Are you a member of the global elite? Do you enjoy shooting things? Have we got the product for you.
Colombian tailor Miguel Caballero, who for years has provided Colombia's political and business elite with safe but fashionable bulletproof garments, has seen his international business boom since since U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney accidently "peppered" his friend in the face with a shotgun while hunting quail in 2006. Buckingham Palace just ordered 52 jackets.
The Guardian reports:
[Caballero] has opened a branch in Mexico, which is convulsed by drug-related violence, and will soon open another in Guatemala. High-profile clients include Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, Spain's Prince Felipe and the Hollywood action star Steven Seagal, who requested a bullet-proof kimono.
In July, Caballero opened a branch in Harrods, London's flagship store, to cater largely to security-conscious Russian and Arab plutocrats. "We're just starting there and it's going well," he said this week, just back from a visit to London.
The protective jackets, blazers and raincoats rely not on Kevlar but overlaps of special synthetic material. The "classic" model weighs 1.5kg and can stop a round from .38 revolver and 9mm pistol. The "platinum" model weighs 2kg and can stop a mini-Uzi and MP5 assault rifle.
Caballero enjoys testing out new garments by shooting his employees, particularly his lawyer. If watching journalists get shot is more your speed, you can watch the Guardian's Rory Carroll take one at close range here.
The world isn't lacking in politicians caught in love scandals, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has embroiled himself in a drama so juicy it feels scripted for daytime soaps.
His ex-wife, Marisabel Rodriguez -- a blond haired, blue-eyed former television anchor (now married to her tennis coach) -- has been mirthlessly needling her ex-husband while she herself campaigns to become mayor of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on an opposition ticket.
The couple divorced in 2004 after seven years of marriage and made headlines last year when Chávez rather publicly sued over custody issues pertaining to their daughter, Rosines. Though the president withdrew the suit, Rodriguez claimed it was a ploy to sabotage her newly announced political pursuits -- a ruling against her, under Venezuelan law, could have legally kept her from running for public office.
Chávez has good reason not to want his ex to run. Aside from any personal embarrassment the Venezuelan leader might endure over Rodriguez's outspoken campaigning style and her public criticisms of his presidency, he could suffer politically. His high approval ratings are said to be slipping, and the opposition stands to gain significant ground -- as many as one third of the country's governorships -- in regional elections Sunday.
Venezuelans are keen to hear the former Mrs. Chávez's insights on her ex-husband's intentions for his country:
[T]he Chávez of today ... doesn't have much in common with [the Chávez] of 1997,” she said. "If he is not a dictator, at least he seems it."
What's more, Ms. Rodriguez is proving hugely popular among women voters. In general, these women are turned off by the president's "testosterone-pumped politics" and can relate to the former first lady's emotional suffering.
Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
Tequila doesn't just produce hangovers any more. Under the right conditions, the alcohol can be turned into diamonds.
Researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, experimenting with making thin films of diamond from organic solutions, decided to conduct their tests using a "pocket-size bottle of cheap white tequila." They heated the tequila to 1,470ºF, breaking down its molecular structure. The resulting carbon film, upon close examination, had formed into an almost perfect diamond structure. Tequila's mix of 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water is the reason it serves as the perfect compound for creating synthetic diamonds.
The diamond film, while not useful in jewelry, could be used to coat cutting tools and perhaps most profitably as a substitute for silicon in computer chips. The researchers hope to begin mass-producing the synthetic diamond film by 2011. The advance could be a boon to both tequila manufacturers and Mexico's agave farmers, who would benefit from the increased demand for tequila. Watch out, Botswana!
Proposition 8's defeat in California isn't the only thing making headlines for the gay rights movement as of late. According to the Washington Post, gay Mexican citizens who seek asylum in the United States are facing an increasingly uphill battle. Changes to the general asylum policy and a few rejected cases have resulted in what many fear is the end of a practice that provided safety for dozens since the mid-1990s.
