The October 7, Face Off

Average of two major opposing polls:

Chavez +5.4*

Hugo Chavez 46.4%

United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) 

Henrique Carpiles 41%

Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD)

*Average reflects sum of percent support for each candidate in polls conducted by Datanlysis and Consultores21

If the elections are decided purely upon campaign videos, then Chavez maintains an advantage.

“Mi Comandante” – Chavez’s Official Campaign Song

“Hay un Camino” – Capriles Campaign Video

Datanalysis: Chavez +12.5

Hugo Chavez 46.8%

Henrique Capriles 34.3%

“The socialist’s advantage narrowed to 12.5 points in a Datanalisis poll in August from 15.3 percentage points in June.”

Consultores21: Capriles +1.8

Henrique Capriles 47.7%

Hugo Chavez 45.9%

Survey of 1,000 people had a margin or error of 3.2 percentage points.

“A poll taken between June 15 and June 26 showed the president with 45.9 percent support against 45.8 percent for Capriles. The Caracas-based pollster correctly predicted that Chavez’s opponents would win a slender majority in the popular vote in legislative elections in September 2010.”


South America’s two largest economies reconciled union disputes and judicial rulings this week, allowing work to continue on major projects.

On Monday, a strike led by unions representing 90 percent of government employees ended in Brazil, on promises to raise public sector wages by 15.8 percent, over the next three years. In another development, work resumed on the Belo Monte dam after Brazil’s Supreme Court reversed a previous ruling that had suspended the project.  The hydro plant will be the world’s third largest, generating from 4,751 MW to 11,233 MW, depending on the flow of the Xingu River.  Upon completion, the project will flood 195 square miles of rainforest, affecting more than 66 communities.

“Stop Belo Monte”

On Tuesday, in Argentina, an alliance of government, unions, and business leaders agreed to raise the minimum wage by 25 percent amid continued inflation and slow economic growth. Monthly minimum wage will rise to 2,670 pesos (US$ 576) on Sept. 1 and to 2,875 pesos (US$ 621)            on  Feb. 1.

But other strikes continue elsewhere in the Americas.  Last week In Colombia, a hunger strike ended, in which four GM workers sowed their lips shut after being fired for contesting the automotive company’s health policy.  The hunger strike marked the culmination of nearly a year of protest.  Strikers accused GM of falsifying the medical records of factory workers, to absolve the company of responsibility for health complications derived from working at the plant.  On Aug. 22, after three weeks of fasting, GM agreed to mediation and protest leaders removed the stitches and dug into a meal of roast chicken and arepas (Colombian pancake).  Despite some progress, the strikers continue to occupy an area surrounding the US Embassy in Bogotá.

And in Chile, students have taken to the streets once more to demand the affordability of higher education.  Tuesday’s protests swelled to over 150,000 supporters.  Last year, students led more than 40 major demonstrations through the capital of Santiago.

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Follow Up

GM’s Hunger Games

Mediation fails to secure compensation for strikers

10 September, 2012

The American Prospect

Under mounting public pressure, Colmotores agreed to negotiations facilitated by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on August 23.

The talks, however, did not result in GM rehiring the workers or compensating them for lost wages. After three and a half days of mediation, the talks were broken off last Friday. The hunger strike and U.S. protests have begun anew, and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Colombian GM worker takes hunger strike to Washington

Strikers take the fight to GM’s its home turf

11 September, 2012

Joey O’Goreman, Colombia Reports

Colombian General Motors (GM) worker Jorge Parra is on hunger-strike again, and this time he is in Washington D.C.

After a mere three-and-a-half days the talks were broken off when GM refused to meet the protestors demands to be rehabilitated and retrained so they could resume working in the company.

“The only thing GM offered was $6,000 to share between the 12 workers, that is not even enough to buy a hot-dog stand,” said Parra.

Often the quest to advance social justice causes social disorder.  Consequently, the desire to restore order can provoke the degradation of social justice.  Protestors and activists disrupt the flow of society to raise awareness of where society functions ineffectively.  Law enforcement often forgoes due process and human rights, when the equilibrium of daily life is thrown off by mass demonstration.

In repressive regimes, government crackdowns warrant international condemnation.  However, in countries with solid democratic credentials, we have more trust that law enforcement will protect basic human rights.  Decisions taken by the courts are similarly given more credibility than dictatorial show trails.

But, what happens when democracies fail to respect citizen rights in responding to social movements?  In countries with a long history of civil rights activism under representative forms of government, there exist many well established organizations that fight for the rights of citizens – most notably the ACLU in the US.  Yet, in new relatively young democracies there are fewer such institutions.

