Pope Francis has already become a favorite of progressives with his fairly open-minded statements on homosexuality and birth control. But that adoration may go into overdrive, now that the Pope has adopted a new role as an environmental crusader, too. On Monday, the Pope was photographed with environmental activists holding T-shirts with anti-fracking slogans.
The photographs were taken after a meeting in the Vatican on Monday in which the Pope spoke with a group of Argentine environmental activists to discuss fracking and water contamination. He reportedly told the group he is preparing an encyclical -- a letter addressing a part of Catholic doctrine -- about nature, humans, and environmental pollution.
In the pictures, one of the men standing with the Pope is movie director and Argentine politician Fernando 'Pino' Solanas, known for his activism against "environmental crimes" and his film "Dirty Gold" about mega-mining. In particular, Solanas is a vocal opponent of an August agreement between the Argentine government and Chevron to develop shale oil and gas, which he calls "the largest environmental disaster in the Amazon." Drilling for these resources often requires hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which is criticized by opponents for relying on toxic fluid and posing water contamination risks.
The Chevron deal is just one instance of American oil companies looking further and further afield to develop shale oil and gas as vast foreign reserves promise imitations of the United States' own shale oil revolution. Particularly in lower-income countries like Argentina, the promise of such a revolution is too lucrative to resist -- especially with so many betting on its potential. The United States Energy Information Administration has ranked Argentina fourth behind Russia, the United States, and China in terms of shale oil reserves. In terms of shale gas reserves, Argentina is ranked second only after China. But the government's embrace of Chevron has been met with fierce protests, some of which have prompted a brutal crackdown from police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Argentina's indigenous Mapuche Indian community has been a firebrand group behind the protests, claiming they weren't consulted on the deal as required by international treaties covering indigenous peoples.
According to one report of the meeting, His Holiness's concern was "clear" when hearing about the Chevron deal in Argentina and other environmental disputes in the region. On Tuesday, Sarah Palin said she was shocked by the pontiff's "liberal" statements. Wait 'til she hears about his new role as the face of Argentina's environmentalist movement.
Mulder and Scully never made it to South America during their decade-long search for extraterrestial life, but if they had, they would have certainly found an ally in Peru. Indeed, the Peruvian Air Force is reviving their own version of the X-files: an office called the Department of Investigation of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena (DIFAA), which will exclusively investigate UFO sightings and other "anomalous aerial phenomena."
The DIFAA was originally created in 2001, first making the news when its chief investigator, Anthony Choy, began looking into the mysterious "Chulucanas Incident," a series of events in 2001 that captured the imaginations of Peruvians for years afterwards. Choy describes the case at length in the video below, but here's the short version: On October 13, 2001, in Chulucanas, hundreds of people observed eight spheres of red-orange light moving intelligently through the sky for over five hours. A couple of weeks later, someone caught video of a bright, tear-shapred object about 80 feet long hovering near the city. A few minutes later, several others saw mysterious lights landing in the woods. It was the DIFAA's first officially documented UFO case.
The office closed five years ago due to unspecified "administrative problems." Now, the Air Force is reinstating it, in response increased reports of UFO activity. The office will document and analyze sightings of unexplained flying objects with the help of Air Force personnel, sociologists, archaeologists and astronomers. Colonel Julio Vucetich, the head of the Air Force's aerospace division told the Guardian that new technology, like cellphones, Facebook and Twitter, have made it easier for the public to both share and accept UFO sightings.
EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images
On Monday, Apple (and, in second place, Google) surpassed Coca-Cola as the most valuable brand in the world according to an annual report by the consultancy Interbrand -- a title the beverage behemoth has claimed since the start of the report's run 13 years ago. It's the end of an era in which Coca-Cola's international ubiquity and global recognition seemed untouchable. By dint of its links to American culture, the soda has occupied an often bizarre place in political movements around the world, frequently serving as an expression of solidarity with -- or distaste for -- the West and the capitalist culture it exports. A verb was even coined to reflect the beverage's association with cultural imperialism: to "coca-colonize" means to "bring (a foreign country) under the influence of U.S. trade, popular culture, and attitudes." Here's a look back at some of Coke's most memorable cameos in international relations.
FARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images
We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
China Photos/Getty Images
For the umpteenth time, speculation is running rampant about Fidel Castro's health. El Comandante has reportedly suffered a major cerebral hemorrhage and embolic stroke according to Dr. José Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor who told El Nuevo Herald that he has access to "firsthand sources and information."
Castro's public absence since March had given rise to a new round of death rumors that were "quelled" just yesterday when a letter was released congratulating recent medical graduates on the 50 year anniversary of the Havana Medical School.
So basically, Castro "responded" to ill-health humors by writing a letter for a known upcoming historic occasion, while concurrently also having a stroke so severe that he is approaching a neurovegetative state and has been left unable to recognize faces. Word on the street is that Castro is dying in his Havana home where Hugo Chavez visited him on Tuesday to inquire about his health.
As expected, there's been no announcement or verification from the Cuban government.
Those hoping for an Iran-Israel Judo showdown will be disappointed after a "critical digestive system infection" prevented Jahvaad Majoob -- the only Iranian athlete scheduled to compete alongside an Israeli -- from boarding the plane to London. Yet, from the North Korean flag mix up to the ongoing controversy over a Saudi Arabian judo fighter's headscarf, those itching for some geopolitical proxy battles will have their fill. Here are another seven matches to watch:
Table Tennis: North Korea vs. South Korea
August 3, 2:00 pm EST
For big tension on a very small court, viewers should tune in to the first found of men's team table tennis where North Korea will face off against its archenemy South Korea. The nations remain technically at war despite a July 27, 1953 armistice, and the demilitarized zone remains one of the most dangerous borders in the world with Pyongyang threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames." In this match at least, paddles are certain to fly.
