• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
The US embargo turned 50 years old this week. It probably won't surprise most folks to learn that the night before President John F. Kennedy signed a total US embargo of Cuba into force, he asked an aide to buy 1,000 Cuban cigars (just to be safe, the aide got 1,200).
Surely Kennedy would have been shocked to learn that his massive stockpile would run out long before his embargo would; just days before his assassination, Kennedy had approved a secret meeting to take place in Havana between a senior US diplomat and Castro. But the meeting never took place, and Kennedy's embargo has remained a fixture now for half a century. Over at the Daily Mail, Lee Moran offers perspective on this week's milestone:
"When the embargo began, American teenagers were doing The Twist, the US had yet to put a man into orbit around the Earth and a first-class US postage stamp cost just 4 cents."
How is it that 10 presidents and a Cold War ago, the United States cut off nearly all trade, financial, and aid transactions with 11 million people 90 miles away? Never-ending presidentially declared sanctions such as Kennedy’s Cuba embargo had a way of piling up in decades past, long past their utility or relevance. This eventually prompted Congress to reform the authority under which a president could use his emergency international economic (sanctions) powers. After that law passed in 1977, any new sanctions would require oversight and could not just continue in perpetuity. Except the Cuba embargo was grandfathered in with the new law, so, as long as the president declared, every year, the pressing national security interest in continuing it (or, rather, his authority to maintain it), the embargo hung on.
President Obama last signed that declaration in September. But seriously, where’s the emergency? Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world came as close to nuclear war as it ever has, when the United States discovered nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, initiated a naval blockade, and managed to negotiate an agreement with the Soviets for the missiles’ withdrawal. That was clearly an emergency, and a definite threat to the United States.
And 50 later? There’s not exactly any national interest or emergency compelling the president (well, except for his own re-election fortunes in swing-state Florida) to continue this fossilized policy. If there were one, the just-released “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” failed to mention it. The only threat in Cuba, according to the report, is the internet and its potential for undermining the Cuban government’s grip on power.
On the contrary, our compelling interests surely lie in dismantling the embargo: it harms the Cuban people (and certainly doesn’t help them at all), who would be quick to flood the US in the face of any real destabilization on the island. It invites Havana to embrace countries – Venezuela, Iran, China - that really do more materially threaten or at least challenge our interests. It locks us out of the incipient reform process in Cuba, and could also be hindering its progress as it offers Havana hardliners an easy excuse to maintain tight control. And, most directly counter to our national interest, the embargo hampers swift, routine, effective cooperation on shared interests with a willing partner, whether in fighting drug smuggling, human trafficking, or disaster prevention and mitigation.
In the simmering dispute over the British-run Falkland Islands, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner urged Britain to “give peace a chance,” adding a new argument to the dispute that could resonate more widely with other nations.
She said Tuesday she will formally take her complaint to the UN Security Council – saying that the modern warship sent by Britain dangerously ups the ante.
"We have suffered too much violence already to be attracted to military games and wars," President Fernández said on Tuesday in a national broadcast. "No land should end up being a trophy of war."
IN PICTURES: Much ado about the Falklands
Britain announced recently it was sending among its most modern warships, the HMS Dauntless, to the islands, to coincide with a six-week deployment of Prince William there. Britain has called both announcements routine.
Focusing on British militarization could win Argentina more broad support, says Pablo Ava, a political consultant in Buenos Aires. “This is not a military issue for Argentina, we have a very poor military system, it is 100 percent diplomatic,” he says. "On the British side, there is a military response to every Argentine position. I think that might help Argentina in the international scenario.”
Argentines have been clear in their support for a diplomatic solution but one that does not include a military response. According to a poll by Ibarometro in Buenos Aires, 70 percent of Argentines surveyed said it is important to regain sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Only three in ten were for a military solution, however.
Argentina invaded the islands in 1982 under its military dictatorship, leading to a brief but deadly war with over 900 casualties. The 30th anniversary of that invasion is this April.
Argentina has been in a diplomatic row with London over the sovereignty of the islands, which escalated in 2010 as Britain began searching for oil in the waters off the Islands. Kirchner has gained the support of Latin America, which most recently banned Falkland Island boats from entering the ports ofMercosur countries.
The British Foreign Office issued a statement in response to Fernández's most recent charge, saying "The people of the Falkland Islands are British out of choice. They are free to determine their own future and there will be no negotiations with Argentina over sovereignty unless the islanders wish it."
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• A version of this post ran on the author's site, www.insightcrime.org. The views expressed are the author's own.
