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Thursday March 3rd 2011
The Americas
Americas view
Haiti's hallowed hotel
Mar 1st 2011, 17:25 by T.J. | PORT-AU-PRINCE
IT’S a cliché to say that the Oloffson is the iconic hotel of the Caribbean and of Haiti. But it’s been said so often for a reason. The rickety 19th-century building, immortalised by Graham Greene in his 1966 novel The Comedians under the fictional name The Trianon, is still open, and at the moment pretty full. It is also amazingly unchanged, given its location in a country that has seen so much turmoil and destruction.
Arrive at the hotel and you are greeted by a statue of the top-hatted Baron Samedi, the Vodou (Voodoo) spirit of sex, death and resurrection. Richard Morse, an American and the current proprietor, is a Vodou priest known as an Houngan. Refresh yourself in the pool where Brown, Mr Morse’s fictional predecessor in The Comedians, recalls watching a girl making love—and where he finds a corpse when he returns from New York after failing to sell the hotel.
On the hotel’s famous shady terrace foreign and local journalists mingle with aid workers, politicians and purveyors of analysis and high-class gossip. Every now and then Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, the gleaming-headed singer-turned-presidential-candidate, and a cousin of Mr Morse’s, dashes in and out with his entourage. A slow waiter creeps up and down occasionally serving rum sours, while characters that Greene might have invented hold court.
The building was first put up by the Sam family, which has given two presidents to Haiti. During the 1915-34 American occupation of Haiti, the American army used it as a hospital, and their extension to the property is still called the “maternity wing”. It became a hotel in 1935 when Werner Gustav Oloffson, a Swedish sea captain, took over the lease. It then passed to Roger Coster, a French photographer, and again in 1960 to Al Seitz, an American. Under them the Oloffson enjoyed a golden era, when guests included Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sir John Gielgud.
A modern-day devotee of the hotel is Jorgen Leth, a Danish filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in Haiti over the last thirty years. He narrowly escaped death last year when the earthquake that devastated the island levelled his house in Jacmel on the coast. Mr Leth first came to the Oloffson in 1982 to make a film, called Haiti Express in English, about a foreign correspondent. “I liked the Graham Greene fantasy of a banana republic, sensual women and Vodou,” he says.
According to Mr Leth, Mr Seitz accompanied Greene on his visits to nearby brothels, which the novelist would later describe in print. Mr Leth says the character of Brown, the proprietor, was based on Mr Seitz, and that Petit Pierre, a journalist in the book, was a fictional version of a real reporter called Aubain Jolicoeur, whose photo has pride of place behind the Oloffson’s reception desk. “He was not as evil as Greene portrayed him,” Mr Leth recalls.
In 1987, after a short period when the hotel was closed and fell into disrepair, it was taken over by Mr Morse, a musician born to an American professor of Latin American studies and a famous Haitian dancer. Although the murderous dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier had ended the year before, violent instability followed his departure. “From my room I heard the noise of the coup of 7 January 1991,” Mr Leth remembers. “People were in the streets at four in the morning beating telegraph poles with spoons. It is the traditional call to rebellion.”
The coup failed, but its bloody aftermath reached the hotel’s doorstep. “A tall, strong, black man comes up. Everyone knew he was a Tonton Macoute,” says Mr Leth, referring to Mr Duvalier’s paramilitary death squads. “He was scared. They were putting tyres around their necks and burning them in the street [a practice called ‘necklacing’]. The staff would not approach him. The hotel was full of tourists.”
“We understood the situation,” he continues. “Richard [Morse] said he had to go. He was a killer. He was pleading. He took out crumpled dollar bills. Richard took him to the gate. I thought, when he gets on the street he will have minutes left to live. We don’t know what happened. They were killing people, necklacing them and burning homes. It was the classic moral dilemma. The tourists did not even notice.”
Mr Morse does not remember this specific incident, but does recall when a mob thought he was hiding someone they were after and, jerry cans to hand, were at the point of torching the hotel. “When there is political trouble and someone shows up sweating with no luggage,” he says, “I say the hotel is full.”
Once the country calmed down, chaos gave way to boredom. Because the UN stabilisation force in Haiti has often designated the hotel’s neighbourhood an insecure “red zone”, the Oloffson has spent much of the last ten years off-limits to UN employees, diplomats and many other visiting foreigners. Mr Morse calls the last decade “awful”. “There were periods when there was nobody here,” says Mr Leth. “It was dead.”
During the earthquake of last year, which flattened much of Port-au-Prince, the capital, the wooden Oloffson came off virtually unscathed. Fittingly, Mr Morse was in the Graham Greene room. (All rooms are named after one or more famous guests.) While the hotel did not fall down, “it sure danced,” he says. Right behind the Oloffson, on a steep hill, are the remains of the eight-story Hotel Castel Haiti. It was dilapidated at the time but packed with squatters, dozens of whom died when the building collapsed.
On being a Vodou priest, the 53-year old hotelier says that Vodou is a much-misunderstood “prayer system”, that is not so different from Catholicism or Protestantism. It is, he says, about “praying to God, the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, all the male saints in heaven as on earth and all the female saints in heaven as on earth.” Catholics too have a Day of the Dead, he notes, and “we have a Vodou-type celebration in the States, which is Thanksgiving.”
Haitians are a special people, says Mr Morse, and now they are living through “biblical moments” in their turbulent history. And, with that, he withdraws to tweet. You can follow him at @RAMhaiti.
