Here to fix the leak

Source: BBC

Cuba would not top anyone’s list of go-to countries in matters of successful and efficient industrialization. So why is Venezuela enlisting the help of Cuba’s technology minister, Ramiro ValdA�s, as an energy consultant? Supposedly, this representative of the impoverished, oppressive nation is going to help Venezuela with its roving power outages.

But think about it: What is Cuba really good at? From the BBC:

Communications expert Antonio Pasqualli pointed out the role that ValdA�s has played in controlling communication and the Internet.

“Two years ago, this man stated before Congress that ‘the Internet is an invention of the West for the extermination of humanity,’” the expert said, recalling the restrictions to Internet access that reign in Cuba.

According to a source in Semana, he’s also one of the founders of Cuba’s G2 domestic spy agency.A� Curious that ChA?vez would hire a guy like this just a few days after calling Twitter “an instrument of terrorism.”

UPDATE: More on ValdA�s: “To sum up, a military officer, with a talent for repression and censorship, is to advise the Venezuelan government on electricity. Let there be light.”

Posted in Cuba, Human Rights, Politics, Venezuela | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

CIA cover-up in Peru

A video has just been released that shows the Peruvian Air Force – with the help of the CIA – shooting down a small plane flown by a family of missionaries. They thought the plane was being flown by drug traffickers when the pilot didn’t respond to radioed warnings sent on the wrong frequency.

The video is from 2001 – that is to say, the CIA has been covering this up for nine years. Here’s the video, as broadcast by ABC:

The first thing I noticed in this video is the amazing linguistic incompetence of CIA officials who presumably hold people’s lives in their hands. Hard to call off the dogs when you think the word for “machine gun” is “ratatatatat.” (CIA history tends to indicate that incompetence is one of the agency’s defining characteristics.)

Second, the reason this story is being reported at all – even nine years later – is because the victims are Americans. Non-U.S. citizens certainly wouldn’t get the same consideration, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the CIA continues to participate in extra-judicial killings in many parts of Latin America.

Posted in Human Rights, Peru, War on drugs | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Loose money

Source: A?mbito

Argentina has a new Central Bank president, and by all accounts her appointment puts an end not only to autonomy, but to orthodox monetary policy in the management of the nation’s currency. A?mbito says Mercedes MarcA? del Pont describes herself as a “militant developmentalist,” and PA?gina/12 has a really well-done explanation of how her “developmentalism” will effect the way the Central Bank operates.

Basically, if you’re a traditional Central Bank president like Redrado was, you proceed under the assumption that creating more money will cause inflation to rise. Since this is considered to be a bad thing, you think long and hard before lowering interest rates to stimulate the economy in the short term, especially if your inflation rate is already estimated to be the third highest in the world.

MarcA? del Pont, however, has in the past proposed running things under a Brazilian model that places the Central Bank in a National Monetary Council along with the Treasury and the Planning Ministry. Thus, any decisions about the currency are made according to how they will help the country “develop.”

I think it goes without saying that different people have different ideas of what “develop” should mean, and that a lot of those people would essentially use their definition as an excuse to lower interest rates and crank the money supply in a show of cheap populism. Not surprisingly, U.S. analysts are predicting doom:

a�?The new president is very closely aligned with the government and wona��t have an independent voice,a�? (Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto) Ramos said in an interview last night. a�?The government wants to continue spending at elevated rates to have short-term growth and the central bank wona��t raise interest rates, it wona��t have its own voice.a�?

MarcA? del Pont has said she does “not think (the Central Bank) can be independent of the nation’s economic policies,” which pretty much says it all.

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Face of Violence

Source: HRW

A comprehensive and chilling report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch extensively details the resurgence of right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia and the government’s failure to confront them. The report is getting traction in every major newspaper I’ve looked at this morning.

The premise of “Paramilitaries Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia” is that the Colombian government’s attempt at demobilizing the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) from 2004-2007 was marred by fraud and cover-ups:

Almost immediately afterwards, new groups cropped up all over the country, taking the reins of the criminal operations that the AUC leadership previously ran.A� Today, these successor groups are engaging in frequent and serious abuses against civilians, including massacres, killings, forced displacement, rapes, threats, and extortion.A� They have repeatedly targeted human rights defenders, trade unionists, displaced persons, and community members who do not follow their orders. In some regions, like the city of MedellA�n, where the homicide rate has doubled in the past year, the groupsa�� operations have resulted in a large increase in violence.

The full 119-page report is full of detailed accounts of paramilitary activities, gathered over several years of field research:

For example, one human rights defender described how, while she was providing assistance to a victim of the AUC at the victima��s home, members of a successor group calling themselves the Black Eagles broke into the house, raped both women, and warned her to stop doing human rights work. a�?They told me it was forbidden for me to do that in the municipality. They didna��t want victims to know their rights or report abuses,a�? she told us.1 When she continued her work, they kidnapped her and said that if she did not leave town, they would go after her family. She sought help from local authorities, who dismissed her saying she should have known better than to do human rights work, and so she eventually fled and went into hiding.

In the report’s conclusions, HRW urges the U.S. government to delay ratifying a long-suffering free trade agreement with Colombia until the Colombian government effectively deals with the abuses of the paramilitaries. However, the Colombian government has so far responded with anger, even accusing HRW of meddling in this year’s presidential elections.

The full report can be accessed online here or downloaded in PDF format here. The shorter 26-page summary can be downloaded as a PDF here.

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Tourist trap

Source: Living and Working in Mexico

The owner of a blog called Living and Working in Mexico just so happened be among the 2,500 tourists left stranded in Aguascalientes, Peru (near Machu Picchu) during the recent flooding. His account is one of the very best examples of travel writing worth reading:

I ended up spending three nights in Aguascalientes. It was like a huge experiment in communal, international living… Every nationality behaved in somewhat characteristic ways. The Brazilians and Uruguayans organized football matches with the local kids. The Argentinians almost rioted but also led the organizing process. The Chileans were super-super-organized with different people assigned to be responsible for food, accommodation and health. The English deigned to get themselves organized. The Mexicans left a big Mexican flag in the Plaza with a note for people to write their names. The names appeared but I never saw anyone there. The American government was said to be providing four small helicopters for just American folk. It was rumoured that when the committee of delegates from each nation were meeting and rejected the idea that these helicopters should only be for Americans, then the Americans never participated again in the meetings and did their own thing. The Australians celebrated Australia day on Monday 25th January and it was said there was no more beer left in the town the following day.

Posted in Peru, Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The politics of a massacre

Monday’s birthday party massacre in Ciudad JuA?rez is turning into something of a political emergency for CalderA?n. Both the Senate and angry family members are blaming him for the killings. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission is sending personnel to offer “legal advice” to family members of the victims. And a group of NGOs is seizing the moment to call for CalderA?n to resign.

Source: ExcA�lsior

He’s listening. In a speech during his official visit to Japan, CalderA?n retreated from his emphasis on military/law enforcement solutions and floated the suggestion of “an integral strategy including social justice, addiction treatment and prevention, a search for employment opportunities, of recreational and educational opportunities for young people.”

Of course, this is silly, considering that the problem in Juarez isn’t jobless, shiftless, drug-addicted young people, but well-funded, ruthless, mafioso adults who act with impunity and are probably after more in life than a high school-equivalency degree and a game of ping-pong at the local rec center.

The fact that the outcry over a single incident of brutality perpetrated on innocents could cause CalderA?n to backtrack from his military solution so quickly tells me that the political situation might be more vulnerable to terrorism than I had previously thought.

Still, the second part of CalderA?n’s response appears to be an attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of his strategy byA� eliminating the perpetrators of the massacre as abruptly as possible. The hope, perhaps, is that national outrage over the incident will be eliminated along with them. Thus, we have an incredibly efficient military operation that managed to just straight-up kill one of the leaders of the hit squad and capture several others.

Amazing, the efficiency of the Mexican military when it’s politically expedient.

Posted in Human Rights, Mexico, War on drugs | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

PorteA�os mount up

Source: total13

Now here’s a plan I can get behind. The Buenos Aires municipal government is going to offer its 120,000 employees subsidized loans for buying bicycles that they can ride to work. The loan program is part of a larger plan to get 5% of the city’s 6 million commuters (300,000) to start biking to work. So far, only about 30,000 to 80,000 do so.

The hope is that by setting a good example, the municipal government will inspire private companies to offer cheap bike loans to their employees, as well as to provide bicycle storage areas and shower and locker rooms for the sweatier types.

The loan subsidies are part of a larger plan – the Plan for Sustainable Mobility – that includes the construction of 100km of urban bike lanes, to be completed by the end of this year. The first 25km will be inaugurated by the end of this month. The bike lanes will cost the equivalent of about US$26 million.

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Displaced for gold?

After being strafed by the Colombian military, an indigenous group is claiming that a controversial mining concession is behind the harassment (story in English). A family of five was just getting ready to have breakfast in their home located on a 9,000-hectare indigenous safe zone in the Antioquia department when helicopters fired on them with rockets and machine guns.

Four family members were wounded, and it looks like one – 23-year-old JosA� Rubiano Bariquira – is going to become a paraplegic. The Colombian military says it was all a misunderstanding, that they were going after some FARC guerrillas in the area. The Antioquian Indigenous Organization (OIA) says there are no FARC in the area due to a heavy military presence.

What there is instead is nice, juicy deposits of gold, copper, and molybdenum, for which the local municipality had granted severalA� controversial mining concessions late last year. Community leaders say the attack was an attempt at “displacement” so the private companies can get at the precious metals.