Venezuelan authorities have captured the last of Colombia's paramilitary chieftains, marking the end of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which dominated the drug trade for over a decade and penetrated all facets of the state.
Hector German Buitrago, better known by his alias of "Martin Llanos," was arrested along with his brother, Nelson Orlando Buitrago, alias "Caballo," in the Venezuelan state of Anzoategui. Martin Llanos headed the Self Defense Forces of Casanare (ACC), a powerful paramilitary faction with over 1,000 fighters in the Colombian provinces of Casanare, Meta and parts of Boyaca and Vichada. The group was founded in the 1980s by the men's father, Hector Jose Buitrago, as a response to guerrilla extortion and kidnapping in Casanare. Hector Jose was arrested in April 2010 in Colombia, while his sons left the country, living in Ecuador and Bolivia before moving to Venezuela. The ACC founder had previously been arrested in 1996, but was rescued from prison by his sons.
Both of the Buitrago sons are wanted in Colombia in connection with murders, forced disappearances, and drug trafficking. Martin Llanos has at least 11 arrest warrants pending, including charges of murder and kidnapping. He has already been condemned to 40 years in prison in absentia. He and the ACC are blamed for the deaths of at least 10,000 Colombians.
The Colombian chief of police, General Oscar Naranjo, said that the arrest of the brothers marked "the end of paramilitarism."
In one of the bloodiest wars between rival paramilitary groups, the ACC and the Centaurs Bloc of the AUC fought each other between 2002 and 2004 for domination of Colombia's Eastern Plains and the lucrative drug trade that moves across them. It is estimated that at least 2,000 fighters on both sides were killed, and hundreds more "disappeared" in that struggle.
I met all three Buitragos in 2003 and 2004, interviewing them in their mountain stronghold in the municipality of Monterrey in Casanare, in the center-east of Colombia. Unlike many leaders of the AUC, who preferred the high life in the cities or luxury haciendas in the countryside, the Buitragos spent much of their time in the mountains, living like the guerrillas they fought. They had strong support from ranchers and local businessmen throughout Casanare, and it was this support, as well as their mountain lifestyle, that allowed them to survive the onslaught by the far stronger Centaurs Bloc, which attacked them with the support of corrupt elements in the security forces.
While most of the AUC surrendered to the government during the peace process from 2003 to 2006, the ACC refused to demobilize, preferring to continue running their criminal empire. This is believed to involve drug trafficking not only on Colombia's Eastern Plains, but into Venezuela and Bolivia. In June last year, Carlos Noel Buitrago, alias "Porre Macho" (in Spanish), was arrested in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, where he was charged with running a drug smuggling network linked to his cousin Martin Llanos.
The ACC also got involved in local politics. In the so-called "Pact of Casanare," mayors in the province of Casanare received paramilitary backing during the elections, and in return delivered to the ACC half of their municipal budgets. Six mayors have already been imprisoned as part of the case, as well as a former governor of Casanare, Miguel Angel Perez.
The arrest of the two Buitrago brothers was a result of a joint Colombian-Venezuelan operation. Colombian police had been tracking the two since 2010, discovering that they were residents in Venezuela. They had been following the ex-wife of Nelson Buitrago, which led them to him in to the town of El Tigre, Anzoategui, where the men were arrested. Initially they arrested Nelson, with another man who claimed to be his driver. However the physical similarity between the two men was obvious and authorities suspected they had netted Martin Llanos, which was confirmed after his fingerprint details were sent from Colombia.
These captures are just the latest in a long series of arrests of Colombian drug traffickers in Venezuela. Under pressure from Colombian and US law enforcement, many Colombian drug traffickers have sought refuge in the neighboring country, although the arrest of senior figures like Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," in November 2011, as well as the Buitrago brothers, reveal it is no longer any kind of sanctuary.
However, it is clear that Venezuela is still home to large numbers of Colombian rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). The Venezuelan authorities seem a little more reticent about capturing and deporting guerrilla leaders. Venezuelan authorities arrested FARC commander Guillermo Enrique Torres, alias "Julian Conrado," in May last year, but have been reluctant to send him back to Colombia to face charges. The Colombian government has stated that the FARC commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño, alias "Timochenko," is in the Venezuelan province of Zulia, but he remains at large.
– Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Carnival starts in less than two weeks, with 250 percent more porta-potties. And possibly a dearth of police.
Rio de Janeiro’s military (street) and civil (investigative) police forces, and its firemen are threatening to strike starting on Friday.