(Photo credits: Tim Judah)
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Tear down this embargo
Feb 28th 2011, 21:54 by The Economist online
THE United States has long said it will not make significant changes to its trade embargo on Cuba unless the Castros implement real political liberalisation. The Economist's readers think that Cuba's recent releases of political prisoners are significant enough to merit a change in American policy: 77% of them said they believed the United States should loosen its embargo in response.
Next week's question addresses Venezuela's sovereign debt, which markets are pricing to default. Do you think the country will stop payments on its bonds within the next four years? Let us know.
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Three is the magic number
Feb 28th 2011, 17:32 by The Economist online
A CANADIAN federal court has just shuttered a mobile-phone company for violating restrictions on foreign ownership. Read what it means for the country's telecommunications industry at our Newsbook blog.
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A cure worse than the disease
Feb 25th 2011, 21:34 by S.K. | QUITO
LAST September Ecuador’s police staged a mutiny to protest a cut in their benefits. In the ensuing chaos Rafael Correa, the country’s leftist president, was trapped in a police hospital for hours until the army escorted him out, leading him to call the protest an attempted coup. Mr Correa can be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous about his hold on power: none of his three immediate predecessors finished their four-year terms.
The method the president has chosen to strengthen himself, however, may wind up harming Ecuador’s democracy even more than the police officers’ rebellion did. He has called a referendum that will be held on May 7th at a cost of $30m, which he is describing as a vote of confidence on his rule. Although some of its ten questions involve relatively trifling matters, like banning gambling and bullfights, others involve constitutional reforms that political scientists and legal scholars say could give the president a blank cheque to concentrate power in his own office.
Among the referendum’s most controversial questions is a proposal to form a temporary body that would overhaul the country’s courts within 18 months. “For the better, we will stick our hands into the judiciary,” Mr Correa has pronounced. He promises to welcome outside observers to ensure the reform doesn’t imply stocking courts with pro-government judges, but sceptics doubt he will be able to resist the temptation. The referendum also includes new limits on ownership of banks and media companies, demands that Congress pass a restrictive media law and makes “unjustified” wealth a crime.
The plan has cost Mr Correa crucial political support. Some of his most prominent parliamentary allies have defected. And indigenous and business groups say it will enable the government to persecute uncooperative politicians and journalists.
Nonetheless, the referendum stands a good chance of passage—partly because the opaque wording of the questions seems designed to confuse voters. One asks whether “articles 257, 265, 266, 268, 270, 271, 272, 273, 274, 275, 276, 277 and 278” of the judicial administration law should be scrapped. Mr Correa ominously admonishes voters to “trust in your government.” A poll taken before the final wording was made public indicated majority support for all ten proposals.
“The plebiscite is badly worded and has a clear political intention to restrict people’s rights and freedoms,” says Hernán Salgado, a former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “It breaks the fundamental balance of powers.”
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Bad news for Buju Banton
Feb 25th 2011, 20:29 by M.W.
AS BUJU BANTON, a star reggae singer, awaited a verdict on charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute five kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine, his supporters beat drums through the night in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, and chanted psalms in the Tampa, Florida courthouse where his case had been heard. Their prayers were not answered. On February 22nd, a jury found him guilty both on the drug count and on related gun and communications charges. He will face a minimum of 15 years in jail unless his appeal succeeds.
Buju Banton, a tall, slim and dreadlocked 37-year-old whose real name is Mark Anthony Myrie, had long been a controversial figure. His best-known song, “Boom Bye Bye”, was widely criticised for its homophobic lyrics when he released it in 1988 at the tender age of 15. But he has achieved impressive longevity for a musician: his latest album, “Before the Dawn”, won a Grammy award the day before his trial began on February 14th.
His troubles began on a flight from Madrid to Miami in July 2009. Alexander Johnson, a paid informant, was sitting in the next seat, and their talk turned to cocaine. The two kept in touch. In December, Mr Myrie was caught on video in a Florida warehouse tasting a cocaine sample from a knife. Two days later, two alleged associates of Mr Myrie’s bought $135,000 of drugs from undercover employees of America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). They were arrested immediately, and Mr Myrie was held at his Florida home the next day.
At his trial, Mr Myrie admitted that he had “stupidly” discussed cocaine deals, but never intended to see them through. He said he had been simply been “too trusting”, and his lawyers argued that the DEA had entrapped him into a crime he would not otherwise have committed. His first trial on similar charges stemming from the same events fizzled out with a hung jury. But there would be no such luck this time.
In Mr Myrie’s native Jamaica, he was hailed by most as a martyred “son of the soil”, unfairly persecuted by a foreign power. His popularity has been buttressed by the marketing efforts of high-profile businesses. Just last month Landline Internet Mobile and Entertainment, the Caribbean subsidiary of Cable & Wireless, a British telecommunications company, centred a major promotion on its exclusive local television rights to Mr Myrie’s “Before the Dawn” concert, staged in Miami while he was out of prison on bail.
However, his conviction should refocus attention on the connection between Jamaica’s musicians and its dire crime problem—the country’s homicide rate, fuelled in part by the drug trade, is among the highest in the world. Jamaican song lyrics are often violent and raunchy, and too many prominent entertainers have been charged with serious offences, from murder down. In a statement published on the day Mr Myrie’s verdict was announced, the influential Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica criticised the government for failing to act on crime-fighting proposals that the group lobbied for last June. “Everyone is crying into their beer,” says one well-connected Kingston businessman. “But the salient point is that you can’t be doing drug deals and be in the music business at the same time.”
