• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Last week on the Caracas Chronicles blog, Juan Cristobal Nagel wrote a remarkable post. He lamented that he had become a cheerleader for the [Henrique] Capriles campaign, drawn into the opposition bubble that was convinced Capriles was going to win. The post is worth reading not only for its admirable candor and reflection, but also for Mr. Nagel’s description of the value-added process by which he was led into the bubble. He tells how, after he posted a piece critical of Capriles, he was taken aback when a member of the Capriles campaign said he needed to decide if he was a “friend or enemy.” Over time he realized that he did indeed feel a strong affinity for the campaign’s basic themes and communicated frequently with friends he had on the campaign staff. This led him to lose his critical edge, ignore the polls that showed Capriles way behind, and focus on the one that showed him ahead. The post gets at two of the core elements of political polarization in Venezuela during the [Hugo] Chávez period.
The first element is the logic of friend or foe. During the Chávez period both Chávez supporters and opponents have tended to think they are fighting for their lives against a political power that seeks to eliminate them. Thus constructive criticism is considered treason, and “loyal opposition” is simply a contradiction in terms. In Venezuela, if you support candidate X, you not only hope that he or she wins, you publicly claim that he or she will win. Anything less reveals you as lacking resolve or as being of questionable integrity. In addition, if you can put forward some new theory about how and why your candidate is going to win, you become something of a hero. Of course, none of this is unique to Venezuela. Watch CNN for an hour during this election season in the US and you will see spin from both sides: from Obama and Romney campaign officials as well as the columnists that support them. What is unique to Venezuela is how far this logic of spin extends into the public sphere among journalists, academics, and other opinion makers.
If you just take a look at one newspaper, El Universal, and some of the titles of the opinion articles the two weeks before the election you will see that the hype of an inevitable Capriles win was deafening. Authors applauded a people who had finally turned against Chávez: “Venezuela Wants Progress” Santiago Quintero (October 1); “Venezuela Wakes Up and Reacts” Emilio Graterón (October 1). And they triumphantly proclaimed that Capriles would win: “The Final Stretch, Capriles Is Winning!” Flavia Martineau (September 29); “Capriles and the End of the Story,” Asdrúbal Aguiar (September 25). Some commentators went a step further to focus instead on the margin that Capriles would win by, hoping that it would be large enough to overcome fraud and have a clear mandate for change: “Capriles: The Avalanche Effect,” Roberto Giusti, (October 2); “The Gap is the Challenge,” Claudio J. Sandoval, (October 4).
Other authors focused on sending off Chávez into history: “Rest, President” Francisco Gámez Arcaya (September 26); “Well, Goodbye Chávez,” Francisco Olivares, (September 29). Of course others worried that Chávez would not accept his impending loss, “And if He Doesn’t Give Up Power?” Adolfo R. Taylhardat, (September 26), and warned Chávez that this would be costly “Fraud Is Not Free,” Yon Goicoechea (September 25).
One could expand this symphony with innumerable other articles from multiple media outlets that analyzed every imaginable implication of the coming Capriles victory. Of course here and there you could find discordant opinions, but they were drowned out by this overwhelming triumphalism. None of this should be taken as an endorsement of Venezuela’s state media which I think is even more homogeneous and more misleading. However, the private media has more impact than state media and, in recent years, it has systematically misguided the opposition.
The second, closely-related element of polarization in Venezuela is the echo chamber effect. Polarization in itself results in and is reinforced by what can be called “network isolation”—the tendency for people to talk to people they agree with, rather than with people of diverse opinions. Network isolation produces an echo chamber in which everybody agrees, reigning ideas are never challenged, and the sentiments and opinions of people outside of the network are systematically occluded. Most of the articles mentioned above are written in terms of “we”—not “we in the opposition,” nor “those of us who oppose Chávez” but simply what “we” think, and what “we” need to do, under the assumption that all readers are unified in their political perspective.
Of course to a certain extent this is the human condition; very few people maintain diverse networks and it is easy to lose touch with the larger population wherever you are. In most contexts, opinion polling helps people break out of their bubble and acknowledge the actual distribution of political preferences in their society. However, in Venezuela, polling itself is polarized and largely contributes to the echo chamber. As Iñaki Sagarzazu has argued, some variation in polling is normal. But the extent of variation in Venezuela clearly is not. Differences in methodology and sample can lead firms to differ by two or three points, but not twenty or thirty.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that one has no analytic recourse and should simply pick the pollster that gives the most appealing results. In a context in which it is well known that polling firms make deals with political parties, it should be clear that you want to regard the extremes with some skepticism. I started this blog by defending Consultores 21 as one of the two most reputable pollsters in Venezuela and trying to reconcile their polling results with those of Datanálisis. I stopped defending them when I heard from several independent sources that Consultores 21 was working with the Capriles campaign, and after seeing Iñaki Sagarzazu’s analyses, (see Table 1) showing them to be the least accurate of all the pollsters he evaluated. They have not hit six out of seven elections as they recently claimed in a mea culpa. They were twenty points off on the 2004 referendum and more than ten points off on the 2009 referendum.
In contrast, the pollster with the best record over the past twelve years had Chávez in a strong position throughout the campaign. And their most robust statistic for predicting elections suggested a victory of ten points or more. Figure 1 shows that since 2000, Chavez’s job approval rating in Datanálisis’s Omnibus poll has either predicted the pro-government vote right on the nose or overestimated it by 1-3 pts. Only in the 2009 referendum did it underestimate the pro-government vote. In Datanalisis’s last three Omnibus polls before the election, Chavez’s job approval ranged from 55 to 61%. So the track-record of this statistic suggested a strong probability that the pro-Chávez vote was going to be in the mid-50s.
Indeed, looking exclusively at voter intention is not usually the best way to think about probable results. Rather, it is better to dig in to look at some of the fundamentals of public opinion and how they compare over time. One of the most popular theories in the opposition echo chamber was the idea that the opposition was on an inevitable upward trajectory – as can be seen in Figure 2 in the original blog post, a graphic that formed part of one popular analysis that circulated on the internet.
But a few simple comparisons between 2010 and 2012 were enough to see that Chavez was in a much stronger position in 2012 than he was shortly before the 2010 legislative elections. [...] Chávez’s job approval was approximately ten points higher in August 2012 than it was in August 2010. His trust numbers had improved by seven points, and more importantly were fifteen points ahead of Capriles’s numbers. Personal optimism – which is largely a derivative of economic growth – had increased by 18 points. And while the opposition had the advantage over the government in party identification in 2010 – a key element for voter mobilization – by 2012 the government had close to double the opposition’s numbers.
This just goes to show that accurate polling is possible in Venezuela. The problem is that only a few pollsters have decided on a business model that is based on a track record of accuracy. Many, perhaps most, sell results to the highest bidder or see themselves as part of a partisan political project. This will never change until citizens demand accountability. The efforts of Iñaki Sagarzazu and others to make public the track records of pollsters and their typical biases is perhaps the most promising path.
What gains the opposition made in the 2012 presidential election came because the Capriles campaign did not, as past opposition campaigns have, start with the assumption that it represented a majority. Rather it sought to create one by putting foot to pavement, breaking out of the bubble, and talking to people about their real needs. In the process it forced the Chávez government to likewise address the needs and desires of average folks. If further progress is to be made in Venezuelan democracy, it will require polling companies and media outlets that actually mediate popular sentiment rather than trying to create it, and citizens that hold them accountable for their work.
– David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
The Honduran government is reportedly set to conduct a review of its gun laws in an apparent effort to combat rising violence levels, though equal emphasis will need to be made on addressing endemic corruption and weak institutions to solidify any gains.
Matias Funes, a representative from the independent Commission on Public Security Reform (CRSP), said on Oct. 16 that Honduras’ gun laws are in need of urgent revision if efforts are to be made to combat the country’s endemically high level of violence, reported La Tribuna.
Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla said the government agreed a review of the law should be undertaken and that President Porfirio Lobo had asked that he begin conducting one.
Under the existing law, citizens are allowed to own as many as five personal firearms. According to statistics released last month by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Honduras’ homicide rate for 2011 was 92 per 100,000, up from 82 the previous year.
“We need to disarm criminals ... and this must be the subject of a very thorough analysis by the government,” Mr. Funes declared.
The CRSP began working on June 1, a government initiative created to work toward reforming the country’s security and justice institutions. According to Funes, though the CRSP was given a budget of $2.1 million, it has only received 10 percent of this so far, reported EFE.
InSight Crime Analysis
Along with having the highest homicide rate in the world, Honduras also has one of the highest rates of deaths caused by firearms. According to the Small Arms Survey, the proportion of firearm homicides stood at a little over 80 percent in 2010.