The moment couldn’t be better – or worse. The military police of the northeastern state of Bahia are currently on strike, with army troops surrounding strikers holed up with their families in the state legislative building. The US consulate has advised putting off travel to Bahia, a prime spot for Afro-Brazilian Carnival celebrations, and Globo TV reported today that tour operators have seen a ten percent cancellation rate.
Governor Sérgio Cabral has increased salaries and improved compensation in other ways, but the police are still poorly paid – with many themselves living in favelas – and, perhaps, most important, fully aware of their importance in the new Rio. Crime is down and real estate values and tourism are up, largely due to the police pacification program, which started in 2008. The security program places high concentrations of police in select favelas to root out armed drug traffickers (in English), reports the Monitor. The program now extends to 19 favelas.
“We work so you can live safely in the South Zone” a shock troop officer in the recently-occupied Vidigal favela boasted to RioRealblog, just a couple of weeks back. But the cops aren’t only protecting the upper classes. In Rio’s pacified favelas many people have let down their guard and developed new habits and behaviors; without enough police, criminals could easily start to retake territories and start a wave of revenge on those they consider to be traitors.
Rio’s security forces have a meeting scheduled with Cabral tomorrow. A demonstration is planned for Thursday in Cinelândia, with the strike tentatively set for Friday.
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“I am going to be the first female Mexican president.”
Those are the words of Josefina Vazquez Mota, who was just selected by Mexico’s ruling National Action Party (PAN) to be their candidate in the upcoming July 1 race. This is the first time a woman in Mexico is heading a major party ticket as a presidential candidate.
But beyond changing gender roles in the region, the former education minister is hoping to appeal to women – young university students, working mothers, the poor – where her male counterparts have sometimes seemed aloof and out of touch with the realities faced by families in Mexico.
Within the PAN, Ms. Vazquez Mota challenged former finance minister Ernesto Cordero, who came in second during the weekend vote, and former senator Santiago Creel, who came in distant third. Mr. Cordero was unable to shake off criticism from his time as finance minister, when he said that 6,000 pesos a month, or about $475, was a salary that offered the accoutrements of middle class life, including a car and private school for kids. The comment spread across Twitter.
PAN was the last of three major parties to select their candidate, and Vazquez Mota will now face former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held onto power for 71 years before being defeated by the PAN in 2000; and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the Democratic Revolution Party (PDR). Mr. Lopez Obrador narrowly lost to President Felipe Calderon in 2006, declared fraud, and shut down central Mexico City for six weeks in protest.
Mr. Peña Nieto has been the clear frontrunner of the race thus far. According to a poll carried out by Consulta Mitofsky in Mexico City late last year, Peña Nieto was ahead with 42 percent support, compared to 21 percent for Vazquez Mota, and 17 percent for Lopez Obrador.
But Peña Nieto has stumbled in recent months. Most notable was his gaffe at a book fair in Guadalajara, in which he could not name three books that most inspired him, earning him ridicule across newspaper columns and social media.
But it was another of his stumbles that Vazquez Mota, a working mother with three daughters, was specifically able to use to her advantage: in an interview, he was unable to name the price for a kilo of tortillas, a staple in Mexico, and defended himself by quipping, “I am not the lady of the house."
On a radio program afterwards, Vazquez Mota was asked if she was the “lady of the house." She responded, "I am a woman, and as a woman I am a housewife, I am a government official, I've been twice a government secretary, I've been leader of a parliamentary group, I am an economist," reports the LA Times. "And indeed, all of that along with being a housewife, a housewife who knows what happens every day at the dining table and in the kitchen … And although we may not be there for many hours, as is my case, and I'm sure your case and many others of us, every night we return to that space of the kitchen, return to check the refrigerator and see if everything is ready or what needs to be bought the next day," she said.
While PAN is saddled with overseeing a violent crackdown against organized crime that has taken some 50,000 lives in nearly six years, and has been criticized for not doing enough to buoy the poor, Vazquez Mota can tout herself as the candidate with the capacity to care.
“Today I’m committed to take care of your families like I’ve taken care of mine,” she said Sunday. “I want to make Mexico the best country to live in.”
• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
El Salvador’s government says it is taking a radical stance on crime, using the military to police the country's most violent areas and now appointing military men to top security posts. But the changes sound more like a return to the failed “iron fist” policies of the past.
In November, Mauricio Funes -- the first president elected under the banner of guerrilla group-turned-political party FMLN since the civil war ended in 1992 -- named David Munguia Payes, a retired general and former defense minister, as security minister. On January 23, Funes selected Francisco Ramon Salinas Rivers as head of the police (PNC) (in Spanish), a former army general who had handed in his resignation just days before.
Since he took power two and a half years ago, Funes has also expanded the army by some 57 percent to more than 17,000 people, and has periodically deployed the military onto El Salvador’s streets to share policing duties.
The trend began prior to Funes' term. As El Faro reports (in Spanish), the defense budget has risen 32 percent in the last 10 years. And Funes is also following a region-wide pattern. Former General Otto Perez was elected Guatemala's president last year, while Honduras’ President Porfirio Lobo has given policing powers to the armed forces in Honduras.
But putting ex-military men at the head of both the police and the security cabinet struck opponents as a dangerous move to militarize the country’s security. And in a stinging rebuke over the Munguia appointment, members of Funes' own FMLN party said it appeared to be “a decision that was made somewhere in the U.S. capital.”
Funes’ justification for the move is simple: The country’s deteriorating security situation requires a "more forceful" approach (in Spanish). His work to strengthen the armed forces seems to be inspired by the desire to take, and to be seen taking, decisive action.
“What society asks and demands from us is results, and the president seeks results, not sterile debates or discussions," he declared recently (in Spanish).
It’s not hard to understand why the president wants to act decisively. Last year, El Salvador had a homicide rate of around 70 per 100,000 (depending on the figures you use), placing it among the most dangerous countries in the world.
However, the “more forceful” security strategies that have begun to emerge from Funes’ new militarized security cabinet sound less like innovations than a return to the failed policies of the past. Since the end of the civil war, each successive government has moved to take a tougher stance on crime by trying to roll back the protection of suspects’ civil rights. The three presidencies that preceded Funes each worked for reforms to give the police and legal system greater powers, “arguing that the laws as they stood benefited criminals more than society,” as IPS details.
In 2003, the Francisco Flores government rolled out the Plan Mano Dura (the Iron Fist Plan), a hardline security strategy that allowed suspected gang members to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of their appearance (not difficult, given the popularity of tattoos to pledge allegiance). Over the next four years the number of gang members locked up doubled from 4,000 to 8,000.
The overcrowded jails provided a fertile ground for converting young people into hardened criminals, and being thrown together allowed the gangs to organize and regroup. It also galvanized the development of sophisticated extortion networks. Critics say the policy failed, and homicide rates have doubled since it was instituted.
Funes himself had initially moved away from these hardline measures, favoring more holistic, community-based anti-gang policies. But the statements of Munguia, his new security minister, sound worryingly familiar.
In an interview with El Faro (in Spanish) last week, Muguia called for legal reform to make the system less liberal: “Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed.”
His task, he added, would be to remove bottlenecks in the system, “to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the streets.” If necessary, Munguia told El Faro, he is prepared to lock up an additional 10,000 gang members.
This is one of Munguia's many dangerous ideas. According to police figures (in Spanish), there are just under 18,000 gang members in the country, and another 10,000 already locked up. The addition of another 10,000, quite aside from its social consequences, would have a disastrous impact on the country’s overcrowded penal facilities.
For Munguia, though, gangs are not only the biggest security challenge in El Salvador, they are the only one. He claims that groups like the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 are responsible for 90 percent of all murders. But this is far from clear. The government forensic institute (IML) says gangs are responsible for 10 percent all the murders; the police say they are responsible for 20 percent.
What's more, Munguia's approach ignores the presence of groups like the Perrones and the Texis Cartel, which organize much of the transport of drugs, weapons and migrants through the country, acting as go-betweens for larger groups based in Mexico and Colombia. And although the Salvadoran groups are far less violent then their counterparts in these countries, the fact remains that blaming El Salvador’s entire security crisis on gangs is not only inaccurate but means the government will not focus on tackling these other types of violence.
In the end, the military men at the helm of El Salvador’s security strategy do not seem to be bringing any innovative ideas with them. Instead, they are appealing to a well-rehearsed narrative in which wild gangs terrorize the country, and can only be tamed by ever-stronger shows of might and higher rates of incarceration, two policies that have already failed to give the results Funes says he wants.
–– 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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"We have failed, for now," were the immortal words of Hugo Chávez back in 1992, a young lieutenant colonel announcing to his soldiers on live television that the coup he organized against President Carlos Andrés Peréz had failed.
Mr. Chávez was unable to create a regime change that year, but his concession left little doubt he would try again.