Amid more than a year of mass protests against Chile’s exclusive educational system, volunteers have stepped up to monitor the actions of riot police.  Dressed in blue helmets labeled DDHH (derechos humanos/human rights), a cadre of volunteers record police tactics that violate the rights of demonstrators.

One monitor amid the fray

Many detained by police during the protests have reported sexual humiliation, torture, and other acts of police brutality.  Beyond teargas, rubber bullets, and high powered fire hoses with chemically infused water, protestors “reported having their heads forced into the toilet, guns pointed against their heads, being beaten unconscious, and a police officer pulling down his pants to show them his genitals.”

The work of objective monitors helps create at least some accountability for the actions of law enforcement.  Armed with a camera and notepad,  one volunteer commented, “[w]e don’t intervene, we don’t try to take detainees away from them, but we do let them know when they’re doing something illegal or irregular, that they can’t beat people up, and that we are watching and have their names and ranks. They pay attention.”

Monitors post updates via twitter and through their website.  In some cases, evidence generated by observers has been used successfully in court.  One lawyer submitted records to courts in February, when he represented a student who accused the police of torture while in detention.

Given, Chile’s history of activism against autocratic oppression under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, these monitors facilitate the consolidation of democracy, by protecting citizen rights and increasing governmental accountability.

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Follow Up

Tens of Thousands March in Chile for Better Schools

At it again this week.

30 August, 2012

SANTIAGO – Tens of thousands of students and their supporters packed the streets of this capital on Tuesday for a march to demand improvements to Chile’s poorly funded public education system.

Organizers estimated the number of participants in Tuesday’s event at more than 150,000, while authorities cited a figure of around 50,000

Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times in 2011

On 21 Aug., Mitt Romney announced a trade policy “focused primarily, but not exclusively, on Latin America.”  The presidential hopeful outlined his desire to rekindle the flames of a Pan American free trade zone, a fire smothered in 2005 by opposition from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Dominica.  The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) proposed in 1994 by President Clinton, would have created a 34 nation trading bloc – arguably the largest and most ambitious in the world, given the variability of development profiles among potential member states.

Widespread opposition to the plan contested the viability of free-trade between countries of such unequal economic power.  Latin American states feared the destruction of domestic production, in the face of highly competitive US firms.  The failed FTAA, partly inspired Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Dominica to form their own bloc, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA): a trade agreement based on a reciprocal barter system.  Meanwhile, even US congress shied away from the proposal, over concerns that cheap labor costs in Latin America would lead to outsourcing, as well as the erosion of US agriculture to the farming giants of Brazil and Argentina.

The logo that never made it

Romney’s new plan seeks to build upon a network of smaller free-trade agreements (FTAs) already in place between the US and individual Latin American countries.  He proposes, joining these agreements to create a larger zone.  For example, separate FTAs between the US and Panama, and the US and Chile would be combined – requiring Chile and Panama to lower trade barriers with each other.

However, such a plan would most likely fail or produce an impotent version of an original proposal. Simply put, the US has little power to sway the Brazilian giant, which already scrambles to protect its resilient, yet troubled domestic industry.  Additionally, the US would bypass Argentina and other left-leaning ALBA states from an agreement.  Under these conditions, a Pan American free trade zone would include Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico.  But the US already has regional FTAs with Central America and Mexico, and Bilateral ones with Peru, Colombia, and Chile.  So essentially, a positive outcome means exactly what we already have, but under a different name.  Similarly, a negative outcome means exactly what we already have, plus another diplomatic failure.

Free Trade with the US is just plain unpopular.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers at the gain of US industrial agriculture.  The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is not any better.  Moreover, increased economic power in Latin America combined with a historical distrust of US proposals, makes a comprehensive plan lead by the US extremely unlikely.  With Romney representing the hardline conservative face of US diplomacy in the Americas, Latin American leaders would be even more skeptical of a ‘mutually beneficial’ agreement.

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Follow Up

Peru Wants to Negotiate Free-Trade Pact With Indonesia

Peru finds new Asian partners

10 Septemeber, 2012


LIMA, Peru–Peru wants a free-trade pact with Indonesia, adding to the number of other trade liberalization agreements the Andean nation has signed in recent years.