Lightweight Double Sculls: South China smackdown
July 29 5:40 am EST
Poor Germany is stuck in the middle of China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea in the women's lightweight double sculls. As the Asian nations squabble over islands in the East and South China Seas and the potential for naval war looms, the title of best rower may mean more than just a medal.
Handball: Britain vs. Argentina
August 2, 11:15 am EST
Despite insisting in February that her country would not boycott the games, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced this week she will not attend the opening ceremony. Her absence is a protest against Britain's claims to the Falklands, which Argentine maintains at their rightful territory despite their military defeat in 1982. As the island nears a referendum to determine its political status, Argentinean and British Olympic teams will have the chance to fight it out on men's handball court. If the losing country isn't satisfied, it will get another chance -- they're scheduled to play in field hockey too.
Pair Rowing: Greece vs. Germany
July 28, 7:00 am EST
Blood pressure will be high as Greece's Nikolaos Gkountoulas and Apostolos Gkountoulas race Germany's Anton Braun and Felix Drahotta in the men's pair rowing race. As debtor faces creditor, viewers should hope it'll be a repeat of the 2012 Euro Cup. Team loyalty got political when creative German fans mocked the Greeks "Without Angie, you wouldn't be here." Not to be beat, the Greeks struck low: "We'll never pay you back. We'll never pay you back." The question remains-if Greece wins, who gets the gold?
Soccer: U.S. vs. North Korea
July 31, 12:15 pm EST
Opponents on every issue ranging from human rights to nuclear weapons, the United States and North Korea will face off in match 15 of the women's group G. Though the United States won the FIFA 2008 Championship title after defeating North Korea in the final round, their 2010 quarterfinal losses prevented a rematch. It remains to be seen if young leader Kim Jong Un is as harsh as his dad when it comes to international soccer failure.
Fencing: China vs. Japan
August 5, 5:30 am EST
While Beijing and Tokyo diplomats have so far limited themselves to lobbing rhetorical barbs over the latest territorial row, fencers Kenta Chida, Ryo Miyake, Lei Sheng and Jianfei Ma will face off in the men's team foil. Though fencing is lauded as a game of strategy, not force, the fighters' long history is certainly bloody.
Basketball: U.S. vs. China
August 5, 11:45 am EST
The U.S. women's basketball team faces China in game 52. U.S. - Sino relations have begun to sour as the United States pivots its forces to Asia and populist rhetoric has entered the U.S. presidential race. Bruised by an embarrassing 62-100 loss to the U.S. in May, seventh-ranked China is thirsty for revenge.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Bolivian authorities say at least 30 people have been injured in a fight between two communities over land for growing quinoa, the Andean "supergrain" whose popularity with worldwide foodies has caused its price to soar.
Oruro state police chief Ramon Sepulveda says combatants used rocks and dynamite against each other Wednesday and Thursday. A government commission was dispatched to the two high plains communities south of La Paz.
Farmland in the region is owned not by individuals but communities.
Authorities say the dispute is related to climate change because quinoa can now be cultivated in areas previously subject to frequents frosts. Bolivia produces 46 percent of the world's quinoa, which has nearly tripled in price in the past five years.
For the "How Food Explains the World" package for the last May/June issue, I looked at how quinoa's international popularity has effected eating habits in Bolivia. Prices have skyrocketed thanks to export demand and domestic consumption of the nutritious grain has fallen by more than a third, prompting fears of an obesity epidemic as Bolivians switch to rice and white bread. President Evo Morales' government subsidizes quinoa as a "strategic foodstuff."
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
The Palestinian foreign ministry has announced that in the coming months, Chile and Paraguay will join the growing number of countries in Latin America recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela have all announced support for a Palestinian state in rapid succession in the last month. The LA Times' Daniel Hernandez writes:
On Saturday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera met one-on-one with Abbas in Brazil during the inauguration of Dilma Rousseff as Brazil's first female president. Abbas attended the inauguration in Brasilia to "thank the presidents" that have recognized the Palestinian state, reported the Chilean daily La Tercera (link in Spanish).
Chile is home to a significant population of about 350,000 mostly Christian Palestinians (link in Spanish). Like many of its neighbors, Chile also has a large Jewish community. A Jewish leader in Chile called the decisions to recognize a Palestinian state "imprudent" (link in Spanish).
The declarations have confounded Israel, as none of the South American countries have been directly involved in U.S.-led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Those negotiations remain deadlocked.
The Palestinian Authority also plans to open an embassy in Ecuador soon, and Pinera plans to visit the West Bank in three months.
As blogger Greg Weeks notes, the interesting thing about this development is that it appears to be uncoordinated. As none of these countries have really involved themselves heavily in Israeli-Palestinian politics before, it's hard not to read this in the context of U.S.-South American relations and Brazil's rising influence. Uruguay was actually the first in the latest wave of Palestinian recognition, but the snowball really starting rolling after Brazil's announcemnt on Dec. 3, one of former President Lula da Silva's last acts in office.
Under Lula, Brazil has become an increasingly important player in Mideast politics, often taking positions directly at odds with U.S. policy. But the fact that governments ranging on the political spectrum from Sebastian Pinera's Chile to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela have been so quick to follow Brazil's lead on a political gesture guaranteed to annoy Washington, is a pretty good sign of where power is shifting on the continent.
The country to watch here is Colombia, traditionally staunchly pro-American, but increasingly, under President Juan Manuel Santos, willing to reach out to regional rivals. If Colombia signs on to supporting the Palestinian state -- they've been silent so far -- the Lula-Amorim foreign-policy legacy is going to start looking pretty impressive.
ADRIANO MACHADO/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this year we ran a piece by Julia Ioffe on some of the eccentrics and entertainers elected to Russia's Duma under the front-page headline "Send in the Clowns." Now I feel like we may have used that one too early:
The exam was held on Thursday and apparently Tiririca both "read and wrote" during it, though it's not yet clear if he was proficient enough to hold office.