Today, Feb.4, marks the 20-year anniversary of Chávez’s now infamous address on state television. Though he failed in his coup that year, the speech propelled the young soldier into the nation's psyche. It both led him to prison for organizing the coup and, six years later, to Venezuela's presidential palace. He won the presidency through free and fair elections, and has remained in office since.
The government has referred to the anniversary – abbreviated as 4F, for the date the coup took place – as “one of the most important sociopolitical events of contemporary history in Venezuela,” and huge celebrations are planned all over the country in honor of it.
His coup attempt in 1992 came at a time when there was much dissatisfaction with the Venezuelan government, mired by deadly riots over economic reform and broken campaign promises that reinforced the image of a corrupt government serving only the country’s elite.
As Chávez’s Socialist government plays up the inspiration his words instilled 20 years ago, buoying support today, opposition party candidates are preparing to choose a presidential candidate in next weekend’s primary election. The winner will face Chávez, who has been in power for the past 13 years, in elections in October. The opponent expected to win the primaries is Henrique Capriles Radonski, a charismatic state governor who, for the first time in Chávez's long tenure, has unified the opposition to put up a good fight.
But Chávez is a formidable foe for the country’s political opposition, reports the Monitor, and aside from running popular social programs funded by oil profits, he is still believed to have strong support from the country’s military. His journey to power began by rallying support in Venezuela’s military academy. One young soldier, Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, now living in a wealthy Caracas suburb, was a good friend of Chávez at the academy and helped mastermind and run the coup attempt.
"I could never have imagined the reaction of the population," Mr. Urdaneta says in an interview with the Monitor. "We were like the saviors of the people."
Chávez gained huge support from both the middle classes and the poor in the years following 4F, as he came to personify the struggle against the old oligarchy. Six years after the attempted coup, Chávez was elected president in a landslide victory.
But Urdaneta fell out with Chávez when the socialist came to power in 1999. Now a staunch member of the opposition, he is currently campaigning for governor of Guárico, a state just south of Caracas. Urdaneta is not a unique case: many of Chavez’s original supporters, like those in the middle class, have tired of the high inflation and crime rates that ballooned under his leadership.
The celebrations surrounding 4F this weekend will coincide with the summit of Alba, the regional Bolivarian alliance setup by Chávez, which includes countries sympathetic to his mission like Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
"The rebellion of Feb. 4 was a historical necessity," Chávez said on Thursday, celebrating 13 years in power. "Only by way of the revolution could we emerge from the abyss."
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Colectivo La Piedrita is a pro-Chavez group based in western Caracas which bills itself as a community political organization but which Chavez himself has previously denounced (in Spanish). On January 23, La Piedrita celebrated the anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.
This week, photos emerged which appear to have been taken at the event and posted on the group’s Facebook page, showing children carrying M-16 assault rifles. The children are wearing bandanas and seated in front of a mural depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary holding Kalashnikovs. Other photos, seemingly from the same event, suggest that Venezuelan congressman Robert Serra was present, indicating some level of official support for the display.
The release of the photos caused something of a political firestorm in Venezuela. Potential presidential opposition politician Pablo Perez (in Spanish) criticized the photos, saying: "Instead of guns, these children should have a computer, a book, a bat, a ball, a glove, or a musical instrument."
The Chavez administration itself has condemned the images, with Interior Minister Tarek El-Aissami calling them “morally reprehensible" (in Spanish).
Diego Arria, another strong opponent of Chavez, criticized the president via Twitter, claiming that the President only distanced himself from the photos because they were distributed so widely.
For his part, Serra has said that the photos taken of the children were taken at a separate event in November, which he did not attend. Meanwhile, Colectivo La Piedrita claims that the rifles were made of plastic (in Spanish), and were part of a skit meant to commemorate the demobilization of guerrilla groups in the country during the 1960s. The children allegedly handed over toy rifles in exchange for copies of the Constitution.
InSight Crime Analysis
The incident draws attention to the highly politicized nature of Venezuelan society. Ever since Chavez took office, the discourse used by his supporters and detractors has become extremely polarized. Chavez has not helped this issue by arming civilian militias for political purposes, which may have contributed to the rise in street violence in the country.
The sight of small children with guns in their hand, real or not, touches on the broader issue of youth violence in Venezuela. As InSight Crime has reported, guns are widely available among poor youths in the country, and gun violence disproportionately affects those between 15 and 29 years old.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey 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.