“Indonesia is a large south-east Asian nation with about 250 million persons. It is a multicultural nation and has an extremely large market.”—minister-20120910-01096

Presidential inauguration of Cristina Fernandez with late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner

The Fernandez-Kirchner Dynasty has become quite wealthy while governing Argentina since 2003.  In 2008 alone, their fortune jumped from around $17 million pesos to more than $32 million.  Much of those gains could be attributed to the creation of two new hotels in El Calafate and the sale of 16 properties in the province of Santa Cruz.  After the passing of her husband: former President Nestor Kirchner, President Cristina Fernandez’s fortunes now total US$ 8.6 million.  Her net worth actually declined during the inheritance, due to money received by her two children Maximo and Florencia.

Despite her diligent submission of income to the anticorruption office, the state of many properties owned by the family has raised suspicions.  Nestor Kirchner originally purchased the Santa Cruz property several years ago for US$150,000 and then reportedly sold the holding to Chilean group Cencosud for US$ 2.4 million, which planned to build a supermarket on the land.  Four years later, the plot is still vacant and the company’s president, Horst Paulmann, acknowledges he has yet to begin planning any development on the property.

Land sold to Chilean firm Cencosud for US$ 2.4 million

Meanwhile, two blocks away Alicia Kirchner, Nestor’s sister owns another plot of land.  Alicia claims that she originally purchased the property for US$ 11,000.  If she had sold the property at the same price per square meter as her brother did to the Chilean company, then she would receive about US$ 200,000.  However, the actual market value of the land stands at US$ 80,000.

Though she purchased the property around the same time as her brother, she waited until last month to declare the holdings, after her daughter became the prosecutor responsible for such cases.  Conveniently enough, daughters are prohibited by law to prosecute their mothers.  Alicia is also a cabinet member in Cristina Fernandez’s government.

Alicia Kirchner announces properties to government

These suspicions of fraud are not new in Argentina.  Former president Carlos Menem (1989-1990) is charged with illegally selling arms to Ecuador and Croatia, in addition to siphoning millions from a number of contracts with foreign companies during a slew of privatizations.  In one incident, he received US$2 million in bribes from Siemens, in exchange for a contract to print the country’s national ID cards and passports.

While no charges have been brought against the current president, it would not be surprising if similar allegations begin to surface after she departs from office.  Both Menem and the Kirchners governed during times of economic transition.  Menem presided over an era of privatization and Fernandez and her late husband oversaw the re-nationalization of many firms.  With so many assets changing hands, it is not hard for money to get lost in the process – conveniently laundered as profits in a property sale.

To enjoy truly enjoy political corruption in style, sip on this spicy watermelon margarita.

Quito, Ecuador

Having narrowly dodged allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange avoided a one-way flight to gitmo.   Now he’s in Ecuador’s capital of Quito, nestled high in the Andes, straddling the Amazon basin and the beaches of the Pacific Ocean.  Safe, or so he thought.

Every time he goes to make a purchase, he finds Washington staring right back at him – wig, wooden teeth and all.    Sometimes it’s Lincoln, other times it’s Jackson and on the first of the month when he receives his stipend from the Ecuadorian government, it’s Benjamin.  Founding fathers in green paint, boasting their status as legal tender have followed the anti-secrecy crusader to his happy place.

Ecuador began using the dollar as its official currency in 2000, exchanging the inflation ridden sucre at a rate of 25,000 to the dollar.   While national currencies still predominate throughout every other Latin American country, the dollar serves as the ideal medium for larges purchases, such as property, houses, and automobiles.  According to the New York Federal Reserve, as of 2010, “roughly 75 percent of hundred-dollar notes, 55 percent of fifty-dollar notes, and 60 percent of twenty-dollar notes are held abroad, while about 65 percent of all U.S. banknotes are in circulation outside the country.”  In total, 85 percent of all international transactions are conducted in dollars. At the end of 2009, $580 billion in physical US currency was held outside the country.

Despite pleas from Assange’s mother, Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Correa has yet to grant him Asylum.  Currently, Correa’s administration is trying to persuade Swedish authorities to conduct questioning regarding the sex scandal, in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, where Assange is holed up.  Sweden has yet to actually press charges.  Their extradition request is meant to further an investigation into allegations from two former Wikileaks supporters.

Assange interviews Correa on Russian TV

At the end of the day, Correa is likely to accept Assange.  The President, a former Harvard Economics professor, never misses a good opportunity to contest the diplomatic interests of the US.  Plus, the two became close after Assange interviewed Correa as part of a Russian television series. Whether London will allow Assange to leave is another issue entirely.  But even if he actually makes it to the small South American nation, the greenback will be ever present – a reminder of his powerful enemy.


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Follow Up

Ecuador court refuses to extradite Belarussian dissident

Furthering the escape from empire and oppression

29 August, 2012

The Guardian

A judge from Ecuador‘s highest court has rejected an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, and ordered that he be freed immediately

Barankov, 30, had argued he could be killed if sent back to his former Soviet bloc homeland, where President Alexander Lukashenko has been nicknamed “Europe‘s last dictator”.