A key question is how the corporate sponsors of controversial artists will respond to the news. Diageo, the owner of Red Stripe, the dominant local brewery, withdrew its backing in 2008 for events and performers who, it said, “propagate violent and anti-social lyrics.” But two years later, Red Stripe returned as sponsor of the annual Reggae Sumfest at Montego Bay, arguing that “positive music” now “signals a new day”. Mr Myrie’s conviction suggests that “new day” may still be a ways off.
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Venezuela's public finances, North American integration and butterflies in Mexico
Feb 25th 2011, 5:52 by Th
OIL-rich Venezuela would seem one of the least likely countries in the world to default on its sovereign debt. Yet the markets are pricing its bonds to do just that. The Americas section of this week's print edition of The Economist explores the causes of Venezuela's hard-currency squeeze, and how it might wriggle out of it. The issue also asks why the push for North American integration has slowed, and touts the resurgence of monarch butterflies in Mexico.
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Grumpy about voting reform
Feb 22nd 2011, 21:00 by H.J. | SÃO PAULO
BRAZIL’s system for electing its lower house of Congress, known as the “open list”, is a global oddity. Voters are asked to choose between individual candidates. But any politician who receives more votes than the “electoral quotient”—the total vote cast divided by the number of representatives to be seated—will see that excess redistributed to fellow members of his party or coalition. The advantage is that parties are represented in close proportion to their share of the vote. The disadvantages, however, are legion. Today Brazil’s Senate established a political reform committee that will consider changing the system in order to make it, in the words of the Senate’s leader, José Sarney, “legitimate” and not just “legal”.
The personification of the open list’s flaws is Tiririca (pictured), a singer and clown whose name, loosely translated, means Grumpy. He was elected in October to represent the state of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest, receiving 1.3m votes. His campaign ads showed him jumping around in a multi-coloured suit and blonde wig, with slogans such as: “Vote for me! It couldn’t get any worse”, and “What does a federal deputy do? I don’t know, but vote for me and I’ll find out.” He only just scraped through the literacy test he had to take when some ex-colleagues on a television show claimed he couldn’t read or write (Brazil bars illiterates from high office). Since taking his seat he has performed roughly as expected: he accidentally opposed the government in last week’s vote to set the minimum wage by pushing the wrong button.
The 1.3m votes for Tiririca were obviously mostly a protest against politics as usual. But as such they were particularly misconceived. Three fellow members of his “nano-party” (partido nanico, in Portuguese) made it into Congress on the strength of his vote, despite lacking enough support to get in on their own. There is a Portuguese expression for eye-catching types put on a party’s ticket just so that non-entities get elected: they are puxadores de votos, or “vote-pullers”.
Electoral districts are enormous: São Paulo state is a single district with around 30m voters. That makes it pretty much impossible for any voter to know all the candidates—there can be thousands—or for any candidate to campaign on local issues. All candidates are entitled to some free advertising, with time allocated in proportion to the party’s current representation. But with so many candidates, many ads are very short. Before the last election, many candidates in São Paulo had only a couple of seconds to bellow their numbers (in order to help illiterates, all candidates have numbers, whose first two digits indicate their party) and, if they were particularly speedy, their names.
Some in the country’s biggest party, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, want a simple first-past-the-post system in which the candidates with the most votes get the seats. It sounds appealing—after all, many little-known politicians who ride on vote-pullers’ coattails don’t even bother to campaign. But opponents of the proposal have dubbed it the “Tiririca electoral system”, pointing out that even if outright vote-pulling is prevented, it would not reduce the incentive for eye-catching or outrageous candidates to run, and indeed might well increase it. They say that before such a reform could work, large districts would need to be broken up into many small ones, so that candidates would have to campaign seriously, and voters could plausibly find out about all the candidates before making their choice.
Others, including the ruling Workers’ Party, want something completely different: a “closed-list” system in which votes are cast for parties rather than people, and then doled out according to the party’s own ranking. That method would limit voters’ flexibility, by stopping them from supporting a party while opposing an individual unpopular candidate. And it wouldn’t end vote-pulling: a party could still hire a wacky front-man to campaign, but put him at the bottom of its list.
The third-largest party, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, defends some sort of mixture of both systems, as does Mr Sarney himself. With just 45 days before the committee is scheduled to return with a proposal, its 15 members have their work cut out for them.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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Free trade awaits
Feb 22nd 2011, 20:45 by The Economist online
THE United States has been stalling for years on the ratification of its free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but The Economist's readers are an optimistic bunch. 63% of them say they expect the deals to be approved in 2011. Maybe this time really will be different.
This week's Economist Asks question addresses another contentious aspect of American foreign policy: the trade embargo against Cuba. The United States has long said it will not make significant changes to its stance on Cuba unless the Castros implement real political liberalisation. One of America's most important demands has been the release of all political prisoners. Cuba's government has been freeing prisoners for months, and is on track to empty its jails of them. Do you think America should respond by loosening the embargo, even in the absence of democratic elections? Let us know.