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TACA and Avianca merge

El Salvador’s Grupo TACA and Colombia’s Avianca have completed a “strategic” merger. TACA has hubs in El Salvador, Costa Rica and Lima, PerA?, while Avianca mainly flies out of BogatA?, Colombia. In a statement, the companies blather on quite a bit about synergy, which I hope means that they’ll be consolidating operations to make it cheaper and easier to travel in Latin America.

The new Avianca-TACA Limited conglomerate controls 13 carriers in 10 Latin American countries, serving a combined 75 Latin American cities with 129 aircraft. It is now the largest air travel conglomerate in the region.

Posted in Colombia, Costa Rica, Economy, El Salvador, Peru | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Green sweep

The final opinion poll of the election cycle is out, and it looks like Costa Rica is going to stay firmly in the hands of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN). That also means that in less than a week, Costa Rica will have its first woman president, Laura Chinchilla.

At 41.9%, Chinchilla is polling comfortably ahead of the four-candidate field. Her closest challenger, Libertarian Party candidate Otto Guevara, is pulling in a little more than 20%. Left-wing Citizen Action Party candidate Otton SolA�s is around about there as well. Chinchilla needs over 40% to win in the first round, but even if she doesn’t get it, she would be about 10 points ahead of either candidate in a run-off.

The PLN is set to win big in Costa Rica’s unicameral legislature as well. La NaciA?n is projecting it will pick up 22 out of 57 seats, with an outside possibility of the verdiblancos winning a majority.

This means Costa Rica is likely to see the policies of current President Oscar Arias continue without interruption, as Chinchilla’s most recent of many government posts was as Arias’ VP. In some senses, this is a good thing. Switching parties every four years tends to leave a country’s development spinning in the aisle, and a clean continuation of PLN leadership might mean that the crucial infrastructure and public safety issues currently confronting the country will get dealt with.

On the other hand, Arias has made some deals with the devil the Chinese whose full implications are not yet known. Crime and cocaine trafficking through Costa Rica increased under his watch. And he’s also been a pretty consistent promoter of open-pit gold mining even as he says he’s not.

In sum, if Chinchilla wins, don’t look for anything drastic (or anything at all) to change, which I suppose is exactly the way the Ticos want it.

Posted in Costa Rica, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

    • The Nation has a long, wonky, wonderful article on Mexican maize cultivation, the effects of NAFTA, and the dangers of genetically-modified seeds. Author Peter Canby backs up his excellent writing with piles and piles of meticulous research. Not to be missed. [link, via SM] (Image from Joel Penner.)

    • Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas ended his hunger strike yesterday after 134 days. Farinas decided to end his strike after the Cuban government said it would release political prisoners rounded up in the "Black Spring" crackdown of 2003. Get well soon. [link]

    • The Uruguayan selection, which has made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup, just received a shipment of half a ton of fine cuts of beef for the mother of all asados in preparation for a contest against Ghana on Friday: "450 kilos of lomo, 200 of entrecot, 75 of vacA�o, 75 of colita de cuadril, 150 of ojo de bife and 50 kg of picaA�a."A�[link]

    • Hitmen have assassinated the PRI candidate for governor of Tamaulipas State, Rodolfo Torre CantA?. Torre was gunned down along with six others at about 10:30 this morning on a highway on the way to a campaign event. Drug mafias are assumed to be responsible. [link]

    • From the days when coups were something of a regional sport, new documents detail a famous British ballerina's role in a plot to topple the government of Panama. The plan was to use her yacht to gather men and arms, then "land somewhere and collect in the hills." It didn't work. [link]

    • Mexico's Attorney General's Office has posted on its web site irrefutable evidence that gold-plated AR-15s and diamond-studded pistol grips are not nearly as cool-looking as they sound. The deadly knick-knack collection is said to belong to Valencia Cartel leader El Lobo. [link]

    • Two Brazilian ranchers were sentenced to 30 years in prison apiece for ordering the killing of an environmentalist nun: "Prosecutors said the pair offered to pay a gunman $25,000 to kill the 73-year-old [Dorothy] Stang because she had prevented them from stealing a piece of land that the government had granted to a group of poor farmers." [link]

    • This video of a kidnapping and car chase in Mexico is notable mainly for the bad-assitude of the TV journalists who were on this like white on rice. Well done, gentlemen.

    • The Economist takes a peak at the Mockus phenomenon in Colombia: "His moustacheless beard gives him the air of a Baltic pastor... He is financing his campaign with a bank overdraft. His supporters rely on Facebook and make their own posters; street vendors sell unofficial campaign T-shirts." [link]

    • Some cruise lines will cease traveling to Antarctica after this cruise season, as a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil goes into effect next year. The ban came after a 2007 incident when a Gap Adventures ship got punctured by ice and sank, causing a mess. [link]