I’m happy. They saved my life,” an overjoyed Barankov said by phone from jail. His Ecuadorean girlfriend had notified him just moments earlier

In its most extreme form, Latin American politics conjures the image of Hugo Chavez on horse back, wielding a tiny copy copy of the Communist Manifesto to spread the joy of central planning and chic red berets.  But, it is time to rethink this mental caricature.  The region’s political climate should arouse not one, but several overly simplified stereotypes.

The Left

There are three types of leftist presidents throughout Latin America: the firebrand hardliners, the practical populists and the wannabe one-timers.  Chavez and Raul Castro compose the far-left hardliners.  They accept state planning as the preferred means of running an economy, and they actively oppose the private sector and its champions in the US.  These leaders are willing to subvert the democratic process and personal freedoms, in the pursuit of collective equality.

The practical leftists are closely aligned with the hardliners, but act distinctly.  This group includes Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.  While often prone to diplomatic demagoguery and hostile to foreign interests, these presidents have maintained responsible fiscal and monetary policies, favorable to sustainable growth and macroeconomic stability.  Meanwhile they have focused on empowering the state in the alleviation of poverty.

At the edge of the leftist spectrum stand the wannabe one-timers.  These leaders are either reformed leftists or left-leaning moderates trying to act more like firebrands. Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Ollanta Humala of Peru fall into this category.  Fernandez has progressively asserted the role of the state over the private sector through nationalizing private enterprise and the provision of social services.  Conversely Humala, who once campaigned as a leftist similar to Chavez, has negotiated more mining contracts with foreign companies in his first year, than his predecessor did throughout his entire term.  Often these wannabe one-timers can be more radical than the true leftists or even conservatives, as they are always trying to prove their credentials.


Life-long leftists with a preference for the free market and progressive conservatives, form a middle ground throughout Latin America.  On the center-left we find Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and José Mujica of Uruguay.  As communist guerrillas, both of these leaders once battled military regimes during the 60s and 70s.  However, as statesmen they have favored the middle road – strengthening the private sector while confronting poverty with responsible state spending.

To the right of the middle path is a collection of conservatives open to progressive alternatives.  Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia both served as the defense ministers of previous administrations and Perez Molina fought as an officer in the special forces during Guatemala’s brutal 30-year civil war.  While both leaders campaigned as hardline conservatives, willing to fight crime with an iron fist in cooperation with US forces, they have come to endorse a more progressive approach.  This March, Pérez Molina spearheaded a debate on the legalization of narcotics.  Meanwhile, Santos has been instrumental in bridging the gap between the left and right, thawing relations with Chavez, while maintaining Colombia’s close partnership with the US.

The Right

The leaders of most Latin American countries fall into the middle or the left, largely a product of the region’s growing independence from US interests and a backlash against a series of free market reforms enacted during the 1990s.

On the right, we find two types of leaders: the embattled hardliner and the post-coup president.  Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Felipe Calderón of Mexico represent this first category.  Piñera emerged as Chile’s first conservative president following the overthrow of Pinochet.  Though his policies have been fiscally conservative and have continued to rely on copper as the country’s main export, he has faced extreme pressure from left-leaning student protests.  In response, he has raised educational spending by nearly one billion dollars.  Meanwhile Calderón has stuck to his guns – literally.  Despite slow progress and horrendous violence, Calderón has continued to wage Mexico’s drug war as a military campaign.

In less glorious fashion, there sit two post-coup presidents.  Federico Franco of Paraguay and Porfirio Lobo of Honduras preside over countries emerging from less than democratic power transitions.  Franco once served as the Vice-President for the left-leaning Fernando Lugo.  However, on June 21, he and congress deposed the president in a hasty 24-hour impeachment.  Now he controls the executive until Lugo’s aborted term ends in 2013.  If Franco wins Paraguay’s next elections he will be in the same situation as Lobo.  Lobo’s presidency follows the military ouster of Manuel Zelaya, another leftist.  So far Lobo has distanced himself from the progressive drug war alternative espoused by his Guatemalan neighbor, instead favoring good old-fashioned DEA led crackdowns.

Presidents and former presidents from left to right Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Juanes, Alvaro Uribe (Colombia), Alan Garcia (Peru), and Lula da Silva (Brazil)

Not all of Latin America’s leaders fit into these categories and regular elections continuously change the region’s political climate.  However, hopefully these labels have diversified the singular stereotype into a few more colorful caricatures.

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