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An icy tone from the Great White North
Feb 20th 2011, 0:00 by M.D. | OTTAWA
THE race for sovereignty over the Arctic first grabbed the world’s attention in 2007, when a Russian submarine planted a titanium flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole. Yet according to a poll of the eight Arctic countries released last month, the most assertive nation in the region when it comes to ownership of resources and border issues is Canada. Slightly over 40% of Canadian respondents said their government “should pursue a firm line in defending its sections of the Arctic”. The only other countries that exceeded 10% were Iceland (36%) and Russia (34%). Similarly, about 10% of Canadians said the area should be made an international territory comparable to Antarctica, the lowest figure in the survey. In contrast, 48% of Swedes supported that idea. “We seemed to have morphed a bit,” says Frank Graves, a pollster in Ottawa whose company, EKOS Research Associates, co-ordinated the research project. “It’s my way or the highway on many issues.”
The first explanation for this hard line is Canadians’ perennial antipathy towards Americans: the superpower to the south can’t be allowed to get too greedy in the north. Whereas the United States was the only country to choose Canada as its preferred partner for dealing with Arctic issues, Canadians—whom the report’s authors called “rather churlish”—rated the Americans on the same level as Russians. “We may well ask who is the American now?”, they noted.
A more recent cause is the militant posture taken by Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister. During his 2005-06 campaign, he promised to build heavily armed icebreakers and a network of underwater listening posts. Following his victory, he used his first news conference to warn the world that “the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty” over the Northwest Passage. In office, he has travelled north every year to observe military exercises, where he makes sure to appear in carefully staged photos on naval frigates and submarines, with the obligatory icebergs in the background. Part of his government’s rationale for its controversial C$16 billion ($16.1 billion) purchase of F-35 fighter jets is that they are needed to fend off Russian flights, which have not, but just might, enter Canadian airspace.
This bellicose rhetoric may have helped shore up support for Mr Harper’s minority government. But it does not bode well for resolving problems that will inevitably arise as the polar icecap recedes, opening the region to more shipping and resource exploration. Canada has a dispute with Denmark over ownership of barren Hans Island, which separates its Ellesmere Island from Greenland; one with the United States over the maritime boundary extending into Beaufort Sea from the border between the Yukon Territory and Alaska; and one with just about every country but China over whether the Northwest Passage is an international strait or sovereign Canadian waters. Further potential battles could be brewing regarding the continental shelf and the resources that lie beneath the Arctic Ocean.
There was some common ground to be found among the Arctic countries, however. China has applied for observer status at the Arctic Council. But every country in the poll save Russia listed China as their least preferred partner when it comes to the Arctic. Russia reserved top spot in the unpopularity stakes for its old Cold War adversary, the United States.
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The FARC's farce
Feb 19th 2011, 17:32 by S.B. | BOGOTÁ
ANYONE who thought that the latest round of hostage releases in Colombia could lead to something more, such as peace talks, had a rude awakening this week. On February 16th, the FARC guerrillas freed Guillermo Solorzano, a police officer, and Salin Sanmiguel, a soldier—the last two of the six hostages they had announced they would let go this month. Four others were released last week. Nonetheless, a series of mishaps along the way led Juan Manuel Santos, the president, to call the plan a “farce” and declare that the “door to peace is shut”.
Mr Santos was irked when one of the first hostages to be released, a councilman named Armando Acuña, came out of his seven-year captivity in a spanking new suit and tie, courtesy of the FARC. The president grew even angrier to learn that at the same time the release operations were going on in one part of the country, the FARC kidnapped two men in another. “It is totally unacceptable that the FARC on one hand is releasing hostages as an act of generosity and on the other is kidnapping more people,” he said Thursday.
Subsequently, the first attempt to pick up Mr Solorazano and Mr Sanmiguel came up empty-handed and confused. Brazilian helicopters carrying Piedad Cordoba, a former senator who has acted as facilitator for the releases, and International Red Cross officials arrived at the agreed pickup point in Tolima province at the appointed time. However, there were no hostages to be seen.
The government felt duped. As with previous unilateral releases, the government had agreed to suspend military operations in the handover areas to facilitate the humanitarian mission. Tolima, historically a rebel stronghold, is where Alfonso Cano, the FARC’s leader, maintains his headquarters. Some sceptics had warned that the alleged handover hoax may have been used to move guerrilla troops or weapons in the region during the 36-hour freeze in military operations. But in an uncharacteristically quick communiqué, the FARC denied giving the mission a false location. Sources close to Ms Cordoba said the problem lay in interpreting the coordinates.
Mr Santos had just about had it. He briefly considered calling off the remaining releases, but later decided to allow them in an entirely different province. Undaunted by the setbacks, Ms Cordoba publicly asked the government to authorise her to act as a mediator, in order to pave the way for peace talks with the guerrillas. Mr Santos immediately nixed the idea. “I am not going to give permission to anyone to speak to anyone,” he told CNN. In a speech on Thursday, Mr Santos declared that the door to peace “will only be opened under certain conditions and those conditions have not been met.” He has said previously that the FARC would have to renounce terrorism, release all hostages and end kidnapping.
Those goals remain a long way off. After the most recent releases, the FARC still hold 16 police officers, politicians and soldiers, some of them held captive for more than 12 years, whom they wants to exchange for imprisoned FARC fighters. Several hundred civilians are also thought to be held by the FARC for ransom.
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Brazilian finance and politics, Chevron in Ecuador, Chávez's opponents and free trade
Feb 18th 2011, 3:06 by The Economist online
OF ALL the emerging markets, there's no doubting which one has become the favourite choice of hedge-fund and private-equity investors: Brazil. This week's edition of The Economist explores why the South American giant has become such an attractive destination for capital, and what it means for the country and for world markets. It also examines the efforts of the country's new president, Dilma Rousseff, to cool off an overheating economy; a massive legal judgment against Chevron in Ecuador; a politically charged case against a Venezuelan judge; and the status of a pending free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia.
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The Cassez case comes to a head
Feb 16th 2011, 19:48 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY
A SIMMERING six-year squabble between Mexico and France finally boiled over this week, sending increasingly testy statements zipping back and forth across the Atlantic. Regarding the decision by a Mexican court on February 10th to uphold a 60-year prison sentence given to a French citizen accused of kidnapping, Mexico was responsible for a “serious humanitarian problem”, according to Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president. The Mexican foreign ministry retorted that it was “very surprising” that a head of state would conduct foreign policy in consultation with a convict. The latest fallout is that a 12-month celebration of Mexican culture due to take place in France this year seems to be on the rocks.
Both sides have some reason to feel fed up. The 2003 arrest of Florence Cassez, the 36-year-old Frenchwoman at the centre of the case, was a botched affair. Mexican authorities were forced to admit that they had staged a re-enactment for television of the raid that led to her capture; the real arrest had taken place the previous day. Ms Cassez has always claimed her innocence, though her defence—that she was unaware that there were three kidnap victims in the ranch where she was staying with her Mexican boyfriend—has attracted scorn in Mexico. The 60-year sentence that she is serving in a Mexican jail is a stiffer penalty than many kidnappers get away with.
But France does not come out of the affair looking good either. Mr Sarkozy’s decision to dedicate the “year of Mexico” cultural festival to Ms Cassez left the Mexican government little choice but to pull out. (Until then, Mexico had struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that it “reiterates its willingness and readiness to continue developing a constructive relationship”). The French president’s handling of the affair has been criticised by his own domestic press, as well as in Mexico.
The affair also stirs up old grievances about French meddling in Latin American affairs. Carlos Fuentes, a celebrated Mexican novelist, told a radio station that Mr Sarkozy was acting like a dictador bananero (the dictator of a banana republic) by trying to influence Mexico’s criminal justice system. Previous French forays into Latin America have come in for similar criticism: the French foreign ministry was forced to apologise for a secret, botched attempt in 2003 to rescue to Ingrid Betancourt, a French citizen kidnapped by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. (France “would do better not to treat us like one of their African colonies,” a Brazilian legislator complained at the time.)
The cultural festival, which was due to include a show of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the Orangerie Museum in Paris, may not be the only victim of the spat. France will hand over chairmanship of the G20 club to Mexico next year, and the frosty relations between the two countries are likely to make it harder to get much done. Mr Sarkozy’s proposed financial reforms may be among the first casualties.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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The salami technique
Feb 16th 2011, 16:26 by The Economist online
ALMOST every year, opponents in the United States of the American trade embargo on Cuba think that this year, they might gather just enough momentum to have the restrictions lifted. They have always been proven wrong. A number of factors conspire against them: a powerful pro-embargo lobby; a desire not to ruffle feathers in Florida, a politically influential state home to many Cuban-Americans; and the fact that 53 years after the Cuban revolution, the country is not enough of a priority to take up the necessary time in Congress. Furthermore, since 1992, when the Cuban Democracy Act effectively codified the various provisions of the then-haphazard embargo into federal law, the assumption has been that the only way to meaningfully end the embargo—barring radical political change in Cuba—would be via a vote in Congress.
Barack Obama’s policies towards Cuba since he became president have led some wonder whether there is another way. Using his executive powers, Mr Obama has already punched some significant holes in the embargo. For example, he has allowed American telecommunications companies to provide data and mobile-phone services to Cuba, although the Cuban government has not shown any interest in taking up the offer. He has lifted all restrictions on the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to their families back home, and the number of visits they can make. And he has declared that Americans without relations in Cuba can send money to the island, as part of an initiative to help "private economic activity" there.
Now some are asking how much further the president can go. A recent legal analysis commissioned by the Washington-based Cuba Study Group argues that he does indeed have significant latitude. Amongst the actions it says the president could make at his own discretion are the lifting of restrictions on American ships travelling between the two countries, a further expansion of legal travel, and even the legalisation of imports produced by small, private Cuban businesses. If the analysis is right and Mr Obama is listening, by the time Congress next votes on the embargo, there might not be that much left of it.
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Was it something I tweeted?
Feb 16th 2011, 5:07 by H.J. | SÃO PAULO
YESTERDAY Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Federal Court, which among other things gets to decide whether politicians under investigation for alleged corruption may take seats in Congress, had to apologise to José Sarney, a former president of the country and the current president of its Senate. One day after Ronaldo, a Brazilian football legend, had announced his retirement from the sport, the court tweeted, “Listen up. Now that Ronaldo’s retired, when will Sarney decide it’s time to hang up his boots?”
The court quickly retracted the tweet, and begged Mr Sarney’s pardon for an opinion that “neither directly nor indirectly” reflected its thinking. The suspicion is that an official intending to send a personal tweet mistakenly logged on to the official account instead. Yet another reminder, if one were needed, of the dangers of overly hasty technology use.
And an excuse, too, to link to The Economist’s own thoughts on the matter, first published nearly two years ago. In a profile of Mr Sarney and his fiefdom in Brazil’s north-east, entitled “Where dinosaurs still roam”, we wrote: “José Sarney first ran for elected office over half a century ago. For the past 40 years he has controlled the fortunes of Maranhão, a state on the eastern fringe of Brazil’s Amazon region. He has represented it as federal deputy (twice), governor, and senator (twice). In 1985 he became the accidental, and undistinguished, president of Brazil when the man chosen for the job died before he could take it up. More recently he has been senator for the nearby and newly-created state of Amapá (twice). Time to retire, one might think.”
CORRECTION: Yet another reminder—since one clearly is needed—of the dangers of overly hasty technology use: the hasty tweet came from the Supreme Federal Court, not the Supreme Electoral Court, as we originally wrote. Sorry.
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Get ready for a vote
Feb 14th 2011, 18:19 by The Economist online
STEPHEN HARPER'S Conservative Party is less than halfway through its maximum five-year term in power. Nonetheless, as head of a minority government, the prime minister's hold on power is fragile, and he will face tough opposition when he presents his next budget. The Economist's readers are convinced that Canada will hold a federal election in 2011, by a margin of 63% to 37%.
Moving south of the 49th parallel, Barack Obama's officials have announced they plan to push for ratification of the United States's pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama in 2011. Do you think they will be ratified by the new year? Let us know.
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Not-so-safe haven
Feb 11th 2011, 21:26 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY
ONE of the striking features of Mexico’s crackdown on drug gangs is that the resulting violence has kept a wide berth of the capital. Of the 34,612 murders related to organised crime that the government counted between 2007 and 2010, just 1.9% took place in Mexico City. Considering that the metropolis accounts for about 8% of the country’s population, that’s not bad going.
You don’t need to go far to find trouble, however. The state of Mexico, which almost encircles the capital, has seen a big increase in violence, as has Morelos, which shares a border with the south of Mexico City. As you can see in the following chart, the number of killings in these states has increased sharply since the end of 2006, when the government’s assault began.
But how bothered should you be if you live in Mexico City? If violence has broken out at the opposite end of the state next door, it might not affect you in the least. If it’s lapping at the edges of the capital, however, it might be more of a problem.
Thanks to the recent publication of some comprehensive data on the location of homicides, it is now possible to plot the violence more precisely. In the second chart, I have plotted killings in Mexico City, plus those that took place in the municipalities that directly border it (13 from Mexico state and three from Morelos). This useful map should give you a better idea of what I’m getting at.
Two things stand out. Firstly, Mexico City is well insulated from the violence taking place in Morelos. Though some Morelos municipalities, such as Cuernavaca, have seen an alarming rise in killings (now tapering off, it seems), the three municipalities that border Mexico City have seen almost none.
In Mexico state, however, is the opposite is true. In this state of 125 municipalities, the 13 that share a border with Mexico City have accounted for a disproportionately large chunk of the trouble. Indeed, over the past four years they have witnessed 797 murders linked to organised crime—just over half the total for the entire state.
The message from these numbers is that for Mexico City, much of the violence happening in its neighbouring states is closer to home than its residents might like to think. Violence in the capital itself, strictly defined, has remained stable. But when one includes the immediate suburbs, the annual number of killings has more than doubled since 2007.
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Canada's prime minister, energy in Brazil and Peru, and crime in the Caribbean
Feb 10th 2011, 20:13 by The Economist online
FIVE years after taking office, Stephen Harper has taken only modest steps to move Canada to the right. If an election is held this year, he could take another shot at winning a Conservative majority—and with it the chance to remake his country. This week's print edition examines his chances of victory, and how he might govern differently with a majority. It also looks at the electricity industries of Brazil and Peru, and the debate over the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago.
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Unstoppable
Feb 9th 2011, 10:30 by D.R. | NEW YORK
A YEAR and a half is a long time in politics, but The Economist's readers don't expect many surprises in Mexico's presidential race. An overwhelming 72% of them think that Enrique Peña Nieto, the current front-runner, will win the election. There's no doubting Mr Peña Nieto is in good shape...but is he doing as well as Andrés Manuel López Obrador was a year before the last contest? (Then again, Mr López Obrador does still call himself the "legitimate president of Mexico").
Moving from a scheduled election to a possible one, our latest poll asks whether a looming battle over corporate taxes will force a vote in Canada this year. Do you think there will be a federal election in 2011? Let us know.
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Sweet success for Micky
Feb 4th 2011, 16:29 by P.B. | PORT-AU-PRINCE
AFTER weeks of rumours and diplomatic pressure, Haiti’s electoral council announced yesterday that it had booted the ruling party’s man, Jude Celestin, from the presidential race, and replaced him with a popular political outsider, Michel Martelly (pictured). The delayed run-off vote, now scheduled for March 20th, will pit Mr Martelly, formerly a wild-child musician known as Sweet Micky, against Mirlande Manigat, a constitutional scholar and former first lady who appeals to middle-class voters. The outcome of the election remains highly uncertain, since no public polls have yet been conducted on the new second-round matchup. Nonetheless, the decision has restored a modicum of calm and security to the country. “It’s a good day in Haiti again,” the United States ambassador, Kenneth Merten, said yesterday.
It was certainly a victory for American diplomacy. The United States had immediately criticised the preliminary results, released on December 7th, which gave Ms Manigat a solid lead and put Mr Celestin in the run-off by a slim 0.64% margin over Mr Martelly. Following the announcement, thousands of the singer’s supporters took to the streets in sometimes-violent protests. A mission from the Organisation of American States (OAS) was then allowed to review the tabulation process. Its report—which was leaked, possibly by the United States—found fraud among all the leading contenders, and suggested that, were the chicanery removed, Mr Martelly would have narrowly edged out Mr Celestin as the runner-up to Ms Manigat. The government of René Préval, which was accused of rigging the election, objected to the report’s methodology.
Yet the foreign pressure to dump Mr Celestin continued, especially from the United States, which put $14 million into the election. Last month, it suspended the visas of some members of the ruling party, INITE. Its ambassador to the UN implied that American aid might depend on the electoral council’s acceptance of the report. The coup de grace was a visit on January 30th from Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, who met the three leading contenders and Mr Preval. She told reporters, “We have made it very clear we support the OAS recommendations, and we would like to see those acted on.”
And so they were. Given the delays in announcing the result and the closeness of the electoral council’s five-to-three vote, many horses were likely traded in its back rooms this week. One may have been the legislative races, which INITE dominated: it won or advanced to the second round in 68 of 99 seats in the lower house, and all but one of 11 open Senate seats. The OAS report did not address the legislative results, and foreign leaders have not publicly criticised them.
That’s no small matter for the next president, be it Ms Manigat or Mr Martelly. Parliament approves and can oust the prime minister, and many ambitious policy proposals have withered amid executive-legislative deadlock—as Mr Preval, who dissolved the parliament in his first term, can attest. The next president will need strong legislative support to oversee the politically charged reconstruction from the country’s devastating earthquake last year, with its attendant issues of land rights and relocation. In addition, Mr Martelly has spoken sweepingly about jobs, education, and agriculture, while Ms Manigat has argued for reining in NGOs and phasing out the UN’s peacekeeping force.
A more immediate concern for the first-round winners was to shore up their legitimacy. Just 22% of the electorate turned out for the first round, and countless others were disenfranchised by fraud or disorganisation. Indeed, both Ms Manigat and Mr Martelly had called for a do-over election—until it appeared they would advance to the run-off. As for outside influence in the election, Mr Martelly argued yesterday that his inclusion in the second round was “not a gift of the international community” but an instance of foreigners standing with the Haitian people. Many Haitians are not so sure: Le Nouvelliste, a newspaper, called the revised results “the end of the illusion of sovereignty”, echoing a widespread sentiment that they reflect, mostly, their government buckling to international pressure. The country’s longstanding tension between its desire for sovereignty and its need for outside assistance will not be resolved anytime soon.
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A gruesome paradox
Feb 3rd 2011, 18:52 by The Economist online
OUR Daily Chart team has just updated our map on Mexico's drug traffickers to incorporate state-level violence statistics. Take a look.
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Brazil's offshore oil, Cuba's housing market and Central American evangelicals
Feb 3rd 2011, 17:28 by The Economist online
BRAZIL has been in a triumphant mood ever since it discovered huge reserves of offshore oil three years ago. However, actually extracting it is a massive technological challenge, and figuring out how best to spend the profits is an equally daunting political one. This week's Americas section explores the possibilities and perils of the country's fast-growing energy industry. It also looks at the birth of a housing market in Cuba and the success of evangelical Christians in Central America.
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The BBC's Mexican publicity stunt
Feb 2nd 2011, 18:30 by The Economist online
THE BBC has created a controversy by making disparaging remarks about Mexico in its "Top Gear" programme. Read our Mexico correspondent's take on the story on our Prospero blog.
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The drilling edge
Feb 1st 2011, 20:48 by H.J. | RIO DE JANEIRO
I’M IN Rio de Janeiro to find out more about Petrobras, the world’s third-largest oil company by market capitalisation and a giant of Brazilian technology. First stop, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Institute for Graduate Studies in Engineering (COPPE), where research is focused on extracting Brazil’s “sub-salt” oil—huge reserves recently discovered 200-300km off the coast, and lying 7,000 metres below the surface, under a layer of salt around two kilometres thick. “There are logistical challenges,” says Segen Estefen, the institute’s director for technology and innovation. “How to transport personnel? Should there be intermediate bases?” Getting this oil to the surface will require innovative submarine equipment, which means developing robotics and new materials that can survive the great pressures and corrosive action of the sub-salt oil. And bringing it to the surface will require underwater energy grids that must not get blocked and can be maintained at extreme depths.
Petrobras has paid for a laboratory dedicated to non-destructive testing, corrosion and welding. The pressure at the sub-salt deposits is 400-600 bars—double that of a conventional oil field. New kinds of materials are required to operate at this depth, mainly to withstand the highly corrosive conditions. Since cracks propagate faster at higher pressure, even slight corrosion can quickly become catastrophic.
Pride of place in the institute goes to the world’s deepest pool used to simulate conditions for offshore drilling. At 15 metres, plus a well in the middle that adds another ten, it easily surpasses rivals in China, the Netherlands and Norway, which do not exceed ten metres. A wave generator is already in action, and a pump-and-pipe system that will be able to simulate currents is under construction. It can make waves up to half a metre high—which doesn’t sound like much, until you remember that it’s used on scaled models, which means it can simulate even the most colossal tempests. A motion platform, like the rigs underneath flight simulators that are used to make them bounce around, is used to study the “sloshing problem”—what goes on inside a partially filled oil container, like a tanker, when the sea is rough. Waves get generated inside too, and these can exert a very large force on the vessel, to add to the bashing it’s getting from outside.
Brazil’s politicians have a bad habit of talking about the sub-salt oil as a kind of pot of gold at the bottom of the sea. Its very existence is deemed to have made the country rich, and the state’s share is supposed to solve all Brazil’s problems, from poor education and health care, to inadequate electricity grids and, in much of the country, nonexistent sanitation. It makes me nervous for the country when I hear such talk. The sheer difficulty of turning these potential riches into actual money is bad enough. Worse, oil often—maybe almost always—brings corruption in its wake, and Brazil has plenty of that already. The idea of hundreds of billions of dollars of what politicians will see as “free” money, available to spend on such necessities as vote-buying, turns my stomach.
