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A policeman checks logs that were illegally cut from the Amazon rain forest in Marituba, in the Brazilian state of Para, in this file photo. (Renato Chalu/AP/File)

Brazilian activist flees Amazon home after threats from illegal loggers

By Edward FoxInSight Crime / 05.31.12

The story of a Brazilian campaigner forced to flee her Amazon home by death threats from illegal loggers underscores the dangers faced by land activists in the country, and the government's failure to protect them.

On May 19, land activist Nilcilene Miguel de Lima left her community in Labrea municipality in the south of Amazonas state, fearing that she would be killed by illegal loggers if she stayed. Since November last year, she had been under the protection of nine armed police officers. However, the guard was withdrawn after its initial six-month term ended, leaving her vulnerable to attacks, reported Publica (in Portuguese).

According to residents of Labrea, illegal loggers celebrated Miguel de Lima's departure, telling residents, "We've put the National [Police] Force on the run," the news website reported.

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Miguel de Lima has been the target of numerous threats and attacks since 2009 when she became head of God Will Provide (Deus Provera), an association of local farmers and rubber tappers. In June 2010 she was beaten by a group of illegal loggers, and her house was burned down in August of that year, apparently in retaliation for her activist work, reported Oeco Amazonia (in Portuguese). She fled Labrea in May 2011 but returned under a government guarantee of protection.

Now, she has been forced to flee again. Though the government paid her airfare out of Labrea, acknowledging the danger if she stayed, it appears little is being done to protect others in the community at risk. As Publica notes, seven people have been killed in the region since 2007.

InSight Crime Analysis

Miguel de Lima's case highlights the dangers associated with land activism in Brazil. Much of this is connected to illegal logging, which represents up to 80 percent of the country's timber industry, according to Greenpeace. Many have died as a result of clashes between communities trying to protect their land from large businesses and criminal groups moving in to exploit the highly lucrative trade.

Five campaigners against illegal logging were assassinated in the Amazon state of Para in one month last year. Some 1,000 land activists have been murdered in the last two decades, but only 80 hitmen and 15 landowners have been convicted for these crimes, according to the Guardian.

Neide Lourenco of the campaign group Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) said that the withdrawal of Miguel de Lima's security unit was "a message of impunity and a victory for lawlessness. Those who denounce deforestation are expelled and the criminals have all the freedom to continue extracting resources from the forest."

Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Edward Fox's research here.

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The Brazilian inspiration behind the US immigration DREAM Act

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / 05.31.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

Despite the fact that US immigration reform is seemingly becoming more of an uphill battle in an increasingly polarized country, support for the DREAM Act – a law which would give immigrants brought to the United States in their youth a path to residency – is on the rise. Though the DREAM Act bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate in December 2010, it was reintroduced last year, and immigration reform advocates still hold out hope that it could pass.

I've written about several Brazilians at the heart of the DREAM Act, including Felipe Matos, one of the United States' top immigration reform activists, and Polyana de Oliveira, a Brazilian who moved back to her country of birth after running out of time for the DREAM Act to pass. But what I recently discovered is that the very person who inspired the DREAM Act is in fact Brazilian by birth.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was one of the senators who wrote and introduced the DREAM Act back in 2001, inspired by Tereza Lee. Tereza was born in São Paulo to Korean parents, and lived in Brazil until she was 2, when the family moved to Chicago. Ms. Lee became a talented pianist and was accepted into some of the top music schools in the country. But since she was undocumented, she was ineligible for financial aid. One of her music teachers decided to search for a solution, and called Mr. Durbin's office to see if he could help. Soon, the DREAM Act was born.

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Part of the reason it took so long for the bill to be considered in Congress was that it was due to be discussed on September 12, 2001; Tereza herself was supposed to fly to Washington for the hearing. Fortunately, Tereza was lucky. She had the fortune to be able to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where she is currently pursuing a doctorate. Now age 29, she married an American and gained residency. But she's still a vocal part of the DREAM Act movement, advocating for others like her.

I spoke to Tereza briefly about her family's journey from Korea to Brazil to the US, as well as her role in immigration reform.

