propels people to flee north.

Street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5 highest homicide rates, compels youths who refuse to join the gangs to flee.

“In my colony of Montreal (in the El Salvador capital of San Salvador), the Mara Salvatrucha dominates the streets, and they wanted me to join them to sell drugs,” said William Alberto Molina, who left his country last year at age 17 and has remained in Mexico. “They don’t give you an option. The only option is to leave the country or join the rival gang.”

“Violence in Central America is pushing these kids out,” said Wendy Young, executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington-based group that provides pro bono lawyers for minors facing immigration hearings.

“This is more refugee-like than immigration,” she said. “Even if kids are reunifying with family members (in the United States), that’s what refugees do, too.”

Honduras, which sits astride a major drug trafficking corridor from the Andean region, has seen part of its north coast turn into lawless no man’s land.

In the Catholic shelters that provide free lodging and meals to migrants, workers say they aren’t seeing much of an increase in minors traveling alone.

“There are maybe five a week,” said Carlos Bartolo Solis, director of the Casa del Migrante, a shelter in Arriaga, the nearest point to the Guatemalan border where migrants can climb atop freight trains heading north.

But a diplomat from Central America based in Arriaga, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t have permission from his head office, said many of the child migrants travel in groups under the custody of coyotes, staying in safe houses rather than shelters, out of sight of the employees of Catholic shelters.

“We counted on one train that there were 75 minors on board,” he said, referring to the freight line known as La Bestia, or “The Beast,” atop which thousands of migrants hitch a ride every few days.

The diplomat said few minors are like Wilson Coxaj, the 16-year-old literally alone on the journey. Most are in groups under the control of an adult.

“These kids aren’t alone. They go accompanied by someone,” he said.

Photo: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

On Drug Lord’s Mexican Turf, Lines Blur Among Cops, Pols, Cartel

On Drug Lord’s Mexican Turf, Lines Blur Among Cops, Pols, Cartel

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CULIACAN, Mexico — Walk into the command center of Culiacan’s municipal police department, and you see a huge bank of monitors showing closed-circuit images of street corners, captured by 190 or so all-seeing cameras that rotate and zoom.

Yet in this city of a million or so inhabitants, home turf of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the recently captured crime boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, the cameras and the 1,460 or so transit and street cops seem to miss a lot.

Despite multiple sightings of Guzman and other cartel bosses, police never could spot him. Some residents deem it willful blindness, a sign that lines blur easily among organized crime, police and politicians.

Guzman was captured when naval commandos deployed from faraway Mexico City descended with hot intelligence that the fugitive drug baron was moving from safe house to safe house within the city. As commandos gave chase, they discovered a municipal Dodge Charger police cruiser in a garage at one of his homes.

The Culiacan secretary for public security, Hector Raul Benitez Verdugo, said in an interview that the blue patrol car was a fake. Its call numbers, 19-21, didn’t match any in the city police fleet, he said.

Guzman and bodyguards later fled through a series of tunnels and drainage canals, leaving behind grenades and part of a municipal police uniform.

The commandos finally snared Guzman at dawn on Feb. 22 in an oceanfront condominium in Mazatlan, a two-hour drive from this city.

A local lawyer said it was no surprise that bosses in the Sinaloa Cartel would either co-opt city police or use fake police units to protect themselves.

“It’s a way to camouflage yourself,” said Jesus Cerda Lugo. “If you see a police cruiser, it’s very difficult to know if it’s real or fake. After all, you don’t know all the police in the city.”

If an officer in uniform gives you orders, “and he has a badge, you imagine that he’s real,” Cerda said.

Guzman’s capture has brought new attention to the municipal police forces in Cualican and Mazatlan.

Sunday night, the newspaper El Noroeste in Mazatlan received two telephoned threats minutes after a reporter called police to follow up on a story in a national newspaper, Reforma, that said city police had been protecting Guzman.

“Look, (moron), tell that (jerk) … that we don’t want him talking about the municipal police because we are going to (mess) him up, and you, too, if you (mess) with the police,” the newspaper said a journalist was told. The language was stronger than the revised quotation here.

The facade of El Noroeste was hit with 17 rounds of automatic weapons fire in late 2010, and a headless body was dumped outside the newspaper in July 2011, so such threats are taken seriously.

Mazatlan serves as the playground for the Sinaloa Cartel, while Culiacan, the inland capital, surrounded by fertile agricultural land, is ground zero for bosses under Guzman’s command.

Even if the U.S. Treasury Department listed Guzman as “the world’s No. 1 crime lord,” he didn’t seem to feel the need to stay hidden in Sinaloa’s Sierra Madre range. He regularly came down into the city.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Guzman had lunched earlier this month at the Mar & Sea restaurant on the leafy banks of the Humaya River, not far from central Culiacan. A former state governor owns the restaurant.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Guzman came into the Sinaloa capital to satisfy his craving for haute cuisine. Many city residents have heard similar stories.

