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Updated: 1 year 3 months ago

Bolivia after the ouster of Evo Morales, a leftist strongman

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 08:55

“THE BOLIVIAN people won’t accept seeing those who have the privilege of directing our collective destiny using their power and the resources of state institutions...to change the rules of democracy and benefit themselves.” So wrote Samuel Doria Medina, a businessman and politician, in a newspaper column on January 26th. He was referring to Jeanine Áñez, a previously obscure opposition senator who in November became Bolivia’s caretaker president. Evo Morales, a leftist strongman, was overthrown that month by protests over electoral fraud. To the dismay of many outsiders, Ms Áñez decided to stand herself in the re-run election, to be held on May 3rd. Her attempt “should be banned”, wrote Mr Doria.

A few days later Mr Doria became Ms Áñez’s running-mate. The priority, he said, was unity to prevent the return of Mr Morales’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) and Ms Áñez was the candidate best placed to achieve that. This shows that pragmatism is trumping principle among Mr Morales’s opponents. But if Ms Áñez triumphs, it may provide additional ammunition to those who claim that Mr Morales was the victim of a coup. And that may presage further instability in Bolivia.

Mr Morales, who was the first elected president of indigenous descent, used natural-gas revenues to build schools, roads and clinics in poor areas. He spoke up for...

Why Latin America treats “femicides” differently from other murders

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 08:55

LIDIA FLORENCIO GUERRERO keeps a candlelit shrine to her daughter, Diana, who in 2017 was raped and murdered in Chimalhuacán, a Mexican town. She has a file documenting how police bungled the investigation. They failed to cordon off the crime scene or wear gloves while handling Diana’s body. Her clothes went missing. Photos of the corpse were sloppily taken, says Diana’s sister, Laura. Ms Guerrero cannot look. She uses the word “femicide” to describe her daughter’s death.

The word is centuries old but has recently taken on a particular meaning: the murder of a female because of her sex. In Latin America femicide has a legal meaning, too. Since 2007 15 countries have recognised it as a distinct category of killing. The proportion of murders of women that are recognised as femicide varies widely. In Mexico, where the criteria include “degrading” injuries or sexual violence inflicted on the victim and a “sentimental relationship” between her and the killer, the share is about a quarter. Countries in other regions, such as France, are debating whether to adopt femicide laws.

The concept of femicide raises public awareness of violence against women, says Martha Cecilia Reyes, head of the women’s institute of Nuevo León, a state in northern Mexico. It is supposed to help bring perpetrators to justice. In many countries jail...

Mexico needs statecraft, yet its president offers theatre

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 08:49

MEXICANS HAVE been outraged this month by two brutal murders: one of a woman whose body was mutilated by her partner, the other of a seven-year-old girl who was kidnapped and seemingly tortured. Needless to say, neither of these cases was the fault of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). But he is the man in charge. When questioned at his early-morning press conferences about the wave of violence against women in his country, his first response was to blame a “progressive degradation [in Mexican society] which had to do with the neoliberal model” that he accuses his predecessors of adopting. He then claimed that feminist groups, who blame the violence on patriarchy and lawlessness, had been infiltrated by conservatives, and tried to change the subject.

This episode conforms to the pattern of AMLO’s 15 months in the presidency. If the motto of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s dictator from 1877 to 1911, was “little politics, much administration”, AMLO’s guiding formula seems to be almost the opposite. He inherited three big problems: rampant crime, including violence against women; slow economic growth; and corruption. On the first two issues, Mexico is at best treading water.

A 12-year war with drug gangs drove the murder rate up and helped spread insecurity across the country. AMLO promised to stop...

A beer company tries to keep Brazilian Carnival revellers dry

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 08:49

THUNDERSTORMS OFTEN show up uninvited to Carnival in Brazil. The authorities in Rio de Janeiro used to share meteorological data with a group of spiritual mediums who claimed to have rain-dispelling powers. That ended with the election of an evangelical mayor in 2016. 

This year’s attempt to sway the skies took place in São Paulo as part of a publicity stunt by the party’s official sponsor, Skol, a Brazilian beer brand. “The fun stops when it rains,” says Pedro Adamy, Skol’s marketing director. So do beer sales. 

Enter a company called ModClima. A ModClima aeroplane painted with Skol’s logo spritzed water droplets into cumulus clouds to make rain fall before the clouds reached the city. According to a zippy YouTube video that has been viewed 12m times, “Giro na Chuva” (roughly, Reverse the Rain) is a “mission worthy of science fiction”.

Whether it’s science or fiction is up for debate. The use of cloud-seeding to increase rainfall dates back to the 1940s. But the United States government stopped funding it in the 1980s due to a lack of “scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification”, according to the National Research Council. A new paper based on experiments in Idaho found that seeding clouds with silver iodide increased snowfall on three occasions, but the authors say that more...

Ahead of oil riches, Guyana holds a decisive election

Thu, 02/27/2020 - 08:49

AT ELECTION TIME, it is easy to tell which ethnic group dominates each of the villages strung out along Guyana’s Atlantic coast even without looking at the people. Where Afro-Guyanese are the main group, the green-and-yellow banners of the ruling coalition flutter. In Indo-Guyanese villages, it’s the red, gold and black of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Voting in Guyana’s general election, due to be held on March 2nd, is likely to follow ethnic lines, as it has done for decades. This year the stakes are unusually high. That is because Guyana, South America’s third-poorest country, is about to be transformed by the petroleum that has begun to flow from vast offshore reservoirs.

Oil could change Guyana as radically as did sugar, which brought African slaves in the 18th century and indentured labourers from India in the 19th. By 2024 it could lift income per person from $5,000 to $19,000, nearly the same as in Poland. The IMF expects the economy to grow by 85% this year. By 2030 the government’s share of earnings from oil could reach $10bn in real terms, more than double last year’s GDP. This could “change us once and for all into a Singapore kind of country,” says the finance minister, Winston Jordan. Whichever party takes charge of the bounty could govern for decades. Mr Jordan calls the vote “the mother of all...

A pipeline through historically native land has sparked protests in Canada

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 08:49

“STOP THE INVASION! No pipelines on stolen native land!” So chanted dozens of protesters on a chilly afternoon this week in Vancouver. With placards in hand, they blocked traffic on a busy thoroughfare, doing their part to “shut down Canada”. That has become the rallying cry against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a C$6.6bn ($5bn) project which will transport natural gas 670km (420 miles) across British Columbia to the Pacific coast, where a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant is under construction.

The pipeline is an “invasion”, detractors say, because about a quarter of its route passes through land traditionally belonging to the Wet’suwet’en, a First Nations people. Since early February, when police broke up a blockade (with an injunction to do so) local disputes have escalated to national unrest. Allies of the Wet’suwet’en have organised copycat demonstrations far away from the pipeline itself.

None of this has scuppered the plans, but it has disrupted the economy and embarrassed the Liberal government. Canadian National Railway (CN) shut down lines in the east of the country and temporarily laid off about 450 workers; Via Rail, a passenger service, is doing the same to nearly 1,000. Food, heating fuel, farm exports and commodities are gridlocked. Cars and ships have been unable to get through bridges, ports and the...

An interview with Uruguay’s president-elect, Luis Lacalle Pou

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 08:49

AT HIS campaign headquarters on Artigas Boulevard, named after Uruguay’s founding hero, the man who hopes to be its next one was energised. Luis Lacalle Pou, the country’s conservative president-elect, is 46 years old but looks younger, with floppy brown hair, no jacket and sleeves rolled up. Days ahead of his swearing-in on March 1st, in an interview with The Economist, Mr Lacalle Pou set out a wide range of plans, from relaxing immigration rules to cutting public spending. But what obsessed him most of all was tackling a recent surge in crime (see chart). He lamented that just down the road were “no-go areas” overrun with violence. “It’s time to take back the streets,” he said, “by force if need be.”

The first step was to take back power. Last November, in a run-off, Mr Lacalle Pou narrowly defeated Daniel Martínez, the candidate of the Broad Front, a leftist coalition that had ruled Uruguay for 15 years. (The last president from Mr Lacalle Pou’s National Party was his father, in the 1990s.) The Broad Front had maintained economic and constitutional stability, and liberalised marijuana use and same-sex marriage. But it also presided over sharp rises in public employment, the fiscal deficit and violent crime. The homicide rate in Uruguay, a traditionally safe country of about 3.5m, shot up by 46% in 2018, to...

“What is Peronism?”

Thu, 02/13/2020 - 08:56

ON FEBRUARY 3RD Argentina’s new Peronist president, Alberto Fernández, joined Angela Merkel for dinner at the German chancellery in Berlin. According to press reports, Mrs Merkel asked her guest a question: “What is Peronism? I don’t understand. Are you on the left or the right?” Bello imagines a conversation that might have followed.

Mr Fernández laughed. He was used to foreigners not knowing much about Argentina besides Evita, tango and hyperinflation. But something about Mrs Merkel suggested that she was only feigning ignorance. “Let me explain,” said Mr Fernández cautiously. “First of all, we’re not populists. That was an invention of Mauricio Macri, my neo-liberal predecessor. We don’t just stir up the masses.”

“Really?” asked Mrs Merkel, sounding unconvinced.

“Really. I’m a social democrat,” the president insisted. “The base of Peronism is the trade unions and the poor, whom we always look after. But we also have the industrialists behind us. They liked General Juan Perón’s protectionism 75 years ago and they like it today. And we have the pope.”

“As always, Perón himself put it best,” Mr Fernández continued. “In 1972 he told a journalist: ‘Look, in Argentina, 30% are Radicals…30% are conservatives and a similar amount Socialists.’ ‘So where are the Peronists?’ asked the journalist. ‘Ah,’ replied...

El Salvador’s president summons the army to bully congress

Thu, 02/13/2020 - 08:56

NAYIB BUKELE, the president of El Salvador, draws notice outside his country for his youth, his jet-black beard and his mastery of social media. Now his authoritarianism is a trending topic. The sight of Mr Bukele entering the National Assembly on February 9th, alongside soldiers toting machine guns, shocked onlookers at home and abroad. He plonked himself in the empty chair reserved for the president of congress. “I liked seeing those empty seats,” he tweeted. “It made it easier for me to imagine them full of honest people who work for the people.”

Congress accused the president of staging an “attempted coup”. The Constitutional Court rebuked Mr Bukele. El Faro, a Salvadorean news website, called his stunt “the lowest moment that Salvadorean democracy has lived in three decades”. He retorted, not very reassuringly, “If I were a dictator, I would have taken control of everything.”

Eight months into his presidency Mr Bukele, who at 38 is the world’s second-youngest head of state, has an approval rating of 90%. But his left-leaning New Ideas party, founded in 2018, has not had a chance to win seats in congress. The legislature is dominated by two parties: the left-wing FMLN, the successor to a guerrilla movement that fought a decade-long civil war in the 1980s, and the right-wing Arena party, which...

Canada ponders a federal programme for pharmaceuticals

Thu, 02/13/2020 - 08:56

IN JULY Bernie Sanders hopped on a bus in Detroit with some Americans who have diabetes. They rode across the Canadian border to buy insulin at a tenth of the price they would pay at home. For Mr Sanders, who won the New Hampshire primary on February 11th, joining an “insulin caravan” had obvious appeal. He promises “Medicare for all”, suggesting that every American should enjoy the lavish public health spending that the elderly receive. He praises Canada for its tough negotiations with drug firms. “We should be doing what the Canadians do,” he declared.

Canadians have their doubts. Canada’s pharmaceutical prices are 25% higher than the average in the OECD, a club of 36 mainly rich countries. American prices are higher still, largely because the United States has powerful drug firms, no price-setting regulator and lots of citizens who receive health insurance through their employers and have little idea how much it costs. Unlike Canada, the United States also lets drugmakers advertise directly to consumers. As a share of GDP, Canada’s pharmaceutical spending is the fifth-highest in the OECD (see chart).

It is the only country with publicly financed universal health care that does not provide universal coverage for prescription drugs. A fifth of Canadians have no drug insurance. Nearly 1m say they spend less on food or...

Ecuador’s trial of the century opens

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 08:51

IT IS ECUADOR’S trial of the century. On February 10th the country’s top court is expected to open criminal proceedings against Rafael Correa, president from 2007 to 2017, and 20 other people. They are charged with taking and giving bribes, which they deny. Mr Correa, who moved to Belgium shortly after leaving office, hopes to play a big role in the presidential and legislative elections due in February next year. His trial may determine whether he can.

Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, has spent nearly three years trying to undo Mr Correa’s legacy. He had been Mr Correa’s vice-president and was seen as his heir. Once in office, Mr Moreno turned on his patron. He went after corrupt members of Mr Correa’s administration and took steps to restore independence to the judiciary and the press, which Mr Correa had curbed. The new president replaced his predecessor’s incontinent spending with a programme of austerity, backed with a $4.2bn loan from the IMF. He expelled Julian Assange, a co-founder of WikiLeaks, from Ecuador’s embassy in London, where Mr Correa had offered refuge.

But the undoing project has run into trouble. Mr Moreno’s attempt to end fuel subsidies provoked massive protests in October, which forced him to retreat. His approval rating is less than 20%. Mr Moreno says that he does not plan to run for re-...

A share issue in Venezuela, the world’s worst-performing economy

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 08:51

SOME WONDERED if the bosses of Venezuela’s oldest rum company had been sampling too much of their product. In January, with Venezuela in one of the deepest recessions in modern world history, Ron Santa Teresa launched the country’s first public share issue in more than a decade. The new equity was priced in bolívares, the world’s worst performing currency. Others speculated that the rum-maker, which cheekily notes on its website that its distillery in the Aragua valley near Caracas has survived “wars, revolutions, invasions, even dictators”, had decided that change was afoot.

Evidence of the latter interpretation is that the latest dictator, Nicolás Maduro, has recently become a capitalist, sort of. The disciple of Hugo Chávez (whose “21st-century socialism” set Venezuela on its road to ruin) has quietly lifted price controls and restrictions on dollar transactions. He now says firms can issue securities in hard currencies. He is thought to be contemplating a sale to foreign investors of a stake in PDVSA, the decrepit state oil company.

Ron Santa Teresa’s president, Alberto Vollmer, a fifth-generation rum-maker, says the company, whose shares were already listed, needs the money to buy barrels and build warehouses. It signed an international-distribution deal with Bacardi in 2016. Mr Maduro’s tentative...

The costs of Colombia’s closed economy

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 08:51

COLOMBIANS PAY more for wine than most Latin Americans. The price shoots up as soon as a case reaches shore. Each time a shipment arrives, importers must submit at least eight forms to as many agencies. Officials can take up to 15 days to clear it. In the meantime, importers store their bottles in climate-controlled warehouses. When a permit finally comes, bad roads and high trucking charges mean that merchants pay among the highest freight bills in the world to ship the wine to Bogotá, the capital, where most customers are. By the time it reaches a dinner table a bottle of wine costs eight times more than in its country of origin. Its costly journey is the rule, not the exception, for products imported by Colombia.

It used to be easier. The government liberalised the economy in the early 1990s after decades of protectionism. At that time Colombia depended on exports of coffee, the price of which was plummeting. In an effort to diversify the economy and make it more productive, the government reduced tariffs and eliminated lists of items whose import was prohibited.

That openness lasted just a few years. Owners of factories and sugar mills, dairy farmers, rice growers and regional governments, which own distillers of aguardiente, a local tipple, were hurt by competition. They lobbied to restore...

Latin America’s new war of religion

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 08:51

UNDER THE banner of “religion and traditional (ecclesiastical) privileges”, in 1858 Mexican Conservatives rose in arms against a Liberal constitution which declared freedom of worship and ended a rule preventing Catholic church property from being transferred to anyone else. After a three-year war, the liberal principles of religious toleration and the separation of church and state triumphed. In the following decades they spread across Latin America. Now, it seems, this 19th-century political battle has to be fought all over again.

The new blurring of the divide between spiritual and temporal realms owes much to the rise of evangelical Protestantism. Although 69% of Latin Americans were still Catholics in 2014, 19% were Protestants (26% in Brazil and more than 40% in three Central American countries), says a Pew poll. The number of Protestants is likely to have risen since then. Most are Pentecostals.

They emphasise a literal reading of the Bible and a direct personal relationship with God through baptism with the Holy Spirit. Many want their beliefs to shape public policy. Their concern is mainly, but not solely, to oppose gay rights and abortion. In some cases they dismiss science and have intervened in foreign policy. Some question the separation of church and state.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist...

The mystery of quipus—Incan knot records

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 09:29

SAN ANDRéS DE TUPICOCHA starts every year by swearing in new leaders, like many small towns in Peru. Instead of giving the office-holders a sash or medal it gives them a quipu, a coloured skein of knotted cords.

Quipus, or khipu, which means knots or talking knots in Quechua, were used to administer the vast empire of the Incas, which lasted for about a century until 1533. No one alive knows just how. San Andrés, in the highlands near Lima, is the last place in Peru where quipus have an official role, and that is ceremonial. “They represent who we are,” says Tito Rojas, president of one of the town’s ten communities. In December Peru’s government declared its ritual of bestowing them on community leaders like Mr Rojas to be part of the country’s cultural heritage.

The town’s quipus are thought to date from after Peru’s independence from Spain in 1821. They were used until the mid-20th century to record attendance at meetings, says Roy Vilcayauri, a former mayor. But the last person who could read that set died in 1990.

Scholars have been trying to puzzle out what messages are encoded in the knotted tally cords, which are usually made from dyed alpaca wool (they can also contain fibres from llamas, vicuñas and cotton). The type of knot, their number and their spacing...

Bolsa Família, Brazil’s admired anti-poverty programme, is flailing

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 09:29

LAST YEAR Natália Ribeiro sent her five-year-old daughter to live with relatives because she could not afford to feed her. She had tried to sign up for Bolsa Família (Family Fund), a conditional cash-transfer programme that supports millions of poor Brazilians. That includes 80% of families in Belágua, a town of 7,000 people in Maranhão, the poorest state. Ms Ribeiro should have been a shoo-in. She has no income. Her three children get regular health check-ups and will go to school, she promises. That is a precondition for receiving the monthly benefits, which start at 89 reais ($21). She has been waiting since May. “I want a better life for my little ones,” says the 24-year-old, who has long eyelashes like the baby in her lap and the toddler playing with a piece of wood on the floor. 

In June last year Brazil’s populist government, which had taken office five months before, slowed the acceptance of new beneficiaries and started cancelling payments to existing ones. The number of families admitted to Bolsa Família has dropped from 275,000 a month to fewer than 2,500. The number receiving benefits has fallen by 1m. The government says that 700,000 are on the waiting list, which may be an underestimate.

To critics of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, this is evidence of his indifference to poverty. Mr Bolsonaro...

The difficulty of reforming Peru

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 09:29

IT WAS THE most popular thing any Peruvian president has done in a long time. Facing a serially obstructive congress widely seen as defending corrupt interests, in September Martín Vizcarra decreed its dissolution. This was constitutionally questionable and set a worrying precedent. But in political terms, the outcome of an election held on January 26th to replace the dissolved congress vindicated Mr Vizcarra. It also highlighted the weaknesses of Peru’s political system, and has not made his project of institutional reform any easier.

Mr Vizcarra, who was elected as vice-president in 2016, took over the top job almost two years ago when Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned over conflicts of interest. He inherited a battle with congress, dominated by the opposition led by Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a former president. When leaked phone calls revealed apparent collusion among some judges and opposition lawmakers, Mr Vizcarra successfully appealed for public support in a referendum on reforms of the judiciary and politics.

That gave him the initiative, but only for a while. To break the deadlock Mr Vizcarra proposed calling an early general election. Ignoring this, the fujimoristas went ahead with a rushed vote to appoint new justices to the constitutional tribunal. The president claimed that this...

Brazilian prosecutors go after Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 08:57

LAST JUNE the Intercept, a news site, published hacked messages that showed improper collaboration between Brazilian prosecutors and judges conducting the anti-corruption investigation known as Lava Jato (Car Wash). The leaks tarnished the image of Sergio Moro, the justice minister, who had been the judge in charge. They enraged Brazil’s nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose election in 2018 owed much to anger about corruption.

On January 21st prosecutors filed charges against Glenn Greenwald (pictured), a co-founder of the Intercept. They accused him of belonging to a “criminal organisation” that hacked the mobile phones of members of the Lava Jato task-force. The judge overseeing the case may throw out the charges. Even so, they raise questions about how free the press will be in Mr Bolsonaro’s Brazil and whether prosecutors will act independently.

Mr Greenwald, an American, became famous by helping publish Edward Snowden’s leaks of information from the United States’ National Security Agency. In July Mr Bolsonaro suggested that Mr Greenwald might “do jail time” for his Lava Jato revelations, and accused him of marrying his Brazilian husband to avoid deportation. That month, after a rumour surfaced that investigators were scrutinising Mr Greenwald’s bank accounts, a supreme-court judge barred the authorities...

Learning from Carlos Denegri, a crooked Mexican newsman

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 08:57

IN 1939 CARLOS DENEGRI, a young reporter, investigated a murder by gunmen working for Maximino Ávila Camacho, the governor of the state of Puebla and brother of the next president of Mexico. Denegri delivered a detailed account of Ávila’s crimes to the editor of Excélsior, the country’s most important newspaper. The editor did not publish it, explaining that the governor was a source of much paid advertising. “In this business we don’t only sell information and advertising space: above all, we sell silence,” he went on. Denegri quickly lost his idealism, and accepted a monthly stipend from the governor “for publicity and information services”.

These imagined words provide Enrique Serna, a Mexican writer, with the title of his new novel, El vendedor de silencio (“The Merchant of Silence”), a semi-fictionalised biography of Denegri, the country’s most prominent journalist from the 1940s to the 1960s and once named by the Associated Press as one of the ten most influential reporters in the world. Mr Serna offers a rich account of the incestuous relationship between politics and the media and the machismo and impunity that lay at the heart of the authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed for seven decades...

The current calm in Bolivia is fragile

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 08:57

ON A RECENT afternoon, workmen were repairing the wall around the Senkata gas plant in El Alto, a working-class city in the mountains above La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital. Backers of Evo Morales, the left-wing president who quit on November 10th, had blocked lorries from leaving the plant and knocked down the wall. On November 19th soldiers opened fire, killing ten people. Fresh paint now covers much of the rebuilt wall, but one mural remains from the chaotic presidential campaign that preceded Mr Morales’s resignation: his face and the word estabilidad (stability) in big capital letters. Restoring that to Bolivia will involve much more than fixing the wall. “The country is coming out of shock,” says Milenka García, a vice-president of El Alto’s neighbourhood association (Fejuve) who represents District 8, an area of cinder-block homes and dusty streets that includes the gas plant.

The crisis began on October 20th, when Mr Morales, who became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, tried to rig his re-election, sparking protests across the country. He fled to Mexico after losing the support of the police and the army, saying he had been toppled in a coup. His supporters set fire to buses and the homes of politicians and journalists who had criticised him. Opposition protesters burned the...

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