The curious case of the Ice Cream Spies


Enforcement of the law in Venezuela is highly selective these days, so when a well-publicized arrest takes place, there’s usually some reason. In the latest international tiff between Venezuela and Colombia, Venezuelan law enforcement arrested eight Colombian residents for taking pictures of power lines and transformers. The eight were owners and employees of an ice cream factory in Chávez’ home state of Barinas.

The question is, why were they really arrested?

Today, El Tiempo has published a long and generally interesting article on the Ice Cream Spies. One detail in particular stuck out:

The news of the Colombians’ arrest fell like a bomb on the village of Barinitas (about 40,000 residents, half an hour from Barinas, where the Giraldo family has lived for 11 years), and not only because they are widely recognized as working people dedicated to their ice cream factory, ‘Maky Helados.’

People were also surprised because the Giraldo family is close to the ‘revolutionary process’ and friends with Narciso, the brother of President Hugo Chávez. They helped him in promoting the candidacy of the current mayor of Barinitas, Ana Lucía de Cartier, a member of the ruling party.

Did the Colombians somehow cross the Chávez family, which rules Barinas like a fiefdom? It wouldn’t be the first time a former ally got thrown under the bus. Another more quotidian yet plausible explanation is that Chávez is using that time-honored trick of nationalist autocrats everywhere, Blame Your Problems On The Other.

Colombians are to Venezuela as the Mexicans are the United States or the Haitians are to the Dominican Republic or the Nicaraguans are to Costa Rica or the Guatemalans are to Mexico: The low immigrants on the totem pole. You can always lambaste them in public to direct attention away from your leadership failures and whip up a few extra votes.

Hence the hilarious accusations of not only espionage, but sabotage. So far, the Colombians haven’t even been charged with anything, though Venezuela’s head of state is already working to convict them in the court of public opinion.

Good luck getting a fair trial.

Posted in Colombia, Politics, Venezuela | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A fighting chance

What does Mockus have going for him? And where are his votes coming from? In an excellent piece of analysis this morning, Semana takes a look. The most interesting bits:

  1. Uribism is not a philosophy or a party – it’s a personality, says an analyst. Santos and others can try to take on Uribe’s mantel, but they will never be Uribe, and that means they are vulnerable.
  2. The latest polls that put Mockus in second place in Colombia’s race for the presidency also show a huge increase in the likely voter turnout. The percentage of eligible voters who say they intended to vote went from 54.8% to 83.9% in 15 days. Clearly either Mockus’ candidacy is electrifying the vote, or someone forgot to carry the one.
  3. Only one of the minor candidates has announced who he would support in a run-off. This means most are waiting to see what happens, and Santos is not seen as the de facto winner

Some people are calling Mockus Colombia’s Obama. The analogy so far appears to hold some water, as Mockus’ “green wave” of support is inspiring voters, building support using the internet, and rallying urbanites.

More than anything this process is demonstrating the importance of term limits in a democracy. Were Uribe running today, his cult of personality would almost certainly win in a first round, and the possibilities for Colombia’s future would be limited. With Uribe out of the picture, however, new people with new ideas have a shot, and even if someone like Mockus doesn’t win, his ideas have to be dealt with by the other candidates.

UPDATE: One thing Mockus does not have going for him is Parkinson’s disease.

Posted in Colombia, Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mockus steps up

The race for president in Colombia just got interesting. The latest poll from the Centro Nacional de Consultoría gives the Mockus-Fajardo ticket 22% of the vote, slightly ahead of Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín, who has 20%. Uribe successor Santos is, of course, all by himself in first place, with 37%, but he still lacks the 50%-plus-one he needs to win in the first round.

This means we might see a run off between Santos and Mockus.

Who is this Mockus character? He’s easily one of the most unlikely figures in the history of democracy. The son of Lithuanian immigrants and the proud wearer of a crazy-looking Amish-style beard, Antanas Mockus is a mathematician who served as rector of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia until 1993, when he mooned a crowd of unruly students.

