October 11, 2013

Colombia tie guarantees nation World Cup slot; Ecuador moves one step closer

Colombia tied Chile 3-3 tonight and Ecuador beat Uruguay 1-0. The outcome guarantees Colombia a slot in Brazil, ending its 16-year World Cup drought. Barring an upset, Ecuador is almost certain to have a slot, also.

Here are the South America standings as of Friday night:

Argentina 14 8 5 1 30 11 29
Colombia 15 8 3 4 25 12 27
Ecuador 15 7 4 4 19 14 25
Chile 15 8 1 6 27 24 25
Uruguay 15 6 4 5 22 23 22
Venezuela 16 5 5 6 14 20 20
Peru 14 4 2 8 15 22 14
Paraguay 15 3 3 9 16 29 12
Bolivia 15 2 5 8 16 29 11

Breaking Bad comes to Latin America but will the chemistry work?


Do you recognize this man in his underwear? 

Walter White of Breaking Bad is dead and gone in the United States, but Latin America is getting ready for a major dose of the chemistry teacher turned meth don.

Sony and Teleset are remaking the entire series in Colombia. It sounds like it will be more of a re-shoot than an adaptation. The producers say they went to great lengths to match the series in terms of storyline, relationships, dialogue, look  and feel. Walter White is Walter Blanco, his wife Skyler will be Cielo.

At any rate, here's a story I wrote about it a few weeks back. It seemed like good weekend fodder. 

BOGOTA -- As the camera pulled back during Sunday’s final episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White — the chemistry teacher turned meth king — was sprawled in a pool of blood. But in Latin America, Walter Blanco is just being born.

Sony Pictures Television and Colombia’s Teleset are remaking the Emmy award-winning show in and around this bustling capital. Here it will be called Metastasis, but that’s virtually the only change the producers are making.

The new show is “very, very close” to the original, said Angelica Guerra, senior vice president and managing director of production for Latin America and the Hispanic market in the United States for Sony Pictures Television.

“You won’t see a new character, you won’t see different relationships, you won’t see huge dialogue differences,” she said. “In essence, it’s exactly the same.”

As many U.S. television viewers know, Breaking Bad follows the story of White, a New Mexico chemistry teacher who reacts to a cancer diagnosis by cooking up the Southwest’s purest methamphetamine to pay his medical bills and leave his family a nest egg. Over the course of five seasons, the audience watched White devolve from mild-mannered, sweater-vest-wearing schoolteacher into a sociopath with a knack for making blue crank and rubbing out his rivals.

“It’s a story that could happen anywhere in the world and especially in [Latin America],” Guerra said.

Read the full story here

October 10, 2013

Venezuela inflation just shy of hitting 50% for year


Annual inflation in Venezuela hit 49.4 percent in September, up from 18 percent a year ago, and basic goods became harder to find, the Central Bank reported Thursday.

The soaring consumer price index gives Venezuela the highest inflation in the hemisphere and one of the highest in the world.

In September alone, inflation spiked 4.4 percent, driven by agricultural goods, transportation, education expenses and a 19.3 percent hike in electricity prices, the government said.

The new figures are ammunition for an opposition that is trying to turn December’s municipal election into a referendum on the six-month administration of President Nicolás Maduro. Inflation is a pocketbook issue as it saps consumers’ purchasing power.

The Central Bank also reported that the “scarcity index,” which measures the availability of basic goods, hit 21.2 percent in September versus 13.6 percent a year ago. The bank said that excluding auto parts, corn oil and sunflower oil, the scarcity index would be at 15.3 percent.

Maduro has blamed rising prices and chronic shortages on hoarding, speculation and an “economic war” waged by his rivals. The government raised minimum wage 20 percent in May and 10 percent in September. Wages are going up an additional 10 percent next month. Earlier this week, Maduro asked parliament for the right to rule by decree for 12 months to the fight the economic battle and squash corruption. The National Assembly is expected to vote on the measure in coming weeks.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda State, is asking his colleagues at the National Assembly to keep Maduro from seizing more power.

“Decree powers are not going to help bring down inflation, or raise salaries, or guarantee that hospitals are stocked,” he said Thursday. “It’s just a smokescreen to keep us dizzy.”

October 09, 2013

US veteran kidnapped by Colombia's FARC "speaks" from captivity


US Army vet Kevin Scott Sutay was kidnapped by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in July as he wandered outside the city of San Jose de Guaviare – against local advice and, some would argue, common sense

The rebel group is in the process of hammering out a slow-motion peace agreement in Havana and kidnapping tourists – even if they are former soldiers – is bad PR.

 The FARC have repeatedly offered to set him free as long as the government sends the right emissary – first, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and now former US presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson. President Santos, not surprisingly, has rejected both ideas, saying the guerrillas should skip the fanfare and release Sutay to the Red Cross.

 Now, the guerrillas have put out a lengthy “interview” with Sutay.

 In the FARC’s telling, the young man sounds like he’s on a fabulous eco-adventure.

