Costa Rica is approaching February’s presidential and legislative elections with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, if not with dread.
Most international surveys present Costa Rica as the “world’s happiest country” (the Happy Planet Index), or in the elite club of the world’s “full democracies” (ahead of Japan and Belgium in The Economist’s list), or as the 48th least-corrupt country (out of 174 reviewed by Transparency International).
The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, and the country’s access to foreign direct investment is blunting the impact of the government’s fiscal deficit of about 5 percent of GDP. Crime is on the rise, but Ticos know that their pain is small compared to that wreaked by the narcos and maras in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Reputable polls show, however, that Costa Ricans are gloomy about the state of their political institutions and specifically about their upcoming elections. According to polls, about 32 percent of the country’s 3 million eligible voters say they plan to abstain, citing corruption, a lack of leadership, insensitivity to the average citizen, and unemployment as reasons to reject not just the candidates but also the political elite in general.
The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Luis Antonio Sobrado, acknowledged last month that the election was taking place in the context of “citizen uneasiness … and a lot of anger with politics and politicians.”
Abstentionism was high in 2006 (35 percent) and 2010 (32 percent), but commentators sense a much deeper and darker alienation this time around. A columnist lamented that the “multiparty” system has been replaced by “atomization,” and another said the political parties have “disconnected themselves from the national reality.”
Further reflecting the malaise, President Laura Chinchilla’s support has nosedived – a July poll showed only 9 percent of voters said she was “good” and none said “very good” – and pundits cite her ineffectiveness as the cause of collapsed highways, dengue outbreaks, and other calamities.
The nominee of her Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), Johnny Araya, is widely thought to have an edge in February, but his 12 years as mayor of San José have coincided with a deterioration in the city’s infrastructure and security, and his personal lifestyle (including five marriages) may be a factor in popular skepticism. The government’s recent announcement that it will contract the services of 4,125 new employees in 2014, mostly in the education sector, drew immediate criticism as yet another example of political patronage to influence the race.
The self-doubt seems at this point indicative of concerns about President Chinchilla and the crop of candidates, rather than a rejection of democracy. Costa Ricans comparing themselves with the rest of Central America still feel good about themselves, and the green image that eco-tourists reinforce is comforting. But crumbling infrastructure – including collapsing bridges and the exorbitant cost of repeated repairs – and shocking crimes, such as the recent assassination of an environmentalist protecting turtles on a Caribbean beach, fuel the sort of doubts that only effective political and economic leadership can quell.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
During my last stay in Venezuela the handful of analysts I talked to with ties to the government all concurred on one point: Nicolás Maduro’s talk of an economic war is not a show used to distract followers. He actually believes the economy is being sabotaged by his national and international opponents.
Of course Venezuela’s economic performance is reaching crisis dimensions. Inflation reached 5.1 percent in October and 54.3 percent over the past 12 months. The scarcity index reached 22.4 percent (meaning in any given retail outlet 22.4 percent of basic consumer goods are unavailable) its highest level since early 2010.
But there should be no mystery regarding the causes, as the Venezuelan economy has the basic ingredients of any inflationary context: stagnant production and an expanding money supply.
While oil prices are still high, Venezuela’s oil production has stagnated in recent years. More importantly they get fewer dollars for their oil as a half million barrels a day go to China to pay for resources it has put into the China Fund.
This means not only that the government has less money to spend; it has fewer dollars to distribute to importers. Add to this a wildly overvalued exchange rate and the situation gets even more complicated as there are incredible incentives for dollars to be siphoned off into corruption and capital flight. The dollar crunch creates scarcities directly – by making it harder to import finished goods – and indirectly, by making it harder to import components needed to manufacture. It also creates a wildly undervalued parallel exchange rate that becomes a reference point for the pricing of many imported goods and even real estate.
At the same time, Venezuela’s monetary supply has grown by 70 percent in the past year. Thus the Venezuelan economy has a lot of local currency, but not enough things to buy. Goods whose prices are effectively controlled are scarce; the prices of everything else are soaring.
Mark Weisbrot has usefully pointed out that Venezuela is not Greece and is not on the verge of default. He is not alone. Institutional investors who look at the numbers beyond politics have made money hand over fist on Venezuelan debt in recent years. Sitting on immense oil wealth, Venezuela itself is still creditworthy; PDVSA could still take on more debt; the Central Bank could convert some of its gold into dollars. The government could take any number of measures to absorb excess liquidity or reduce pressure on the parallel dollar. It could also reduce subsidies to foreign allies.
But these measures require actual execution and it is not clear that Maduro has enough of a grasp of the problem to do so. On Wednesday he announced much anticipated “economic” measures. But most were quixotic plans to combat the “economic war.” He said they would fight speculation and hoarding through new processes of examination and controls: “we’ll go to every corner to look at the prices of every product.” He singled out web-based market places, suggesting they would call in their administrators “so that they can explain to us how it is that they fix speculative and false prices.” He also announced the creation of a new institution: the National Center for Foreign Commerce which would coordinate the different institutions administering foreign exchange.
There were a couple of non-war measures, but they seemed like too little. He suggested they would seek to coordinate and facilitate internal transportation with 5000 new trucks purchased from China and Brazil, incentivize worker production during December vacations through subsidies to enterprises and institutions, and roll out a new program to stimulate savings. Interest on savings is currently far below the inflation rate meaning most people logically spend their money as soon as they get it.
The futility of Maduro’s economic announcements have led some to suggest that he is not up to the task. That may be. But just as important is a political structure in which so much power is concentrated in the president that the people around him have little incentive to honestly lay out difficult facts. For months it looked like Finance Minister Nelson Merentes was putting together a pragmatic, concrete plan to address the crisis. But alas he was sidelined in favor of people who recommend continuity.
This could get much worse. If 50 percent inflation has not provoked a change in course, it is not clear what will. Again, Venezuela’s immense resource base means it is not on the verge of collapse or default. But it is sliding into serious economic dysfunction and that could seriously undercut Chavismo’s viability as a democratically supported political project.
– David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
• InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas.
A series of violent confrontations and seemingly indiscriminate attacks on local infrastructure has provoked questions about the governability of the western Mexican state of Michoacan, and has some politicians calling for extreme measures.
On Oct. 27, a group of assailants attacked at least three gas stations and ten power plants with firearms and Molotov cocktails. The attacks killed no one, but they left thousands of residents in some of the principal cities, including the capital of Morelia, without power. Authorities have since alleged that the Knights Templar, currently the state’s most powerful criminal group and an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana that emerged in 2011, were behind the attack.
The assaults against the state’s providers of electricity and gas come just five days after the return of Fausto Vallejo to the governor’s post, after an absence of six months for an undisclosed illness. Mr. Vallejo’s return sparked controversy; journalists reported that the interim governor, Jesus Reyna, did not want to relinquish the post, and deputies in the state legislature called for Vallejo to be denied his old position.
The turmoil in the governor’s seat, the attacks against the basic energy infrastructure, and the ongoing drumbeat of criminal violence have led some in Mexico City to question the viability of the Michoacan government. The National Action Party bloc in the national Chamber of Deputies announced days later that it was considering pursuing a declaration of “Desaparicion de Poderes,” or “Disappearance of Powers,” a seldom-used provision of the Mexican constitution would essentially grant the federal government the right to take over the local government.
Thus far, however, the proposal has gone nowhere, and political analysts give the move slim chances of passing.
InSight Crime Analysis
The attacks against the power plants and the gas stations represent another escalation by the various armed actors in Michoacan. In recent months, the Knights Templar have used a series of novel tactics to advance their interests, such as blockading towns controlled by the local vigilante groups that oppose them. Like those efforts, this latest act seems to target the convenience and wellbeing of the civilian population.
But the Oct. 27 attacks also appear to be a message to the government. The timing is striking in that the attacks come on the heels of Vallejo’s return; this could be an attempt to intimidate the newly active executive. It’s also noteworthy that the power plants and gas stations are both controlled by prominent state-owned companies – the gas stations operate under the brand name Pemex, while the power stations belong to the Comision Federal de Electricidad – which suggests that the attacks were an assertion of power directed at the state.
