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Around Latin America

July 2, 2012 Comments off

-Last week may have seen the suspension of Paraguay and inclusion of Venezuela into Mercosul, but at least one Brazilian businessman from São Paulo believes that the political role of the trade bloc means it is on its way out.

-Paraguay is not the only country facing institutional tensions; in El Salvador, a “constitutional crisis” between the National Assembly and the Supreme Court is emerging that has no sign of ending anytime soon and that could directly shape the dynamics of power in the Central American country.

-While yesterday marked the end of Mexico’s presidential election cycle for this year, it also marked the beginning of Venezuela’s elections, with Hugo Chávez and opponent Henrique Capriles officially kicking off their campaigns for the October elections. And in Honduras, former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya has announced she will run for president for the leftist Libertad e Refundación party (LIBRE). If her surname sounds familiar, that is because it should – she is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president who was overthrown in a military coup in 2009.

-The mountains and beaches of Rio de Janeiro have landed that city a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. In addition to providing another (well-deserved) point of pride for cariocas, the inclusion as a World Heritage site could lead city officials and international agencies to work on combating pollution and environmental degradation along the beaches and the mountain forests nearby.

-In Guyana, one leading politician who was critical of his party’s failure to provide more than lip service to the issue of corruption has stepped down, marking another shakeup in local politics in the small South American country.

-A new report finds that less than 2/3 of Brazilians now self-identify as Catholics. While the 64% that do identify as Catholics is still an overwhelming majority, that number is down from 74% in 2000 and 92% in 1970. While the rise of evangelicalism is certainly one cause of the decline, I would also point to a younger generation of Brazilian youth, especially in urban centers, who are disillusioned with the Church and its messages on issues like birth control, abortion, and marriage.

-In the world of natural events, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park in Colombia, has erupted.

-Finally, in alcohol economic (alcoholnomics?) news, Anheuser Busch InBev, the largest beer producer in the world, has gotten even bigger after buying Mexico’s Grupo Modelo for $20.1 billion. Modelo was Mexico’s biggest brewer, responsible for (among other things) Corona.

Of Tsunamis, Courts, and the Consequences of Human Disasters in the Face of Natural Events

June 28, 2012 Comments off

This story is a tragic yet fascinating one. Effectively, Chilean officials who had said the 8.8 earthquake of 2010 was nothing to worry about are facing trial for what amounts to criminal negligence:

On the morning of February 27, 2010, Interior Minister Patricio Rosende dismissed on national television “absolutely, the possibility of a tsunami,” asking the nation to remain calm only one hour after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck south-central Chile. Meanwhile, a series of waves were heading toward Chile’s shore. Eventually, the all-powerful water would engulf a 375 mile (600 kilometer) stretch of coastline from Concepción to Valparaiso and kill 525 Chileans.

Rosende’s statement, along with other actions (or inaction), would lead him and seven other government officials to stand trial some two years after the tragedy. Families of the victims are demanding justice. They seek criminal liability in what has surfaced as an undoubtedly bungled emergency response.

While what appears to be no small degree of incompetence and/or arrogance is certainly at play here, the system responsible for alerting Chileans also shows what happens when you decentralize authority among certain parts of the government:

the circle of blame continues in the courtroom. Fernández says that Rosende is at fault who, in turn, continues to blame the SHOA staff. What the investigation is revealing, however, is that such a grave loss of human life could have been avoided if a better emergency response strategy had been in place. It has brought to light a nation’s responsibility in having systems in place so that staff members are ready to act efficiently and cohesively in a state of emergency.

Indeed. We’ve seen this elsewhere in recent years, be it in New Orleans in 2005 or in Japan in 2010. That a powerful earthquake and tsunami happened off of Chile was just the earth doing what it usually does; that so many people lost their lives was not the fault of nature, but the fault of government workers who could have and should have been better prepared and able to act, and didn’t. If the evacuation warning is sent out, nowhere near as many people die in the 2010 earthquake as ultimately did; it was human failings, and not just the earthquake/tsunami itself, that lead to the deaths of over 500 Chileans, reminding us once again that all too often, “natural disasters” are really human disasters.

Around Latin America

-In a process that continues to go through fits and starts, Brazil’s Congress has begun investigating human rights abuses that the military committed during its 1964-1985 dictatorship. Though President Dilma Rousseff authorized the creation of a Truth Commission late last year, it has yet to get off the ground, and earlier this year, a judge declared that torturers could not face prosecution after federal prosecutors tried to treat the  “disappearances” of dozens of people as “ongoing” crimes in order to try to get around the amnesty law of 1979.