As Funes noted, the high prevalence of gun crime is not only a result of lax gun laws but also the alarming rate of illegal arms flowing through the country. Of the 850,000 weapons estimated to be in circulation last year in Honduras, close to 70 percent were illegal, according to the country’s human rights commission, CONADEH. In one example of this, El Heraldo newspaper last year found that some 3,000 guns had disappeared from government stockpiles from 2002-2006, prompting fears they had made their way on to the black market.
The poor regulatory framework in place has meant Honduras has also become a source for the region’s arms traffickers, with weapons found to have made their way into Guatemala and Mexico, the latter having comparatively strict laws; there is only one gun store in the whole of Mexico.
The government did in fact pass a decree in August that bans civilians from carrying arms in public in northern Colon province in an effort to curb violence in the area. However, this appears to have been more of a politically motivated move due to the selective nature of who the law applies to. The region is the site of an ongoing land conflict between farmers and big business. Farmers are banned from carrying weapons while business security guards are exempt from the law.
Of course, simply banning the sale of guns will not necessarily drive down homicide rates, as InSight Crime has noted. Honduras is one of Central America’s weakest countries in terms of institutional capacity and its security forces are notoriously corrupt. Strengthening institutional capacity and fighting corruption therefore need to be addressed alongside any proposal to decrease the number of arms legally available.
There is evidence that gun control laws can have the desired effect on violence. The Colombian capital Bogota imposed a ban on guns in public spaces in February and has since seen its homicide rate drop 21 percent this year compared to 2011, reaching a 27-year low based on statistics released last month. However, the criminal dynamics of the country (or city) play a vital role also. Medellin implemented its own ban in January yet has seen violence flare in parts of the city thanks to gangs battling for territorial control.
Conducting a thorough review of Honduras’ gun control policy is a vital step toward tackling the country’s violence problem, though this alone will not be enough. The CRSP has the potential to be a crucial instigator for the necessary legal and institutional reforms as the country attempts to extricate itself from rising homicide levels. The fact that it is apparently underfunded, though, raises questions about how sincere the government is about moving toward these goals.
IN PICTURES: Crossing borders: Latin America's drug war
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
After literally years upon years of rumors that the Cuban government was planning to implement migration reforms, today, finally it did indeed publish significant changes to Cuba's migration law in the Gaceta Oficial. After several years of economic reforms, some of which came ever so slowly and others of which seemed to cycle out rather quickly, such as new rules for property sales, these changes to Cuban migration law represent the first substantial political reform enacted by Raul Castro's government.
On the one hand, this is a huge step forward for both the Cuban government and the Cuban population. The elimination of the 'tarjeta blanca,' or white card policy – which required Cubans to be invited abroad and receive authorization to go, and the new broad right to a passport – represents a new level of trust that hasn't existed between the Cuban population at large and its government in many years. The new migration policy also doubles the time a Cuban may live abroad without relinquishing citizenship (and possessions left behind) to two years, and then after that, one must seek additional months at a Cuban consulate.
On the other hand, there are several caveats, some obvious and innocuous, and others that, depending on how broadly they are used by authorities, still mean that several categories of Cubans may not benefit from these changes, or will at the very least, have to wait to benefit. Those Cubans include those who have civil or other obligations, such as mandatory military service (something not required in the US, but required in other countries, one example being Israel). Then there are those whose departure - particularly en masse - could cause a serious brain drain in a country that invests substantial resources in and highly values its human capital particularly in social, medical and scientific fields. That means doctors will still need to serve the population (or in places like Venezuela) before emigrating. And here there is a reference to the US policy of offering Cuban doctors the opportunity to immigrate to the US from wherever they may be posted abroad. I've heard the Cuban doctors abroad program described as either a conscription where the doctor has no choice or as a volunteer-with-extra-pay assignment. The US considers it a conscription, and will admit any Cuban doctor who reports he or she has been conscripted into service abroad. The Cuban government considers the US immigration policy toward its doctors to be a full-scale effort to rob Cuba of its qualified and necessary workforce.
But the most crucial exclusions are for national security and public interest - these could leave a lot of room for interpretation. A highly visible test of these exclusions will be the next time Yoani Sanchez wants to go abroad. The Cuban government may keep her grounded and use a familiar refrain about Ms. Sanchez and her ilk being created and funded by foreign entities bent on the destruction of the Cuban state; or, and this would be the more strategic choice, one demonstrating a deeper commitment to freedom to travel, just wave her on through. It's not hard to imagine, after all, that the Cuban government's harassment of Sanchez has helped fuel the international interest in her affairs.
The vast majority of Cubans will not find themselves caught in one of these exclusionary categories, and I expect that we're going to see those with money, or with family abroad who will pay for their trip, taking advantage of this welcome change. This will of course complicate matters for US officials who will have to consider many, many more temporary entry visa requests. I expect it will cause the US to renew its request for more visa officers in Havana - or at least publicly - which will cause Havana to request reciprocity in Washington, at which point everything will gum up as it often does. Over the last couple of years, the US appears to be keeping its promise to halt any further progress on bilateral relations until Cuba releases Alan Gross from a Cuban military hospital where he is serving out a 15-year prison sentence.
Normally, if the United States' priorities were to have some sort of positive impact on the ground in Cuba, it might be a good idea to react with cautious optimism over these migration reforms and take steps within our power to encourage its broad use. But with the administration's back up against the wall over its failure to secure the release of Alan Gross, and just weeks before a US presidential election, in which the media insist that Florida's electoral votes remain pivotal, I doubt there will be much enthusiasm in Washington for Cuba's new migration law. There's a certain irony in that, given that Cuban Americans in Florida are precisely who will welcome this first big step forward toward the reunification of the Cuban family.
A recent report on the environmental destruction caused by organized crime in Guatemala sheds light on an often overlooked consequence of criminal activity in the Americas.
The report, published by the online magazine Yale Environment 360, outlines the threat being posed by criminal gangs to Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve in the north of the country, an area of some 2.1 million hectares that covers around 19 percent of the country and half of its northern Peten province.
According to park officials, the western part of the reserve has been worst hit, with Salvadoran, Mexican, and Chinese gangs all operating in the area. The eastern half has been left comparatively untouched.
The destruction is being caused through a range of illicit activities. Mexican and Salvadoran gangs have reportedly cleared vast tracts of land to launder money through cattle ranches, with the former selling cattle on the Mexican side of the border to earn profits. The practice has led Guatemalans to coin the term “narcoganaderia,” or, “narco-ranching,” the report states.
Mexican cartels are also instrumental in cutting down forest to create airstrips for planes bringing narcotics from South America. This has resulted in the loss of some 40,000 hectares of forest within the last decade, according to the article.
Meanwhile, officials fear that criminals backed by Chinese gangs could be moving into the reserve. Illegal logging has already been carried out by these groups just south of the reserve, according to the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), with wood being sent to feed Asia’s market.
CONAP employees, along with people working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been threatened by criminals in the area, with some even being kidnapped or forced to flee for their own safety. If the state is not able to improve its security presence in the area, the ecological destruction by gangs could spread. As it stands, it is a “chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala’s border with Belize,” WCS director Roan McNab said.
InSight Crime Analysis
Environmental degradation is one of the more overlooked consequences of criminal gang activity in the region. As InSight Crime mapped out prior to the Rio+20 conference on environmental sustainability in June, though, evidence of organized crime’s impact on the environment is abundant.
One of the most obvious offenders are gangs that engage in illegal logging and the trafficking of rare species. From South American countries like Brazil, Colombia and Peru, to Guatemala and Nicaragua further north, there exist incidences of criminal networks pilfering resources from these areas’ diverse eco-systems for sale on the international market.
However, many times, the environmental effects are unrelated to so-called “eco-trafficking,” as the Guatemala report highlights with the example of Mexican cartels clearing forest for airstrips. Illegal mining, oil theft and cocaine production all have disastrous consequences for the environment. In illicit gold mining in particular in Colombia – a crime in which the FARC, Rastrojos, and Urabeños all have a stake – toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide are used, contaminating land and water supplies, as Peace Brigades International outlined in a 2011 report.
With regard to cocaine, all stages of production are known to have an impact on the environment thanks to the employment of precursor chemicals and gasoline in make-shift jungle laboratories. The majority of these chemicals simply run off into neighboring waterways and destroy flora and fauna where the labs are located.
Coca eradication efforts have been equally disastrous thanks to the use of aerial fumigation of illegal crops with glyphosphate, harming animals, legal crops and waterways.
Unilateral moves have been made over the past year by governments recognizing the damage being caused. Nicaragua deployed an “eco-battalion” early this year to combat illegal loggers, Brazil has utilized drones to detect environmental crimes and Colombia has created an office to deal exclusively with environmental crime.
However, as destruction in the Maya Reserve, particularly Peten, illustrates, this degradation is often taking place in areas with little state presence and where criminal gangs operate a de facto form of governance. In conjunction with tackling environmental destruction and the crimes causing it, the task of shoring up state presence in remote areas will be integral to combating the issue.
– Edward Fox is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Two of Brazil's recent primetime TV shows feature the country's rising star of the moment: the new middle class. Cheias de Charme, or Full of Charm, just concluded a five-month run at 7 p.m., receiving an average viewership of 34 points, higher than recent novelas, or soap operas, in the same time slot. Avenida Brasil, Globo's 9 p.m. novela, ends in several weeks and enjoys a large viewership, reaching up to 65 percent of Brazilian TVs. The fact that two of the most watched television programs on Brazil's most watched television network showcased this group is telling, with a number of interesting implications.
Traditionally, novelas were aspirational, often starring wealthy characters. Now, with the two novelas this year, they're intended to be relatable, a reflection of the tens of millions from the C class, or the new middle class. "When we portrayed poor people, they were always dreaming of leaving their suburbs and striking it rich. But now we want to show a place that, in spite of being poor, is cheerful and warm, a place where there can be prosperity,” Ricardo Waddington, coordinator of Avenida Brasil told Folha de São Paulo. Showing members of the new middle class flourishing represents a new type of aspiration. "Here in Brazil, there's a real problem in understanding how the lower middle class thinks. This lower class doesn't hold up the elite as a model. The reference for these people is not the rich, but rather the neighbor who succeeded," Renato Meirelles, CEO of Data Popular – a marketing firm specializing in the middle and lower classes – told the AP.
In some ways, the novelas are glorifying parts of Brazilian culture long considered inferior by the upper class. The two novelas offer insight into what the new middle class is like: how they dress, speak, and consume – or at least, Globo's vision of these elements. The novelas prominently feature working class neighborhoods, as well as using types of music popular with the new middle class like pagode and forró. Avenida Brasil's costume designer went out to Rio suburbs Bangú and Madureira for inspiration, as well as incorporating what singers and soccer players from working-class neighborhoods wear.
The shows have used aggressive marketing both during commercials and offscreen for the new middle class. Commercials during the show target the C class, with everything from electronics stores to ... [shoe obsession].
As with many novelas, the products used on the show become must-have items, particularly for women, and despite featuring new middle class styles, Avenida Brasil is no exception. Pants and jewelry worn by the Suelen character have been a hit across the country. Globo licensed six lines of products made up from 50 items from Avenida Brasil alone. Riding on the metro in Rio, you can spot an ad labeled "Da TV para você" (from the TV to you), advertising hair products featured on the novela. You can even see ads on some of Rio's highways advertising the Guadalupe Mall as featured on Avenida Brasil.
Targeting the new middle class is an important marketing strategy, given the group's buying power and what the new middle class is purchasing. A recent IBGE study found that the C class spends more money on durable goods like cars, home appliances, and medicine than on food, education, and culture. The C class also helped drive Brazil's credit boom, and in Rio, one can buy a coconut or a meat skewer from a street vendor with a credit or debit card in some cases. As a result, the new middle class is quickly racking up debt; a September Kantar Worldpanel survey found that of Brazil's five social classes (ranging from A, the wealthiest to E, the poorest), the C class is the only one in which people spend more than they earn.
But being the center of one of the country's most watched shows doesn't mean that the traditional middle class or the upper class are celebrating the ascension of millions of Brazilians into the C class.
In fact, there's evidence that some are uncomfortable with this social group – long considered relegated to the outskirts of large cities and outside of spaces frequented by the the well-off – suddenly having money and access. This conflict has been obvious, particularly in places like airports where members of the new middle class rarely set foot before. But now it's statistically proven: A Data Popular survey found that a large portion of the wealthier sectors of Brazil are unhappy with the new middle class. The study showed that 55 percent of upper class consumers believe products should have separate versions "for the rich and the poor;" 48 percent believe the quality of services declined with the rise of the new middle class; 50 percent prefer going to places occupied by members of the "same social class"; 16 percent believe "poorly dressed" people should be barred from certain places; and 26 percent believe subways would bring "undesirables" to their neighborhoods. You also need look no further than Classe Média Sofre, a blog that details some of these tensions the traditional middle class and upper classes have with the new middle class.
"You're seeing people going to the theater or taking a flight for the first time ever, and the first time is very important," Marcelo Neri, head of research institute Ipea and Brazil's new middle class guru told O Público. "But it's a class that isn't accustomed to reading. This creates prejudice from the upper class. There's class conflict at the airports, since the elite always had empty airports to themselves. The new middle class makes them uncomfortable. Culturally, there are a lot of things happening but it's not traditional culture. It's in the periphery of cities."
The novelas may also include less obvious subtext about new middle class culture. Avenida Brasil writer João Emanuel Carneiro described the so-called "poor-rich" characters on the show as those who are "simple people who became rich but maintained their suburban ways." In describing how these characters figure into the show, columnist Mauricio Stycer points out the protagonist's "more subtle objective is to...'civilize' the poor-rich." Será?
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
A top Brazilian court convicted Jose Dirceu, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's chief of staff from 2003 to 2005, and Jose Genoino, former head of the Workers Party, in one of Brazil's biggest corruption cases ever. The New York Times describes the trial as a victory for Brazil's judicial institutions in fighting impunity for corruption, something that has long gone unpunished at higher levels.
RELATED: How much do you know about Brazil? Take our quiz to find out!
In the middle of a big second round municipal election campaign, particularly in São Paulo, Lula is meeting with candidates and trying to overcome the political obstacles that this trial is putting in place.
– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.
As President Chávez tackles the herculean task on investing in the modernization of sluggish state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) – the golden goose that funds the expansionist Bolivarian Alliance for our Americas (ALBA) – Venezuela’s long-stalled plan to build a $6.6 billion oil refinery in northwestern Nicaragua is being given new relevance and urgency.
The so-called “Supreme Dream of Bolívar” refinery in Nicaragua would give Chávez a Pacific gateway to China – a key market for Venezuelan oil exports as the country tries to ramp up its slumping production levels after years of falling behind other oil-producing nations.
“Chávez needs to focus on increasing his country’s level of oil production and investing in logistics for the future," says Nicaraguan political analyst Arturo Cruz, President Daniel Ortega’s former ambassador to the United States and a professor of political science at INCAE. "This project is a no-brainer; it’s the perfect arrangement because Nicaragua is an ideological ally and the refinery will give Chávez strategic access to the Chinese market, ” says Mr. Cruz.
An ALBA legacy
Cruz says the refinery megaproject meets the main political and economic objectives of both Chávez and Ortega. In addition to becoming an emblematic legacy project for ALBA (after years of unmet promises), the “Supreme Dream” oil refinery will also become a linchpin in the future economic expansion of Venezuela and Nicaragua – not to mention an important move to break their countries’ economic dependence on the United States.
The refinery will also allow Ortega to create jobs in a country rife with poverty and unemployment – Nicaraguans’ two principal concerns, according to polls. The construction of the oil refinery will create an estimated 5,000 direct jobs and 15,000 indirect jobs, while the operation of the plant will create an additional 1,500 direct jobs and 6,000 indirect jobs, according to government projections.
The success of the project would, in many ways, be a lasting – not to mention polluting – monument to ALBA. On the other hand, if the project fails to materialize, as so many other ALBA projects have, it will be an enduring reminder of the leftist bloc’s ultimate failure to deliver on its populist promises.
In 2008, in response to Nicaraguan media reports that the refinery was way behind schedule, Venezuelan Ambassador Pedro Prenso said the Supreme Dream of Bolívar is “the most important project that is being developed on the Central American isthmus.”
But now five years have passed and the only thing that has been built is an access road to the future construction site. In total, ALBA has spent only $92 million – mostly in studies and fussing about – of the $6.6 billion that the project is projected to cost. As bulldozers continue to push dirt around in circles, the refinery’s superlative claim to be the most important project in Central America is starting to sound a bit silly.
That’s why the Sandinista government is suddenly anxious to move the project forward, before the cornerstone placed by Chávez and Ortega in 2007 gets completely lost in the weeds. Sandinista officials insist the delays are normal for a project this size – the biggest and most expensive ever attempted in Nicaragua.
“The dimension of this project, with the technical complexity that it has and the size of the investment requires a lot of studies, just like any other big investment projects in other countries,” Energy Minister Emilio Rapaccioli says.
Mr. Rapaccioli insists the project is going to happen and says the legislative National Assembly’s recent approval of the project was a big step in the right direction.
On Sept. 20, the National Assembly approved the three-phased plan for the refinery and an oil pipeline across Nicaragua. The project will be handled by the company ALBA de Nicaragua, or ALBANISA, a mixed Venezuelan-Nicaragua venture that is managed like Ortega’s private business.
The assembly’s rubberstamp approval was mostly symbolic, but it lent a sudden sense of official importance to the bulldozers’ busywork.
Once the refinery is completed (perhaps in 2017, since the 2012 deadline has come and gone), Nicaragua will have a total fuel-storage capacity of nearly 1 billion barrels of diesel, gasoline and fuel oil, according to government plans. Not only will Nicaragua be able to supply China and its own domestic needs, where gas pump prices are the highest in the region, but also supply 40 percent of Central America’s oil needs.
Nicaragua is already dabbling in oil exports. According to government data, ALBANISA this year has exported $42.5 million worth of Venezuelan oil, mostly to El Salvador. The terms and conditions of ALBANISA’s oil-exporting business remain a Sandinista secret.
PDVSA’s game of catch-up
Despite sitting on the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela’s oil production has declined by an estimated 30 percent since Chávez took power 14 years ago, according to industry sources. At the same time, Chávez continues to stretch Venezuela’s oil assets thin as he doles out billions of petrodollars to finance his populist political project, which is tied to a bloated portfolio of foreign and domestic projects – not to mention dozens more that never materialized.
Given Venezuela’s current production rate and ALBA’s expanding commitments, Chávez would be in serious trouble if world oil prices were to dip below $90 a barrel (prices are currently at $92.39 a barrel), according to Cruz’s calculations.
Regardless, Cruz says, it makes no sense for Venezuela to slowdown its production levels when it’s sitting on 250 years of oil reserves and other oil-producing countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia are pumping it out of the ground as fast as they can.
Chávez needs to make hay while the sun shines because “in 20 or 30 years, oil might not be as valuable,” Cruz advises.
That means Chávez needs to fulfill what he thinks was the “supreme dream” of his hero, Simón Bolívar, who, when not liberating South America from colonial rulers, was apparently fantasizing about one day converting Nicaragua into platform to export Venezuelan oil to China.
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
– This story was originally published on The Nicaragua Dispatch.
It could be the greatest victory Mexico has seen in six years of bloody battle with drug organizations: A top Zetas drug cartel leader is believed to have been killed in a northern Mexico gunfight on Sunday.
The Zetas are the most reviled drug trafficking organization in Mexico, responsible for mass graves, brutal executions, mutilations, extortion, kidnapping, and jailbreaks across the country. And the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón has been putting pressure on the group in recent months.
“It is a huge deal for the government,” says Ana Maria Salazar, a former Pentagon official and security analyst in Mexico City. “When you have organizations that are this dangerous, the government has to prioritize and go against those organizations that most exercise violence against society in general. It is a good strategy in that sense.”
‘The Executioner’ killed?
The founding leader, Heriberto Lazcano, who is known both as “El Lazca” and also “El Verdugo,” or "the Executioner," is believed to have been killed in Coahuila, in northern Mexico, in a Sunday fight that broke out between gunmen and the Mexican Navy.
"Information was obtained after the first forensics tests were carried out that yielded indications that suggest that one of the bodies is Heriberto Lazcano," the Mexican Navy said in a statement. "The Navy department is coordinating efforts with Coahuila state, and will be awaiting the conclusions of the forensics examination in the case.”
If it is confirmed, it would be a blow to one of the most ruthless organizations in a savage drug war that has taken some 60,000 lives in six years. Mr. Lazcano is a founding member of the Zetas, who are former elite Army deserters who also recruited “kaibiles” or elite Guatemalan soldiers. The group started as the armed enforcement for the Gulf cartel, before splitting in 2010.
While all of the drug organizations display unfathomable brutality, the Zetas are considered among the most vicious, the first to publicly display beheadings as an intimidation measure and leaving a signature 'z' at crime scenes.
A double blow
This death comes as another Zetas suspect was arrested by the Navy in Nuevo Laredo, across from the Texas border. That suspect, Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, was arrested during the weekend, according to the Navy. He is accused of leading of one of the most violent moments in the drug war: the massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in 2010. He is also linked to major jailbreaks in recent years and the infamous killing of David Hartley, an American, on Falcon Lake at the US-Mexico border.
Mr. Martinez’s arrest follows sustained pressure against the Zetas in recent months. Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant, told The New York Times that he counts 17 major arrests of leaders of the Zetas over the past year.
The end of the Zetas?
But this does not mean the end of the Zetas. Analysts have said the group has splintered: “As we have seen in other parts of the country, this could lead to fragmentation,” says Javier Oliva Posada, a drug expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “It could mean an increase of violence in the short-term.”
Mr. Oliva Posada faults the Calderón administration for not having a full-scale strategy beyond simply going after top cartel leaders. That, with a dysfunctional justice system, has meant death tolls and levels of violence are at historic highs in Mexico. Many of those arrested are either let go because there is not enough evidence against them, or in some cases, they walk out of jail during jailbreaks.