German history can be a tough minefield for visiting dignitaries to navigate, but Chilean President Sebastián Piñera should still have known better than to write "Deutschland uber alles" in a government guestbook on his trip to Berlin:
The phrase Sebastian Pinera wrote was "Deutschland uber alles," or
"Germany above all." It became infamous under the Third Reich and after
World War II was excised from Germany's national anthem as too
Piñera says he learned the
slogan in school during the 1950s and '60s and understood it to be a
celebration of German unification under Otto von Bismarck.
He adds that he was unaware it was "linked to that country's dark past."
Piñera said Monday he's sorry, and asked to be forgiven.
I guess we can also safely assume Piñera isn't a Dead Kennedys fan.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Russia may have recently scrapped a missile defense deal with Iran -- but the Russians are now seemingly helping out another aspiring nuclear power/purpoted "axis of evil" stand-in: Venezuela.
According to news reports,
Russia agreed ... to help build Venezuela's first nuclear power plant, sell it tanks and buy $1.6 billion of oil assets, reinforcing ties with President Hugo Chavez who shares Russian opposition to US global dominance.
The announcement comes at the end of a two-day visit to Moscow by Chavez; if Venezuela keeps this up, they may be able to take Iraq's beloved lost spot on the roster and become the media darling commentators have been longing to find.
While the agreement between the two powers is preliminary, the move is aimed at concerns over Venezuela's heavy dependence on oil. The Guardian reports, "Venezuela's economy is 94 or even 95% made up of oil... They [the Venezuelans] want to widen their sources of energy so they are less dependent on it."
In remarks that can only be interpreted as congratulatory, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley stated, "This is something that we will watch... very, very closely."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
The big surprise out of yesterday's Brazilian election was the surprisingly strong showing of Green Party candidate Marina Silva, who beat the projections by picking up 19 percent of the vote and forced a runoff between the two leading candidates. Brazil's Greens, who haven't decided which of the remaining candidates to support yet, are in a pretty good mood:
Sirkis said the record vote meant the Green party would be able to force debate on crucial environmental issues in the lead up to the second round. Such issues included controversial changes to Brazil's forestry code, which environmentalists claim will further damage the Amazon rainforest, and Brazil's commitments on climate change in Copenhagen.
The O Dia newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, where Silva came second with 31.52% of the vote, described a "green tsunami" in its front-page headline.
"Marina Silva's face will not be on the ballot on October 31 but her electoral ghost will decide the second round," the newspaper said. "She has become the central figure in this campaign," said Altino Machado, an Amazon journalist and blogger who has known Silva since the late 1970s.
Silva resigned with quite a bit of publicity as Lula's environment minister in 2008 over the government's unwillingness to implement her anti-deforestation agenda. In addition to an embrace of Silva's compelling personal story -- she is the child of rubber-tappers from the Amazonian state of Acre and was illiterate until the age of 14 -- the Green's success shows the increasing political salience of environmental issues in Brazil, where 85 percent of the population views global climate change as a major problem. (Only 37 percent of Americans feel that way.)
It would be nice to think that Silva's success -- along with the recent collapse of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government over broken climate change promises -- is a sign that voters are starting to take environmental issues seriously at the ballot box. But it's probably a bit premature, and I somehow doubt we'll be seeing a "green tsunami" rolling across the American heartland in November.
First of all, whatever you think of his politics, give Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa -- who was assaulted and briefly held hostage by his own police officers yesterday in what he describes as an attempted coup d'etat -- some credit for cojones:
Mr. Correa had gone to the barracks to address the police complaints in person. A shouting match ensued, and at one point, he loosened his tie and opened his shirt as if to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. “If you want to kill the president, here he is,” he said. “Kill him, if you want to. Kill him if you are brave enough.”
One day later, Correa seems to be reasserting control. The police chief has resigned and Correa plans to overhaul the force. While order seems to be returning for now, some observers are interpreting yesterday's events -- coming on the heels of last year's coup in Honduras -- as a sign that democracy is increasingly under threat in Latin America and that the region may be at risk of returning to the bad old days where coups and armed insurrection were a regular feature of politics.
Ecuador certainly doesn't have the best track record in this respect -- the country went through eight presidents in the decade before Correa took power, three of them driven from power by street protests -- but it would still be a mistake to read too much into the latest instability.
First of all, it's not quite clear yet if yesterday's events really did constitute a coup d'etat. Correa has blamed the opposition Patriotic Society Party for fomenting the unrest, but no political groups have taken credit for what was -- on the surface at least -- an out-of-control wage strike by the police force.
Secondly, if it was a coup, it was a remarkably ineffective one. The military leadership stood behind Correa, ultimately rescuing him from the police, and the country's top military officer went on the radio to say, "“We are a state of law... We are subordinated to the maximum authority, which is the president of the republic.”
The left-wing Correa is a controversial leader internationally, but yesterday he received the unanimous support of foreign leaders, from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Some may not like the fact that the U.S. government is pledging "full support" for a leader of unabashedly advocates "socialist revolution" and directly opposes U.S. military interests. But the fact that coup-plotters can no longer count on superpower backing for knocking over unpopular governments is a big reason wh coups happen a lot less often than they used to and why and are more likely to result in a quick return to democracy -- as in Honduras -- when they do happen. (In any case, the ideological categories are a bit jumbled on this one since it was a backlash against a socialist leader for cutting benefits to state workers -- perhaps another sign of the times.)
This Sunday, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a new president. Just 25 years after the end of military dictatorship, that country's democracy today seems unassailably robust and despite the country's many problems, its citizens are remarkably optimistic about the future. If this weekend's events in Brazil are a hopeful sign of Latin America's future, yesterday's violence in Ecuador is a ghost of a darker past, but not a reason to think that the bad old days are coming back.