-After escape attempts, gun battles, and irreparable structural decline, Venezuela has begun relocating prisoners from the La Planta prison in Caracas. However, the Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom), which focuses on prisoners’ rights, has expressed concerns about transfers from the prison (where a fire killed 25 prisoners in 1996), claiming it will only add to the already-overcrowded prisons in other parts of the country.

-Fourteen people have died in a fire at a rehab center in Peru after they were unable to escape from behind locked doors. The fire is the second of its kind to take place in the last four and a half months. In late-January, a similar fire took the lives of 29 people seeking treatment. The fires are  yet another reminder of the very real challenges and limitations facing private drug treatment centers, which make up an overwhelming majority of the country’s rehabilitation centers.

-Brazil’s Supreme Court has approved the use of racial quotas in university admissions. The decision is designed to address the gross inequalities between Afro-Brazilian descendants and “white” Brazilians, inequalities that Henry Louis Gates explored in a PBS series and that I discussed (including the issue of affirmative action and the tensions over it) here.

-A new report claims IKEA relied on the labor of Cuban prisoners to produce its furniture in the 1980s.

-Another four Mexican journalists were killed last week in what is part of a broader growing wave of violence against journalists throughout the Americas.

-After announcing Venezuela may leave the IACHR, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Madura called on Latin American countries to create their own human rights organization that would operate independently of the United States’ influence.

-Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is staying true to his campaign pledge to be tough on crime, but the new strongarm tactics have some wondering about the fate of human rights in Guatemala.

-Let the “Hugo Chávez’s successor” speculation begin again in the wake of his recent appointment of 10 members to the Council of State

-Massive floods in the Brazilian state of Amazônas are threatening the homes of thousands, even while the Northeastern part of the country continues to suffer from major drought.

-Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has named Miguel Galuccio as the new head of YPF, finalizing the reappropriation of the oil-producing company.

-Peruvian authorities are cautioning people to stay away from beaches after hundreds of pelicans have washed up dead. The pelicans only add to the mystery of dead animals on beaches; in the last few months, 877 dolphins and porpoises have also been found dead on Peru’s beaches.

Around Latin America

April 21, 2012 Comments off

-Several incidents of social unrest throughout Latin America this week highlighted the ongoing struggles of the rural and urban poor.

-Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano, located in the Central Valley not far from Mexico City, is going through another one of its periodic active phases, sending burning rock more than half a mile out of its crater and forcing residents to prepare for a possible evacuation.

-Rio de Janeiro has announced it will be closing the Jardin Gramacho landfill, the largest in Latin America. The closure will leave without an income some 1200 people who sell reusable goods found at the site. The site, and the people who combed the waste, were featured in the documentary Waste Land.

-In a move that can only be described as anti-climactic and unsurprising, US citizen Jim Yong Kim will be the next president of the World Bank, defeating Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. A US citizen has always occupied the position as president of the World Bank since being implemented in 1946, something that Colombian José Antonio Ocampo, who was also a candidate for the position before withdrawing his name, criticized as “political exercise.”

-The remains of 99 victims of the Guatemalan civil war have been unearthed in the city of Coban. Forensic experts found the remains while searching for the bodies of 200-300 people who “disappeared” in the region during the war, which lasted 36 years and saw the murder of 250,000 people, with most of those deaths coming at the hands of the Guatemalan military forces.

-Oscar Naranjo, the head of Colombia’s national police force who has worked closely with the United States’ DEA, has announced his retirement, saying it is time for “new blood” to lead the police.

-Authorities and scientists are still trying to figure out why 877 dolphins and porpoises have washed up dead on the beaches of Peru in the last three months.

-While Brazil’s courts have ruled that the controversial Belo Monte dam may proceed, its construction has hit another snag as workers at the site have decided to go on strike over working conditions, including how many times they can visit their homes and how much they are paid for food.

-Mexican ex-general Mario Arturo Acosta, 70, was shot and killed this week in Mexico City. Acosta was best known for his ties to the Juarez drug cartel, ties for which he was sentenced to 16 years in prison (though released after five). And while the article claims that “Critics say Calderon’s strategy has undermined the army by exposing it to the corrupting influence of the cartels,” Acosta’s case suggests that, whatever one may think of Calderon’s policies regarding the drug trade and cartels,  the potential for corruption and abuse of power was there well before Calderon became president in 2006.

-Finally, the Haitian government has launched a new vaccination program to combat measles, rubella, and polio in the country and to reduce the child mortality rate, which is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

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