What brought your parents to Brazil?  What brought them later to the United States?
My parents had lost everything – their belongings, homes, and land – during the Korean War and subsequent struggles. They became part of a massive wave of Korean immigration to North and South America. They first moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, and started a small clothing business. Although they were, initially, relatively successful, they decided to move to the US to start over again after almost all of their savings [were] stolen via identity theft. My mother sold her wedding ring in order to buy visas and plane tickets for us, and we moved to Chicago when I was two.  

Once you became a resident, where was the first place you traveled abroad?  Have you been back to Brazil or to Korea?
I've not been back to Brazil, and have unfortunately never been to Korea, but I have been able to visit Germany, France, Italy, and Japan.
Before I even boarded an airplane, though, I really experienced a feeling of vertigo when I received my permanent resident document which allowed me to travel. Although I was, of course, beyond thrilled to finally have documentation, and be one step closer to American citizenship, at the same time it struck me as incredibly bizarre and unsettling that this small, flimsy piece of paper could have such power over my life.  

What's your involvement like with the DREAM movement at present?
I am constantly trying to keep up to date on all the latest news on the DREAM Act. I stay in touch with other DREAMers as much as I can, and have become friends with many of them. I also volunteer occasionally at rallies and events – there are so many here in New York.

Do you think the DREAM Act has a chance of passing anytime in the near future?
Absolutely! Both houses of Congress voted to pass the DREAM Act in 2010, and with only a few more votes to override a filibuster in the Senate, it would have been made law then. I'm no expert on politics, but I know the upcoming election will be very significant for the DREAM Act. On the other hand, my guess is that it's not likely to happen before the election.

What advice would you give to other DREAMers?
Stay positive, both in your own lives and in your communications with others. Being caught between the cracks of the immigration system for years can be enormously frustrating and debilitating, and many DREAMers I've talked to have battled severe depression. I also know, though, that DREAMers know how to survive amid great obstacles and constant fear, and it never ceases to amaze me how many DREAMers have persevered and become valedictorians, star athletes, and leaders in their communities. When we bring our message to the public, anger won't work. We need to focus on the benefits that America will receive from allowing all of these talented people to contribute, and then, once the DREAM Act passes, go out and prove it!

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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A woman checks a wound on the left arm of French journalist Romeo Langlois after his release by the FARC, in San Isidro, Colombia, on May 30. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Colombia's FARC releases French journalist

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / 05.30.12

Colombia's guerrillas freed French reporter Romeo Langlois on Wednesday, just over a month after he was taken hostage during a clash between rebels and Army troops in the southern province of Caquetá.

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) handed Mr. Langlois over to a humanitarian mission made up of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a former Colombian senator, and an envoy of the French government.

Television images from the village of San Isidro, where the handover took place, showed Langlois, a reporter for France 24, smiling amid a throng of villagers. The townspeople have reportedly prepared a festive lunch for Langlois, the humanitarian commission, and his former captors.

The ease with which the rebels moved among the civilian population in the village shows the FARC still maintains a certain amount of control in the area, a historic stronghold of their southern bloc.

Wearing a blue shirt and black pants, Langlois appeared in good health despite having been wounded in the arm during the firefight when he fell into FARC hands just a few miles from the village where he was released today.

"Aside from the fact that I was retained for a month when I was wounded, everything else has gone well. I can’t complain,” he told reporters, adding that he was never tied up during his captivity.

Langlois was taken by the rebels on April 28 after the military unit he was accompanying on an counternarcotics mission came under attack by the FARC’s 15th Front. Three soldiers and a police officer were killed in the attack.

The Army said Langlois shed the bullet-proof vest and helmet the Army had furnished him with and surrendered to the rebels, declaring he was a journalist. Several days later the FARC declared the reporter a “prisoner of war.”

Human rights and press freedom groups rejected the notion of Langlois being considered a POW and said the FARC’s failure to release him immediately violated a rebel announcement in February that it would cease kidnapping civilians. 

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Rio scrambles to prepare for impending mega-events

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 05.30.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Less than a month from the start date for the Rio + 20 UN conference on sustainable development, government officials scrambled to reduce hotel costs and make more more rooms available. The problem wasn’t just a shortage of hotel rooms or outrageously expensive rates, but a travel agency that had blocked out most of them for a mere 25 percent service charge, on top of the hotel price.

And only two years away from the World Cup, which will take place in twelve Brazilian cities including Rio de Janeiro,  a new government report shows that less than 1 percent of the $13 billion USD equivalent set aside for infrastructure has been spent so far, with 44 of 101 projects still in the blueprint stage.

Fruit just dangles off the trees here – and there are always so many imprevistos (unexpected difficulties, such as torrential rain, a building collapse, a shootout between cops). Why bother to plan?

Dare we hope for mega-event readiness? It’s a question being asked by a growing number of observers.

One foreign blog friend with long experience in the arts explains the penchant for procrastination with the observation that Brazilians like to wait until the last minute and then, by way of a heroic effort, produce a stunning result – and look heroic.

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Often, waiting until the last minute allows for waiving the required bidding process, which in turn allows for padding contracts.

So you might say that procrastination walks hand in hand with making an opportunity into one’s personal best.

And yet

A presentation of Rio’s new Strategic Plan at the OsteRio debate venue last May 14 indicated that planning has become central to urban life and politics. On taking office, Mayor Eduardo Paes made a plan and stuck to it, with meetings, followup, and implementation that included performance bonuses for effective city servants. The new one is meant to be part of the electoral debate for the October municipal elections.

Those who commented on the new US$ 15 billion equivalent plan – which was drawn up with the help of McKinsey & Company consulting plus 200 carioca notables and a public opinion survey – said its very existence was reason for celebration. “It means that city hall has recouped its ability to act,” said researcher José Marcelo Zacchi, adding that the challenges facing the city at the start of Paes’ term demanded a great deal of thought and planning.

One should not forget, after all, that until 15 months ago all you had to do to get on a bus was raise your hand, as long as you were outdoors and somewhat close to a curb (surviving the ride without needing physical therapy was, and still is, another matter). And that until about eight months ago, electric, cable, gas, and water utilities dug holes and laid networks with zero supervision and zero coordination amongst them. Thus the exploding manhole covers.

José Marcelo Zacchi recently left the city’s Social UPP program’s top post to join the urban issues thinktank, IETS. Like everyone who’s involved with the transformation of Rio, he’s constantly demanding more. “We have a well-prepared core, but we don’t have metropolitan management, and we don’t have any connection with that core at the level of local management, decentralized, in neighborhoods,” he said about the Strategic Plan. “We  have mechanisms for planning, transparency, followup, accountability, but we have a long way to go when it comes to participation and decentralized participation at the local level.”

Pedro Paulo Teixeira, the mayor’s chief of staff who presented the plan at OsteRio, acknowledged the need for more bottom-up planning.

The Rio police are also investing heavily in planning – and personnel, and work space and conditions. They also have a long way to go. A shocking fact emerged at a May 17 presentation of the Public Safety Secretariat’s plan for the Rio + 20 Conference to foreign journalists: police called upon to work overtime at special events were paid nothing. This changes now.

“There’ll be greater willingness to work,” said Roberto Alzir, Special Undersecretary for Mega-Events. Police academy instructors also weren’t paid; the whole system is being reformulated, in large measure to produce more pacification officers. Today, 5,000 officers work in the current 22 police pacification units. The planned number for 2014 is 12,500.

It helps if they’re moving upwards

Clearly regard for those at the bottom of the pyramid is growing. It’s not for nothing that TV Globo’s new novela das oito, Avenida Brasil, features the not-so-poor-anymore of Rio’s North and West Zones and has reached the best kickoff audience statistics over any other prime-time soap in the last five years. Parenthetically, TV Globo recently started calling the eight o’clock novela a nine o’clock novela, which has always been the time the program airs– definitely a good sign.

Ricardo Henriques, who in August leaves his post as president of  Rio’s strategic planning and data agency, Instituto Pereira Passos (IPP), speaks of a “reconfiguration of the social fabric,” and says that cariocas are learning how to engage in dialogue. Mr. Henriques, who passes on his responsibilities, including the Social UPP program, to Eduarda de la Rocque, currently municipal Finance Secretary, built the program around the concept of “strong listening.” The results have greatly expanded urban services and also drawn criticism, part of the vibrant give-and-take currently going on here.

Clientelist and patrimonial behavior can be seen not only among elites, but the poor too, observes Henriques. “They often come with a list of demands, instead of a readiness to dialogue,” he noted during a Rio de Encontros debate last week on entrepreneurship and sustainability. “We have to break the armor on both sides, to build trust.”

During a discussion partly sponsored by energy and mining magnate Eike Batista’s EBX Institute with director Pedro Rivera at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s local Studio X, urban agitator Marcus Faustini echoed that thought. He suggested the creation of “Territorial Funds,” to be managed by community members. “You have to empower people to decide where they want to go,” he added. “They aren’t prepared. It would even be a teaching tool. They have to plan, not ask for things. Everyone has to change.”

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Mayor Paes and incoming IPP chief de la Rocque have proposed a similar fund idea. Income inequality is at the heart of so much left to do.

The challenges and mindtraps lie in unlikely places. Jailson da Silva, Coordinator of the Observatório de Favelas favela research and advocacy group, criticized the title of another gathering held last week, the Seminário Integração: Favela-Cidade. “Favelas are already part of the city,” he pointed out. “They are integrated– and unequal.” When there used to be shooting in the favela of Cantagalo, invariably the newspapers would headline Ipanema residents’ loss of sleep, he added.

Dangling fruit, for a select few?

It could be that the reason for Brazilian dillydallying isn’t that pickings are easy, but the fact that for a minority, the pickings are near at hand; while for many people, they’re are out of reach.

How to get near the mango tree, when a small group has better muscles and longer arms? And why, if you were in the small group and close to the mangueira, would you bother to plan much? If an imprevisto appears, all you have to do is throw money at a bunch of relatively unskilled workers and they’ll shake the tree (praying no mangoes fall on their heads), bag the fruit, and hand it over. The solution leaves a few unhappy toucans, but those ungainly avians prey on other birds’ eggs, so they have it coming.

Except that unskilled workers are getting expensive and feisty (and relatively less unskilled); a growing number of people are coming to realize that the mangoes are taxpayer-financed and we all pay taxes; inequality is an ever-more key issue; and the exchanges that globalization brings are challenging long-held traditions, behaviors and values.

In other words, Brazil may actually not be fully ready for its mega-events, but by the time the last one is over, not only will Rio have changed dramatically, but this will be a very different country.

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A day in the life of Caracas shortages

By Miguel OctavioGuest blogger / 05.29.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

On a recent visit to Caracas, it was Friday early evening after an intense week (as usual) there. I decided to stay home, relax, watch a Red Sox game. I did need to get a medicine, so I went home and waited for traffic to decrease, which begins to happen around 7:30 p.m. It should only take ten minutes to go to Locatel and get what I need. Then relax!

But it was not to be. At the Locatel drugustore they were out not only of what I had the prescription for, but also for the competing product. But they were very helpful, told me that I could find the competing product in either their Caricuao or Alto Prado store, a little bit far from where I stay when I go to Caracas. So, I started to do what many Venezuelans do, go from pharmacy to pharmacy looking for what I needed. (Twitter has even become a place where you ask: Do you know a drugstore where I can find x?) After trying about three of them, I realized that it would be best to go to the far away Locatel, rather than keep wasting my time. But I was low on gas. In a city with free gas that should not be a problem.

But it was.

After being in line for about ten minutes at the first gas station on the way, I was told that they had no 95 octane gas, which is what the manufacturer recommends for my car. So, my hunt for the medicine had to be delayed, I needed to get the gas first. Went to the nearest gas station, which was closed. Went to another, only 91 octane, but my fourth try proved a success and I have a full tank now (At Bs. 4.5 for the full tank, a full dollar at the inaccessible official exchange rate.)

By now, it was so late, that there was no traffic going to Alto Prado, where I readily purchased two packs of the medicine I needed. Twenty pills per pack at a bargain price of Bs. 7 per pack. No wonder you can’t find the stuff, how can they make twenty pills, package it in aluminum foil, all in a cardboard box and sell it at this price?

By now it was close to 10 p.m., the Red Sox were losing, but my favorite arepera (arepas are a typical Venezuelan sandwich) was close by, so I stopped by, and the arepas were as good as ever. But the cheese was different: the 50-plus year provider shut down after they invaded the farm, according to Maria, who has been running the place since when I started going there as a teenager. I don’t go as much now, it is far from home, and you must drive by areas that are not the safest (but maybe there is no such thing as a safe area in Caracas).

Oh yeah! Right before and right after the arepera there were police “alcabalas” with gun-toting cops looking at you like you just stole some cheap medicine from a drugstore, and they are ready to shoot you if they see the bag. But in a country where most people don’t use seat belts regularly, having mine on seems to be as good as a DISIP or PSUV membership car and I was waved on readily. It did make me feel like I must have committed a crime sometime in my life, even if I don’t remember it, and if they stopped me I would break down and confess.

And yes, I got home way past 10 p.m., the Red Sox had lost by then. Some relaxing evening! The arepas saved the day!

– Miguel Octavio, a Venezuelan, is not a fan of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. You can read his blog here.

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Laborers work on the renovation of the Mineirao Stadium, one of the venues of the 2014 World Cup, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, April 18. (Washington Alves/REUTERS)

Lost in translation: English in Brazil

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / 05.24.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

One of the main challenges leading up to Brazil's mega-events – including the Rio+20, the World Cup, and the Olympics – is a shortage of English speakers in key sectors, including tourism, transportation, and hospitality. For those who spend lots of time in Brazil and speak Portuguese or hope to become fluent, this is actually an advantage, which can allow for more immersion. But for one-time visitors or those dependent on English as their only language or the only other way to communicate outside of their native language (such as Chinese, Russian, etc), it can prove to be a problem.

On global English rankings, Brazil does not fare well. EF, a global English education company, released its international English proficiency index for 2011, showing that Brazil ranked as a country with "low English proficiency." Though it was among the lowest ranking countries, Brazil scored above the "very low proficiency" countries such as Panama and Vietnam. Released in April, the GlobalEnglish Corporation Business English Index ranked Brazil among the lowest in the world among countries with the least amount of English fluency in the workplace, which puts the country "at a disadvantage." An Economist Intelligence Unit report released this month indicated that Brazil is one of the countries that struggles the most with the language barrier in international business; nearly three-quarters of Brazilians surveyed said their company had experienced “financial losses as a result of failed cross-border transactions.”

Brazilian surveys reflect this issue, showing low levels of English knowledge at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. A Catho survey from late last year found that only 11 percent of Brazilian job candidates could communicate well in English, and only 3.4 percent of all candidates could speak fluent English. A 2009 Catho study found that 24 percent of Brazilian professionals speak fluent English, and that only 8 percent of Brazilian executives speak fluent English. A lack of English speakers even in high-tech fields has hurt Brazil's competitiveness in IT and outsourcing like call centers. According to a Data Popular survey released this month, the "new middle class" in Brazil will spend R$28.1 billion (US $13.8 billion) on education in 2012, but only 1 in 5 members of the so-called C class knows how to speak a foreign language.

Travel writer and fellow Brazilophile Seth Kugel has written about this issue, finding a mixed bag. In March, he wrote about the puzzingly poor translation of Embratur (Brazil's tourism bureau)'s English site, particularly the interactive World Cup section. Some errors were particularly egregious since they simply required a Google or Wikipedia search rather than a translated phrase. At the end of the post, Kugel wrote:

"Obviously, no one is going to decide not to visit Trancoso because of a vocabulary error. But give up visiting a country that doesn't have legible information on its official website? With so many other countries with their eye on the billions of dollars from international tourists? It's not only possible, it's probable."

In response, Embratur said it had hired a third-party company, Agencia Click, to do the site and translation, and that it would release the site with a new translation later this year. The whole thing was quite strange, considering that the agency in question, which is one of the largest and well-respected digital communications companies in the country, should have no problem finding real translators. But it's a symptomatic case in a country where things are often and sometimes unnecessarily lost in translation.

On the other hand, the upcoming mega-events have added pressure to the tourism sector to hire more English speakers. In a recent "review" of São Paulo's Guarulhos Airport, Kugel found that three different information booth workers were able to communicate in English, providing helpful information about hotels and sightseeing. (However, special groups run by judges aimed to solve issues like lost baggage and overbookings at Brazil's biggest airports have only a single English-speaking employee, a recent report said.) Language schools estimate that foreign language courses will grow by 30 to 40 percent over the next four years in preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. Last year, around 120 taxi drivers in Rio received English training in a special course for taxistas – the first of its kind in the country – which inspired similar taxi driver courses from Piauí to Rio Grande do Sul.

My experience is that there are plenty of English speakers in Brazil, but these speakers are sometimes concentrated in specialized fields like finance and web companies. But for me, Brazil's real challenge isn't just going to be finding and training English speakers in key jobs before the mega-events, but rather improving foreign language education at the elementary and secondary school levels so that the next generation has better opportunities in the global economy.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

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In this 2008 photo, Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuba's acting President Raul Castro, visits the Child Protection Center in Havana. (Javier Galeano/AP/File)

Look who got a US visa: Raúl Castro's daughter

By Melissa Lockhart FortnerGuest blogger / 05.22.12

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, cuba.foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, will be in California this week. Traveling on a US visa to attend a conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), she appears to have made it through the same State Department review that denied visas to eleven seemingly less contentious scholars hoping to join the same conference. Some of those turned down are prominent Cubans who have been allowed US visas in the past, including Rafael Hernández, the editor of the Cuban intellectual journal Temas, who has taught at both Harvard and Columbia universities.

The convoluted issue of travel in the US-Cuba relationship remains a most consuming question for citizens and media alike, and the complications arise on all sides. US. citizens, of course, enjoy expanded rights to visit Cuba for “people-to-people” exchanges under Obama administration regulations, but the rules are specific and the agendas pre-approved, which means that opportunities are still quite narrow. Meanwhile, Cuban citizens hoping to travel anywhere abroad are subject to government controls, including application for an expensive exit visa that is out of reach for many – not only because of price, but because of various unspoken rules that result in denial of permission or years of wait. And, as in the case of the eighty Cuban scholars hoping to attend the LASA conference this week, a number of Cubans that proceed through the visa process with the US government find that the ultimate decision seems to be arbitrary, contradicting, and nontransparent.

On the face of it, this latest twist in the travel narrative is as confusing as any other, and media, scholars, and Congressional representatives have wrestled with it over the past few days. Why would the administration allow the daughter of the Cuban President to travel to the United States? Does Castro’s visa allowance represent a change in US policy?

But the issue must be viewed through a different lens. The US line of rhetoric has long been in favor of respecting dissenting opinions, freedom of speech, and open exchange of ideas: it is a constant trope in Washington’s advocacy for change in Cuba. The basis for changed regulations for Americans traveling to Cuba was the value of people-to-people exchanges, and a flow of ideas and culture between the United States and Cuba. Allowing Castro to attend the LASA conference makes sense in that context, particularly because her role in Cuba is more nuanced than her family connections: she may be the daughter of a Castro and a member of the Communist Party (the only political party in Cuba), but as the Director for the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), she is the most prominent and outspoken gay rights activist on the island. Her work has been pivotal in the many reforms that have been enacted on the island in favor of recognition and acceptance of LGBT human rights, and has resulted in pioneering legislation, including allowance for transgendered individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery without charge (as a health care provision), and to change their legal gender. Human rights are Mariela Castro’s passion, and politics is not: she recently openly congratulated US President Barack Obama on his expression of personal support for marriage equality, encouraging the world to take note of his words.

During her visit to Northern California, Castro will speak at San Francisco General Hospital on Cuba’s policies toward transgender people. She will meet with various members of San Francisco’s LGBT community at a meeting Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, she will lead a panel at the LASA conference.

Mariela Castro’s visa, then, seems to be the part of this story that is consistent with existing policy and rhetoric around human rights, people-to-people exchanges, and largely non-political engagement with Cuba. But consistent application of that policy and rhetoric would have meant granting visas to the other Cuban scholars that had hoped to attend the LASA conference. Castro’s visa has been the focus, but it is not the troubling part of the sequence of events. Why deny visas to scholars that have enjoyed the right to travel to the United States in the past, on the claimed grounds that their presence would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States”? That is the question that remains to be answered.

– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

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El Salvador sees drop in murders but rise in disappearances

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / 05.22.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Reports of disappearances are up 8 percent so far this year in El Salvador compared to 2011, calling into question the achievements of a gang truce which has slashed murders by some 60 percent in the last two months.

In the first four months of 2012, 692 people were reported missing to the government forensic office, Medicina Legal, compared to 636 during the same period last year, reports La Prensa Grafica – an 8 percent rise. This year's statistics only apply to San Salvador, but according to the newspaper, disappearances outside the capital are not usually registered.

InSight Crime Analysis

The number of disappeared could undermine the achievements of a gang truce  in the country, which has seen murders drop by around 60 percent since the country's two main gangs made a ceasefire in early March. Leaders of Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) agreed to stop killing each other's members and suspend attacks on members of the security forces for an undefined period, which appears to still be ongoing.

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There were 255 murders registered in March, some 147 in April, and 76 in the first 15 days of May. This averages at about six killings a day, down some 60 percent from the first two months of the year.

If we assume, however, that the vast majority of the disappeared are now dead, March and April would have seen 391 and 294 murders, respectively, using the number of disappeared cited by La Prensa Grafica. This would effectively wipe out the security gains of the gang truce.

In reality the effect would not be as dramatic as this, because those who went missing before the gang truce were not counted in the murder figures for that period either. There has not been a dramatic jump in disappearances reported since the truce – the number stood at 197 in January, 212 in February, 136 in March and 147 in April. This would leave 2012 on course for the same level of reported disappearances as last year, which saw 2,076. The decrease in killings, then, would still stand.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that the phenomenon of disappearing murder victims, so that their bodies are never found, could make a substantial difference to the rate of killings and could undermine the gains of the truce. The true number of the disappeared is likely far higher than those reported, however, as some families do not report their relatives missing, for fear of reprisals.

The government has been careful to lower expectations over the truce, pointing out that it will not be able to bring gang violence to an end. The fact that disappearances, which are often attributed to gangs, have continued at a steady rate attests to this.

– Hannah Stone 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 her research here.

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In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gives a speech upon his arrival to Simon Bolivar international airport in Maiquetia near Caracas, Venezuela, May 11. (Efrain Gonzalez/Miraflores Press Office/AP)

Chavez re-election: Many Venezuelan voters are undecided

By Miguel OctavioGuest blogger / 05.21.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

I have been getting mixed messages from people the last two times I have been in Caracas about the outlook for the upcoming presidential election in October, pitting Hugo Chavez against opposition leader Henrique Capriles. And polls seem to be sending the same confusing and inconsistent signals.There is a mixture of results, the key being a high number of undecided in those polls that give Chavez a large lead. Talk to pro-Capriles people and they tell you their candidate is down only 4 to 5 points, and it can be made up by the race. Talk to pro-Chavez people and they tell you the enthusiasm is just not there among the Chavista rank and file any more, and they are worried.

Toss in Chavezs’ illness, and things become uncertain.

First the polls.The main difference between the poll that gives Chavez a huge lead and the one that does not, is that the first poll sees a huge number of undecided (around 30-plus percent), which the second poll does not see. Neither pollster can explain the difference. This worries pro-Capriles people, precisely because they can’t understand it.

Then you go and talk to pro-Chavez people and they do have a possible interpretation, and it worries them. Their feeling is that the motivation is no longer there, and it will be difficult to get the non-hard core Chavista to go out and vote. Chavez being sick worries them, not only because he may not be able to run, but more importantly, because if he can run, he may not be able to campaign and may not generate the excitement required to out vote Capriles. Simply put, the revolution is failing in too many fronts, clearly identified in this aporrea article (in Spanish). But note the additional concern: This pro-Chavez analyst does not see the 4 million new voters going the Chavista way. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: according to the writer the new generation seems to care little for the revolution and is more concerned with malls and iPads, he notes.

Or as another pro-Chavez friend told me more or less: “I know a few states where 60-65 percent of the people are Chavista, but of those, many will not go and vote for this failed Government. They will not vote for Capriles either, but just their absence on election day will give Capriles a victory in two or three states where the opposition has never done well since Chavez showed up. Add the populous metropolitan states where the opposition wins, toss in the new voters and Capriles could beat Chavez."

And El Nacional [...] recently [published] statements made privately by William Izarra, father of the Minister of Information, where he says that Capriles is resonating in parts of the electorate with as many as 8 million voters (which he now says is not exactly what he said (in Spanish), likely he did not know his words were being recorded). And given his scenario that Chavez may get 8.4 million, this also makes it too close for comfort.