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
File this one under "things that are scarier than the Twilight series": The BBC reports that four children in Peru's Awajun indigenous tribe have died in a recent outbreak of rabies spread by vampire bats. In total, 500 people have been attacked by these bloodsucking mammals in the community of Urakusa in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon. Peru's Health Ministry has sent emergency teams of aid workers to this remote village to administer rabies vaccines.
According to the BBC, the mass attack may be linked to deforestation:
Vampire bats usually feed on wildlife or livestock, but are sometimes known to turn to humans for food, particularly in areas where their rainforest habitat has been destroyed.
Some local people have suggested this latest outbreak of attacks may be linked to the unusually low temperatures the Peruvian Amazon in recent years.
Looking for some summer reading? FP's got you covered. In coming weeks, we'll feature reading lists from some of the top thinkers and experts on the topics they have made their own. Today's list -- a collection of the best English books about Latin America -- comes from Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington:
Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat
It's not surprising Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's take on a dictator novel, a popular Latin American genre, is superb. Blending fiction and history, Vargas Llosa offers shrewd insights into how Rafael Trujillo, or El Jefe -- the boss, was able to extend his rule of the Dominican Republic for three decades. The novel was published in 2000, a decade after Vargas Llosa himself lost as a candidate to Alberto Fujmori in Peru's presidential elections.
Sally Bowen, The Fujimori File: Peru and its President, 1990-2000
Fujimori's election as Peru's president in 1990 was the most stunning political upset in recent Latin American history. Through meticulous research, Bowen, a British journalist who worked for the Financial Times, draws a vivid portrait of the "man who came from nowhere," as she put it. Bowen later wrote a fine biography of Fujimori's right-hand man, The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladimiro Montesinos.
"The Fall of Fujimori" (Documentary Film, Directed by Ellen Perry)
After watching this documentary, it is not hard to understand why Alberto Fujimori enjoyed high approval levels during most of his decade-long presidency and why his daughter Keiko, a congresswoman, is a serious contender for next April's presidential elections. This prospect is striking in light of her father's regime -- one marked by human rights abuses and spectacular corruption for which Fujimori is now serving a 25-year prison sentence.
Gabriel Garcia Márquez, "The Two Faces of Hugo Chávez" (essay)
Garcia Márquez's short essay, written after a flight from Havana to Caracas accompanied by Hugo Chávez at the start of the Venezuelan president's rule in February 1999, contains some of the most perceptive observations about Chávez ever written. The concluding lines are remarkably prescient: "I was struck by the impression that I had traveled and talked delightfully with two opposite men -- one who good luck had given the opportunity to save his nation. And the other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot."
Cristian Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President
There have already been many Chávez biographies and there are doubtless many more to come, but unfortunately most tend to be either hagiographies or hatchet jobs. This one, by contrast, is a judicious and measured treatment of Chávez by two young Venezuelan journalists who did extensive research and succeed in shedding light on his complex personality and what drives him. It nicely shows how particular events shaped Chávez, and it depicts how he, in turn, is shaping his country's and the region's history.
Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait
No Latin American leader has drawn as much attention as Fidel Castro. There have been many biographies, some of them quite good, but this one by longtime Latin American journalist Tad Szulc particularly stands out. Szulc, who covered the Cuban Revolution for the New York Times, had extraordinary access to Castro and to Cuban government archives. Though the book is a bit dated (it was written in 1985), it contains incomparably rich material and captures the many contradictions of this larger-than-life figure who remains the subject of endless fascination.
Heraldo Muñoz, The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet
Chilean intellectual and diplomat Herald Munoz has written what he calls a "political memoir" on the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. After two decades of a center-left coalition in power and the recent shift to a conservative government in Chile, Pinochet's legacy is still hotly debated. Munoz does not pretend to be unbiased, but he makes a cogent argument that Pinochet's repression was terribly costly and that the foundation for the country's recent economic success could only have been achieved in a democracy.
The two most prominent presidential hopefuls in the upcoming Brazilian elections have launched their campaigns. Now each is fighting tooth and nail to prove one thing: that he or she is the most cautious, the most predictable, the most moderate candidate of them all.
In the past, elections in Brazil have tipped in favor of candidates championing change -- but that was when the tectonic shifts those politicians promised seemed the most expedient solution to faltering markets, raging social tensions, and the crippling effects of corruption, fascism, and military interference.
In many respects, current president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- who enjoys overwhelming approval ratings, despite several corruption scandals -- has reversed Brazil's bad fortunes: his pension systems and social programs have eradicated historic inequalities and kept the economy growing at a rate of 5.6 percent each year since 2003. Now that they are enjoying peace and prosperity relative to the tumult of past decades, Brazilian voters don't want change (except maybe a World Cup redux). They want Commitment to Continuity, not Audacity of Hope; security and certainty, not inspiration and innovation. And their politicians are happy to placate them.
Worker's Party candidate Dilma Rousseff is Lula's hand pick and the fondly proclaimed "Iron Lady" of South America. Her opponent? Brazilian Social Democratic Party candidate José Serra -- an experienced former secretary of state with an obstinate support base. Both have capitalized on the public's demands for continuity, portraying themselves as the ultimate political nonentities in the media. Rio de Janeiro is plastered with posters of Rousseff, hand-in-hand with a grinning Lula. The imagery fuels speculations, to the satisfaction of some and the disdain of others, that she is her predecessor's political puppet. Meanwhile, though Serra criticizes aspects of Lula's government and does promise greater government efficiency, suffice it to say that many of his posters read "The same as Dilma but different" ("The same as McCain but different" bumper sticker, conversely, would probably not have been a winning slogan for Barack Obama). Neither candidate deviates significantly on any major issue, and both reflect increasingly centrist tendencies.
Keep an eye on these intriguing anti-change campaigns as they approach the October 3 elections in Brazil. It will be interesting to see -- seemingly in lieu of any meaningful dissonance -- the reason on which constituents ultimately hinge their votes.