One of the deans at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, who declined to be further identified for his own safety, said a close friend was in a restaurant when either Guzman or Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a co-leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, entered the restaurant.

“He arrived with his security team, which cordoned off the restaurant. They told everyone there to keep eating and drink all that they wanted, that their boss would pay for all meals. But the order was that nobody was to touch their cellphones,” the dean said. “The restaurant stayed sealed up for hours.

“This wasn’t any more than a year ago.”

Corruption among city police is far from unique to Sinaloa state. It’s a problem that has long nettled federal authorities, who want city police under a unified command structure at the federal and state level. Authorities have removed tens of thousands of corrupt municipal police officers in recent years in states such as Baja California, Chihuahua, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Veracruz.

In Culiacan, drug lords move about in late-model armored SUVs, but city police don’t seem to spot or stop them.

Asked whether municipal police had ever gotten into a gunfight with traffickers from the Sinaloa Cartel, Benitez Verdugo, Culiacan’s security chief, said, “There has not existed any clash of this kind.”

Benitez Verdugo might seem an unusual pick to lead the police. His wife is the daughter of Pedro Aviles, a legendary marijuana trafficker in Sinaloa in the 1960s and 1970s who was eventually slain.

But then politicians, state prosecutors and senior security officials in Sinaloa frequently must fend off accusations that they’re linked to drug traffickers.

Last June, a longtime police escort for Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez went missing. Weeks later, he appeared in a video uploaded to YouTube alleging, in a calm voice, that he’d accompanied Lopez Valdez shortly after his inauguration in 2011 to a meeting in the mountains with Guzman.

On the video, the escort, Frank Armenta, played wiretapped telephone conversations between the governor and other senior officials, including the state attorney general. The conversations indicated that Lopez Valdez was instructing officials to protect the Sinaloa Cartel and go after its rivals, the Beltran Leyva and Los Zetas trafficking groups, in the northern part of Sinaloa.

In a second videotape released in July, Armenta showed flight logs that indicated that a helicopter — presumably the governor’s — had made at least four trips to La Tuna, the village where Guzman grew up high in the Sierra Madre.

Armenta’s decapitated body appeared on a roadside Aug. 9.

Lopez Valdez has said repeatedly that the videos contain doctored and spliced conversations and that Armenta was forced by his captors to make the tapes.

The governor has spoken little since Guzman’s capture. His spokeswoman didn’t return multiple telephone calls over three days.

When reached by Adela Micha of Radio Imagen earlier this week, the governor stumbled for words about the impact of the capture of such a renowned crime lord in his state.

“What can I say? Congratulations,” Lopez Valdez said.

Photo: Tim Johnson/MCT

Will Mexican Cartels Go The Way Of Colombia’s Crime Syndicates?

Will Mexican Cartels Go The Way Of Colombia’s Crime Syndicates?

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CULIACAN, Mexico — Almost as soon as Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, reputedly the head of one of the world’s largest crime syndicates, was captured after a 13-year manhunt, young drug dealers began campaigns to take his place — a sign that the group, responsible for 25 percent of all illegal drugs smuggled into the United States, might not be headless for long.

But even as the internal jockeying intensified, experts predicted that the arrest of the legendary crime boss over the weekend would prove to be a watershed event likely to usher in the breakup of Mexico’s huge crime syndicates.

“The fragmentation we’ve seen here in Colombia will be replicated in Mexico,” said Jeremy McDermott, a former British army officer based in Medellin, Colombia, who’s a co-director of InSightCrime, a research group. “The capture of Chapo will accelerate that process in Mexico of criminal fragmentation. The days of big cartels are gone.”

Considered the world’s No. 1 crime lord, Guzman was snared in a messy bedroom in an oceanfront condo in Mazatlan early Saturday. Mexican and U.S. counter-drug agents had tracked him over several weeks, tracing him to safe houses in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, and then staying on his trail to Mazatlan when he disappeared through a series of tunnels and drainage pipes.

Guzman, whose Spanish nickname means “Shorty,” built the Sinaloa Cartel into one of the world’s biggest narcotics-trafficking groups, with a reach deep into Latin America, across the Atlantic to Africa and Europe, and into major U.S. cities.

He operated the cartel with the help of at least two other reputed crime chieftains, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, both in their 60s and allegedly with decades of experience in smuggling narcotics to the United States. Guzman has worked with Zambada since an earlier drug gang, the Guadalajara Cartel, was divided up in the late 1980s, and shared management with Esparragoza of the Sinaloa Cartel, which sometimes is called a federation because of its loose organization.

Potential rivals are watching closely to see whether they might make a move on Sinaloa Cartel turf or on its leadership, said Sylvia Longmire, a security consultant who’s the author of the 2011 book “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug War.”

“There will be a lot of wait-and-see going on by a lot of groups: rivals like Los Zetas, smaller trafficking groups that are members of the federation who are weighing their options, and cocaine suppliers who want to make sure the federation is a stable client,” Longmire said.