“Regardless of what happens with Lazca, whether he was killed or not, the truth of the matter is that … the [Zetas] will continue with the business of drug trafficking,” says Ms. Salazar.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
A couple of hours after the results were announced, here are my initial reactions. Winning by 9.5 percent represents a real decline from the three previous presidential elections which Hugo Chávez has won by 15 to 20 percent. However it is still a decisive victory that President Chávez accepted with grace. While previous victories have led to vitriolic triumphalism, [Sunday night] Chávez was more circumspect in his celebration.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles recognized the electoral defeat quickly and gave no encouragement to the “plan B” of saying the electoral playing field was unfair. Indeed he actively discouraged the “creative radicalism” of some elements of the opposition. This would seem to reinforce the predominance of the new generation of opposition politicians represented by Mr. Capriles and campaign manager Armando Briquet. However, the fact that Capriles did not make any reference to the December regional elections suggests to me that not all is settled in the opposition camp. If Capriles had lost by 5 percent or less, his dominance in the opposition coalition would have been ensured. But losing by almost 10 percent means there could well be a struggle for leadership.
It will be interesting to see what this electoral result will mean in the international community. While some in Washington recently revealed “Chavez’s plan to steal the election,” and announced that “the fix is in,” Capriles accepted the electoral loss without qualification.
Of course it would have been difficult for him to do otherwise. During this electoral process, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) allowed for more audits of the electronic platform than ever before. The opposition participated in, and approved all of them. Arguing that the government dominated the media also became difficult when both the CNE and the UCAB, in separate studies, found that Capriles had received more media coverage than Chávez. And focusing on voter intimidation certainly became more difficult when turnout exceeded 80 percent.
Former Ambassador Patrick Duddy’s recent contingency memo had one important suggestion that has not received enough attention. In the opening section he argues: “If Chávez is reelected in a process judged acceptably free and fair, the United States should seek to reset the bilateral relationship with an eye toward the eventual renewal of high-level communication on areas of mutual interest.” [Sunday night's] results and the candidates’ acceptance of them suggest that it’s time for Washington to think through Duddy’s suggestion.
– 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, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes swept yesterday's municipal election in Rio, winning with nearly 65 percent of the vote. In second place was Rio state assemblyman Marcelo Freixo, who won 28 percent of the vote. For those familiar with Rio politics, it wasn't a surprise: Mayor Paes is a popular incumbent who raised much more money than Mr. Freixo (around 14 times more), had a huge coalition (Freixo refused to create one), enjoyed much more TV advertising time than Freixo, and has support from the state governor, President Dilma Rousseff, and former president Lula.
Amid a construction boom with new government-funded hospitals and education centers, Paes also counts among his administration's accomplishments presiding over the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. In addition, Paes won despite recent accusations of corruption – allegedly paying off another political party not to run for the mayoralty of Rio. Freixo also was at a disadvantage due to popular appeal; Paes is a seasoned politician, whereas Freixo – who comes from a background of academia and activism – is less accustomed to smooth-talking.
Supporters of Freixo backed him, among other reasons, to support his stand against corruption in politics, as well as his famous opposition to militias and organized crime as depicted in Tropa de Elite 2. He's been critical of the mega-event preparations, saying during the most recent mayoral candidate debate: "We want the Olympics. But a city that's good for the Olympics must be good for the people who live in it."
He also stood up to Paes on the campaign trail, and is not one to mince his words. Supporters saw him as a change from the usual suspects in Rio government. Given all that he was up against, it's impressive that he received nearly a third of the vote. It's also important to note that his party, the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), doubled the number of seats in the city legislature from 2 to 4.
So what does this mean for Rio?
From my perspective, it means Freixo is well-positioned to play the role that fits him best, given the circumstances: that of a watchdog, a critical voice who will try to ensure transparency during the next Paes administration, and the upcoming mega-events. As an activist who has worked hard to combat militias, there's still lots of work to do there. And given Rio's recent history with the PanAm Games and concerns about white elephants already emerging in the run-up to the World Cup, there's a long road ahead for the city. He's exactly the right person to spearhead efforts to see that the local government does what's best for its residents and not FIFA or the IOC. He's also the right person to work to oversee the city's preparations for the mega-events to prevent corruption and overspending.
Maybe he'll be something of an Al Gore for Rio.
Rio politics may not have changed dramatically yet. But with someone like Marcelo Freixo working outside of the Pálacio da Cidade, there's a chance that there will be more accountability and a push for more transparency, as well as a continued fight against organized crime.