Persecution based on sexuality, in a country where machismo and conservative Catholic ideals run deep, once made a strong enough case for gay Mexicans seeking refuge up north. But liberalized laws on homosexuality and an increase in gay pride efforts have made the case a harder sell. Mexico City now recognizes civil unions, and the city's gay pride parade draws more than a million people each year.
So why should the United States leave open the possibility of asylum? Despite the gains, negative attitudes in Mexico about homosexuality persist, leading to workplace discrimination and brutality against gays. Between 1995 and 2006, more than 1,200 Mexicans were killed because of their sexual orientation. And for all the good they might have done for the country's gay rights movement, liberalized laws have provoked a backlash from homophobic parts of society -- including some members of the Mexican police force.
Another reason to leave the asylum option? Consider the impact these homophobic attitudes and actions have on the spread of HIV/AIDS. Men who have sex with men in Mexico are over 100 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population. Says Martin Martinez Sanchez, a Mexico City hospital employee, of gay men in the capital city:
They have sexual encounters in clandestine areas, and in parts of the city that are just horrible and dangerous... Later they go home and have unprotected sex with their wives. Many gays feel they have to have a wife for appearances."
For many, asylum might not just mean escaping discrimination -- it can mean a lifeline to better care. Mexico's routine medication shortages mean inconsistent treatment for the disease, which usually requires daily pill dosages. As long as prevention and treatment measures for AIDS lag, the United States ought to think twice before closing its doors.
"We have two criteria that have to be reconciled," Barack Obama explained with faux-seriousness during his first news conference as the president-elect, referring to the search for a White House puppy for his two daughters, Sasha and Malia. "One is that Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic... On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog."
How to satisfy these two competing conditions? It's not easy to find hypoallergenic dogs in shelters. As Obama put it, most of them tend to be "mutts like me."
Some Peruvians think they have the solution, the Telegraph reports, "in the form of a bald and often toothless breed once popular with Incan kings."
Owners of the Peruvian Hairless dog, a breed dating back 3,000 years and depicted in pre-Hispanic ceramics, say it is perfect for children who suffer from allergies.
"We want to give a male puppy to Obama's daughters, so they get to experience all the joys of having a dog but without any allergies," said Claudia Galvez, 38, director of the Friends of the Peruvian Hairless Dog Association.
According to Peruvian folklore, the dogs have above-average body temperature, which compensates for their lack of hair and helps alleviate symptoms of asthma or arthritis suffered by their owners.
Mrs Galvez delivered a letter detailing her offer to the US embassy in Lima on Monday and hopes the Obama family will accept it.
If they do, she has a 4-month-old pedigree puppy currently known as Ears ready to send to the family.
"But if we send it to the United States, its official name will be Machu Picchu," she said, referring to the ancient Incan citadel, Peru's top tourist attraction.
It appears President-elect Barack Obama's inspirational powers have even reached Cuba's reclusive former leader, Fidel Castro. Although he hasn't made a public appearance in the two years since passing power to his brother, the 82-year-old issued a public statement just before U.S. election polls closed on Tuesday. Predicting the win would go to Obama, Castro gave the Illinois senator a preemptive stamp of approval:
[Obama] was able to study at a higher education center where he graduated with outstanding results. He is surely more clever, better educated and calm than his Republican adversary."
While Castro mostly praises Obama and his "change" factor -- at one point invoking author Toni Morrison's endorsement -- the better part of the lengthy statement is spent lambasting the United States and President George W. Bush. He criticized the "parasitical and plundering empire", the country's history of racism, and deemed the Iraq War one of "conquest imposed by the empire seeking for oil." Castro also repeated his earlier criticisms of John McCain, whom he called "an old, bellicose and uneducated man; he is not very smart and he is in poor health."
Castro is just one of several leftist leaders in Latin America who had warm words for Obama. Among the others is Fidel's protégé, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who sees the president-elect as "a small light on the horizon." Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega clearly favored the Democrat, saying, "If it's Barack Obama -- and a miracle is produced -- or McCain, our position is that we're ready to work in a framework of respect with the United States."
It would certainly be nice for a U.S. president not to be hated in Latin America and these are vibes worth enjoying since, quite rightly, hard work -- of which there will be much in any future dealings -- and honeymoons don't often mesh well together.
(Hat tip: Albert Eisele)
Photo: Jorge Rey/Getty Images
When you watch this video of Hugo Chávez speaking about Barack Obama, you feel like it was probably the closest the Venezuelan president could bring himself to a complimenting an American leader. Quoted in Spanish newspaper El Pais, he says [our translation]:
Tomorrow the U.S. will have an election. The world awaits the arrival of a black president to the United States, we can say this is no small feat [...] We don't ask him to be a revolutionary, nor a socialist, but [we ask] that he rise to the moment in the world."
Chávez also says he will sit down and speak with Senator Obama, should he become president, and urge him to lift the embargo on Cuba. He seems particularly pleased that Obama is black, a detail that fits nicely with Chávez's own rhetoric of freeing the enslaved indigenous from the throws of capitalism.
So does this mean it's not so much the United States that Chávez finds so displeasing as it is President George W. Bush himself? It's no small news for Chávez, who recently kicked out the U.S. ambassador in Caracas, to promise friendly ties with "the Great Satan" under a new administration.
Of course, the U.S. public has grown equally skeptical of Chávez, so Obama might not be so grateful for the public endorsement. Yes, it is slightly reminiscent al-Qaeda's sort-of endorsement of John McCain. But privately, the Obama camp must be gratified to see that even the United States' most bitter critics are now trying to win the senator's good graces.
Since the Obama campaign bought up the airwaves, the senator's face has been plastered pretty much everywhere: TV screens, T-shirts, posters, buttons...
Well now he is on a lottery ticket, too.
Here's the interesting bit: Those tickets are in Colombia, usually thought to be Republican-friendly turf.
But read below the tickets' Obama-bearing surface, and you strike a bit of gold. In their last debate, John McCain accused Barack Obama, who supports adding preconditions to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, of not understanding the South American country. But it seems that Colombians don't have the same reservations. According to the Gallup World Poll, Colombians prefer Obama by 22 percentage points. And the country's president, Álvaro Uribe, referred to the Democratic nominee as the presumed winner yesterday.
The lottery tickets are hardly a scientific way to gauge Colombian public opinion. But they just might be a barometer of the excitement level that the Illinois senator has produced, particularly among the younger generation.
"We picked Obama's portrait for our lottery because we're always looking for somebody people are raving about," a lottery official in Colombia told the AFP.
Besides, Colombians' feelings about the United States have actually varied dramatically during the Bush presidency. Put it this way: If it were a bit further north, Colombia would be one of those swing states Chuck Todd is always talking about.
(Hat tip: On Deadline)
Following up on the recent military and energy agreements with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Russia has now announced a deal to sell five military helicopters to Bolivia. Ambassador Leonid Golubev called it the "first step" in military cooperation with the country's anti-American government:
We want to show the United States that Latin America is not their backyard," Golubev said Tuesday. "We also have interests in various spheres, including military ones."
I get the basic idea here: "You play around in our backyard, we'll play in yours."
But the Russians are kidding themselves if they actually think Americans will be that rattled by Bolivia buying five helicopters. Yes, Latin America is traditionally the United States' sphere of influence, but Americans understand that concept in a fundamentally different way than Russians understand their "near abroad" in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
When U.S.-supported "color revolutions" overthrew Russian-backed governments in Ukraine and Georgia, many Russians (and high-ranking ones) feared they were next on the American regime change list. NATO expansion in Eastern Europe is seen as a direct military threat.
Chávez and Evo Morales certainly aren't well-liked in Washington, but most foreign-policy mavens here see them more as angry buffoons or strategic obstacles, not serious threats to America's sovereignty.
Venezuela and Bolivia are resource-rich countries with a major aversion to yanqui imperialism, so it makes sense that Russia would want to cultivate ties with them. But the Kremlin shouldn't think that Americans will fret about developments in Bolivia in the same way that Russians worry about Georgia or Ukraine. Honestly, the country has bigger things to worry about right now.
Felipe Calderón has finally earned his wings.
This week's trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly marks the first time the Mexican president has been able to use his presidential jet without getting congressional approval, a task that has proven tough at times for Calderón and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, who saw planned trips to Canada, the United States, Vietnam, and Australia nixed back when he was in office.
Although Calderón has been able to fly problem-free to more than 25 countries in the past 20 months, his relationship with Mexico's Congress -- where his party is in the minority -- hasn't been rosy. The president's razor-thin victory in 2006 put him at odds with opposition lawmakers from day one, and a recent frenzy of drug-related killings in Mexico hasn't made him the most popular leader around. Things are so bad that, earlier this month, he got approval to give his annual address to Congress as a document rather than having to enter the chambers and give it as a speech.
Perhaps the new jet rules are a conciliatory move on Congress's part to help Calderón boost Mexico's image overseas, which certainly hasn't been improved by the recent crime wave or by falling oil production. Now, at least poor Felipe won't have to feel like a kid asking his parents for permission to play down the street. That's got to be pretty demoralizing for a president.
Hugo Chávez didn't agree with Human Rights Watch's assessment of Venezuela's fall from democratic ways, released in a 230-page report today. He didn't agree that he has "undermined freedom of expression," or that he has undertaken an "aggressively adversarial approach to local rights advocates."
So, with no apparent sense of irony, he kicked out the Americas director of HRW, José Miguel Vivanco (shown here leaving a press conference in Caracas).
Chávez's Ministry of Foreign Relations, quoted in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, said in a statement that Human Rights Watch had illegally intervened in Venezuela's sovereignty. But more importantly, he called the organization an agent for the interests of the United States government, "cloaked in the robes of defending human rights, deploying an unacceptable strategy of aggression."
Alrighty then! According to Human Rights Watch, that's pretty much the standard Chávez reaction when he senses criticism a-brewin'. Clearly, they are on to something.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin's Latin American trip took an odd turn in Cuba earlier this week. After searching for ways that Moscow could help clean up the mess that Hurricanes Gustav and Ike left behind, the two countries had a more lofty goal to discuss: building a Cuban space center.
Yes, really. Though the details are unclear, Russia and its famed Cold War ally discussed the possibility of sharing technology to build Cuba's space program. Russia's Federal Space Agency issued a press release officially announcing the intent to collaborate this morning (sorry, it's in Russian).
Imagery of Cuba and Russia collaborating on anything that flies, of course, conjures up alarmingly unpleasant memories. Too bad the bargaining doesn't end there. After Havana, Sechin took off for Venezuela, where Russia is looking to close a deal to sell fighter jets and air defense systems to President Hugo Chávez after joint military exercises last week.
Just like the Cold War days, get used to Russia reaching for the stars.
While everyone has been dissecting whether Obama called Palin a pig, or whether Palin insulted Obama's community organizing, we've missed some rather massive mud-flinging in the United States' backyard.
Last night, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told the United States to "Go to hell a hundred times." In front of an applauding crowd, he yelled "We have had enough of so much s**t from you, s**t Yankees!" as he expelled the U.S. ambassador, giving him just 72 hours to leave. Watch him here:
I know: Chávez has always been something of a loose cannon (he enjoys calling President George W. Bush a donkey, the devil, and other colorful names). But to think this is nothing more than his usual Yankee-bashing would be a mistake. Minor crisis would be a better interpretation.
The Venezuelan strongman's outburst comes after his neighbor and left-wing soulmate Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador earlier this week, accusing him of backing conservative opposition movements now protesting in the streets. The United States in turn kicked out Bolivia's ambassador.
Bolivia is in far more trouble than just having a few picketers on the street. Morales has proposed drastic energy and government reforms, to be voted upon in December, that would consolidate his power and allow him to redistribute agricultural land. Protesters, demanding a greater autonomy from the government in the natural gas industry, have shut down much of the country and dozens have been killed in street fighting. Perhaps emboldened by joint exercises with Russia, Chávez promised to militarily intervene if his buddy Morales is lifted from power.