“Before I go I have to see a tiger,” they quote him as saying. “ I'm enjoying my time here in the jungle, it's a pity you tell me that I will not be able to stay here any longer, you are really good people, I would like to stay longer, but if you say that the best thing for me is to go, I believe you. Will you visit me?"

Before you read the full conversation, keep in mind that this is one-sided, unverifiable account put out by a group that has executed hostages in the recent past and held others for more than a decade. Also, the FARC are considered a terrorist organization by the US and Colombia, so clicking below is likely to  get you flagged.

See the full transcript on the FARC’s website here

October 08, 2013

US and Venezuela: Anatomy of a diplomatic breakdown

When Venezuelan diplomat Calixto Ortega arrived in Washington this summer, he was on a difficult mission: to repair a bilateral relationship strained by decades of mistrust and heated rhetoric.

He appeared to make some headway. In June, his government tapped him to head talks to exchange ambassadors with the United States for the first time since 2010. There was reason to hope that the nations, with deep trade and cultural ties, might overcome some of their differences.

But last week, Ortega was headed to the airport — one of six U.S. and Venezuelan officials expelled in the latest round of diplomatic bloodletting that put hopes of a rapprochement on ice.

What happened during the months since Ortega’s arrival depends on what capital you’re in.

For the beleaguered administration of President Nicolás Maduro, the United States delivered a series of diplomatic insults and provocations at a time when both were tiptoeing into the relationship.

From shutdown-showdown Washington, Maduro’s decision to throw in the towel at the first tap on the jaw and then eject three diplomats on flimsy “sabotage” charges is a sign that he’s looking for scapegoats — not solutions — as his country spirals into an economic crisis.

Read the full story here

September 09, 2013

A tale of two malls sheds bleak light on Venezuela economic policy

Herald contributors Andrew Rosati and Ezra Fieser have written an excellent story about twin malls -- one built in Venezuela and the other in the Dominican Republic. It's a stark example of how economic policy really do make a difference. Take a read: 



CARACAS -- When Hugo Chávez ordered the government to take over a nearly finished shopping center in central Caracas in late 2008, he told a cheering crowd that the mall would be better used as a hospital, a school, or a university.

“No, no and no!” he said of the luxurious Sambil mall slated to open in the Candelaria neighborhood.

Before a single product was sold, the mall became one of the more than 1,000 businesses and properties Chávez expropriated during his 14 years as president.

Four and a half years later, the mall-that-wasn’t takes up an entire city block. It’s cordoned off from the public for most of the year. Since the seizure, its parking garage has seen service as a makeshift shelter for Venezuelans who have lost their homes to flooding. Designed to uplift a decaying neighborhood, its brick and granite façades are covered by a mosaic of murals marred with graffiti and campaign slogans.

Compare that to a $200-million sister mall in the Dominican Republic — built by the same Venezuelan developer, Sambil.

When it opened earlier this year off a busy highway in the capital of Santo Domingo, President Danilo Medina cut the ribbon. With a 16,000-square-foot indoor aquarium, a grocery store, movie theater and 325 shops, this Sambil mall is thriving.

The stark contrast between the two malls provides a window into the lasting effects of Chávez’s populist-driven relationship with Venezuela’s private sector.

Chávez, who died in March, antagonized private businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, spurring them to take their money elsewhere — leaving Venezuela struggling to attract investment to fix its crumbling infrastructure.

Not only has money failed to come in, but Barclays Capital, an international investment bank, estimates companies have taken some $150 billion out of the country since currency exchange controls were instituted a decade ago. In part, they were supposed to prevent capital flight. An average of $20 billion a year has been sent abroad over the past five years.

Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is now picking up the pieces of the government’s broken relationship with the private sector.

Faced with a polarized country and stumbling economy, Maduro recently met in private with prominent business leaders, raising hopes he might be willing to work with those who Chávez alienated.

Economists said a fresh round of investment could help stock the shelves of stores that have sporadic shortages of products as basic as toilet paper, milk and sugar.

And without the investment, they say, the government is unlikely to stem rampant inflation, now at nearly 43 percent.

“There have been many meetings and announcements, but there has yet to be any substantial changes,” said Alejandro Arreaza, an economist with Barclays Capital.


Chávez’s policies drastically reduced poverty by providing housing, education and pensions to the poor. But in the process, he chased away private businesses, despite instituting measures to try to keep their investments from flowing abroad.

As the government’s relationship with private industry deteriorated, Chávez increasingly turned to expropriations as a means to achieve his goals. Many expropriations took place after a business refused to go along with Chávez’s policies, such as price regulations. 

Read the full story here

August 05, 2013

An experiment in Amazon conservation faces economic reality


I recently returned for Ecuador where I was working on this story about one of the most innovative and ambitious conservation plans ever attempted.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasuní National Park — rioting with unknown species and tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In exchange, the government asked the world to cover just half of the crude’s $7.2 billion market price.

Environmental groups praised the plan as a novel way to slash greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United Nations threw its support behind the project, setting up a trust fund to receive and manage donations. There were hopes that crowd-sourcing conservation might be a model for other developing nations.