“El Mayo and El Azul need to work fast to exude confidence and power to friends and foes alike,” she added.

If the two aging leaders don’t move fast, the criminal underworld that the Sinaloa Cartel controlled may begin to crumble.

“When there’s no control, what was organized crime becomes disorganized crime,” McDermott said.

The cartel’s biggest rival in Mexico, Los Zetas, fractured after the killing in October 2012 of its undisputed leader, Heriberto Lazcano, and the arrest last July of his successor, Miguel Trevino Morales.

In significant ways, Mexico might be following the course of Colombia, which was the epicenter of the global cocaine trade in the 1980s and 1990s under the Medellin and Cali cartels but began to take a lesser place as a crime headquarters after the leaders of those cartels were slain or imprisoned. A plethora of weaker successor groups with names such as the Urabenos, the Rastrojos and La Oficina became wholesale suppliers to the more powerful Mexican groups, Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.

How the Sinaloa cartel will cope with Guzman’s capture may depend on whether he can maintain any semblance of control from within prison walls. During a previous stint in prison, from 1993 until he escaped in 2001, Guzman didn’t appear to be weakened as a drug lord.

AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt

Obama Arrives In Mexico For Summit That May Show NAFTA Strains

Obama Arrives In Mexico For Summit That May Show NAFTA Strains

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

TOLUCA, Mexico — They were once dubbed the Three Amigos, but strains on their friendship cast a chill Wednesday as President Barack Obama flew to Mexico for a summit of the leaders of the world’s largest trading bloc.

A bilateral spat between Mexico and Canada and anger in Ottawa over U.S. indecision on whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline from western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast cooled the atmosphere of the seven-hour summit.

Obama landed in Toluca, some 40 miles west of Mexico City, at about 12:10 p.m. local time (1:10 pm. EST). He popped his head through the door of Air Force One seven minutes later and bounded down the stairs.

Before boarding the plane at Joint Base Andrews for the four-hour flight, the White House said, the president signed an executive order that’s intended to reduce bureaucratic barriers and speed up imports and exports, helping businesses strengthen supply chains across borders. The move signaled that Obama wouldn’t cede to opposition to his trade agenda at home.

The gathering in Toluca, Mexico’s fifth-largest city, coincides with the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which formed a market of 470 million people from Canada’s Yukon to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The bloc represents more than 30 percent of global economic output.

But even as manufacturing chains are more integrated among the three nations, experts say the bloc has drifted on autopilot with a lack of strategic vision.

“Twenty years later, it’s hard for us to talk to each other and reach agreement,” said Laura Macdonald, a political scientist who specializes in the region at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Rather than re-debate NAFTA, Obama is expected to press Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to speak with one voice as they negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade bloc that includes 12 countries around the Pacific Rim.

Multiple tensions surround the summit, though, and it unfolds “at the worst moment in the trilateral relationship” since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States triggered concerns over border security, Macdonald said.

The bright spot is an energy revolution that’s altering the global energy map and shifting its epicenter to North America, revitalizing manufacturing.

“We are in a fundamentally different place than we were even five years ago,” said Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas, a Washington-based business group that promotes free trade, democracy and open markets in the hemisphere.

Farnsworth said bilateral issues and faltering political intentions had hindered efforts to develop the NAFTA region “in a comprehensive and strategic manner.”

“That sense of broader purpose here is missing,” he said.

Mexico is irked at Canada over visa requirements that have caused its tourism to Canada to drop by about 50 percent since 2008 to about 130,000 Mexicans per year. In contrast, 1.9 million Canadians visit Mexico annually.

Mexican diplomats say Canada requires 10 times more information from Mexican citizens to grant visas than the U.S. government requires.

Harper and Pena Nieto oversaw the signing Tuesday of an expanded air transport accord that will allow more direct flights between Canada and Mexico, but Harper made no public mention of whether Canada would ease visa requirements.

Harper is irritated with Obama for U.S. delays on deciding whether to proceed with the $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry oil made from tar sands in the province of Alberta through the U.S. Midwest to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Macdonald said the pipeline project “is the most important foreign policy objective of the Harper government” in its quest to become an energy superpower.

“Some of the Harper government statements have had an air of petulance about them: ‘You just have to answer us now,'” Macdonald said.

Also irritating U.S.-Canada relations are delays in replacing the aged Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the busiest international land border crossing in North America in terms of trade volume.

Even without coordinated policies to reinvigorate NAFTA, manufacturing supply chains increasingly bind the three nations. More than 8 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Canada, and another 6 million on trade with Mexico.

U.S.-Mexico trade topped $500 billion last year, and components and finished products travel back and forth across the border. Vehicles built in North America are said to have their parts cross the U.S. borders eight times before they’re fully assembled.

“We design it together and we produce it together,” Farnsworth said of most goods, noting that 40 cents of each dollar’s worth of Mexican exports to the United States comes from materials and parts produced in U.S. plants.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad