Sunday, August 03, 2008

Around South America

-In Peru, official outrage erupted as a magazine ran pictures of a nude model sitting astride the national flag. Defense officials are outraged, wanting prosecution of the journal, while the journal's editor suggests there is no higher patriotism than celebrating national holidays and symbols by placing a naked woman on top of the flag. Seriously.

-Alvaro Uribe offered the rarest of rare things yesterday: criticism of the U.S. from his own mouth. Uribe took the U.S. to task for giving extradited drug-lords lighter sentences in return for information. I'm not sure who's right or wrong here; I don't think that more draconian sentences is going to solve the drug problem in Colombia (working on the demand-side will), but certainly lighter sentences in the U.S. prisons probably don't have many drug-lords shaking in Colombia, either.

-Ecuador's constituent assembly approved a new constitution for the country, now sending the issue to a national vote referendum at the end of September. Among the items that would be included in the new Constitution (if the population approves it, which it may not do) would be broader social programs; more presidential power to accomplish things (as the system is established now, Ecuador's Congress, wracked by cronyism, inefficiency, and a political elite that does little but take care of its own, can and does easily prevent anything from being done by what is probably a too-weak executive authority; the new constitution hopes to amend this); the president could close Congress once, but Congress could also unseat the president (with elections following in either circumstance); and, very interestingly for a Latin American and/or Catholic country, give same-sex unions the same rights as opposite-sex marriages.

-Bolivian indigneous groups from the Eastern lowlands are planning to meet with Congress in September to discuss how Chevron lied to Congress in an attempt to avoid paying $16 billion (with a "b") in damages for polluting the region (the decision stems from a case filed way back in 1993, and still has to receive a judge's approval some time next year). Representatives from the Cofan, Secoya, and Siona tribes are trying to get reimbursed for environmental damage caused by "dumping 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste into Amazon waterways from 1964 to 1990, thereby decimating the ability of the indigenous groups to live off the rainforest. Texaco [bought by Chevron in 2001] also built roughly 1000 unlined open-air waste pits that have been leeching toxins into the soil and groundwater for decades." The indigenous leaders will be traveling in order to talk to Congress themselves and explain how Chevron's lobbyists, including Trent Lott, John Negroponte, and many other governmental officials past and present, have misled Congress and tried to get the U.S. government to pressure Ecuador to drop the case with the threat of withdrawal of economic support from Ecuador. (Erik may be right about coal companies in the U.S., but in my book, globally none is as despicable as the oil companies are.)

-Argentina's president Kristina Fernandez Kirchner has an amazingly sane take on how to deal with the drug issue, proposing to decriminalize possession and work harder at rehab programs and going after distributors and dealers (if you're going to attack the supply-side, that's the way to do it).

-The New York Times finally gets around to talking about the economic growth in Brazil that I've discussed before (for example, here, here, here, and here). The report offers the general picture of growth, but there are some pretty impressive stats, including the facts that "Brazil has shrunk its income gap by six percentage points since 2001, more than any other country in South America this decade," and that "while the top 10 percent of Brazil’s earners saw their cumulative income rise by 7 percent from 2001 to 2006, the bottom 10 percent shot up by 58 percent." I would just blatantly point out what the New York Times does not here, but is something I absolutely believe: these changes have happened in large part because of Lula's approach to governing, which has not shied away from investment but has avoided privatizations or short-term fixes, while simultaneously investing public money into social programs. Certainly, Brazil still has a very long way to go in terms of the income gap. Still, the facts that Lula's social programs are doing more than anybody predicted, people are gaining more access to purchasing goods that they previously never could afford, and Brazil's economy doesn't have any signs of slowdown ahead, as its currency is doing great and it's industrial base has diversified, are all excellent news, and I think a lot of the credit does belong to Lula on this.

-While we're on the subject of Lula, he took a new step in environmental protection, setting up a fund designed to "promote alternatives to forest-clearing for people living in the Amazon, and support conservation and sustainable development." As critical as I (and Erik and Randy) have been of Lula on environmental policy, this is truly a great step, primarily because it not only puts money into conservation efforts, but also because it puts money towards social programs that will hopefully prevent people from deforesting for money. I don't begrudge him his efforts to maintain sovereignty on the Amazon and in fact actually think the fund finally puts some efforts behind Brazil's rhetoric. (Up to this point, Brazil has often insisted that the Amazon is its business, and has often bristled at outside help, but without ever really trying to do much financially itself). Anyhow, this is just a small step, and will not radically shift Lula's environmental legacy. That said, it's still a great step in the right direction, and it's the best step he's taken environmentally yet.

-And finally, an interesting (if sometimes disjointed) article at the Times uses the rumor of a Brazilian immigrant winning the lottery to get into broader issues of what "the American dream" means to immigrants, how the economy's collapse is affecting them, and the ways in which modern technology allows Brazilians in the U.S. and Brazil to communicate more quickly than ever.