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• A version of this post ran on regular contributor Andrew Downie's blog, andrewdownie.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
When I interviewed the head of Gol Airlines for the Monitor in 2005, I was hugely impressed by his ethos of wanting to create a low cost, low fare airline for Brazil and take on the legacy carriers whose model he so disliked.
Constantino de Oliveira Jr. did exactly what he set out to do and his cut-price but high quality service – combined with an economic boom that brought millions of consumers into the Brazilian market – helped Gol bankrupt Varig, the country’s flagship carrier. Today, Gol vies with Tam for the position as Brazil’s No.1 airline.
The problem is that somewhere along the line de Oliveira Jr. dumped all that progressive talk of creating an alternative airline for the discerning and less well-off traveler and turned Gol into the kind of airline he was so keen to replace.
Gol now charges prices that are ridiculously high even for Brazil, a country that is now among the most expensive in the world.
The cheapest flight found yesterday for a flight today between Rio and Sao Paulo, the country’s two main cities, on Gol’s website was $832. In comparison, flights between New York and Washington DC on Delta start at $319. A trip between London and Edinburgh on British Airways comes in at a minimum 210 pounds (around $332).
In the best example of how Gol comprehensively betrayed its starting ethos, it is charging three times what Webjet is charging for the same route, according to Wednesday’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
The curious detail here is that Gol bought Webjet last year, which was a low cost, low fare airline that set out to provide an alternative to the exorbitant prices charged by Gol and Tam. (The report is in Portuguese and available to subscribers only but says Gol sold tickets that cost three times those advertised on the Webjet site, even though it owns both companies and operated the same flight).
Gol told Folha it wasn’t breaking any laws, and Gol surely isn’t alone in taking the mickey. Everything in Brazil is expensive. But the abusive fares are particularly egregious given Gol's initial, laudable, and sadly abandoned, goal.
When my dear friend and colleague, photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, and I traveled to the remote town of Cochrane in Chile’s Patagonia to do a story about a proposed hydroelectric dam, residents were most angered by the fact that the majority of electricity generated from the rivers of Patagonia was intended not for them but for the capital city, Santiago, and nearby industry.
Now once again, it seems, the capital is "stealing" another of Patagonia's greatest resources: its glaciers.
This week, a man was arrested in Cochrane for transporting via truck 11,453 pounds of ice illegally removed from the Jorge Montt glacier.
Why would one steal a glacier? News reports say it was destined for the upper classes of Santiago, where “glacier” ice in drinks is considered a luxury (although our correspondent in Santiago tells me he has never seen “glacier” ice marketed at any bars – apart from being illegal, it would likely be as shunned, at least among the environmental set, as fur coats).
Ice might seem a more innocuous good to illegally trade than, say, drugs or people. But this operation is probably even more challenging to pull off.
The authorities say the man was spotted transporting ice in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, according to the wire service EFE. The glacier is only accessed by water via a four-hour trip from Caleta Tortel, a coastal village where houses are built on stilts and there are no roads, just wooden walkways.
And getting from there, back to Santiago, is no easy feat.
Melanie and I flew into Balmaceda and headed south for hours. And days. Down the Austral highway to the farthest point south, Caleta Tortel. The roads are rough, windy, all dirt, and so narrow that in most places one car has to pull over while the other passes. That makes for slow traveling, and several near accidents (like my almost head-on collision with a gas truck).
Upon our return a week later, as we neared Balmaceda where the road is paved once again, we got out of our four-wheel-drive and hugged, crying tears of relief. We survived!
Stealing ice is no laughing matter on the environmental-front either. Scientists say that out of all the glaciers in Chile, the Jorge Montt glacier is retreating the fastest, reports the BBC.
Rory Carroll of the Guardian notes that while some dispute whether global warming is playing a role in glacial retreat, this is one case in which both sides can agree on the role of human action.
The driver is being accused of theft – the ice in the back of his truck, reportedly found in large plastic sacks, is worth at least $6,000 (though that is based on the going price for ice; for 1,000-year-old ice, plus the risks involved in stealing it, it could be much higher). The driver could face charges under the national monuments act, according to the Chilean daily El Mercurio (in Spanish).
I had been eager to visit the glacier from Caleta Tortel, but the trip was too time-consuming. We had too much reporting to do. How angry I would have been to have forked out the money and committed the time to take a trip, only to see the glacier chipped away.
At least the ice seized will be going to good use. EFE reports that it is being given to farmers associations which will use it to irrigate crops in Cochrane to offset a drought that has been impacting agriculture in Chile.