But people close to the sub-salt projects have an alternative, far more attractive view, and as I look around I find myself increasingly willing to believe in it. COPPE is part of a cluster of sub-salt-related research activity in Rio, and Mr Estefen sees the future of that cluster as going far beyond oil, changing Brazil profoundly for the better. “It would be a mistake just to measure and extract the oil,” he says, “because these are finite resources. Brazil must seize the moment to lead in technology, not just in extracting and exporting raw materials.” From this point of view, the vast technological challenges are an opportunity, not a burden. He draws a parallel with the space race, which spurred the development of a host of new industries in the United States.
Next stop, a short drive away, is Petrobras’s own research centre. Carlos Fraga has been at Petrobras one week short of 30 years in various roles, and has been executive manager of research and development since 2003. No sooner does he start his presentation than the power gets cut off. It seems incongruous inside the high-tech centre, but apparently the whole of Ilha do Fundão, the island just off the coast of Rio de Janeiro where the centre is located, has suffered repeated blackouts this summer. It’s almost 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) outside, and the state is struggling to keep up with the demand for energy, as cariocas (Rio residents) turn their air conditioners to full blast.
Mr Fraga ploughs on with a battery-driven laptop. The company has more than 1,600 people employed in research and development, he says, but for every one of those there are another ten Brazilian researchers at outside institutes and universities, working full-time on the company’s projects. They are all connected via a secure network that gives them access to 110 teraflops (trillions of floating-point calculations per second) of computing power.
The conversation moves on to the difficulties of finding out just how much sub-salt oil there is. Geologists study oil formations by beaming sound waves at them—but the salt layer is folded and shifting, and also absorbs energy very effectively, meaning that varying and small amounts bounce back. Apparently Petrobras reckons it has cracked these problems—and that this is a major source of competitive advantage. “The industry fight is our engineers against their engineers,” he says. “It’s knowledge that makes the difference.”
He is gung-ho about the scale of the technological development required to pump the oil. “When I look at pre-salt, I have to tell you, it doesn’t scare me at all,” he says. When I ask why Petrobras’s share price has been suffering so much since the sub-salt oil was discovered, he just laughs, and says, “I keep buying Petrobras. Existing technology already allows us to extract oil from these fields, because we already have experience of deep and ultra-deep drilling.”
Other big oil companies, too, work with outside partners, pay for students and laboratories at universities and develop distributed computer networks. What makes Petrobras different is that it is doing all these things in Brazil, a country that spends little generally on research and development, educates few students to graduate level and lags in most areas of technology and development. Given the relative sizes of Petrobras and Brazil’s high-tech industry, that means the company could potentially change the entire culture of the country. In the areas it touches, says Mr Fraga, the company is “bringing Brazil to the same level as developed countries.”
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The lesser evil
Jan 31st 2011, 23:19 by The Economist online
THE heated debate within Canada over the exploitation of the country's lucrative but polluting tar sands is reflected among our readers, who were split on whether extracting their oil is worth the environmental costs. The drillers narrowly edged out the greens, by a slim margin of 54% to 46%.
For this week's Economist Asks poll, we turn to Mexican politics. Enrique Peña Nieto, the telegenic governor of the state of Mexico, is already considered the presumptive front-runner for the country's 2012 presidential election. Do you think he will he be able to hold his advantages and win? Let us know.
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Unite and conquer
Jan 31st 2011, 21:29 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY
THE first of Mexico’s six elections for state governor in 2011 fell to the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) yesterday. Guerrero, the state on the Pacific coast that is home to Acapulco, voted the party back for another term with a handsome 14% lead on their rivals, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
A few weeks ago polls had shown the race to be on a knife-edge. The PRI had held high hopes of grabbing Guerrero, which remains poor and has seen more drug-related violence than any state bar Chihuahua and Sinaloa. The decisive factor was the unexpected decision of the third-placed candidate, representing the National Action Party (PAN), to pull out of the race five days before the election and urge his supporters to back the PRD. The victory is a small setback for the PRI, which remains the favourite to take back the presidency next year.
The Guerrero race again shows the power of alliances in keeping out the insurgent PRI. Similar pacts last year helped to unseat the party in its bastions of Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa, where it had ruled uninterrupted for 81 years. The alliance of the PAN, a conservative party strongly influenced by the Catholic church, with the PRD, which includes many former communists, is ideologically awkward to say the least. But as an election-winning tactic it remains brutally effective.
Extending the alliance to the presidential contest would be difficult. On Saturday, the day before the Guerrero poll, it was reported that Marcelo Ebrard, the PRD mayor of Mexico City, had declared that an alliance between his party and the PAN in the presidential race next year was improbable. This is significant, as Mr Ebrard is widely seen as the most likely candidate to head such an alliance, should one emerge. It may all be a ploy: Mr Ebrard is a famously Machiavellian politician (“He sleeps with a copy of The Prince under his pillow,” one political analyst says). The mayor certainly still seems to be in campaigning mode: last night he went to Acapulco to be pictured embracing the PRD’s victorious candidate, and duly made it onto all the front pages this morning. No one will be sure who is running under which banner until the ballot papers are printed. And as Guerrero shows, even then it’s not too late for last-minute pacts.
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