A decade ago, the Brazilian gangster Li’l Zé took movie screens across the world by storm in the low-budget crime drama “Cidade de Deus,” or "City of God." Set inside the eponymous slum in Rio de Janeiro, the film grossed $30 million, received four Oscar nominations, and won festivals from Los Angeles to Toronto.
Li’l Zé dies at the end of the film. The actor who portrayed him, however, still lives in the notorious slum, or favela, of Cidade de Deus. For his role in the original film, Leandro Firmino was offered either a percentage of the film’s potential revenue or several thousand dollars. A poor kid who had been pulled directly from the favela into the film studio, he took the cash.
Bitterness over the wildly successful film's uneven distribution of wealth for Mr. Firmino and others who starred in “City of God” – which famously recruited its amateur cast from Rio's slums – is palpable in the new documentary “City of God: 10 Years Later.” The film premiered this week at the Rio Film Festival and explores the lives of the actors since 2002.
The documentary asks the question: “Can a work of art change someone’s life?” In part, the answer appears to be yes.
“City of God” shined an international spotlight on Brazil’s favelas and pressured the government to address the ingrained crime and poverty. In 2009, police established a permanent security presence in Cidade de Deus as part of a citywide "pacification" program. By 2012, the annual homicide rate had dropped to five from 38 while the annual robbery rate had plummeted to 53 from 618, according to state data.
For many of the favela kids cast in the film, like much of Brazil’s poor, life has changed little. Firmino says he spent most of his salary on a computer that soon broke. Others bought groceries, marijuana, jewelry, a skateboard.
“They said either you take 10,000 reais [$4,500], or you can have a percentage of the movie’s box office revenue,” Alexandre Rodrigues, who played Rocket in the original film, says in the documentary. “And what did I choose? I chose the 10,000 reais. Man, what a call! If I could go back in time, 10 years ago, I’d say, ‘What I want is the box office, man!’ Now I’d be like, ‘wow!’”
Such resentment is a driving tension in the film, but was also a hurdle for directors Cavi Borges and Luciano Vidigal as they shot over the past year on a shoestring budget of $90,500. While neither filmmaker worked on the original movie, both knew many of the actors through the local non-profit film studios Cinema Nosso and Nós do Morro, which work with kids from Rio’s favelas. To make their documentary, Mr. Borges and Mr. Vidigal just had to convince the one-time stars to settle for $90 per interview.
Some balked. Phellipe Haagensen, who played Li’l Zé’s sidekick Bené, refused to participate in the documentary, according to Borges. Others, like Rubens Sabino da Silva (Blackie) and Renato de Souza (Goose), seemed to eagerly accept the chance to air grievances and supplement their salaries from selling peanuts and fixing cars.
“Some actors didn’t want to participate,” says Borges, speaking on the sidelines of the documentary’s world premier here. “Other actors said they wanted to be paid to do the interviews. They think we have a lot of profit and say, ‘The last film I didn’t get a lot of money so I want money now.’ ”
The documentary includes interviews with 18 of the original film’s actors, some who continued to act in domestic television and film and others who were subsequently propelled to international fame, such as Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned) and Alice Braga (Angélica). Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who received an Oscar nomination for the film, declined to participate in the documentary but supported it with access to archival footage from the making of the 2002 film, Borges says.
Something akin to a survivor’s guilt lingers between those who seemingly made it out of poverty after the film's acclaimed release and others who felt left behind. The documentary reintroduces us to Felipe Paulino, who played a young boy shot in the foot by Li’l Zé during one of the film’s most riveting scenes. Now we follow Mr. Paulino in a bellboy uniform as he visits Seu Jorge in an upscale hotel in Leblon.
“Are you working here?” asks Mr. Jorge, who is now an international film and music star.
“I’m working here, right next to you,” says Paulino.
“I’m always staying at this hotel,” says Jorge, awkwardly. “Where are you living?”
“Right here in Vidigal [a nearby favela].”
“That’s a sweet commute. On wheels or on foot?”
“No, I walk,” says Paulino.
More than just a film about a film, the documentary underscores how Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty during the past decade while at the same time leaving many behind. Much like The Economist’s cover last week of Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue as a flailing rocket – four years after the UK-based magazine portrayed the statue rocketing skyward with the nation’s soaring economy – the documentary shows the side of Brazil still suffering from poor education, inadequate infrastructure, and a notoriously corrupt government.
"Now I have this to tell people: 'I was in "City of God," I was the kid who was shot in the foot,' " Paulino tells the camera. "So I have that as a childhood memory."
