Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Brasil: On The Move


On the Move

While migrants fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have drawn most of the world’s attention, tens of thousands fleeing the economic meltdown and political turmoil in Venezuela also threaten to overwhelm Brazil.
Already, as many as 40,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Brazil, a bit more than half of whom have applied for asylum, said George Okoth-Obbo, operations chief for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
“Shelters are already crowded to their limit,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “It is a very tough situation.”
Hundreds of thousands have also fled to Trinidad and Tobago and Colombia. There are no official numbers on the total number of migrants. But some sociologists put the figure as high as 2 million of Venezuela’s 30 million residents.
The city of Boa Vista is struggling to accommodate the flood, housing some migrants in impromptu facilities like a local gym, while others remain homeless or turn to prostitution and other crimes to survive, the agency said.

Cuba: Meeting Minds


Meeting Minds

The discovery of brain damage in diplomats formerly posted in the US embassy in Cuba has reopened arguments about the risks associated with the communist island.
A “high-pitched chirp or grating metal” sound sometimes accompanied by vibrations woke up American officials in the embassy starting last year, the Associated Press reported, citing doctors who have treated the victims and expect to publish their findings in a medical journal soon.
The alleged sonic attack altered the white matter that carries communication signals in the embassy staff’s brains, harming their hearing, memory and vision.
Denying any role in the sicknesses, the Cuban government released a report claiming the damage was technically impossible. Instead, Cuban researchers posited that staffers suffered a “collective psychogenic disorder” stemming from stress. Columbia University neurologist Stanley Fahn thought that argument was compelling, telling Science magazine that “it could certainly all be psychogenic.”
But whether American diplomats fell victim to a James Bond-like tech attack or not, the incident has likely fueled President Donald Trump’s skepticism toward his predecessor’s openness toward Cuba.
Trump has appointed a new ambassador to Cuba. But only a skeleton crew of workers remain behind in the embassy in the wake of the alleged attacks. Administration officials have even discussed closing the facility entirely.
More American antagonism is bad economic news for Cuba, whose main trading partner, Venezuela, is suffering economic collapse. As Venezuela has demanded more money for its oil, Havana is facing a cash crunch and an onerous debt burden, forcing the island to import less from China, its other important trading partner, Voice of America explained.
Cruise lines that have announced expanded service to the island provided an economic uplift, USA Today reported. Those ships’ passengers have plenty to do onshore. A travel piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail described a thriving Centro neighborhood as a must-see for tourists. VICE also published an electrifying photo essay on Cuba’s music scene.
But more tourists might exacerbate tensions, too.
The Washington Post recently told the story of an American woman and a Cuban man who fell in love when she visited the island on vacation. The couple wanted to obtain a K-1 visa, which lets fiancés into the US for 90 days so they can marry and apply for a green card. But the shortage of diplomats has forced the US embassy to halt issuing visas, preventing Cubans from receiving permission to visit the mainland.
It would be a shame if differences between high-level leaders prevent ordinary people from forging peaceful ties on their own.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Argentina: Dredging Up The Past


Dredging Up the Past

A crusading Argentinian judge issued an arrest warrant for former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in connection with allegations that she covered up Iranian involvement in the country’s worst-ever terrorist attack in 1994.
Judge Claudio Bonadio issued an arrest warrant for Kirchner on charges of “treason against the fatherland” on Thursday and asked for Congress to remove the immunity from prosecution she has as a senator, the Telegraph reported.
To date, no one has ever been successfully prosecuted for the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish cultural center, AMIA, which killed 85 people. However, the Argentinian prosecutor leading the investigation in 2015 filed a criminal claim accusing Kirchner and others of secretly negotiating a deal with Tehran to offer immunity for Iranian suspects in the bombing in exchange for Iranian oil – the prosecutor was found dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound to the head the day before he was to present his findings before Congress.
Kirchner called the charges part of an international conspiracy to undermine her presidency, and her supporters say it’s part of an ongoing campaign against opposition politicians.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Cuba: Sonic Mystery


Sonic Mystery

New medical evidence has heightened skepticism that US embassy staff in Cuba were targeted by some kind of sonic device. That doesn’t, however, eliminate the possibility of some other kind of attack.
Seeking to explain hearing, vision, balance and memory damage, doctors treating the victims have discovered physical damage to their brains, the Associated Press reported. Tests revealed the embassy workers developed changes to the white matter tracts that let different parts of the brain communicate. Acoustic waves have never been shown to cause such damage.
Though the victims reported hearing loud, mysterious sounds before experiencing hearing loss and ringing in their ears, US officials now suspect that noise might have been the byproduct of something else that actually caused the damage.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he’s “convinced these were targeted attacks,” but the U.S. doesn’t know who’s behind them. Cuba has denied responsibility.
The mystery may never be solved where we’re concerned, as any information about who might be responsible will not be made public. Most patients have fully recovered. About one-quarter had symptoms that persisted for long periods or remain to this day.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Venezuela: Cryto President


The Crypto President

Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro won’t hold fresh elections until the US lifts its “vulgar sanctions” against him and his allies. In the meantime, he’s creating a cryptocurrency in hopes of providing some relief.
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Mondaythat any deal with the opposition will depend on “the lifting of the vulgar sanctions the Venezuelan right wing’s leadership requested of Donald Trump’s Treasury Department as well as Spanish, Canadian and other authorities,” Bloomberg reported.
Under its constitution, Venezuela must hold a presidential vote every six years. But electoral authorities have yet to establish a date for 2018 elections, despite opposition demands and widespread public protests. To exert added pressure, the US and the European Union have levied a series of sanctions against top Venezuelan officials and on certain financial transactions.
On Sunday, however, Maduro said the country would create an oil-backed cryptocurrency called the petro that would allow it “to make financial transactions and overcome the financial blockade,” Public Radio International reported. The country’s national currency, the bolivar, is in freefall.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Honduras: Secret Ballots


Secret Ballots

Huge protests snaked through the streets of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on Sunday as demonstrators demanded a partial recount of ballots in the country’s controversial presidential election.
Relative calm has prevailed in the large cities, but the political crisis is escalating, the New York Times reported. Following violence and looting last week, the government responded with a crackdown and sent soldiers into the streets to enforce a 6 pm to 6 am curfew. But that has only granted credence to opposition claims about a lack of transparency.
The electoral commission “has no legitimacy. How can they be counting under a curfew?” the paper quoted a human rights lawyer and former judge as saying.
The furor resulted after counting was suspended for a day and a half last week after partial results indicated that the main opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, had a lead of five points. When counting resumed, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández was reported to be back on top, with almost 95 percent of the polling places counted.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Argentina: Behind Bars

Behind Bars

Argentina sentenced 29 people to life in prison for the kidnapping, torture and murder committed during the country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship.
Involving some 800 criminal cases, the trial featured many defendants, such as former Navy Captain Alfredo Astiz and Captain Jorge Acosta, both of whom are already serving life sentences for crimes committed during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Reuters reported.
However, the ruling marked the first convictions for “death flights” in which people were drugged and their bodies dumped in the River Plate.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the federal courthouse in Buenos Aires to listen to the convictions – which took more than three hours to read out. Apart from those sentenced to life, 19 people received jail terms of eight to 25 years. Six others were declared not guilty, including former Finance Minister Juan Alemann.
Human rights groups estimate that around 30,000 people were killed during the dictatorship, when the US provided technical support and military aid to Operation Condor – a regional campaign of political repression and state terror justified as a fight to prevent the rise of communism.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Venezuela: New Faces


New Faces

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro named a military leader as the new head of state oil company PDVSA following the arrests of more than 50 officials of the company and its joint ventures – including the president of its US refining arm, Citgo, last week.
Major General Manuel Quevedo will replace former president, Nelson Martinez, a chemist who was nominated to the post just three months ago, Bloomberg quoted Maduro as saying in a televised address. Quevedo will also become the country’s oil minister, replacing Eulogio Del Pino.
Quevedo’s appointment comes ahead of an OPEC meeting in Vienna this week that could result in crude production cuts being extended – though Venezuela is already struggling to meet its OPEC output target.
Maduro also named several other military officers to top cabinet positions in the reshuffle.
Over the past month, PDVSA has made billions of dollars in debt payments, but it is still behind on other bond interest payments, so its credit rating firms have said it’s in “selective default.”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Argentina Farmers Just Got A $13 Billion Shot In The Arm" Because Of Trump

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In Peru's Dessert, Melting Glaciers Are A Godsend Until They're Gone

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Things Don't Look Good For The Missing Argentina Submarine

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Situation Report

Argentina: New Submarine Evidence Identifies Possible Explosion

An Argentine navy spokesman said that a hydro-acoustic anomaly was detected shortly after the ARA San Juan went missing Nov. 15, Reuters reported Nov. 23. The sound, consistent with an explosion, was described as "abnormal, singular, short, violent...[and] non-nuclear." The search for the lost Argentine submarine is still underway. 
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Venezuela Selective Justice


Selective Justice

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro said six executives of US-based refiner Citgo arrested on corruption charges in Caracas this week will be tried as “corrupt, thieving traitors,” despite a request by the United States to free them.
Five of the six executives are US citizens, while acting Citgo President Jose Pereira, has Venezuelan citizenship and US permanent residency, Reuters reportedOn Wednesday, Maduro named Asdrubal Chavez, a former oil minister and cousin of the late president Hugo Chavez, as Pereira’s replacement.
“These are people born in Venezuela, they’re Venezuelan and they’re going to be judged for being corrupt, thieving traitors,” the agency quoted Maduro as saying. “They should go to the worst prison in Venezuela.”
The arrests come in the wake of US sanctions against Maduro and some of his allies, as well as economic sanctions that have impeded the OPEC nation’s access to international banks. Meanwhile, Venezuela has also defaulted on sovereign debt and bonds issued by state-owned oil company PDVSA after failing to make timely payments, a New York-based derivatives group ruled on Thursday.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Venezuela: A Drizzle, then a Storm


A Drizzle, then a Storm

Venezuela hasn’t bottomed out just yet – but it’s close.
Last week, the country failed to make about $280 million in loan repayments, triggering Standard & Poor’s to categorize Venezuela as a nation in “selective default,” the Washington Post reported.
That’s just a fancy way to say it’s broke.
“This is the first drizzle in a huge thunderstorm,” Jose L. Valera, an international energy lawyer, told the New York Times. “The whole country of Venezuela is bankrupt.”
Venezuela’s rapid decline over the past 20 years from the rich man of South America to one of the world’s most troubled economies is a tale of two factors, tanking oil prices and excess government spending, writes Henkel Garcia U., a financial instructor at Venezuela’s Andres Bello Catholic University, for the Conversation.
It’s a deadly combination for a country whose economy depends on the oil business. Since 2006, the nation’s debt has increased nearly ten-fold, and inflation is expected to rise to 2,300 percent in 2018, CNN Money reported.
Venezuela’s economic crisis was only exacerbated by the nation’s political one. Hugo Chavez and his successor, current President Nicolas Maduro, chipped away at Venezuela’s last vestiges of democracy by consolidating power, fixing elections and silencing defectors, the Wall Street Journal reported.
This summer, Maduro moved to rewrite the nation’s constitution to dissolve any formal institutions that may stand in his way, something citizens have described as embodying the “worst style of Mussolini and Hitler.”
Both the EU and the United States have sanctioned and embargoedMaduro and his henchmen in attempts to buckle the regime through economic pressure. But with Russia and China – Caracas’s largest foreign backers – allowing Maduro’s regime breathing room in its debt repayments, a new lifeline has been extended, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The question now is how long the regime can endure.
The nation’s dire economic situation has caused Caracas to cut the nation’s imports of vital food and medicinal supplies. As a result, 54 percent of children are malnourished and curable illnesses are metastasizing into deadly diseases, CNN reported.
“It really hurts knowing that you bring your son (to the hospital) for one thing, he gets worse from others, then you get him back in a box,” said Sandra Galindez, whose son died recently in a poorly equipped hospital in Caracas.
For now the military, which remains loyal to Maduro, is preventing restless citizens from ousting him, writes Ozan Varol for the Washington Post.
But with wages slashed even within their own ranks, a coup may be imminent – either pushing this crippled nation over the brink, or ushering in a new era of democracy, Varol opined.
“The Venezuelan military is the levee that’s keeping the democratic movement at bay to protect the Maduro regime,” wrote Varol. “Only if the military breaks can the river of democracy jump the banks.”
That’s highly likely. As the government starves its people, and there is no chance of comeback – because of no change in policy – desperation will only grow.
And that leaves people who already have little with even less to lose.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Can African Agriculture Learn From Brasil?

Off-Duty Brasil Military Policeman Shoots Two Robbers Dead While Holding His Baby

Haiti: Strummming Pain


Strumming Pain

Washington is ending a program granting temporary protected status to nearly 60,000 Haitians, which allowed them to live and work in the US following a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Those covered under the program will be expected to leave the United States by July 2019 or face deportation, the New York Times reported.
The decision was expected, but Haiti was lobbying the Trump administration to extend the program, as the country still relies heavily on money its expatriates send to relatives back home.
The catastrophic earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter just 16 miles from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The destruction affected some 3 million people, and killed as many as 300,000 – though the Haitian government has been accused of inflating the death toll.
The US Department of Homeland Security said Monday that the conditions that prompted the decision to allow the Haitians to remain in the US “no longer exist,” USA Today reported. Some US lawmakers contended that Haiti – which was also hit by hurricane Matthew in 2016 – isn’t ready to take back the displaced citizens

Monday, November 20, 2017

Chile: One Down


One Down

Former President Sebastián Piñera won the first round of presidential elections in Chile, triggering a run-off election on Dec. 17.
The election – which was also for the lower house of Congress and for half the seats in the Senate – was the first to be held under new electoral rules that limit campaign spending and impose greater transparency, the New York Times reported.
Having won 36 percent of the votes cast, the conservative billionaire will face center-left journalist and former news anchor, Alejandro Guillier, 64, who received 22 percent. The leftist coalition Frente Amplio won 20 percent of the vote – double what pundits had forecast.
The vote breaks the dominance of the two major coalitions that have governed Chile since the end of military rule in 1990, the paper noted. Frente Amplio made significant gains in Congress, there was a marked generational shift and a greater number of 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

An Argentina Navy Submarine Is Missing

8:03 PM (7 hours ago)
This undated photo provided by the Argentina Navy shows an ARA San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric vessel, near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina's Navy said Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, it has lost contact with its ARA San Juan submarine off the country's southern coast. (Argentina Navy via AP )© The Associated Press This undated photo provided by the Argentina Navy shows an ARA San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric vessel, near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina's Navy said Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, it has lost contact with its ARA San…
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's Navy said Friday it has lost contact with a submarine carrying 44 crew members off the country's southern coast and has mounted an extensive search.
The Navy said that ships and aircraft were searching near the last known location of the ARA San Juan, a German-built diesel-electric vessel, which had not been heard from since Wednesday.
The Navy said it was scanning all possible radio transmission frequencies for a sign of the San Juan.
Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi told The Associated Press that it is possible that the submarine had an electrical issue and said it could not yet be termed lost.
"The last position (registered) was two days ago. Without wanting to be alarmist or overdramatic, the facts are that there no form of communications could be established between the vessel and its command, even with the alternative methods that the submarine has," Balbi said.
"What we interpret is that there must have been a serious problem with the communications (infrastructure) or with the electrical supply, cables, antennae or other (onboard) equipment."
Adm. Gabriel Gonzalez, chief of the Mar del Plata base that was the submarine's destination, said the vessel had sufficient food and oxygen.
"We have a loss of communications; we are not talking of an emergency," he said.
Still, relatives of some of the crewmembers were at the base awaiting word of the search.
"We are praying to God and asking that all Argentines help us to pray that they keep navigating and that they can be found," Claudio Rodriguez, the brother of one of the crewmembers, told the local Todo Noticias TV channel.
"We have faith that it's only a loss of communications," he added.
Balbi said the sub was headed from the naval base at Ushuaia in Argentina's extreme south to Mar del Plata, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires. He asked for patience while the search is carried out and said that the sub must surface so visual or radar contact can be made.
The Argentine Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the governments of Britain, Chile and the United States had offered "logistical help and an exchange of information for this humanitarian search." The statement also said that Argentina is also working with authorities in neighboring countries in case it needs support to locate the submarine.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Donald Trump For Brasil?

A radical from RioJair Bolsonaro hopes to be Brazil’s Donald Trump

Can a right-wing demagogue win next year’s election?
IN THE arrivals hall of Belém’s airport the excitement is palpable. Hundreds of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman and would-be president, gather under the steady gaze of a squad of policemen. Some hold banners with Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”. A few wear “Godfather” T-shirts, with his face in place of Marlon Brando’s. When the candidate finally emerges through sliding doors the crowd surges forward, straining for a glimpse. While bodyguards forge through the scrum, the crowd hoists Mr Bolsonaro aloft as if he were a homecoming hero.
The visit to Belém, the sweltering capital of the Amazonian state of Pará, is an early stop in Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign to win the presidential election due in October 2018. A religious nationalist and former army captain, he is anti-gay, pro-gun, and an apologist for dictators who tortured and killed Brazilians between 1964 and 1985. He rails against the political elite, whose venality has been exposed by the three-year Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation.

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His message resonates. If the election were held today, an eighth of Brazilians would vote for Mr Bolsonaro, according to Ibope, a pollster. In a crowded field, that would put him second to the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has the backing of a third of the electorate. The two would face each other in a run-off.
Polls this early are unreliable and Mr Bolsonaro’s eighth of the electorate is hardly a groundswell. His appeal may well fade as the economy recovers from a recession and voters pay more attention to the election. But his second-place status says much about the turbulent mood among Brazilians. A choice between him and Lula, who has been convicted by a lower court of corruption, would be a grim one indeed. Lula is appealing against the verdict.
Telling it like it isn’t
Mr Bolsonaro, who represents Rio de Janeiro in congress, hopes to be a Brazilian Donald Trump. His rhetoric is even more indecorous. In 2016 Mr Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff, then Brazil’s president, to the dictatorship’s chief torturer, Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. (Ms Rousseff herself, once a member of an urban guerrilla group, had been tortured by the military regime.) In 2014 he told a congresswoman he wouldn’t rape her “because you don’t deserve it”.
Mr Bolsonaro, whose middle name is Messias (Messiah), talks little about what he would do as president, apart from restoring law and order. He admitted in a recent interview with Bloomberg to a “superficial understanding” of economics. He holds some mainstream views, such as favouring gradual reform of the ruinously expensive pension system. Less conventional is his wish to loosen gun-control laws, restrict Chinese investment in Brazil and cosy up to Mr Trump. He opposes gay marriage (legal since 2013) and adoption by gay parents. “His political instincts are to radicalise rather than moderate,” says Paulo Sotero of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.
Public opinion is becoming more militant, too. The influence of social conservatism appears to be growing. In September Santander, a bank, abruptly closed an exhibition of “queer art” in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, which included a painting that showed someone having sex with an animal. Campaigners said it promoted blasphemy and bestiality. Around a thousand people joined a “Christian march for Brazil” on October 16th in São Paulo. Some held banners that called for the military to take over the country. Mr Bolsonaro, who was baptised in the Jordan river last year, will attract support from evangelicals. They make up a fifth of the population, according to the census taken in 2010; three decades before, they were one in 15.
Anger about the economy, crime and corruption will add to Mr Bolsonaro’s support. Despite a recent pickup in economic growth, the unemployment rate is still high at 12.4% and poverty is increasing. The murder rate is rising. Michel Temer, the current president, survives in office only because congress has twice rejected appeals by prosecutors to put him on trial for corruption. His approval rating is a risible 3%. Just 13% of Brazilians think democracy works well; a third would back another coup. Nearly 60% want a president from outside one of the three biggest parties.
Mr Bolsonaro has belonged to seven during his 26-year congressional career. He is now a member of the Christian Social Party, which has just 11 of the 513 seats in the lower house. He pays a price: public money for campaigns and time on television and radio are distributed according to parties’ share of seats in congress. But money has become less important since recent reforms capped campaign spending and prohibited corporate donations. Mr Bolsonaro boasts that he will spend just 1m reais ($310,000) on his campaign (in 2014 Ms Rousseff spent 300 times as much).
He is betting on social media. He has 4.8m followers on Facebook, more than any other Brazilian politician, and posts several videos a day, many of which are viewed by more than 1m people. His campaign is well organised. In Belém it deployed women to deal with any female protesters who might show up; sending men to confront them might have produced ugly press coverage.
“Bolsonaro is the only honest candidate we have,” explains Bárbara Lima, a 27-year-old volunteer. “There is no proof that he is racist or homophobic.” Older supporters remember the military dictatorship fondly. “My childhood was one of the happiest times of my life. I had liberty, security and health,” recalls Tom Meneses. “Then the socialists came to power.”
Despite fury and nostalgia, the odds are against Mr Bolsonaro becoming president. A third of Brazilians rule out voting for him in the first round. As the economy improves, fewer may gamble on a radical presidency. The two-round electoral system makes it hard for extremists to win; in a run-off, the moderate majority rallies to the more mainstream contender.
The only candidate with higher rejection rates than Mr Bolsonaro is Lula, but he may be not be able to run if a higher court upholds his conviction. His disqualification would make things still more difficult for the Rio radical. Even so, Mr Bolsonaro’s strong early showing is a warning sign. Centrists must prove that they are better equipped than extremists to repair the damage politicians have done.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy"