• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Rebecca Hanson is a contributor. The views expressed are the authors's own.
Last month President Nicolas Maduro signed into law a disarmament bill that has gone under various revisions within the National Assembly since 2010. The law signifies an important attempt by the Venezuelan government and legislature to control the flow of arms in the country. In this post we look at the evolution of the law, the conflicts that the law has produced (both between the opposition and the government and within Chavista ranks), and provide a summary of the law’s main points.
Although there are no reliable figures on the number of guns in circulation in Venezuela (estimates range from 1 million to 6 million) their circulation was for the most part unregulated until last year.
Since 2010, three different commissions have been created to combat the problem. The first commission was organized within the National Assembly in January 2011. It was headed up by Freddy Bernal (PSUV National Assembly member and previous mayor of Caracas) and was dominated by PSUV deputies but also included a few opposition members such as Juan Carlos Caldera. It was referred to as the Mixed Commission (Comisión Mixta) because it had members from two different National Assembly subcommittees (Interior and Defense). The Mixed Commission’s proposal suffered a number of postponements and internal differences between Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Assembly, and Mr. Bernal.
In May 2011, late-President Hugo Chávez decreed the creation of the second commission, the Presidential Disarmament Commission (CPD). The CPD was headed up by human rights activist Pablo Fernández and then Minister of Justice Tareck El Aissami and included 20 members from the government, the academy, and civil society.
Though initially the two groups worked together, there were serious differences: the CPD was dominated by civilians such as Mr. Fernández, while the National Assembly’s Mixed Commission had a strong presence of former military officers, including Assembly members Rafael Gil Barrios and Pedro Carreño.
The CPD backed a number of measures that the National Assembly's Mixed Commission considered too restrictive and did not want included in the bill. Thus, the Mixed Commission eventually cut off communication with the CPD due to disputes over what type of bill would be put in front of the Assembly.
The CPD and Mixed Commission differed mainly over the issue of restricting the sale and carrying of legal arms. According to Fernández, “The illegal market is nourished by legal arms.” In contrast, the military faction argued that the two issues were distinct and that, with the 2012 election year coming up, they could not afford to crack down on legal arms and alienate the middle class or the armed forces.
In June of 2012 the CPD presented its proposal to the Mixed Commission which in turn presented its final version to the National Assembly plenary for discussion. The Mixed Commission’s final version, however, excluded a number of key issues. The CPD’s proposal advocated for a combined arms registry; more restrictive measures on the renewal of licenses (such as a recent psychological examination); extending the regulation of weapons to cover knives and explosives; the elimination of arms carried for personal defense; and stronger control over ammunition production. All of these measures were left out of the Mixed Commission’s proposal.
The CPD, in turn, side-stepped the National Assembly and went directly to President Chávez who put a stop to discussion of the Mixed Commission’s bill in the Assembly. As a result, in July 2012 a third commission was formed to reconcile the differences between the CPD’s proposal and the one supported by the Mixed Commission. This group was headed by Diosdado Cabello and included PSUV parliament members as well as two opposition Assembly members—Eduardo Gómez Sigala and William Ojeda.
The proposal that came out of this third commission kept about 80 percent of the CPD’s version intact. It was approved by the Assembly on June 11 and signed by Maduro on June 15 of this year.
However, it also watered down some key sanctions and regulations. For example, while the final version requires gun licenses to be divided into various categories (sporting, hunting, transportation of goods, etc.) it allows for personal defense licenses, which the CPD wanted to eliminate. The law did create an automated system of registration for arms, parts, and ammunition that will be under the control of the Armed Forces. However, it discarded the shared registry of guns that would have allowed all state organizations to share and access information.
Furthermore, the law includes no controls over CAVIM (the state company which produces arms and ammunition for the Armed Forces), which Fernández considered a fundamental aspect of gun reform. While most guns are imported into the country, the majority of ammunition in Venezuela is produced by CAVIM. And, according to a study by the CICPC and the National Police, 80 percent of the gun shells found in homicide scenes were manufactured in the country by CAVIM.
Though the Ministry of Justice issued a resolution closing all armerías (gun shops) in May of last year and both proposals by the CPD and the Mixed Commission designated the Venezuelan state as the only body legally competent to sell guns, the final law allows for the eventual reopening of gun shops and the future private commercialization of guns (though individuals are prohibited from selling guns to other individuals, and are allowed to sell their guns to the state only). Gun licenses will not be available for another two years, however, meaning that no one will be able to legally buy a gun until 2015.