After the incident, he got pushed out as rector, ran for mayor of Bogota, and won in a landslide. He then proceeded to implement all sorts of edgy theories for reforming and cleaning up the city. They actually – amazingly – worked. Bogota in the 90s was a scary, dangerous, messy place. Bogota today is pretty damn nice.

Of course, you can never give full credit to a single person for doing something so complicated as cleaning up a crime-ridden city, but the consensus seems to be that Mockus the mathematician, the academic, the theoretician, did wonders for Bogota during his two terms as mayor.

He’s never made it far on the national level, however. Country folk usually have different concerns that city folk, and it’s doubtful that mimes would do much to stop the illegal armed groups that terrorize the countryside.

This time he might get further than he did in his 1998 bid for president. An alliance between Mockus and another centrist candidate brought about the current state of affairs, giving Mockus a fighting chance to at least make it to the big show.

Even if he gets there he’ll probably get trounced, as basically 57% of the vote is currently going for the right. Still, a kid can dream.

Posted in Colombia, Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

More fear than greed

Miguel at The Devil’s Excrement has posted a great piece on Venezuelan bond prices and how they stack up to the rest of the developing world. During last year’s financial crisis, lots of money flooded into developing market bonds, pushing their yields down. The one exception: Venezuela. Its 5-year dollar-denominated bonds are paying around 11%, while state oil company PdVSA is paying a whopping 14%.

For the sake of comparison, Colombian 5-year debt yields 4.28%.

The truth is that PDVSA is yielding roughly ten times more (10x) than Brazil until 2015. Investors are saying they have no fear in buying Brazilian bonds at 1.2% until 2012, but they are worried (really worried!) with PDVSA bonds which yield 10.35% if you keep them for the next 16 months. Whatever their reasons, these investors are agreeing with Morgan Stanley, there may be a cash crunch in foreign currency and Chavez may decide to tell investors to bag it.

Of course, this is just what the market says, and markets often turn out to be a high-tech equivalent of 5-year-olds playing soccer. A 10.35% yield on debt from a major international oil company with exclusive access to some of the largest reserves in the world is hella good.

Miguel says he actually owns PdVSA debt. Something to think about.

Posted in Economy, Venezuela | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Arias in favor of homosexual unions

In kind of a surprising turn of events, lame duck Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has come out rather strongly in favor of state recognition of homosexual unions. He told local daily La Nación:

“Yes, there should be some legal recognition. One doesn’t pick one’s sexual inclination. It comes from nature or from God. One doesn’t choose it, neither men nor women…”

“It goes against nature to believe that a 14-year-old would sit down and decide whether to become a heterosexual or a homosexual. They’re things that come from God, and we just have to come to accept them.”

The Catholic Church is, of course, incensed, but everyone – even pro-gay-union activists – was a bit shocked that Arias would go this far with his comments. I could rag on him for being a political opportunist (easy to say controversial, enlightened things when you’re on the way out the door).

But maybe it’s just that when you come to the end of a life and a political career and you have no more backs to scratch or horses to trade,  you start to speak your mind.

Posted in Costa Rica, Human Rights, Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rape victims taking Mexico to court

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hear a case against Mexico next week. Two indigenous women from Guerrero state say they were raped by soldiers in 2002. Since the Mexican state has taken no action toward solving the crime and bringing the rapists to justice, the case has made it to the Court.

One woman, Inés Fernández, says she was raped by 11 soldiers in front of her four children because she didn’t answer their questions. Fernández does not speak Spanish. The second woman, Valentina Rosendo, says she was raped by two soldiers while she was washing clothes in a river by her home.

In a press conference, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, the Me’phaa Indigenous Peoples Organization, and Amnesty International Mexico stated that there is sufficient evidence for the international court to convict the Mexican authorities for failing to provide the two women with access to justice.

The victims, their family members, and the witnesses all say they’ve received multiple threats demanding that they stop pursuing the case before the Court. Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) says that complaints of military abuse have skyrocketed in the last five years.

Posted in Human Rights, Mexico | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mexican authorities round up criminals

As if they didn’t have anything better to do, yesterday Mexico’s federal police arrested two foreign journalist for public urination. NPR journalist John Burnett and CBC journalist Bruce Livesey were on their way back to Juárez to continue covering the ceaseless killing and violence and lawlessness when they allegedly stopped to partake in some of their own by peeing on the side of the highway. They were arrested.

The reporters, who said they hadn’t seen any police during their entire time in the region, explained to the officers that they were journalists, but the officers did not believe them and they were brought in for booking. They were freed hours later.

Good job, Mexico. Maybe after you’re done rounding up all the scofflaw journalists, you can start figuring out what happened to all the ones that are dead.

(Original image courtesy katutaide.)

Posted in Mexico, Odd, War on drugs | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Concessioning a town

I’ve heard of mining companies doing some brazen, awful things in Latin America, but this might take the cake. The concessions granted to Australian mining company BHP Billiton near the controversial Agua Rica mine in Argentina give it the right to expropriate the town of Andalgalá itself for metal extraction.

From the official document, via Página/12:

“The mining area includes the city of Andalgalá, a situation that is normal since, according to the Mining Code, two properties – both the mine and the surface property – can coexist. In this case, the mine’s purpose is prospecting and exploration, and in the event that it begins extraction, the corresponding compensation must be provided and the greatest public interest must be considered, giving priority to development.”

I’m not a natural resources attorney, but this sounds like a green light to expropriate the town for the greater good, and that’s how the residents of the 17,000-person town are taking it as well. Andalgalá was founded in 1658. Mining in the region first started in 1994, with Yamana’s Alumbrera project. In 2004 that company opened its Agua Rica mine 17 kilometers from Andalgalá. It was recently met with violent protests:

If that’s how these people respond to a mining project 17 km away, good luck trying to kick them out of their houses.

Posted in Argentina, Environment | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Cheapskates

You would think if you were inviting a dozen heads of state and their entourages to a party at your house, you would want to make a good impression. But not if you’re Costa Rica, which has budgeted a measly $179,000 to cover the costs of both its 2010 presidential inauguration ceremony and lodgings for all the foreign dignitaries invited.

President-elect Laura Chinchilla figures this is only about a third of what’s needed, so she’s going with hat in hand to the private sector, asking for totally unregulated donations that will certainly have no effect on her future actions toward said private sector as head of state.

La Nación‘s editorial this morning probably said it best:

Costa Rica has been criticized for thinking small, but with this upcoming presidential inauguration, we’re thinking tiny.

I hope they at least have the decency to offer an open bar, as those things cover a multitude of sins.

Posted in Costa Rica, Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

False alarm

Everyone back to your stations.

If you happen to read a headline to the effect that “ZOMG Chevron won arbitration ruling against Ecuador!!!” please note that this ruling has nothing to do with the famous pollution case that’s been crawling along for the last 17 years, and is not – not - the related international arbitration claim filed by Chevron against Ecuador late last year. Reuters explains the whole thing very carefully and clearly.

This particular arbitration case dates back to the early 90s, when Texaco (later acquired by Chevron) presented claims against the government of Ecuador over “certain commercial disputes.” Chevron’s claims never received a ruling, so this three-year-old international arbitration case before The Hague came out in Chevron’s favor, to the tune of some US$700 million.

Though the ruling has nothing directly to do with the arbitration request Chevron filed against Ecuador in 2009 regarding the class action pollution lawsuit, it might have an impact in the sense that both arbitrations were brought through the Bilateral Investment Treaty that Ecuador had signed with the U.S.

So if Ecuador can lose one arbitration, I guess it could lose the other. But please. Different arbitrations.

Posted in Ecuador, Environment, Human Rights | Tagged , , | 1 Comment
  • DAILY LINKS

    • 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 vacío, 75 of colita de cuadril, 150 of ojo de bife and 50 kg of picaña." [link]

    • Hitmen have assassinated the PRI candidate for governor of Tamaulipas State, Rodolfo Torre Cantú. 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]