Wondering how he will now support his family and young daughter, Paulino adds: "I just need a break."
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Brazil's Odebrecht plans to invest $8.1 billion in Mexico's infrastructure in the next five years (Reuters, FT).
Brazil hasn't invested much in Mexico previously. Since 1999, Brazilian companies have only invested $1.2 billion total including $61.3 million last year. The Odebrecht, [which works in fields including construction, chemicals, and engineering], investment by itself will be an increase by an order of magnitude in the economic links between the two countries.
So, even as short term economic news about both Mexico and Brazil appears to be pessimistic (confounding the whole Mexico vs Brazil debate), this investment is good news for both and a big bet on each other.
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Almost half of the company's announced investment will be an ethylene plant. Another large portion will go to a hydroelectric dam and a highway. All of those announced projects are in Veracruz. Mexico indicated the Brazilian company will be involved in ethanol and sugar production. There are also discussions of Odebrecht investing in roads, airports, and other transportation infrastructure that would go beyond the planned $8 billion.
– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.
El Salvador’s capital comes with a side of fries.
At least that's how it seems based on the sheer number of fast-food chains here, clustered together in malls and lined up along main thoroughfares. A local guide even touts a “luxurious” McDonald's as offering one of the best views of the city. From Burger King to KFC to Guatemalan chain Pollo Campero, many see this country of 6.2 million people as a quintessential example of the effects of globalization.
When William Robinson, a sociology and Latin America studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, traveled to San Salvador in the 1980s, his lunchtime decisions were between multiple mom-and-pop restaurants selling the national dish of stuffed corn tortillas, or pupusas.
“Today, there is not one pupusería outside the university gates [in San Salvador]. The skyline is instead blighted by an endless array of signs beckoning diners to all the well-known transnational fast-food chains,” Mr. Robinson writes in his 2008 study, “Latin America in the New Global Capitalism.”
The “McDonaldization” or globalization of the retail sector “has taken Latin America by storm,” he writes, and it has affected everything from political systems to cultural practices to class structures.
But globalization does not deserve all the blame in El Salvador.
The small Central American country, about the size of Massachusetts, lacks a clear investment plan to develop its own productive industries, says Roberto Rubio, the director of the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), a Salvadoran think tank. That’s left many entrepreneurs focused on ventures that tap into the country’s consumer demand, which is fueled by high levels of remittances from Salvadorans living abroad.
“El Salvador is becoming a giant supermarket … international products keep increasing, and it’s due to a structural problem with the economy,” Mr. Rubio says. El Salvador’s trade deficit – the amount by which products brought into the country exceed exports – is one of the highest in the region relative to the size of its economy.
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“We take in a lot, consume a lot. Our trade deficit is almost 20 percent of our GDP,” Rubio says, blaming a lack of adequate economic and fiscal policies “that stimulate investment.”
Instead of choosing an investment path and creating incentives in sectors like alternative energy or technology, “what’s growing in this country? Commercial centers, car sales, cellphone consumption,” Rubio says.
National investors – who don’t take their money to neighboring countries with more developed investment opportunities – might be more inclined to open gas stations or fast-food chains at home, he says.
Historically, levels of investment in El Salvador have never been very high, Rubio says. But international investment has decreased in recent years. There are a number of reasons: Neighboring countries have created niche markets like technology or green tourism to draw investors. Basic costs of doing business here – like electricity – are high. Violence is an ever-present blemish on its international image, and the country is involved in two international investment dispute arbitrations in the mining and energy sectors.
Rubén Zamora, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, told The Christian Science Monitor in May that “anyone who analyzes the economy of El Salvador and why it hasn’t been growing can see the reason is plain and simple: There is no investment.”
El Salvador’s main industries include textiles, tourism, and coffee production.
In the 2000s there was a spike in international investment, largely caused by El Salvador's decision to sell its national banks, as well as its cement and beer companies.
“More capital came into the country, but the impact wasn’t long term” because profits from these companies are now largely leaving El Salvador, Rubio says.
“El Salvador has distinguished itself in recent years as the country in Central America that receives the least amount of international investment,” Rubio says. El Salvador “is without a direction,” when compared with Costa Rica’s investment draw in high-tech development or tourism, and Panama’s attractiveness due to the canal.
“We need more than brochures saying El Salvador is great,” Rubio says, referring to marketing materials produced by PROESA, the country’s national investment agency. (In fact PROESA lists seven reasons, including El Salvador’s geographic location, tax incentives, and a competitive labor force as reasons to invest.)