Opposition analysts are similarly concerned.They understand that Capriles at 30 percent seems to make little sense, given the number of votes he got in the primary, but they can’t understand the undecided. Why has the number of undecided gone up so much since the primary and Chavez’s recurrence? Why is 30 percent-plus of the electorate suddenly shunning both Chavez and Capriles, with both candidates losing support? Can it be Zulia [state] nationalism in the case of Capriles? These last votes will not go to Chavez either.

The answer, I contend, has more to do with apathy and voter intention, than with being undecided. And I think it goes straight to my friend’s argument: Many uncertain Chavista voters will not vote for Chavez, but they certainly don’t plan to go and vote for Capriles, they plan to stay home.

And a similar apathy applies to the 4 million new voters. They registered to vote, but they are not sure they will go and vote for Capriles, they will wait to decide.

Which simply says that Chavez’s physical appearance will be crucial in the determination of these voters, and it is hard to predict which way it will go. A weak Chavez may turn off the apathetic Chavistas, while a recovered Chavez may turn on the apathetic new voters, who have yet to be convinced about Capriles.

For now, only time will begin clearing up these questions, and it will be a while before it happens. It has been nearly three weeks since there was a live appearance by Chavez, while Capriles continues to campaign door to door and accompanied by some of the primary candidates. The next important date is June 10th, the last date on which candidates may register for the October 7th election. Chavez is unlikely to announce way ahead of time when he will register. This will reduce the impact of the event. Capriles on the other hand can plan ahead.

But in the end, it will be the hard core that will show up in both sides those days, masking the apathy of the Venezuelan electorate.

– Miguel Octavio, a Venezuelan, is not a fan of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. You can read his blog here.

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Chile's car boom

By Steven BodzinGuest blogger / 05.18.12

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

If there’s one thing that defines the Chilean national character, it’s a love for the countryside. That means that the first thing people do when they can afford it is buy a car. For country-dwellers, a car or truck helps make the rural lifestyle a bit more profitable, as taking crops to market in horse-drawn wagons is more quaint than efficient. For city folks, a car helps people to see the countryside on the weekend. But of course soon enough, a big portion of both country and city folks, once they own cars, become suburban folks. And once they are living in spread-out suburbs, they need another car, and another. It’s a feedback loop we’ve seen all over the world.

I don’t know exactly where Chile is in this process, or whether it’s already too late to halt the sprawl. What’s clear is that the feedback is accelerating. Check out [this graphic] from the national statistics office car report, released yesterday.

Yes, almost a million more cars on the road than six years earlier, an increase of 37 percent.

There is a lot to say about this fast-growing vehicle ownership. First, as I said, this means sprawl, most of which is going to be on some of the world’s best farmland. Lawns and golf courses will suck up water, as subdivisions will usually be able to outbid lettuce and avocado farms for water rights. That could even affect miners.

The growing car population also represents a growing population of people who will demand lower fuel taxes. If that goes through – and by the signature-gatherers I see on my block every day, I suspect it will – Chile fuel prices will drop, creating another incentive for vehicle ownership.

There’s a macroeconomic issue here too. Crude oil is already by far Chile’s biggest import, making up 8.7 percent of the country’s imports. If the 2010-2011 rate of change persists, the vehicle population will double over the next nine years. Chile’s economic success has been based in part on its trade balance, which often reaches $1 billion a month. I realize that not every car gets driven every day, but it’s well known that once you have a car, you tend to use it. So each car that goes into circulation is essentially a commitment to importing at least a few liters of fuel a week for 10 or 20 years. A million more cars is a big change. Here’s how Chile’s crude oil, diesel, and total fossil fuel imports have evolved over the last decade. The figures are in millions of US dollars, so the total fossil energy imports are already well over $1 billion a month [go to original post for graphic].

I estimated the 2012 figures by multiplying the first-quarter figures by a seasonal adjustment factor based on the first quarter’s average weight in annual numbers. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that estimate, but it shows that, at least, we shouldn’t expect the numbers to drop this year.

– Steven Bodzin is the Santiago, Chile correspondent for the Monitor. He also blogs at Setty's Notebook.

 

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