Michoacan’s situation is unusual in that it has spilled out of the security realm, and has helped provoke a full-blown political crisis. The clearest examples are the rumors of a federal takeover and the mysterious hiatus, and tumultuous return, of Vallejo. Additionally, Luisa Maria Calderon, the sister of former President Felipe Calderon and the runner-up to Vallejo in the 2011 election, accused the governor’s family of links to organized crime. She added that he negotiated with drug trafficking groups prior to winning the election.
Certainly, there are prior examples of a security crisis morphing into a political scandal. For instance, in a video released just after the Casino Royale disaster, a video hit the airwaves in which the brother of Monterrey mayor Fernando Larrazabal appeared to be accepting kickbacks from local casinos. This led to a widespread lack of confidence and a wave of calls for him to step aside, though Mr. Larrazabal remains in his post.
However, such cases are rare. Generally, there is a degree of separation between public security and political legitimacy. Political officials have only occasionally been targeted in corruption probes related to organized crime, and the political class (especially in Mexico City) has often been accused of not paying enough attention to security issues. Moreover, in many of the most notorious locales, grave deterioration in security [has] not even provoked changes in the incumbent party. In that sense, Michoacan is an outlier.
This is even more so the case when one considers that, notwithstanding its reputation, Michoacan is not a terribly violent state. According to the National System of Public Security, the state registered a homicide rate of roughly 19 per 100,000 residents during 2011 and 2012, which is less than the national average. Through the first nine months of 2013, the state had an annualized rate of 21, which is slightly north of the national rate this year, but falls short of the most violent states.
Unfortunately, both of the major realms of activity that affect public security – the government and the criminal groups – appear to be wracked by instability. It is not clear what the recent upheaval in Michoacan promises for the state, but there is little hope for an enduring security improvement, and an end to the nuisance attacks from the Knights Templar, without deep changes to this prevailing dynamic.
– Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
On Saturday I did an interview on Aljazeera English regarding Nicolas Maduro’s first six months in office. Here I will quickly summarize my notes.
President Maduro’s first six months as elected president (he was sworn in on April 19) have been rocky with no honeymoon. A contested election in April transitioned into food shortages in May, into an electricity crisis in July, into undeniable economic deterioration in the past couple of months. With inflation closing in on 50 percent, and a parallel exchange rate that is seven times higher than the official rate, economic distortions are becoming epic.
The baseline causes of these problems, of course, were inherited from Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez Frias. Serious shortages first appeared in early 2008. Electricity blackouts were one of the reasons that the government lost ground in the 2010 legislative elections. And foreign exchange distortions have been a mainstay over the past five or six years. In 2012 Mr. Chávez covered over this waning sustainability with $30 billion in loans from China against future oil sales.
Now Maduro is presiding over a distorted economy with limited alternatives. Venezuela’s bonds have descended into junk territory, and China does not seem willing to hand over big cash infusions as in the past. Devaluing the currency and pushing forward a structural adjustment would send the economy into recession and be political suicide.
Average Venezuelans do not pardon their leaders for devaluations. Maduro’s popularity took a serious hit when he devalued the currency in February as acting president, and only recovered when Chávez passed away. Thus there is almost no chance his government will devalue the currency before the Dec. 8 municipal elections. Nevertheless, the government needs to get a hold of this foreign exchange problem very soon as it creates irresistible incentives for corruption and capital flight. And this, in part, is behind the government’s push for an enabling law.
For months the government has seemed paralyzed with respect to the foreign exchange market and other basic economic issues. Indeed there are serious internal divisions on these issues and it appears that Maduro does not have the political capital to sit in a cabinet meeting, listen to alternatives, decide who wins, and then get his whole team to fall in line. The enabling law could provide him with the power to impose some direction on the government’s economic policy.
The enabling law is being framed as providing Maduro with the powers he needs to fight corruption and confront the “economic war” he says is being waged against Venezuela. At first glance the desire for an enabling law looks a little mysterious since he already has an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Thus any law he wants to decree, he could get passed by the National Assembly anyway.
But being able to decree laws instead of having them debated in the National Assembly would indeed increase Maduro’s power. First, it reduces public debate and potential opposition against the laws that he might want to decree. Chávez frequently passed laws that had been written behind closed doors in [the presidential palace] Miraflores and which had never seen the light of day until they were decreed. That reduces the possibility for criticism and negative publicity.
Furthermore, Maduro’s biggest problems are in his own coalition. There is a lot of discontent within the government at all levels, especially among people who think he does not have the power and vision to make the Chávez project work. The enabling law would increase his power within the government because it reduces the ability of pro-government legislators to alter his agenda and grab the spotlight.
Perhaps most importantly, insiders suggests that the government sees the enabling law as a message to China that Maduro is solidly in power, can impose his will, and can guarantee that China will not lose its money.
Nobody knows what economic measures an enabling law might lead to, but they will likely be more rather than less restrictive. In recent weeks pragmatists like Nelson Merentes have been marginalized in favor of left idealists like Jorge Giordani. While three or four months ago it seemed like the government might refloat the legal “permuta” market, now it seems like, at least in the short term, the government will focus on trying to increase controls over who gets dollars.
It is easy to exaggerate Venezuela’s economic problems. It is not as if Venezuelans are destitute. When I was in Caracas two weeks ago the restaurants and shopping malls were all full, and the airport even fuller. Of course in a highly inflationary economy people want to spend their money as soon as they can. To my eye it seemed like most of the shortages had improved. Furthermore, the electricity didn’t go out for the 4 days I was there – however the situation is more precarious in the interior.
Venezuela is sitting on top of the largest oil reserves in the world and has a continual flow of dollars coming in. So they are not on the brink of a collapse. But they are progressively sliding into the swamp of serious economic dysfunction that will make sustained growth difficult and that could undermine Chavismo as a viable democratic political project.
And it should be pointed out that Maduro’s support is less tenuous than is often made out in the international media. The last trustworthy polling from September showed that while Maduro’s job disapproval had increased to around 50 percent his approval ratings were still in the mid-40s. These are numbers that have only changed slightly since the April election. In fact his favorability ratings have declined less than the leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, during the same time period. Average Chávez supporters are still giving Maduro the benefit of the doubt and unless there is a dramatic deterioration, Chavismo will probably do better than the opposition in the December municipal elections.
– David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
The Canadian gold mining company Pacific Rim announced on Oct. 8 that it had signed an agreement to be acquired by OceanaGold Corp., an Australian mining firm. The acquisition price reflects a premium of approximately 50 percent above where Pacific Rim shares had been trading.
Pacific Rim currently has a high profile international arbitration pending against the government of El Salvador relating to the government's refusal to issue a permit to allow the mining company to begin operations. Apparently OceanaGold feels that the arbitration case, or the possibility of a negotiated resolution, is strong enough to warrant the investment in Pacific Rim.
According to the press release announcing the deal:
Mick Wilkes, Managing Director and CEO of OceanaGold commented, "We believe this transaction will provide OceanaGold shareholders with potential exposure to a high grade gold-silver resource located in a very prospective region. This project has the potential to be an economic engine for El Salvador much like how our recently commissioned world-class Didipio Mine has been for northern Luzon in the Philippines. This transaction aligns well with our strategy to create value through investment in high quality, low cost assets and utilising the OceanaGold's experience in building and operating gold mines in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. El Dorado further complements our high grade gold-copper Didipio Mine in the Philippines and we will look to replicate the successes we've achieved in New Zealand and the Philippines in El Salvador. OceanaGold looks forward to working with our local community and government partners in establishing a roadmap to unlock the opportunity at El Dorado for El Salvador."
The international arbitration likely won't conclude until the second half of 2014, after a new president takes office. The current de facto ban on mining began under Tony Saca when he was president and has continued during the presidency of Mauricio Funes. [Mr. Saca is running for president in the February 2014 election with the newly created Unity party].
OceanaGold operates mines in Australia and New Zealand and has one mine in a developing country, its Didipio mine in the Philippines. That mine has run into protests from groups claiming that OceanaGold has not respected the rights of local indigenous communities. An article titled Destroying Didipio, sets out the conflict between OceanaGold and local people affected by the mine.
What do soccer stars and soybeans have in common? Brazil is incredibly good at producing and exporting both.
But while the soccer stars will come home to play for Brazil in the 2014 World Cup, the country's food exports are feeding the world as millions of Brazilians themselves go hungry, according to agriculture researchers and food scholars.
The competing interests between export demand and domestic need were underscored in an Oct. 16 report from the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), a private advocacy group comprised of members DuPont, Elanco, IBM, John Deere, and Monsanto.
Brazil, according to the report, has increased its agricultural output by 120 percent over the past 20 years and is an example in the “success” of liberalizing trade and adapting private sector technologies.
But consideration of whether to label Brazil a "success" must also include an assessment of the country's ability to actually feed its entire population, and its capability to continue ramping up food production, says Lester Brown of the Food Policy Institute. The United Nations identifies 7 percent of the population as malnourished, while a 2010 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development labels nearly a third of Brazil’s 199 million people as facing food insecurity, meaning that they do not eat enough or well enough.
Social equality is also suffering amid an increase in large-scale farming, says Mr. Brown. Nearly half of all Brazilian farmland is today held by the top 2 percent of landholders, a trend driven by big agribusiness and global trade markets, according to Brazil's Landless Worker's Movement. “Once you reach that concentration it’s difficult to reverse,” says Mr. Brown.
Environmental concerns are also in play, as Latin America’s role as a source of critical biodiversity should be considered in the global equation for food security, says Rolf Wachholtz, a Brazil-based agricultural economist for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. “Brazil is far away from taking to account correct pricing and the livestock lobby will do everything to avoid changes,” Mr. Wachholtz says. “The environmental damages, especially from deforestation, will be enormous if Brazil is going to produce more meat for China.”
Brazil is the world’s top exporter of soy and poultry, much of which is feeding a growing middle class in China that is forecast to triple to 950 million by 2030, according to GHI. China is increasingly looking to production from Brazil, where annual agricultural production growth of 4.3 percent has the country on pace to produce twice what it needs to feed its own population by 2030.
“Agricultural production in Brazil far exceeds local demand, and the country is a reliable source of commodities for food-importing countries such as China,” according to the report.
Many independent experts disagree with that assessment, however.
“When you have over 13 million people who are not able to eat enough every day, we need to address this before we say whether Brazil can feed the world,” says Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at McGill University in Quebec.
Mr. Brown of the Food Policy Institute also questions whether future growth in Brazilian food production can continue at the current pace. Soy production will likely slow, he argues, as the legume is unassisted by fertilizers, meaning that an increase in the yield can only happen if land access increases as well.
“I’m not as impressed with Brazil as this report [from Global Harvest Initiative] appears to be,” he says.
To be sure, hunger can’t be blamed simply on exports or the government, which has in recent years introduced initiatives like the Zero Hunger Program and the More Food Program, which aim to increase food access and organize small farms. The discrepancy is also due to a lack of access to food, either because of poverty or poor distribution between areas that are food-rich and food-poor.
Brazil produces enough food to meet demand, but “due to the country’s highly skewed income distribution, the lowest-income population segments are consuming less than their basic nutritional requirements," according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Essentially, the poor cannot afford food produced within their own country, and farms are incentivized to export their crops amid rising international market prices for soy and grains.
End poverty, therefore, and you can end hunger, says Dr. Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and a board member of the Inter-American Development Bank.
“If you solve poverty, then solve issue of food security,” says Dr. Diaz-Bonilla.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
In December 2011 I wrote about Mercosur's economic rules and how they could apply to Venezuela. My analysis was that Brazil wanted Venezuela in Mercosur because it would boost trade and provide legal protections to Brazilian companies working, investing, and trading with Venezuela. The big question was whether Venezuela would follow Mercosur's rules when push came to shove.
The first significant test is now occurring. Venezuelan companies and the Venezuelan government are late on payments to Brazilian companies, mostly companies that are exporting food to Venezuela. In some cases, payments are up to four months late. (Folha, El Universal) There have been several meetings with top Brazilian officials trying to get the Venezuelan government to release the dollars necessary to pay for the food (because no smart Brazilian company will accept Bolivars these days).
Written into Mercosur's rules are various clauses that should provide legal protection to these Brazilian companies. Venezuela, with its significant shortages of food and major currency problems, wants Brazil to ignore the late payments and keep the food flowing as a matter of regional solidarity.
There are no indications yet that Brazilian companies are cutting back their trade with Venezuela, in spite of the late payment problem. Brazilian companies appear convinced that the Rousseff government will successfully pressure President Maduro to pay up the money that is owed.
This is going to be a significant test case for Mercosur. If Venezuela fails to pay Brazilian companies, it will make a mockery of the economic union and raise questions about whether the group's rules are worth the paper they are written on. If Brazil can make Venezuela pay, then it shows that Brazil's influence and ability to use Mercosur as a multilateral platform to win regional economic benefits.
– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.
Paola González, a 17-year-old honor student from a poor family here, didn't plan on becoming a mother so young. But likely neither did many of the 20,000 other girls under the age of 18 who the UN Population Fund found give birth every day in developing countries around the world.
The eight-months-pregnant Bogotá teen dreamed of studying physical education in college and becoming a teacher. But she used no birth control when she became sexually active. "I didn't really think about it," says Paola.
Teen motherhood is something that perpetuates poverty and puts girls' health and life at risk, according to the new UN report entitled "Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenge of Adolescent Pregnancy," released today.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 18 percent of women in the recent UN survey reported giving birth at least once before the age of 18. Among that total, 2 percent reported giving birth before the age of 15. The highest regional teen birth rates before the age of 18 were reported in Nicaragua (28 percent), Honduras (26 percent), and The Dominican Republic (25 percent). The global average for women giving birth before 18 years of age in developing countries is 19 percent.
Latin America fares better than Africa (28 percent in West and Central Africa, and 25 percent in East and Southern Africa) and South Asia (22 percent) in terms of teen pregnancies, but trails behind Arab States (10 percent) and East Asia and the Pacific (8 percent).
Marcela Suazo, the UNPF specialist for Latin America, says that studies show as many as 90 percent of pregnancies in girls who are 15 years old or younger are the product of rape. Due to cultural norms, these offenses are rarely reported to health services in Latin America. "The younger a girl is, the more hidden away the pregnancy," Ms. Suazo says.
While the report says that many girls get pregnant due to a lack of information – one out of every three teenage girls in Central America was found to be unaware she could get pregnant the first time she had sex – Paola was informed. "I learned about planning methods in school but didn't use them," she says.
At school, where Paola is on the honor roll, teachers were surprised at her pregnancy but have encouraged her to continue studying.
Paola is aware that having her baby will set her back, but she doesn't see it as a deterrent to fulfilling her dreams. She plans to finish high school and begin her college studies by the middle of next year. "Having a baby wasn't in my plans but I won't let it get in the way," she says defiantly.
Thirty years ago today, following the fall of a brutal, seven-year military dictatorship, Argentines voted in general elections.
The democratic process has remained unbroken since, and last night many here celebrated a media law that they believe is pivotal to strengthening that democracy. Opponents, however, say it is a dangerous tool whose only function is to silence anti-government voices.
After four years of injunctions, appeals, and advertising campaigns that polarized opinion, Supreme Court judges ruled yesterday that a controversial 2009 media law was constitutional.
The ruling means Clarín – one of the biggest media conglomerates in Latin America, which vigorously fought the legislation – must finally adhere to the law, which limits the size of broadcast media companies and supersedes legislation from the dictatorship.
Clarín is an outspoken government critic, accused by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of lying, and it's now required to auction off many of its assets. Media companies, for instance, cannot own more than 24 broadcast licenses across Argentina. Clarín’s cable provider owns at least 158.
“This is a triumph for democracy, liberty, and pluralism,” Martín Sabbatella, who heads the government agency that is enforcing the law, said after yesterday’s ruling. The judges determined that “on limiting market concentration,” the law “favors freedom of expression.”
Clarín disagrees. Its CEO has called the law an attack on the independent press and, subsequently, on freedom of expression. But during the Supreme Court hearing in August, Clarín's lawyers fumbled for an explanation when asked how free speech would be affected.
In a statement, the company implied that the true intention of the government was to control the media. It accused President Kirchner’s administration of “colonizing” 80 percent of broadcast outlets through a number of strategies, including making them dependent on government advertising.
In their 392-page ruling, the judges warned against using government advertising as a means to “eliminate dissent and the pluralist debate of ideas.”
Kirchner – who was reelected with 54 percent of the vote in 2011, and held on to a slim majority in both congressional houses in midterm elections on Sunday – has also been accused of ruling Argentina by decree and trying to influence the courts. (But she is not alone: the same accusations were aimed at Carlos Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999.) Last year, Kirchner nationalized an oil firm by emergency decree and, in 2010, used the same method to fire the central bank president.
Some analysts say her government has moved towards a “competitive authoritarianism,” in which there are free and fair elections but abuse of other democratic processes and the media.
For Kirchner’s supporters, however, the constitutionality of the media law and the 30th anniversary of democracy are cause today for double celebration.
Soccer may be king of sports in Mexico, but the rising popularity of basketball is giving fútbol a kick in the shin.
"We're seeing a new wave of young people showing great interest in basketball," says Jaime González Rodriguez, director of the municipal sports institute in Nogales.
Mr. González Rodriguez points toward dozens of teens dribbling and shooting hoops in a gym at a sports complex here in the border state of Sonora. At a special basketball clinic, the youngsters share the court with former Phoenix Suns players Tom Chambers, Steven Hunter, Tim Kempton, and Horacio Llamas, the National Basketball Association's (NBA) first Mexico-born player.
The NBA is working to extend its reach into Mexico. In December, the San Antonio Spurs will go up against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Mexico City –marking only the second regular-season game to be played there. The timing of the NBA's foray south of the border comes just as a basketball buzz is gripping Mexico.
While Mexico's beloved national soccer squad struggles, its basketball team is making history. Having pulled off an improbable championship run at the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Americas, the team heads to the FIBA World Cup in Spain next year. Mexico last appeared in the basketball tournament in 1974.
Then there's Mexico's "barefoot team."
Earlier in October, a group of Trique Indian boys from the southern state of Oaxaca dominated the International Festival of Mini-Basketball and eventually emerged as champions in the Argentina venue. As the name suggests, the games allow children to play on smaller courts with shortened hoops.
The team earned its nickname because most of the boys play barefoot, despite having sneakers provided for them. Most were not used to playing in shoes because their families can't afford them. The boys earned acclaim from various corners of the world.
The boys' incredible feat, no pun intended, not only serves to inspire other kids in Mexico and Latin America, but is also a boon to the sport, González Rodriguez says.
"Things seem to be falling into place," he says. "Now we are demonstrating the value of basketball in Mexico."
The director recalls that basketball reigned in Nogales for decades. But over time soccer rose to the top. From the 1960s and through the '80s, the city was known as "the cradle of basketball," Mr. Rodriguez says. Soccer long has had an official presence in Mexico. The country participated in the first World Cup soccer match in 1930, but it wasn't until after the country hosted the 1970 World Cup that soccer exploded in the streets and became a national obsession.
But inside the local gym hosting the NBA clinic, basketball is best. At least according to Andrés Borboa and Marco Antonio Osorio, both 13-year-olds who play on the same basketball team. "I like everything about basketball," Marco says.
The boys say they learned valuable techniques from the Suns that they will put to the test at their next game. They admit to knowing little about the Suns stars working with them today, saying they're more familiar with players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant.
But they know about Mr. Llamas. "He has inspired me, because like him, I also want to make it to the NBA," Andrés says.
Llamas, who made a name for himself in the Mexican league before playing his first game with the Suns in 1997, says he was honored to be part of the event in a place that's part of his basketball career. "I played in Nogales many years ago," he says.
Llamas is flattered that kids born long after he played in the NBA know who he is. He says this shows that an interest in basketball can prove a positive influence and help kids steer clear of trouble. "So many bad things are said about our country, but a lot of good things are also happening," Llamas says, referring to the many youngsters who dedicate time and effort to sports. "We need to pay more attention to the good things."