Ambassador Zamora says that attracting both national and international investors is a challenge. “Some people say the market in El Salvador is too small for certain kinds of investment,” he says.
Late last month, the US approved a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact with El Salvador for $277 million in funding over the next five years. The funds are to be directed toward improving El Salvador's competitiveness and productivity in international markets.
"This compact represents a tremendous opportunity to help reduce poverty in El Salvador by spurring investment and increasing economic growth," Daniel W. Yohannes, MCC chief executive officer said in a statement announcing the award.
An estimated 20 percent of El Salvador’s GDP is made up of remittances, and nearly 1 in 5 Salvadorans live in the US, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Rubio points to remittances as a perfect investment target. “Remittances transform a place,” he says, pointing to rural parts of the country where community members have traded in their horses for bikes, and straw hats for baseball caps.
El Salvador doesn’t have well-established programs to capitalize on remittances, such as savings programs or investment funds. “This money falls from the sky,” Rubio says.
“If left alone, remittances lead to more consumption....You can’t tell someone to stop buying Nikes or baseball caps or TVs. But savings programs can encourage a more robust financial system and community funds,” Rubio says.
• Reporting in El Salvador was made possible by a fellowship from The International Center for Journalists.
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Over the past several months, the US government has been accused of a host of offenses by Venezuela’s leadership: Planning a death plot against President Nicolás Maduro, barring government planes from entering US airspace, causing widespread blackouts by interfering with the country’s electric grid, and even playing a role in former President Hugo Chávez’s illness and death.
And this week, Mr. Maduro said he's had enough. He announced it was time for three “Yankee” diplomats in Venezuela to go home – the second time he’s kicked out US officials this year. He found they had been “dedicated to meeting the far-right and to financing and encouraging acts of sabotage against the electrical system and Venezuela’s economy,” Maduro announced on TV Monday.
Seven months ago, in the lead-up to the first presidential election in 15 years in which Mr. Chávez was not a candidate, there was hope that Venezuela’s new leadership would work toward warmer relations with the United States.
“What is different is that [Maduro]’s someone you can talk to and with Chávez that [was] impossible,” Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, told The Christian Science Monitor in March, noting that Maduro is a staunch leftist and would still walk the party line. “[He’ll be accessible] within the party, to the opposition, and the US,” Mr. Shifter said.
The US announced “its interest in developing a constructive relationship” with Venezuela’s government, according to a statement by President Obama following the announcement of Chávez’s death on March 5.
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But today’s move seems to indicate little has changed when it comes to dealing with Venezuela’s “imperialist” neighbor to the north.
"I have the proof here in my hands," Maduro said last night, referring to his allegations of sabotage. "Yankees go home! Get out of Venezuela! Get out of here! I don't care what actions the government of Barack Obama takes."
So, what happened to hopes for renewal in US-Venezuela relations?
To start: a foundering economy, record-high inflation, strict currency controls, shortages of basic goods ranging from toilet paper to sugar, rolling blackouts, and high levels of violence – many problems that were inherited from the previous administration.
“Deflecting blame for domestic problems on external forces is a time-honoured tradition” in Venezuela, according to the Financial Times. And Maduro has stepped up the blame game, activating a sabotage hot line (0800-SABATAJE) last month, which the government said received more than 1,000 calls in its first week. The Miami Herald reports that Maduro’s office has mentioned the word “sabotage” in at least 144 communiqués sent out since mid-April.
According to the FT, blaming outside forces is especially big now since Maduro "has made little headway in correcting the economic distortions bequeathed by Hugo Chávez, his charismatic predecessor, a failure that has also left many wondering how much longer the situation can go on."
“The breaking point in Venezuela is very moveable because the country always has oil revenues,” says Luis Vicente León, a pollster and economist at Datanálisis in Caracas. “Whatever a government misspent yesterday, huge cash flows come again tomorrow.”
Still, although the Opec nation receives about $100bn in oil revenues every year, mismanagement and policy incoherence mean its economic problems, such as an annual inflation rate of above 45 per cent, continue to mount – especially when it comes to the exchange rate.
Fixed at 6.3 bolívars to the dollar at the official rate, and trading on the black market at seven times that, the distortion has cut the supply of dollars to Venezuelan importers, thereby exacerbating shortages of basic goods but providing quick winnings for anyone who can access dollars at the overvalued official rate.