The legal age for carrying a gun was raised to 25 and stricter sentences for the carrying and possession of illegal guns were established: 4-6 years of jail time for illegal possession of a gun, 4-8 for the carrying of an illegal gun, and 6-10 years for possession and carrying of guns made for war. It also penalizes the alteration of a gun’s serial numbers with 3-5 years of jail time, the introduction of guns into prisons with 8-10 years, and the firing of guns in public places with 1-3 years. Additionally, individuals are not given personal ownership of guns but are allowed conditional possession, meaning that the state can “recuperate” an individual’s gun at any time. The final law also prohibits the fabrication, selling, and carrying of knives that the CPD’s proposal included.
Ammunition is to be marked with the name of the producer, the year of production, as well as where the ammunition is to be sent. Police ammunition is now marked to identify each police body that will be using it. Authorized citizens can only buy 50 cartridges each year. This same amount is to be assigned annually to all police officers, of which more can be requested with proper justification.
Apart from new restrictions, the law also includes measures like a national fund to provide care and attention to victims of gunfire as well as establishing a 5 percent tax on the net earnings of businesses that sell, import, and produce arms, which will be put into this fund.Additionally, it allows for the voluntary and anonymous turning over of weapons to the National Program for the Exchange of Arms and Ammunition in exchange for education opportunities, university scholarships, employment opportunities, construction materials, etc. Both of these measures were integral to the CPD’s campaign the year before.
• A version of this post ran on the Foreign Policy Association blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
Last week, The Economist in their article “The Great Deceleration” discussed the slowdown in the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa] economies in recent months. The assumption was that countries such as China, India, Russia, and Brazil were to grow indefinitely as a reflection of a new world economy, showing their clout during the 2008 great recession by saving the US and Europe from complete economic collapse. The BRICS were taken as economic champions as their economic models kept the world economy puttering along. The impressive level of growth and rapid influence the BRICS would have in the world economy was something that was predicted to occur within 15-20 years, but with the downward spiraling of the US and Europe after 2008, it was logical for many investors to see the end of the West’s domination of all things money.
The question that must be raised is whether or not emerging economies should always be seen as economic saviors? Many investors saw the BRICS as the next big economic project that would never fall to the same boom and bust cycles that are at the heart of Western economic models. When those BRICS economies came to be injured by slowdowns in the world economy and the loss of investment due to lower prices on their commodities and waning demand on their manufactured goods, the slowdown of the economic champions brought them into the same growth level as their western counterparts. Mega projects such as Brazil’s PAC-2 and the funding of international sporting events showed Brazilians that the government might spend themselves into debt for the sake of a few great parties, mega projects, and corrupt practices. Democracy exploded in Brazil when the growth rate took a dive as many of the most ambitious projects shifted into high gear. The assumption from investors that the money would not stop did not come to pass, and Brazilians took to reminding their government to build Brazil for its citizens, and not anyone else.
Everyone remembers the excitement and paranoia in the 1980s of Japan as the next economic giant, a giant that would usurp the US via research, development, and technology. Japan did build up its economy since the 1960s to a point of being one of the most innovative economies in the world, but the paranoia of indefinite growth coming from Japan did not come to pass. Today, Japanese goods are some of the best in the world and are a benefit to those consumers in the world’s largest markets. Western citizens consume Japanese products while still maintaining their own positions of influence. Was it logical to assume that the BRICS would also dominate the global economy to the detriment of the US and Europe?
The US is slowly regaining its traditional economic position and is displacing the missing investments into those formerly strong BRICS nations. Development in formerly developing countries is a positive outcome for all BRICS nations, and will continue with measured growth on the same level as all Western nations. Growth in China at seven percent, in Brazil at three percent and the US at 3.5 percent is a positive outcome for all economies, moreover a realistic one as citizens in all nations expect rational spending and growth over a long economic period. As with Japan, the development of the BRICS may have slowed, but logically they are exactly where they should be, growing at a normal pace, and hopefully responsibly with accountability to their citizenry.
– Rich Basas is a Latin America blogger and Europe blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read the blogs here for Latin America and here for Europe.
• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.