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
Two words sum up Argentina's national stance towards the atrocities committed under the 1976-1984 military dictatorship: "Nunca más" -- never again. But while the junta remains firmly in the past, the effects of its clandestine crimes remain potent in the present. The national outcry, the investigations conducted by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, and even the tireless marching and protesting by mothers of "desaparecidos" on Mayo Square have failed to yield information on what happened to the estimated 30,000 victims of state-sponsored abuse.
But last month, after being hidden beneath floorboards for 34 years, a secret list emerged to give some Argentinians what they thought they might never get: answers.
Throughout its rule, the military junta enforced a meticulous policy of destroying all their documents. But apparently it wasn't meticulous enough: one accused subversive named Juan Clemente escaped from his detention center with 259 pages of the military government's records. Clemente feared divulging the papers would cost him his life, and so kept them hidden underneath his house for over three decades; but a new safeguard from the witness protection program and a sense of urgency elicited from the imminent verdict of the Tucuman trial has motivated him to bring them forward.
Certainly with the lack of available evidence, the incriminating notes -- easily attributed to junta operatives by the flagrant signatures on each page -- will bolster the case against the four Dirty War perpetrators on trial. The new evidence could even be to thank for a more just verdict come July 8.
But perhaps the list has delivered an even greater form of justice: some reprieve for those left oblivious as to the fates of their abducted loved ones. Families of the Dirty War's "desaparecidos" have flooded into the courts to examine the papers -- even the sadistic notes on intelligence operations, torture sessions, and the victims' decrepit physical states.
The families were also able to access the pages in which the junta took stock of their victims, recording their names in the left columns and the outcome of their detentions in the right. For some of those reading, two letters beside their loved one's name -- DF, or "disposition final" -- may bring both heartbreaking finality and bittersweet relief.
DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images
If you're the kind of interior decorator who spends weeks agonizing between "white zinfandel" and "baby's breath" for the dining room walls (two hues indistinguishable to anyone who hasn't poured over the Benjamin Moore catalogue), you might consider enlisting in Eduardo Gold's latest project to combat the effects of climate change in the Peruvian Andes.
As one of 26 winners in last year's "100 Ideas to Save the Planet" competition, sponsored by the World Bank, Gold proposed an alternately ingenious and implausible plan to stall -- and perhaps even reverse -- the steady melting of Andean Glaciers: paint them white. Now, though Gold has yet to recieve his prize money, the wheels on this project are already turning in Peru. By coating the increasingly bare (and increasingly brown) rocks at the summits of the once-snowy mountain range, Gold hopes to simulate the eco-saving powers of a true glacial surface: the white veneer, if all goes according to plan, should reflect the sun's rays, sending them back out into the atmosphere and preventing warming effects at the Earth's surface. (If you're already clamoring against using chemical-laden paint in a pristine natural setting, rest assured: Gold's hue of white -- unlike Benjamin Moore's -- will be 100 percent environmentally friendly, composed of lime, egg white, and water.)
Gold "has no scientific qualifications" -- and it sometimes shows. At one point, he summarizes the science behind his proposal with a simple, and perhaps simplistic, formulation: "cold generates more cold, just as heat generates more heat." He also aspires to eventually "re-grow" the ebbing glacier -- an example, it's hard not to think, of ambitious entrepreneurship getting the best of realistic science.
Nevertheless, Gold "has studiously read up on glaciology," and his idea has won as many supporters as it has skeptics. The white-washing project appeals for obvious reasons to environmentalists: 22 percent of the glaciers in Peru have already disappeared in just three decades and doomsday forecasts predict the remaining 78 may be gone in twenty years. But Gold's biggest fans may be the Peruvians themselves.
Painting, after all, calls for painters: the venture is predicted to create 15,000 jobs over five years. Those who live in the glaciers' shadows (or, more aptly these days, their puddles) have experienced the dramatic shifts in climate in recent year, and -- for the sake of a return to normalcy -- seem to be willing to hear out even the most unusual proposals for change.
The work will be slow-going: Gold has set his sights on completing one summit, Chalon Sombrero, this summer, and then gradually moving on to other peaks. But with a page from Tom Sawyer's book, he just might be able to pick up the white-washing pace...
ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images
A batch of 50-peso coins, each worth about a dime, have returned to cause a headache for the Chilean mint. The coins spell the country's name C-H-I-I-E -- a typo that has recently cost the the general manager of the mint his job. The most remarkable aspect of this story, perhaps, is that the coins were released in 2008 -- but the spelling mistake was not noticed until late last year.
By 6 o'clock Sunday night, the news had filled the streets of Santiago with honking: For the first time in 52 years, Chile had elected a conservative president, unseating the left-leaning "Concertación" coalition that has ruled the country for the last two decades. From a crowded hotel ballroom at the Crown Plaza in Santiago, a posh-looking crowd of supporters for the winning candidate, billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera, listened as the vote tallies were called out on television, district by district. Within minutes, his supporters were celebrating, waving flags from car windows and apartment balconies. In the end, Piñera took 52 percent to his opponent Eduardo Frei's 48 in the runoff election.
Piñera's campaign theme was a familiar one: change. "After 20 years of the same coalition, the same people, it's getting old," Arturo Alessandri C., a prominent lawyer who supports Piñera and who worked in the minister of planning under former military dictator Gen. August Pinochet, told me at a downtown polling station. "People want change. It's a feeling that has been present for the last two or three elections."
Just how big a change is unclear. Since 1990, Concertación governments, including the current one led by Socialist Michelle Bachelet, have helped transform this long sliver of South America into one of the region's most stable democracies, but haven't made fundamental changes to Pinochet's economic policies. So, though voters were clearly looking for aesthetic change, a new face to leadership, they may also have been hoping for more of the same.
Piñera seemed the perfect candidate for such an environment. While Concertación's Frei was a familiar character in politics, having already served as president once from 1994 to 2000, the charismatic, Harvard-educated Piñera promised to usher in a new era.
"It's a change of attitudes in politics," said Piñera supporter Percy Marin Vera at the winner's victory party Sunday, when asked to explain what the president-elect represented. But he and other supporters struggled to describe exactly what else they expected would be different about the new administration. During the campaign, Piñera promised to create 1 million new jobs and double Chile's per capita income in four years, but left his path to achieving that vague.
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images
New reports of 11,000 people killed by Brazilian police over the past six years are perhaps one indication that violence in the super-star Amazon country has gotten a wee bit out of hand.
Never fear, there is a long term solution already under consideration: prohibit "offensive" video games, with the option to punish their distribution with jailtime. In all honesty, Brazilian Senator Valdir Raupp probably did not have human rights violations in mind when he proposed the bill, which was recently approved by Senate's Education Committee. It follows on the ban last year on violent computer role-playing games "Counter-Strike" and "EverQuest," and Venezuela and China's bans on warlike and mobster-glorifying games respectively.
CNET's Dave Rosenberg has lambasted Brazil's move, suggesting they deal with "larger social issues, including lack of parental oversight," instead. They praise the US system of industry self-regulation, which relies on ratings to isolate children from violent games.
The Brazilian law is probably overkill, but lets not get all starry eyed about the glories of free-market entertainment violence. Did nobody notice a few years back when U.S. generals begged Hollywood producers to stop showing torture in a favorable light, since troops were getting inspiration on prisoner treatment from 24?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Thieves in Brazil made off with nearly $6 million in a heist that demonstrated the unbelievable distracting power of soccer in the country.
The looters rented a house near a cash delivery firm, put up Christmas decorations to make the operation look legitimate, and then started digging a 110-yard-long tunnel under the building. Then they waited. Last Sunday, during the 39th Brazilian soccer championship, they blew the floor out of the building and plundered the riches.
The security guard on duty didn't suspect a thing. He thought the thuds and bangs he heard were people celebrating Flamengo's victory with fireworks. As of now, the thieves have gotten away with a perfect heist.
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend, Honduran citizens voted Porfirio Lobo president, months after a coup ousted Manuel Zelaya. Here, Foreign Policy contributor and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto J. Reich replies to criticism of his FP article on the coup.
How does one rebut so many errors and distortions as those in Christopher Sabatini and Daniel Altshuler's response ("Calling a Coup a Coup," from Nov. 2) to my Foreign Policy article on Honduras ("Honduras is an Opportunity," from Oct. 27). Let us deal with just some of them.
By my count, Sabatini and Altshuler (hereafter, "SA") repeat the term "coup" 11 times, an incantation designed to cast a spell over the reader. But no matter how many times the liberal duo recite the mantra to misidentify the events that removed Manuel Zelaya from office, it was not a coup. Since the entire letter is based on that false premise, its conclusions are equally false.
SA accuse me of "ideological revisionism," for saying the U.S. should recognize the transitional government that is based on Honduran law, while they insist on calling a constitutional removal of a law-breaking president by a unanimous vote of a nation's Supreme Court, a "coup." Curiously, SA dismiss the Supreme Court action by citing two obscure U.S. academics' papers which portend to rebut a U.S. Law Library of Congress report that supported the legality of Zelaya's ouster. Is that ideological on their part, or just plain confused?
The ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, had violated several articles of the Honduran Constitution (as documented in the aforementioned Supreme Court decision), and therefore according to Honduran law (not my opinion) he was no longer president of Honduras when he was deported (the deportation was not legal, but it occurred after the legal removal from office). Further evidence that Zelaya's removal was not a coup was the ratification of his removal by a nearly unanimous vote of the Honduran Congress. SA gloss over Zelaya's violations of the law and focus instead on his subsequent -- and inexcusable -- deportation.
SA claim that "Reich vigorously defended Micheletti's assumption of power as the victory of the rule of law and a stand against Latin American leftists." False. I not only did not defend (or condemn) Micheletti, I mention Micheletti only once in my article, in passing, acknowledging that he replaced Zelaya. This is only one example of the paucity of facts in SA's article. I am not sure whose article they were rebutting, but I don't think it was mine. Their allegations are directed at "conservatives," "Micheletti apologists," and others -- people I know did not write my FP article.
Attacking "conservatives" put SA in a bind. They charge that "U.S. conservatives have argued that Barack Obama's administration should recognize the Nov. 29 elections in Honduras as a way out of the political crisis." Actually, it is not only U.S. conservatives, but also the Obama administration that has come to that conclusion, as evidenced in the agreement brokered by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon in late October. It was Zelaya who renounced the agreement just days after he had signed it. Shannon then said the U.S. would recognize the winner of the Nov. 29 elections as the legitimate head of the next Honduran government.
In their letter to FP, SA praise the U.S.-brokered accord as follows: "[Most] importantly, the prospective settlement sets the stage for internationally recognized elections that will transfer power to a new president and help the country move forward." I agree. And contrary to SA's implication, I support that accord and think it is the best way out of the current crisis. I would hope that Zelaya's retreat from it has not caused SA to reverse course.
Although most of their letter can be dismissed as confused and self-contradictory, Sabatini-Altshuler's ideological motivation in attacking "U.S. conservatives'" position on the Honduras electoral crisis (as embodied by me, I assume) is serious. In concluding, SA claim that the "conservative" posture on Honduras they have attacked in their letter "would have mirrored the United States' foreign-policy blunders in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, the United States supported façade democracies -- deadly authoritarian regimes that held civilian elections to legitimize their rule -- to pursue questionable geopolitical aims. This position cheapened elections and weakened nascent democracies."