Quirky stories on the effects of some of Venezuela’s economic policies have popped up as a result. Used cars in Venezuela actually gain in value, at times selling for more than a new car due to currency controls and insufficient vehicle supplies. And Reuters reported last month that international travel is booked solid months in advance – not so much for the voyages overseas, but because of restrictions that allow those with international plane tickets to exchange up to $3,000 at the government rate.
And hovering in the background of Venezuela’s towering list of economic woes are upcoming local elections, scheduled for Dec. 8. David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz write on the Venezuela blog of the Washington Office on Latin America this week that the elections are the first true test of Maduro’s leadership since his contested presidential victory in April. The elections “will inevitably be interpreted as a referendum not only on ‘Chavismo without Chávez,’ but on the opposition without Chávez.”
Venezuela’s opposition, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, is strongest with the middle classes in Venezuela’s major urban centers. Chavismo, in turn, has overwhelming support in Venezuela’s towns and rural areas. This means that the government will likely win a larger number of municipalities. But the opposition theoretically has the chance to win the popular vote. And it is indeed trying to frame the elections as a national plebiscite on the Maduro government….
Thus the December 8, nationwide municipal elections pose a set of opportunities and risks for both sides. The Maduro government’s candidates will surely win most municipalities, but if it loses the national popular vote it will effectively have lost its first “plebiscite.” This would leave the opposition strengthened and in good position to seek a recall referendum on Maduro in two years. Maduro’s standing as Chavez’s successor would be seriously weakened and probably challenged by other leaders within Chavismo.
However, if Chavismo wins most municipalities and the national vote, it could be disastrous for the opposition.
One of the officials Maduro kicked out last night was the US charge d’affaires, who has served as the highest ranking US diplomat in the Andean country since the last US ambassador was expelled in 2010.
"We have seen Maduro's televised announcement but we have not received any official notification of expulsions," a US State Department representative told CNN. "We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of US government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government."
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A week after twin storms pounded Mexico's Pacific and Gulf coasts, questions are swirling as to how the floods, landslides and overall devastation from the rains could have been prevented.
Many point to the need for better advance planning: flood prevention, building-code enforcement, and political capital to plan for the long term, among other measures that may have helped curb the damage and minimize the still-climbing death toll.
"It's not surprising. We develop in unbuildable areas. We build with garbage and we design without planning," Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, wrote in the Mexican daily Reforma.
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“Prevention [in Mexico] is moving things to the second floor so they don’t get flooded out,” says Gerardo Priego, previously a gubernatorial candidate in Tabasco for the right-leaning National Action Party.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced this week that the death toll from tropical storm Ingrid and hurricane Manuel had reached about 115 people. The Interior Ministry said Monday that that number could climb as high as 200 deaths, and 1.5 million homes have been damaged to some extent, reports Agence France-Presse. The government estimates 29 of Mexico’s 31 states have experienced some form of damage – including landslides and floods – due to the hurricane double whammy, Reuters reports.
This was some of the worst rains Mexico experienced in decades.
But prevention shouldn’t be limited to urban planning and flood insurance, according to an initiative launched Tuesday by seven countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and chaired by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
The New Climate Economy, part of The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, aims to address how to link economic incentives with environmental responsibility and climate change prevention, in hopes of addressing some of the devastating effects of climate change worldwide.
The project will…engage directly with finance ministries, business leaders, city mayors, and major investors to analyze how economic decisions affecting climate change are being made, and to inform its conclusions on how climate risks and opportunities can better be taken into account in policy and investment.
“Most of the time you hear consequences of climate change in the future,” Mr. Calderón told The Christian Science Monitor. He cited economic tools like discount rates that play into how much is invested in environmental policy today, but may not have a payoff for a century.
“We are already paying very high costs due to the consequences of climate change,” Calderón says, referring to investment during his time in office, from 2006 to 2012, and the costs of Ingrid and Manuel in Mexico today. He says climate change is a phenomenon “without borders.”
“But the point is we are paying [the] consequences … from our own lack of actions,” says Calderón, who passed Mexico's first climate change law before leaving office. Natural disasters often hurt the poor disproportionately, exacerbating inequality and creating greater challenges for growing economies, he says.
A median 65 percent of Latin Americans see climate change as a major threat to their country, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares to a median 54 percent in countries worldwide and 40 percent who see climate change as a big threat in the United States.
In a written statement introducing The New Climate Economy, Calderón and Nicholas Stern, who is co-chairman of the commission and a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, wrote:
In recent years, a series of extreme weather events - including Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, floods in China, and droughts in the American Midwest, Russia, and many developing countries - have caused immense damage. Last week, Mexico experienced simultaneous hurricanes in the Pacific and in the Gulf of Mexico that devastated towns and cities in their path. Climate change will be a major driver of such events, and we risk much worse.
This puts a new debate center stage: how to reconcile increased action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with strong economic growth.
It is a debate that is already mired in controversy. As most countries have started making serious investments in renewable energy, and many are implementing carbon prices and regulations, critics complain that such policies may undermine growth. With the global economy still recovering from the 2008 financial crash, higher energy costs – not yet fully offset by greater energy efficiency – are worrying business and political leaders
Next September, the $9 million study will be released with recommendations to government, business, and financial leaders worldwide on how to work toward achieving economic growth and development with an eye toward climate change prevention and lower-carbon output. The research will be conducted by research institutes on five continents.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is one of the seven world leaders behind the commission, along with high-level representatives from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Korea, Norway, Sweden, and Britain. “Our commitment stems from two facts. One, we have been experiencing devastating climate change-driven impacts,” Mr. Santos said at the project launch.
“And two, we are fully aware that our efforts in poverty eradication and development will be shortlived unless we tackle the climate change challenge,” Santos said.
Estimates of the financial costs of Mexico’s rains and flooding this month are just starting to be calculated, with the Mexican Congress announcing this week that it would need to recast its 2014 budget due to postdisaster recovery costs, Reuters reports.
The government earlier this month said it aimed to run a budget deficit this year and next as it forges ahead with spending on infrastructure. It must now find additional funds to repair roads and infrastructure hammered by the storms.
Pena Nieto said Mexico's Congress "will absolutely have to adjust" the federal budget in light of the mounting damage caused by Tropical Storm Ingrid and Hurricane Manuel over the past week.
He did not specify new funding levels beyond the roughly 12 billion Mexican pesos ($938.97 million) available in emergency funding.
In the meantime, Mexico continues to focus on the present: the 800,000 who reported power loss across the country, the estimated 59,000 evacuated from their homes, the 72 damaged roads and transportation arteries, and the scores of people still missing.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Over one ton of cocaine was found on an Air France flight from Venezuela. The cocaine was packed in over thirty suitcases that were not registered to any passengers. As Toro, Miguel and others point out, all of the baggage security at Venezuela's biggest international airport is handled by the National Guard. It's obvious the Venezuelan military played a major role in trafficking these drugs because they were the ones who had to handle the bags.
The US has long accused various Venezuelan military officials of involvement in drug trafficking. These aren't idle accusations or politically motivated attacks against an antagonistic government. It's a legitimate problem in Venezuela. There are top military officials, at times called the Cartel de los Soles or Cartel Bolivariano, who are profiting from drugs, extortion, and money laundering. They use the chain of command to move drugs across the Colombian border and then out of the country.
The Venezuelan government knows it has an image problem with this Paris cocaine seizure. They quickly arrested three lower level Guardsmen, but is there any chance that higher level officials will be held accountable? Almost certainly not. There is no accountability in the Maduro government.
If the Maduro government were serious about cracking down on corruption, this military-cartel connection would be an obvious place to start. There are only three reasons for him to avoid it:
1) He's naive. [Nicolás Maduro] believes his own conspiracies and ignores or refuses to believe the more obvious explanations.
2) He's complicit. However, I haven't seen significant evidence to suggest Mr. Maduro is involved.
3) He's scared. Maduro knows the Venezuelan military is corrupted by organized crime, but is afraid to move against them because they could threaten his own power.
It's that third scenario that is most concerning. If Maduro knows about the corruption but is too scared to act, then that's a serious criminal-military challenge to Venezuelan democracy that goes well beyond the debate over the ideological legacy of former President Chavez. If Maduro doesn't actually control the soldiers and guardsmen and can't remove the ones he needs to remove, then any future government will face a particularly tough fight to reassert that civilian control.
– James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.
– A roundup of global reports
Parts of Mexico have been inundated by some of the worst rain in decades, stranding thousands of people and affecting more than a million nationwide – and the country can’t seem to catch a break.
Mexico was sandwiched between two storms earlier this week – Ingrid on the Gulf coast and Manuel on the Pacific – and on Wednesday Manuel regained strength and became a hurricane, expected to further pound Mexico with 15 inches of rain moving north up the coast. Flooding and mudslides have claimed at least 80 lives across the country, Mexico’s interior ministry said on Wednesday.