But the U.S. government is in no mood for such funny business. Not only has the State Department sent the Venezuelan ambassador packing, but the Treasury Department today called out Venezuelan officials for helping the cocaine-trafficking rebel group FARC in neighboring Colombia.
"Today's designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted, and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents," said Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, in a toughly worded press release. Interpol accusations that Venezuela -- and even Chávez himself -- aided the FARC first surfaced this summer after Colombia got its hands on a FARC laptop, but this is the first time the U.S. government has formally charged any Venezuelan officials.
No doubt Chávez has a response up his sleeve.
If no one in Venezuela noticed that the Olympics were over, it was because there is yet a bigger, more strategic game to be won. Care to guess? A soccer match? A local election? President Hugo Chávez trying out for American Idol?
Nice try. As defending champion of the Miss Universe competition, the country is going all out to defend its title.
At the Miss Venezuela pageant, step one toward Miss Universe victory, stakes are high and the training is brutal. The competition's Wikipedia entry claims that preparation for finalists can last up to six months. Rough, says one participant:
"It's like a military school, it is really tough...Apart from the exercise there is the diet, chicken and salad, chicken and salad."
The pageant is a culture, a phenomenon, and a highly rated TV program watched nationwide.
And even for those uninterested in such vain displays, there's politics to boot. The country must have been glowing with pride when neighbor -- and often rival -- Colombia took 2nd place to Venezuela in Miss Universe last year. Rumor also has it that the Colombians have sent pageant candidates to be trained in Venezuela's academies in the past.
The country's newest Miss Venezuela -- upon whose shoulders the dreams of beauty domination will ride -- is set to be crowned next week.
Remember Angel Matos, the Cuban Olympic martial artist who kicked a referee in the face after he was disqualified from a bronze-medal taekwondo match? According to Fidel Castro, he was totally justified since the match was obviously fixed:
"They had tried to buy his own coach," Castro wrote in his essay, published in state media. "He could not contain himself."
Cuba is accustomed to winning gold in boxing, but settled this year for four silver and four bronze medals. Overall, Cuba took home only two gold medals, down from nine in Athens four years ago.
"I saw when the judges blatantly stole fights from two Cuban boxers in the semi-finals," Castro wrote. "Our fighters ... had hopes of winning, despite the judges, but it was useless. They were condemned beforehand."
After their ejection, Matos's coach alleged that he had been offered a bribe before the match by their Kazakh opponents.
Castro vowed big changes for Cuban sports in the four years in order to counter the "European chauvinism, judge corruption, buying of brawn and brains...and a strong dose of racism" that they were sure to encounter in 2012.
I never like to tell a fellow blogger what he should be writing about, but it seems to me that Castro would better serve Cuban sports by praising an exceptional Cuban athlete like hurdler Dayron Robles, who turned in one of Beijing's more dominating performances, rather than sticking up for an unprofessional bully like Matos.
This should be easy fodder for the anti-globalization crowd. A lobbyist for oil giant Chevron, which is embroiled in a potentially costly lawsuit with Ecuador over the dumping of toxic oil waste in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is complaining of mistreatment at the hands of the big bad South American nation:
"The ultimate issue here is Ecuador has mistreated a U.S. company," said one Chevron lobbyist who asked not to be identified talking about the firm's arguments to U.S. officials. "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this—companies that have made big investments around the world."
Chevron is playing hardball, asking the Bush administration to revoke special trade preferences with Ecuador if the case isn't dismissed. But the plaintiffs have the backing of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, a Hugo Chávez ally, and two years ago secured the support of one Barack Obama, who wrote a letter arguing that the Ecuadorian peasants pressing the case should have "their day in court."
If the Bush administration doesn't act, and Obama wins in November, I wouldn't bet on Chevron in this rumble in the jungle.
Despite the recent biofuel backlash, there is one place still singing the praises of ethanol. It's estimated that Brazil has cut fuel costs by 30 percent since switching to fuels based on sugarcane -- an agricultural commodity that the country produces in droves. And the country hasn't just saved money from its biofuel habit: it has been turning some profit too, exporting several million tons of its crop to the United States, Europe, and even Japan this year and last.
