Renato Pérez Pizarro of the Miami Herald's Cuban Colada blog has a round-up of recent signs that Fidel Castro's health has taken a serious turn for the worse. Castro hasn't written his regular newspaper column since Dec. 15 or been photographed since Nov. 18. His friend and ally Hugo Chavez says he is unlikely to ever appear in public again. Perhaps most significantly, the leader who never spoke for five minutes when five hours would do, didn't make any public statements for the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and released a very un-Fidel-like one sentence statement.
South Florida police are already discussing post-Fidel celebrations with local Cuban community leaders. The signs are certainly there right now, though I remember similar preparations being made during Castro's stomach surgery in 2006 and no one ever got rich betting against Castro's ability to hang in there. The 11th U.S. president since Castro took power will enter office next week and I have a feeling he won't want to miss it.
When President-elect Barack Obama and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon met today in Washington, the subject matter was as hot as the tortilla-soup they ate for lunch. Mexico is in the midst of a heated drug war that threatens to rip the country apart. The United States sends extensive aid to its southern neighbor to help out. But as the Council on Foreign Relations' Shannon O'Neil points out for FP's The Argument, the United States also supplies the demand for drugs, the money to pay from them, and the weapons that ratchets up the violence.
Then, there is immigration, where more than one politician has gotten burned. President Bush was among them, and even mentioned immigration in his nostalgic press conference today. Bush's proposal was beaten down brutally in Congress, before it died a quiet and unlamented death. NAFTA was also rumored to be on the table, too, with Calderon pressing Obama not to review the trade agreement, as the president-elect had promised on the campaign trail.
Both men left praising the others' efforts, and vowing closer cooperation. Both countries are economy focused, and now is no time for spats on trade. Mexico's economic growth is forecast to shrink from 2 percent to 1.8 percent, driven largely be the shrinking demand for Mexican products on Obama's side of the border.
Next up for Calderon: meeting with U.S. Congressional leaders and with World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Next up for Obama: proving his partnership with Mexico will last past lunch.
Photo: Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
Call it a virtual thrown shoe at the United States. Yesterday, 33 countries in Latin America met in Brazil to discuss regional cooperation and the financial crisis. Here's the flying one-two punch: The summit condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba, blamed the United States for the financial crisis, and refused to let the northern neighbor attend. Ouch.
Like Muntadar al-Zaidi's famous act of protest, the shoe flew -- but may have missed the mark ever so slightly. Leaders were dismissive of Bolivian President Evo Morales's call for the region to expel U.S. ambassadors unless the Cuba embargo was lifted. And though host Brazil asserted its regional dominance, bickering prevented solid agreements on trade issues and further regional cooperation.
By the way, the strained shoe analogy is not entirely mine. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva found the metaphor too good to pass up -- threatening to throw his slipper at Venezuela's Hugo Chavez if he overspoke his podium time.
And then there were the instructions to press: "Please, nobody take off your shoes."
Photo: ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
That's how bad it's gotten in Mexico. A U.S. security consultant who claims to have helped resolve over 100 kidnapping cases was himself kidnapped in northern Mexico last week.
Coahuila state law enforcement officials who were not authorized to be quoted by name said Batista had been giving talks to local police officials and businessmen on how to prevent or avoid kidnappings.
They said he apparently was snatched from a street outside a restaurant.
The Web profile of Batista _ later removed from ASI's site _ described him as "the primary case officer for all cases throughout the Latin American region."
If an anti-kidnapping expert isn't safe, who is?
Reading the latest headlines from the Rod Blagojevich scandal, David Carr sees the danger a downsized Chicago Tribune poses to American politics:
In a city and state where corruption is knit into the political fabric, a solvent daily paper would seem to be a civic necessity. But if another governor goes bad in Illinois — a likely circumstance given the current investigation and the fact that the last governor, George Ryan, is serving six and a half years on corruption charges — what if the local paper were too diminished to do the job?
Good question. Here's another one: What if thousands were being killed in an armed conflict that directly impacted U.S. security, and no U.S. reporters were there to cover it?
While much of the U.S. media and political establishment has been ignoring the ongoing drug violence in Mexico that has claimed almost 7,000 lives, severely weakend the Mexican state, and involved 50,000 troops, reporters from the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times have largely been driving the story.
The turmoil in Mexico is already not getting the coverage it deserves. Without steady paychecks for Times reporters like Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood, the full-scale war being waged just across the border might not be noticed at all.
Photo: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
Ecuador, surely the first of many countries to do so in the months ahead, is defaulting on its debt. And who does President Rafael Correa blame for this parlous state of affairs? The lenders, whom he calls "monsters" whose loans are "obviously immoral and illegitimate."
In any case, here's a possible side effect of Ecuador's default: prices of bananas may go up. Seriously -- Ecuador is literally a banana republic, and agriculture is a business fueled by credit. And after this move by Correa, it's going to be awfully expensive to borrow money in Quito.
UPDATE: Felix Salmon says the default is "idiotic":
In the annals of idiotic political decisions, today's default by Ecuador has to rank pretty high. [...] This debt has already been restructured twice, and there's zero chance that bondholders will agree to it being restructured a third time. They know that Ecuador has the ability to pay, and they don't like being bullied.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Political scientist Gustavo Coronel, an oil expert and former member of the Venezuelan congress, believes the plummeting petroleum payouts will seal the fate of Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian dreams, thanks to the Venezuelan leader's habitual failure to invest in any form of state infrastructure.
Speaking at the Andes colloquium organized by the George Washington University and the Strategic Studies Insitute, Coronel explained just how deep mismanagement runs within the state-run oil sector. This threw me for a bit of a loop:
"Under Chávez the company [PDVSA] has lost about 500,000 barrels per day of production capacity, which amounts to a loss of income of about $30 to $50 million a day, depending on the price."Ouch. Today, a barrel of crude petroleum is at a mere $39 on the Venezuelan market, down from soaring highs of roughly $145 earlier in 2008. To Coronel, this reality merely exacerbates the "termites" that have been eating the regime from within.
Having taken these steps, Coronel predicts Chávez
will not only lose a constitutional referendum that would permit indefinite
reelection -- similar to the failed attempt to ratify the country's constitution by popular vote in December 2007 -- but also fizzle well before his current term runs out in 2012.
Whenever he's suffered setbacks in the past, Chávez has always promised to accept the situation 'Por ahora' (For now). Save a petro rally, por ahora might be a while.
Photo: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
As if the president-elect didn't have enough on his plate already, he needs to act now to prevent an environmental catastrophe in Latin America.
The World Bank released a report today on climate change in Latin America, warning of political and social risks if nothing is done to mitigate global warming.
First, climate change could lead to a massive decline in agricultural production. As report co-author John Nash told me, "you [could] have a huge crash in productivity; 30 to 80 percent of farms in Mexico would have to be abandoned." The political implications are obvious, particularly in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, where farmers wield serious political and economic clout.
Changing water patterns could also threaten stability. "[That is something which has been] flagged as a flashpoint for conflict within countries and among countries," says Nash.
Drug war, civil war, poverty, unrest, pollution? You ain't seen nothing yet.
Since the impact of global warming is already hitting the region--shrinking glaciers and intensifying storms--action is something that just can't wait, the report claims. The authors pin responsibility for action on Latin American countries--but even more on the world system and, yes, the United States.
Obama already has climate change on his agenda, but the stakes only seem to getting higher...
Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
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?
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.