But six years after its launch, those goals are proving elusive. The plan has raised less than 10 percent of the $3.6 billion it’s seeking. Ecuador’s government says it has received $116.7 million and has pledges for an additional $220 million — some of it in non-cash cooperation. The United Nations trust fund has just $9.8 million in the bank.

The shortfall is driving speculation that Ecuador might be forced to drill for crude in the ITT oil block (short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), which it says holds 20 percent of the nation’s reserves.

“We want to keep 400 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere,” President Rafael Correa told a crowd in April. “But if the international community doesn’t help share the responsibility, we have to make the best decision for the Ecuadorean people.”

Correa and his cabinet held a meeting about the fate of the project in June and are expecting to meet again in coming weeks. Officials say drilling the ITT is on the table.

In the balance is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. The ITT block is among the most isolated areas of Yasuní National Park, a 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve, which holds about one-third of all of the Amazon’s amphibian species, even though it represents just a small fraction of the total area. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasuní — roughly the size of a soccer pitch — there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

An entomologist from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History told me that 85% of all the insects he collects in Yasuni are unknown to researchers. 

PHOTO: Santiago Serrano

See the full story here. 

Interested in supporting the cause? You can donate as little as $2 though the UNDP website. 

July 24, 2013

Report: Colombia’s conflict has claimed 220,000 lives since 1958

BOGOTA, Colombia -- At least 220,000 people have been killed, more than 5,000 have disappeared and 4.7 million have been forced off their land during Colombia’s 54-year civil conflict. The chilling numbers, presented Wednesday by a government commission, are the most thorough accounting ever made of this nation’s ongoing struggles.

The report, which took six years to compile, comes as the country is in the midst of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, even as it engages the rebels in pitched battles.

Among the study’s findings: Civilians accounted for 82 percent of all conflict-related deaths, and one out of every three violent deaths can be blamed on the conflict. Of the 1,982 massacres — defined as the killing of four or more people — from 1980 to 2012, right-wing paramilitary groups were responsible for 59 percent of them. Of the 27,023 kidnappings from 1970 to 2010, guerrillas were to blame 91 percent of the time.

While the nation’s armed combatants took the bulk of the blame, the armed forces were also put in the spotlight. The military and police were responsible for 8 percent of all massacres, 42 percent of all forced disappearances and 6.5 percent of all selective killings, according to the report.

“The numbers force us to revise the true cost of the armed conflict,” the report states. While many believed the conflict caused one out of every 10 violent deaths, the true figure is triple that amount.

“Likewise, it’s possible to refute claims that there’s symmetry between the number of civilian and combatant casualties,” the report said. “On the contrary, civilians are more affected. For every combatant killed, four civilians died.”

Check out the full story here. 

Or you can download the 434-page report here.

July 02, 2013

As Ecuador backtracks on Snowden asylum, Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba emerge as potential safe-havens

Stranded in a Moscow airport, NSA-leaker Edward Snowden is casting his asylum net wider as he hopes to elude capture by U.S. authorities on espionage charges.

With a number of countries backtracking on support , including Ecuador, Snowden’s options seemed to be dwindling, but might include Venezuela, Bolivia or Cuba.

On Tuesday, whistleblower website WikiLeaks said it had submitted asylum papers on Snowden’s behalf with at least 19 countries, in addition to Russia and Ecuador.

Among the Latin American destinations are Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But it’s still unclear how Snowden might get out of Russia. The United States has revoked his passport and Ecuador says that any documents he might have from that country are not valid.

The impasse raised speculation that Snowden, 30, might hitch a ride with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who is in Russia for a meeting with leaders of gas-exporting countries. Asked by reporters Tuesday if he would leave with the U.S. fugitive, Maduro avoided the question.

“We’re going to take back many accords that we’ve signed with Russia,” he said, according to the Venezuelan presidency, “that’s what we’re going to take back to Venezuela.”

Read more here

May 20, 2013

Colombia’s fight against coffee blight may show the way for stricken Central America


CHINCHINÁ, Colombia  At a sprawling central Colombia coffee laboratory and research facility — full of coffee plants trapped in jars and shimmering test-tubes — workers poked their heads out of cubicles to share the latest news from Central America and Mexico.

“Did you read that story about Nicaragua?” one asked a visiting delegation. “They’re really suffering.”

Just a few years ago, the Colombian coffee industry was on its knees as a virulent fungus known as coffee-leaf rust – or roya in Spanish — infected 40 percent of the crop.

Millions of dollars and a massive re-planting effort later, this Andean nation is showing signs of recovery just as its neighbors to the North are being slammed by the blight.

Analysts believe roya could hit 30 to 50 percent of the Central American and Mexican coffee crop over the next few years, and some aid agencies fear it could lead to hunger or even famine in a region where farmers live from harvest to harvest.

If Colombia’s fight with roya is any indication, Central America could have a long, expensive and rough road ahead. Read the full story here


jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read Jim's stories at MiamiHerald.com.

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