Brazil's happiness with the ethanol boom underlies an important point about biofuel production: namely, that a regional or country-tailored approach works best. For a nation with a high production of sugarcane -- which packs more than five times the energy of corn and hasn't resulted in major environmental degradation -- it's understandable why biofuel is so popular and promising.
The sugarcane situation in Brazil isn't without its shortcomings: some sugarcane workers face slave-labor conditions, while some worry that their jobs will be replaced by more mechanized cane-cutting. But sugarcane production is an overwhelming boon for Brazil, and other countries would do well to learn from it's success -- and to benefit from it themselves.
The U.S. could step up its imports of cheaper, greener Brazilian fuel rather than continuing to subsidize domestically produced corn-based ethanol. The anti-biofuel crusaders could also stop lumping together Brazil's sugarcane with other "bad" ethanols so that countries like the U.S. will continue to lower trade barriers. That'll be a sweet deal for everyone.
I thought yesterday's big bombshell from an anonymous Russian defense source about plans to base Russian bombers in Cuba was totally absurd. I still don't believe this is much more than one overzealous bureaucrat mouthing off to a reporter. But some people are clearly taking the prospect of 1962 redux a bit more seriously.
General Norton Schwartz, the current nominee for Air Force Chief of Staff, was asked how he would respond to such a scenario at his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday. He didn't seem to laugh it off:
I certainly would offer best military advice that we should engage the Russians not to pursue that approach. [...] And if they did, I think we should stand strong and indicate that that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America."
Meanwhile in Moscow, the story has ignited something of a media scandal. The Defense Ministry has denied the plans and accused Izvestia, the newspaper that originally reported the story, of fabricating the crucial quote and running the story under a false byline. Izvestia's editor is standing behind the piece, saying that the reporter's byline was changed because of the sensitive nature of the scoop. Considering Russia's media climate, that is somewhat plausible.
But what do the Cubans think about all this? The Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog links to this article (Word document) by University of Miami Cuba expert Jaime Suchlicki, who says that while it's unlikely Raul Castro would ever go for such a risky scheme given the instability of his own regime, Russia's new best friend Hugo Chávez might be up for it.
We'll be keeping an eye out for more reactions.
It's going to be hard to top this Reuters headline for hilarity:
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday he would like to give the king of Spain a hug when he visits Europe next week, but the outspoken leader, referring to a diplomatic spat last year, said he will not shut up.
A show of hands: Who remembers anything that happened during John McCain's travels to Colombia and Mexico?
Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?
Well, I'd bet you have a good handle on what Barack Obama is up to this week. He just came from Afghanistan, and now he's in Iraq, where he got a big boost when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki basically endorsed his withdrawal plan. After a few more days in the Middle East, he'll head to Europe, where by all accounts he'll be treated like a savior coming to rescue transatlantic relations from George W. Bush.
His trip is getting major, wall-to-wall coverage -- with much more to come -- but in fact, Obama has gotten the lion's share of media attention since the general election began:
Since June 9th, when Obama effectively clinched the votes for the nomination, the Project For Excellence In Journalism took a weekly look at 300 political stories in newspapers, magazines and television. In 77 percent of the stories, Obama played an important role, and 51 percent featured McCain.
A quick look at Google Trends shows that McCain hasn't even been able to capitalize on the times he has made news. Here's a graph of searches and news mentions for the past 30 days, with Obama in blue and McCain in red. As you can see, McCain's Latin America trip was during the first week of July (point A), and it barely made a dent:
Many conservatives, no doubt, will see the dark hand of media bias at work here. But is that really the case? Is McCain the victim of the liberal media? Or is Obama just more interesting and new than McCain? Discuss.
UPDATE: As for this, maybe the New York Times did McCain a favor. Check out this line from the op-ed that the Times supposedly spiked:
[Obama] makes it sound as if Prime Minister Maliki has endorsed the Obama timetable, when all he has said is that he would like a plan for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops at some unspecified point in the future.
Well, 2010 is getting fairly specific, no?
Memín Pinguín might be adored in his native Mexico, but he hasn't been feeling much love lately on the other side of the border. Wal-Mart has stopped selling comic books featuring the popular Cuban-Mexican character after a customer in Texas complained about the boy's racially insensitive appearance. Memín's mother, who looks an awful lot like Aunt Jemima, sparked similar complaints.
Let's be honest: Memín's huge lips, dark skin, and big ears really don't make for a flattering physical portrayal of African-Americans (Houston community activist Quanel X likened Memín's appearance to a monkey and his mother's to a gorilla).
But many Mexicans don't get what all the fuss is about, especially because they consider Memín a hero rather than a mocking caricature. He's known to them as an impish, yet thoughful boy who helps out his mother by shining shoes and selling newspapers. Says Javier Salas, a Spanish language radio-show host in Chicago,
We grew up reading, learning and educating ourselves with a lot of the topics [Memín Pinguín comics] always touched on, which was honesty, justice, tolerance. He was a very unique character."
The culture clash over Memín isn't new. Three years ago, a Mexican stamp collection featuring his likeness was discontinued after African-American leaders protested his stereotypical appearance. Yet despite the hits Memín has taken, his status as a Mexican cultural icon and a teacher of important life lessons isn't likely to fade. Nor too are the use of beloved cartoons that provoke outcries on both sides of the border (Speedy Gonzales, anyone?). Still, Memín could probably benefit from a facelift. Until then, his lessons on tolerance risk being overshadowed.
Colombian politican and recently freed hostage Ingrid Betancourt has some interesting words for her FARC captors on a recorded message being blasted from helicopters flying over the Colombian jungle:
Hey guerrillas, I'm Ingrid Betancourt. I want you to recover your liberty like I have. I'm waiting for you!" she shouts in one of the recordings, which includes Colombian pop star Shakira singing her hit "Estoy Aqui" or "I'm Here."
I'm not sure how the FARC rebels feel about Betancourt these days, but Shakira is a nice touch. Betancourt also made headlines yesterday by encouraging Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to tone down his aggressive lanugage directed toward the FARC.
Colombia announced today that it has rescued 15 hostages held by the country's notorious FARC guerillas, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The rescued group also includes three American military contractors who were seized when their plane went down in FARC territory during an antinarcotics mission.
Fans of Betancourt worldwide are thrilled. A dual citizen of Colombia and France, she became a venerated figure during her six-year captivity, her frail figure and willfull words focusing the world's attention on a hostage crisis in a remote part of the Andes. Yet the celebration is bittersweet. As Betancourt and 14 others go free, largely because of their status as "bargaining chips" used by the FARC to gain political concessions, hundreds of others reportedly remain behind in the guerrilla group's hands.
Bolivian President Evo Morales and Peru's Alan Garcia have never been close amigos, but now the mudslinging has gotten worse.
Yesterday, Garcia told Morales to stick to his own country and "stop meddling in mine" after Morales criticized Peru's trade pact with the United States and allegedly started false rumors about U.S. military bases coming to Peru. Morales responded by calling Garcia an "antidemocratic president" whose "arrogance" shouldn't be tolerated.
At least Morales laid off the personal attacks this time. Last month, he called the centrist Garcia "fat and not very anti-imperialist." Ouch.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain jets off to Colombia tonight, where he'll stay for just a day before visiting Mexico. While he'll no doubt devote most of his time to photo ops with presidents Uribe and Calderon, here are a few things Senator McCain (or any future U.S. president) ought to know about Latin America before he goes:
This may be the fresh approach American foreign policy has been looking for. According to The Miami Herald, U.S. Amb. James Cason has become a singing sensation in Paraguay after learning the native Guaraní language and recording an album of indigenous folk songs.
Cason, who became ambassador to Paraguay in 2005, has become quite the hit. His songs are in heavy rotation on local radio stations and he drew 1,000 to a sold-out downtown concert. He's used the proceeds from the concert and album sales to raise over $20,000 for English-language education scholarships, gaining plenty of attention from the locals along the way:
He's been on TV and in all the newspapers,'' said Nelson Viveros, 16, who traveled to meet the ambassador recently in Encarnación, by the Argentina border. "It's strange, but people love it.''