"The aid is flowing," Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said this week. "A large deployment [of resources] is being made specifically to the most affected areas."
But weather conditions have impeded those aid deliveries to some of the areas hardest hit by rain, flooding, and mudslides. Relief efforts were able to resume on Wednesday, the president told reporters.
A landslide in storm-battered Guerrero state left 58 people unaccounted for Wednesday night in a small coffee-growing community, La Pintada, reports The Associated Press. Renewed rain has made getting to the isolated, mountainous area even more precarious for rescuers.
"It's very likely that these 58 missing people lost their lives," said Angel Aguirre, governor of Guerrero state, the Associated Press reports.
Rescuers are still trying to evacuate remaining residents in La Pintada, where “tons of dirt and rocks smashed through the center of town Monday night, burying a church and an untold number of two-story homes,” reports the AP.
“It was like an explosion that blew through the hills, and within seconds the earth collapsed and houses came falling down and others were buried,” Amelia Saldaña Gregorio told Mexican daily El Universal. She lost her four children and her mother in the disaster.
Tourist destination hit hard
Flooding has stranded an estimated 40,000 people in the Pacific coast tourist destination Acapulco, Reuters reports. Many traveled there for the long weekend celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day on Sept. 16. Main roads in and out of the city have been blocked by landslides and parts of the airport have been flooded. Looters stormed abandoned retail stores, “stealing everything from televisions to Christmas decorations.”
A separate AP report noted that armed state police watched over a partially flooded – and looted – Costco store:
Hundreds of people waded through waist-high brown water in the store's parking lot on Wednesday, fishing out anything — cans of food or soda — that looters might have dropped. Others shouted for the now-shuttered store to be re-opened.
"If we can't work, we have to come and get something to eat," said fisherman Anastasio Barrera, as he stood with his wife outside the store. "The city government isn't doing anything for us, and neither is the state government."
Beaches are covered in debris and people have been rescued via kayaks, ziplines, and other means, NBC reports. City officials estimate 23,000 homes in Acapulco – largely on the outskirts – are without water or electricity.
Acapulco Mayor Luis Walton told CNN that the city has been “practically incommunicado.”
Some passenger terminals in the airport are flooded and ticketing has been moved to a nearby convention center. The AP reports that two flights an hour started running out of Acapulco, giving “priority [to] those with tickets, the elderly, and families with young children.” Officials predict roads between the capital Mexico City and Acapulco won't be reopened for days.
As Brazil fumes over allegations of US spying, with President Dilma Rousseff today officially canceling next month's state visit to Washington, the South American nation is simultaneously ratcheting up its own Big Brother surveillance program at home.
Brazil launched its first-ever Integrated Command and Control Center (CICC) this week, part of a major security initiative leading up to the 2014 World Cup that may also include the city deploying drones over event venues.
The CICC will not be monitoring personal communications of citizens like the US National Security Agency is alleged to have done. Reports indicating the US also spied on Rousseff’s communications led to the cancellation of her state visit to Washington next month, despite President Barack Obama speaking with her last night in an 11th hour call.
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But the CICC will monitor a large portion of Rio de Janeiro, using input from 560 cameras citywide that is displayed in the control center on an 80-square-meter high-definition video wall, amid myriad other interactive geo-maps that track everything from ambulances to oncoming rainstorms. Over four floors custom-built by I.B.M. for up to 670 personnel from more than 30 agencies, the CICC will keep an eye on all roads, highways, and public centers in Rio.
“Even in the US they don’t have anything like this,” says CICC Chief Edval Novaes, adding that only Mexico City and Istanbul have comparable security centers.
Opened in April at a cost of $45.8 million, the CICC was tested during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June and yesterday began dispatching day-to-day municipal operations between four call centers for the departments of police, fire, ambulance, and highway patrol. It marks another milestone as Brazil steps up security for the World Cup next June, says Mr. Novaes. The CICC aims to be fully functional by year-end.
Stepped-up surveillance doesn’t end with the CICC, as the municipality is also pressing for Brazil’s federal aviation body to allow cities to deploy drones, Novaes says. The Brazilian Air Force already used two drones during the Confederations Cup in June, which was seen as a dry run for the World Cup. Novaes says the CICC wants its own eyes in the sky, too.
Legislation is pending, but if passed Rio would begin a public bidding process for the purchase of up to three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which would be unarmed and used solely for surveillance, said Novaes.