This not only reveals a clear leftist ideological direction by SA, but also a revisionism resulting in crass historical distortion. This is a contemptible and ignorant slap at Ronald Reagan, the president in "the 1980s," under whom unprecedented progress was made in hemispheric democracy. When Reagan took office in 1981, a majority of Latin Americans lived under military dictatorships. When the conservative Reagan left office eight years later, the situation had been reversed: An overwhelming majority of our neighboring countries had transitioned to democracy after long and brutal dictatorships, such as Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Chile. Which of those governments were "façade regimes," as in SA's accusation? Which were U.S. policy blunders? In which of those countries did the U.S. weaken "nascent democracy"?
As someone who worked for Ronald Reagan for those eight years, I can attest that democratic progress was no accident. It was the result of a policy designed and implemented to bring freedom and democracy to our hemisphere. That two American liberals attempt to re-write history and thus demean the U.S. role in the advance of freedom in this region, imperfect as it was but one that came at a high cost in lives and treasure, is an obvious illustration of the moral bankruptcy of American liberalism today.
But SA are not satisfied with running down their country: Their despicable and rude anti-Reagan screed reaches another ridiculous nadir with the statement that those (1980s) U.S. policies were based on "the pursuit of questionable geopolitical aims." Really? What aims were those? The main geopolitical aim of Ronald Reagan, as I remember, was the defeat of communism. The policy succeeded. And with it came an unprecedented global spread of freedom, human rights and prosperity. By whose standards was this policy "questionable?" I do recall it was questionable to the Kremlin, many western Marxist "intellectuals," and most Third World socialist despots and guerrilla leaders. It was not questionable to the hundreds of millions of people of Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union whom it helped to liberate from oppression. We now know they supported Reagan. As did the other hundreds of millions people who benefitted from the end of the Cold War and from the ensuing prosperity resulting from the "peace dividend".
Why does U.S. Cold War policy appear to be a "blunder" to Sabatini-Altshuler? For the same reason they cannot see why the U.S. should support free elections in Honduras. Historical ignorance and political ideology blinds them.
Peru is starting to remind me of a character in a Latin American soap opera. A wife who has grown to hate her husband, Chile, after a near divorce (the 19th century war) followed by decades of perceived slights. She sits at home, stewing and seeing infidelities everywhere (accusations that Chile and Bolivia are making a secret deal, that Chile is preparing for war, that Chile is taking parts of the coastline). She frequently confronts him hysterically, and then they fight. This, of course, doesn't mean he isn't cheating.
If it were really a soap, Chile would obviously have planted spies in the Peruvian military, as the latter's government is alleging. The spy was apparently sending information south about an ongoing border dispute case in the International Court of Justice. As of last count, Peruvian officials were talking about six supposed spies, some of whom are already on the lam; Peruvian president Alan Garcia called Chile a tinpot republic; Chilean President Michelle Bachelet responded to these "offensive" and "pompous" statements with cool denials; in the meantime her minister of foreign relations assured Chile that "derogatory accusations" do not affect them.
As if all this weren't enough, as in any soap opera, there are ambiguous minor characters in both countries: the legislators in Chile who accuse Peru of orchestrating a hostile communication strategy, and the original alleged spy, Víctor Ariza, whose mother cries and threatens to cut off her hands.
The madness doesn't go as far as war, the Peruvian authorities are attempting to avoid accusing Bachelet herself of involvement, and most analysts agree trade relations should continue uninterrupted. It's part of what diplomats there call a two strands approach: political relations on one side, trade on the other.
As interesting as it is, the analysis is thin on what is really going on. There are many serious stakes in all this, after all. Can it really be chalked up to the long-standing rivalry between the two countries dating back to the 1883 War of the Pacific?
One article in an Argentine paper questions the timing of the story -- which broke when Garcia and Bachelet were at a summit together -- and points out that it serves as a distracting and unifying issue for Garcia, at a time when he faces unrest and unpopularity at home. His approval ratings are at 26 percent, dropping to 14 percent in many areas of the country.
In the next nail-biting episode: If Peru presents Chile with proof, how will Chile respond?
ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images
The border between Peru and Chile became increasingly fraught Wednesday -- with France stepping into the fray by (inadvertently?) publishing a map that seems to side with Peru.
Peru and Chile are awaiting a ruling from the International Court of Justice, to decide the maritime boundaries between the two. In the mean time, Peruvian media is crowing with delight at the French National Geographic Institute's slip-up, saying "If it is not a prediction, it is at least an encouraging fact."
But Chile's diplomats will not let the issue rest, government officials pressed the Gallic institute for answers, while at the same time assuring their people that this cannot influence The Hague's final decision.
The French chancery today put out a statement assuring their neutrality in the matter, saying the map in question has "no official value."
Tensions have been running high for a while, with Peru protesting Chilean military demonstrations as threatening and proposing a regional non-aggression pact in order to stop a Latin American arms race.
More seriously, Bolivia is staying out of this dispute, although it too has a strong interest in two countries' ocean borders. Chile and Bolivia are negotiating to give the latter country sea access for the first time in 140 years, having lost its ocean view in the 19th century War of the Pacific, in which Chile annexed portions of Peru and Bolivia.
Last year, Passport made the case for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosting the 2016 Olympics over closest rivals Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid.
Today, one Chicago website is making that same case.
"It would be exciting to host the Olympics here in Chicago," ChicagoansforRio.com says. "But you know what would be even better? Rio de Janeiro. Just let Rio host the 2016 Olympics. We don't mind. Honest."
Just eight days until the announcement of the winner, Chicagoans for Rio break down some reasons Brazil would host the games better. For instance:
Statues. Rio has Christ standing. Chicago has Lincoln sitting. (To be fair, Chicago also has statues of Lincoln standing.)
Signature events. Rio has naked people dancing. Chicago has chubby people eating.
Nickname. Rio is the "Marvelous City." Chicago is the "Second City."
The site also points out Chicago has a budget deficit of nearly $220 million; they claim Rio has a $0 budget deficit because, "If you're a Chicagoan, Rio's budget deficit does not matter."
They also say 21 of Athens' 22 Olympic venues remain unused.
It appears the latest victim of recessionomics is the ambition to host the world's second most important sporting event.