Not everyone is convinced. One Paraguyan senator, who has asked Paraguay's legislature to denounce Cason, said the diplomat "sings horribly and his pronunciation of Guaraní words is stammering. It is an offense to the Paraguayan people."
In 1960, the average Brazilian woman had 6.3 children. By 2000, the fertility rate was down to 2.3. The decline was comparable to China's, but Brazil didn't have a one-child policy. In fact, for a while it was even illegal to advertise contraceptives.
Many factors account for the drop in Brazilian fertility, but one recent study identified a factor most people probably wouldn't consider: soap operas (novelas). Novelas are huge in Brazil, and the network Rede Globo effectively has a monopoly on their production. Here's a sample:
During the past few decades, the vast majority of the population, of all social classes, has regularly tuned into the evening showings. The study, conducted by Eliana La Ferrara of Italy's Bocconi University and Alberto Chong and Suzanne Duryea of the Inter-American Development Bank, analyzed novelas aired from 1965 to 1999 in the top two time slots and found that they depict families that are much smaller than those in the real Brazil. Seventy-two percent of leading female characters age 50 or below had no children at all, and 21 percent had just one child. Hence, the authors hypothesized that the soap operas could be acting as a kind of birth control.
Using census data from 1970 to 1991 and data on the entry of Rede Globo into different markets, the researchers found that women living in areas that received Globo's broadcast signal had significantly lower fertility. (And yes, the study did control for all sorts of factors and addressed the concern that the entry of Globo might have been driven by trends that also contribute to fertility decline. I'll spare you the gory econometric details.) Additionally, people in areas with Globo's signal were more likely to name their children after novela characters, suggesting that it was the novelas specifically, and not TV in general, that influenced childbearing.
These findings on the power of TV are reminiscent of last year's FP article "TV Privileges," which reported on a study about the effect of satellite TV on Indian villages. Women living in villages that acquired satellite TV -- whose shows tend to depict relatively liberated urban women -- came to have less tolerance for spousal abuse and less bias in favor of having boys. They also became more able to spend money without a husband's permission.
It all suggests that soap operas can be a soapbox for social change.
A new phenomenon has been taking Bolivia by storm in recent years: female wrestling. The women don traditional costumes, including a pleated, layered skirt, a bowler hat, shawl and pigtails, and put the WWE to shame:
Although legend has it that some indigenous women of the Aymara people, called Cholitas, have been wrestling for up to 20 years, the trend has only recently reached a critical mass. In 2007 a 20 min. documentary called "The Fighting Cholitas," was entered into several International Film Festivals, including the United Nations Association Film Festival. And in January the women, led by Carmen Rosa a.k.a. "The Champion" and Yolanda Amorosa a.k.a. "The Loving One," formed an association of women wrestlers, which organizes practices twice a week and matches every Sunday.
The Federation's founder, Carmen Rosa, explains the connection between women's equality and women's wrestling in a not-to-be-missed BBC news video:
Because we Cholitas have been humiliated and very discriminated [against] in the past. That is what mostly drove me to be a fighter. I also wanted to show people, not only in Bolivia, but around the world, that women can do what men do and still be an indigenous woman."
As the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama may continue to suffer from, of all things, a likability problem. Two weeks after John McCain pounced on favorable remarks made by a Hamas spokesperson that seemed to identify Obama as the group's preferred candidate, the junior senator from Illinois received another endorsement of sorts, this time from Fidel Castro.
In one of his periodic newspaper columns published in Communist Party newspaper Granma, Castro said he had 'no personal rancor' toward Obama, but 'if I defended him I would do a huge favor for his adversaries.'
Castro went on to call Obama "a strong candidate" as well as "the most progressive candidate" from "the social and human points of view."
Although Castro was highly critical of Obama's plans to continue the 50-year-old embargo, it's a safe bet that the McCain camp was not altogether disappointed with Fidel's comments.
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