While critics say public funds are being misplaced to create intensive monitoring of public spaces, Division General Mario Lucio Alves de Araujo, who is helping oversee World Cup security preparations, says the changing nature of warfare and terrorism requires the state to step up its surveillance tactics. While increased security measures – including the forced pacification of favelas – have contributed to a 50 percent decline in Rio’s homicide rate since 2005, the city is still rated “critical” by the US State Department for high levels of robbery, rape, fraud, and residential theft.
“Warfare increasingly takes place in social areas,” Mr. Araujo says. “We need to be present for our country at all times.”
He points to the use of cameras to solve the Boston Marathon bombings in April as an example of CCTV's utility. In the days after the race, the role of video surveillance drew worldwide attention as US authorities used public and private cameras to identify the suspected bombers.
Cameras are only as useful as what’s on screen, adds Araujo, which is why he says he supported the Rio state legislature’s recent passage of a new law outlawing masks in public demonstrations – a response to the masks worn during nationwide protests in June. Masks were also banned during Pope Francis’s mass in Rio in July.
The ban on masks drew criticism from some politicians and protesters, who attended the vote wearing – you guessed it – masks.
Meanwhile in international relations, Brazil is also pushing back hard against Washington's alleged spying program, which was publicized by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Rousseff canceled what would have been the first state visit by a Brazilian president to the US since 1995. "Illegal practices, interception of communications and data of citizens, businesses and members of the Brazilian government are indeed a serious threat to the national sovereignty and individual rights, and are incompatible with democratic coexistence between friendly countries," she said, according to an official statement.
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While public opinion remains largely opposed to marijuana regulation in Uruguay, a new poll shows support for the bill is growing, especially among likely voters for the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, which could be good news for countries hoping to follow Uruguay's drug policy example.
On Sept. 2, leading Uruguayan pollster Cifra published the results of a new survey on marijuana regulation carried out from Aug. 15 – 24, which brought good news for supporters of the bill. The polling firm found that 61 percent of the country was opposed to the measure, a five-point drop since it was first proposed by President Jose Mujica in July 2012. The latest poll confirms that there has been a definite, albeit slight, downward trend in disapproval of the law in the past year.
The Cifra poll also found that, while conservative Colorado and National Party voters remain overwhelmingly against it, support for the bill has grown among individuals who identify as FA voters. For the first time since the bill was presented, more FA supporters are on board with marijuana regulation (47 percent) than against it (40 percent).
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The new Cifra poll is good news for advocates of marijuana regulation in Uruguay. It provides Regulacion Responsable – the coalition of civil society groups which has banded together to support the bill – with a useful narrative to present to legislators sitting on the fence about the initiative. Although it is expected to face a far easier time in the Senate, with no FA senators likely to oppose it, some are sure to have private doubts about the wisdom of supporting such an unpopular initiative. They may have fewer qualms with a relative majority of their party's supporters now backing the bill.
However, the poll did not bring all positive news for supporters. Alarmingly, some two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) said they would "probably" or "definitely" sign a petition to hold a referendum on the bill. Under Uruguayan law, if the opposition presents signatures from 2 percent of the electorate (roughly 52,000 people) in January or February of next year, a preliminary vote on whether to hold a referendum could take place in March or April. If over 25 percent of the electorate participates in that vote, the marijuana regulation law could face a referendum in July 2014.
Fortunately for regulation advocates, the odds of this happening are very slim. Although the opposition was able to gather enough signatures to trigger a preliminary vote in June on whether to hold a referendum on a controversial abortion decriminalization law passed last year, this ultimately failed. Only 8.8 percent of the electorate turned out, despite the fact that over 50 percent of those polled had said they would participate. If the opposition could not mobilize enough people to come out against abortion, a highly emotional issue, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so for marijuana, and the Frente Amplio is counting on this.
That the bill is unlikely to be removed via a referendum is also good news for international actors looking to Uruguay to provide a new drug policy model. Lawmakers in Mexico, for instance, have directly cited Uruguay's initiative as the inspiration for a bill that would center around authorizing membership clubs and cultivation for personal use.
If the bill survives the opposition's attempts to strike it from Uruguay's lawbooks, it will also provide an interesting laboratory to examine the effect of marijuana legalization on insecurity and organized crime. The Uruguayan law will regulate every aspect of the illicit market for the drug (production, sale and distribution), which currently brings in around million to criminal groups. If it succeeds in lowering thecountry's rising crime rate, it will likely fuel the arguments of those calling for more relaxed marijuana laws in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, like Colombia and Guatemala.
• Timothy Gill contributes to WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
[Yesterday] the Venezuelan government officially exits the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, one year after denouncing it.
In July 2012, then-President Hugo Chávez decided to withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights after it ruled in favor of Raúl Díaz Peña, a Venezuelan citizen convicted of putting bombs in front of the Colombian and Spanish Embassies in Caracas in 2000, and ordered the government to pay him reparations.
Although Venezuela will remain subject to existing rulings, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will still be able to receive complaints from Venezuelan citizens, the IACHR will no longer be able to bring cases regarding Venezuela to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, nor will Venezuelan citizens be able to directly address it.
Venezuela’s decision came as part of the long term conflict Venezuela has had with the Inter-American Human Rights System. In March 2013, the Venezuelan government again rejected a petition from the IACHR to visit the country, citing alleged ties between the organization, the US government, and anti-government NGOs in Venezuela. Venezuela and the countries that comprise the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have also recently developed several proposals to reform the IACHR.
Human rights groups throughout Venezuela have unanimously condemned the Venezuelan government’s decision to withdraw from the human rights court, as they did in the wake of it. Amnesty International has called upon the Venezuelan government to reconsider its decision to withdraw so that it may continue “the fight against impunity, [for] justice, truth, and reparations for victims.” COFAVIC director, Liliana Ortega, stated that “human rights are not the gifts of states to give. The role of the [Inter-American Court of Human Rights] is very important. No national court has given a decision on the Caracazo, only the IACHR.”
Red de Apoyo, a group that has worked with the Venezuelan government on several initiatives, has asked it to retract its request to withdraw from the court, stating that this decision will only hurt the victims of human rights abuses. The group has also argued that the role of the state is to “attend to these victims, and assist them in their rehabilitation, reparations, and compensation for their damages.”
The International Coalition of Human Rights Organizations in the Americas, which includes the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), has also issued a press release lamenting the Venezuelan government’s decision, stating that “the Court, like the Commission on Human Rights, are autonomous and independent bodies, which in the exercise of its functions have protected the rights of thousands of victims and citizens of our continent.”
Several human rights groups have also sent public letters the Organization of the American States and Mercosur voicing their concerns about the withdrawal. José Miguel Vivianco, the Director of Human Rights Watch’s America Division, sent a letter to Brazilian President Dilma Roussef as well as a letter to Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica voicing his concerns and why he believes Venezuela must not withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In the letters, Mr. Vivianco argues that in “the past year the human rights situation in Venezuela has continued to deteriorate.” Most importantly, he says that “the Venezuelan authorities have not adequately investigated some serious complaints about human rights violations that occurred after the presidential elections of April 2013.”
Pedro Nikken, a former judge and president of the court, stated in an interview with El Universal that that the Venezuelan government’s decision will damage it much more than a few rulings against it. The decision to withdraw, he says, will “confirm the suspicions” of the international community that the Venezuelan government is an “autocratic embryo that develops more each day.”
Critics have stated that the decision to remove Venezuela from the international body also violates the Venezuelan Constitution. Specifically, critics call attention to Article 31, which states that: “Everyone has the right, on the terms established by the human rights treaties, pacts and conventions ratified by the Republic, to address petitions and complaints to the intentional organs created for such purpose, in order to ask for protection of his or her human rights.”
The Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), the umbrella organization of opposition political parties, released a statement today, arguing that this decision is “one of the most serious actions taken against the protection of human rights by the current regime.” The statement also calls upon the international community to demand that “the Venezuelan government act in accordance with the progress made by humanity” in the area of human rights.
On Monday, President Maduro stated that the decision to leave the court is “fair and just.” He stated that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has “passed its time” and that both the Court and the IACHR “have unfortunately degenerated. They believe they are a supranational power; they believe they are a power above the legitimate governments of the continent.”
Germán Saltrón, the Venezuelan representative to the Inter-American System of Human Rights, recently said that “The American Convention [on Human Rights] is much beneath [the Venezuelan] Constitution in human rights material, which guarantees more and is more advanced in that material, so Venezuelans will not be unprotected, and we will also have the protection of the United Nations.”
But the United Nations itself has criticized Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Court. Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the organization believes that the Venezuelan government’s decision to withdraw “will have a very negative impact on the situation of fundamental rights within the country and the region.” Mr. Colville encouraged the “government of Venezuela and all other Latin American states to continue cooperating with the international mechanisms for the protection of human rights.”
- Timothy Gill contributes to WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.