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
In the Guardian, Jonathan Franklin provides a first-hand look at "cocaine tourism" in Bolivia:
"Tonight we have two types of cocaine; normal for 100 Bolivianos a gram, and strong cocaine for 150 [Bolivianos] a gram." The waiter has just finished taking our drink order of two rum-and-Cokes here in La Paz, Bolivia, and as everybody in this bar knows, he is now offering the main course. The bottled water is on the house.The waiter arrives at the table, lowers the tray and places an empty black CD case in the middle of the table. Next to the CD case are two straws and two little black packets. He is so casual he might as well be delivering a sandwich and fries. And he has seen it all. "We had some Australians; they stayed here for four days. They would take turns sleeping and the only time they left was to go to the ATM," says Roberto, who has worked at Route 36 (in its various locations) for the last six months.
Franklin reports that in addition to the low prices a number of reasons conspire to make Bolivia the perfect location:
This new trend of 'cocaine tourism' can be put down to a combination of Bolivia's notoriously corrupt public officials, the chaotic "anything goes" attitude of La Paz, and the national example of President Evo Morales, himself a coca grower.
While the rest of the article is great, I'm not sure about the "national example" factor of Morales. I'm pretty sure the president is not selling his crops for processed cocaine. Morales did want to destigmatize coca crops when he won the presidency, but it was to restore the leaf's role in Bolivia's cultural heritage, not to give the thumbs up to full scale cocaine production.
Obviously more coca crops make more cocaine much easier, but I wouldn't quite say Morales is explicilty in approval.
AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images
Colombian president Alvaro Uribe won an election in Colombia's Senate to move forward with a public referendum allowing him to run for a third term. He still has to pass it in the House, and of course the referendum itself would have to pass with the public.
This is almost twilight zone territory. Consider the Washington Post's Juan Forero's description of Uribe's status in the U.S.:
Uribe's supporters, including Republicans in the U.S. Congress, also see him as a stalwart U.S. ally and a bulwark against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who, along with the presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia, is a vehement opponent of U.S. policies. Uribe's government is negotiating a pact with the Obama administration that would deploy U.S. servicemen and aircraft to Colombian military bases.
That same pact restarted a sporadic feud between Uribe and Chavez, who has called Uribe an American pawn and temporarily withdrew Venezuela's ambassdor to Colombia over the base issue.
Now correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Chavez's willingness to manipulate the constituion to stay in power one of the reasons for tensions with the United States for nearly a decade? Isn't doing something similar why Manuel Zelaya got kicked out of Honduras in his pajamas?
To be fair, Zelaya only got ejected after trying to continue with a referendum to lift term limits after the Honduran Supreme Court ruled against it. It looks like in Colombia, as in Venezuela, the other branches of government might not interfere.
Obviously, Uribe's move puts the Obama adminsitration and all the Uribe fans in Congress in a tough spot. Just on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton met with Colombia's Foreign Minister and thanked Colombia for its help moving toward "restoring the democratic and constitutional order in Honduras."
So now what? Support Uribe as long as he has domestic support for his amendment, or encourage him to respect the current constitution and risk a new Colombian president who might be less U.S. friendly?
If this goes through, I predict Hugo Chavez will have a field day on his
unedited video diary candid television show Alo Presidente.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
In June, I wrote about how many of the world's biggest soccer clubs are facing crippling debt. Over the summer, several individual clubs have faced disbandment over their debts, and now an entire league is facing a season being postponed, as Argentina's Football Association has been forced to suspend the beginning of its fall season. Many of the top division's clubs are have very large debts, including its most famous clubs, Buenos Aires-based River Plate and Boca Juniors.
Latin American football is a tenuous financial affair at the best of times; club directors are hired and fired by a club's members (anyone can pay a membership fee), encouraging lavish promises to the membership, and there is little regulation of financial practices. Furthermore, the die-hard fan clubs known as "Barra Bravas" have become more assertive and violent in recent years, leading to falling attendances (the AFA president's office was attacked within two hours of the postponement, with about 100 people throwing stones and breaking windows). With the global recession pushing down revenues even further, all that the AFA can do is try negotiating a larger TV rights payment, and it's unclear at this point how long that will take.
If the season is delayed for too long, the damage to the league's talent level could be critical: while the Argentine league is no longer among the world's best, like many South American leagues it remains a key breeding ground for top talent (big stars who got their start in Argentina include Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Diego Forlan and Sergio Agüero). But a long delay could lead to many top prospects moving to leagues in Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, where they could continue developing while actually getting paid. Still, those angry supporters shouldn't worry too much - as a new book points out, 97 percent of the 88 clubs that started England's football league in 1923 still exist today, whereas less than the world's biggest companies then have survived that long.
ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
They may be leftists, but the current and former president of Argentina have no aversion to making money on the side.
Rory Carroll in the Guardian reports that Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, elected in 2007, and her husband Nestor, the previous president, have done pretty well for themselves:
New figures show that since Nestor and Cristina Kirchner came to power in 2003, they have presided over a remarkable sixfold increase in their own wealth.
The couple have racked up a fortune through property speculation and investments that have thrived even as the economy has faltered. Last year alone their wealth jumped 158% to £7.3m...
According to information the couple supplied to the anti-corruption office, they own 28 properties valued at $3.8m, four companies worth $4.8m and bank deposits of $8.4m. Last year they sold 16 properties, almost tripling their bank accounts, and expanded their hotel business in El Calafate, a tourist magnet. Their debts also jumped because of bank loans.
Knowing Argentina's history of corruption, the open disclosure by the first couple of their wealth is actually kind of reassuring.
But now, with Argentina fighting to avoid a recession and public debts mounting across the country, the Kirchners would do well to apply that same financial acumen to the country's problems. Otherwise, they will face increasingly tough questions about how they had so much time for their own finances when they were supposed to be focusing on those of Argentina.
DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images
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.