Dr. Anitza Freitez is Professor of Demography and Director of the Economic and Social Sciences Institute at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. I recently sat down with her to talk about a little discussed aspect of transparency and freedom of information: the access policy researchers have to public information.
There is a lot of discussion these days regarding the importance of freedom of information in a functioning democracy. But that discussion usually focuses on budgets, yearly reports, financial accounts, and who has influence on governmental decisions. What is at issue with respect to policy research?
For us to carry out relevant research we need access to databases. Yet, our National Statistics Institute [INE] has progressively restricted the supply of information. While in other countries their household surveys are available on web pages that anyone can have access to, here that is not the case. The administrative registry where you find the numbers of births and deaths—information that is vital, for example, for understanding reproductive patterns of vulnerable populations and health issues—is not open, or is open only to a minimal degree. Yearly mortality ledgers, information on morbidity, epidemiological alerts—all of that information has been increasingly restricted.
We went for a whole year in which the Ministry of Health decided not to publish the epidemiological alert, which is the compulsory registry of certain diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, dengue that every health center is obliged to report on a weekly basis. It was taken off the Ministry’s web page because they claimed that it was being used for purposes other than research.
On migration issues, the Identification and Immigration Service (SAIME) put a note on its web page that said that entrance and exit numbers from the country were of exclusive access to agencies of public administration. Therefore, since the 1990s we do not know the annual migratory balance of Venezuela. We do not know how many Venezuelans leave and how many foreigners come in, their nationality or whether they stay.
We can look at almost any issue and we will find the same scarcity and lack of access to information: problems with its availability, the timing of its availability, and what is made available. In the year 2010 a national demographic survey was conducted with the support of the United Nations Population Fund, but that survey was kept shelved and still today we do not have access to it. Just yesterday we were handed the 2011 Census, and the data is limited to already calculated indicators and charts. But what we need is access to the raw data so that we can generate the indicators that we need according to the goals of our research and according to the segment of the population we are looking at.
And why is this happening? Why is the government limiting access to this type of information?
This is a government that is very sensitive to criticism. When you do research you don’t do it to sweeten the pill for whoever is in government, but to show what is being done well, to diagnose situations, to identify problems that need interventions. That’s what universities are for. Institutions that do research need freedom of information; they need information without censorship.
And what they want to give you are charts, not the data?
Charts, and there is very little you can do with them. They generally reflect an average of the country that says very little about how to guide interventions. We need to go down to the regional level and distinguish socioeconomic segments. It’s really no use if you give me a chart with only basic cross-tabulations. They come as PDFs or as images, and you end up having to transcribe the information or cracking those files if you can.
But is there not a legal framework for this?
According to the law, the information produced by public institutions is public domain and everyone should have access to it. The restriction of epidemiological alerts gave rise to appeals to international organisms by human rights groups and especially by organizations that work with HIV patients. There was a ruling that forced the Ministry of Health to again publish the alerts on its webpage.
And have they complied?
They have. But the issue is how they have complied. They put up the information for one week—because the information has to updated weekly. But at any given moment I should be able to find there 52 weeks of the epidemiological alert. However they upload some weeks, they take down others. Or when they are there you can’t download the files.
Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
The slums crawl up the hills here at Lima’s edge, crisscrossed by dirt roads and a trash-strewn tract of land beneath high-tension electricity towers.
No one builds beneath the lines, lest sparks should fall. But in the winter fog hanging over one hill, an oasis blooms under the canopy of wires: a growing urban garden has created food security and extra income for some 40 families.
Peru’s sprawling capital city is home to nearly a third of the country’s population, thanks to mass migration from rural areas over the past 30 years. This poor suburb of Lima represents one successful example of the numerous global cities, including several in Latin America, that have bet on urban agriculture to stave off malnutrition and poverty.
It’s also an example of how public policy can spur private initiative. The municipal government has ceded partial responsibility for maintaining the program it launched in 1999 to private hands six years ago. The owner of the electricity towers, the Red de Energía del Peru (REP), took on the garden as a corporate social responsibility project. Next year, the government will pull its support altogether, leaving REP and the growers to carry on.
“People living in the provinces for one reason or another came to Lima and settled in the periphery,” says Flor Paredes, program coordinator with IPES, a Lima-based nonprofit focused on sustainable development that has guided the program. “But they have agriculture in their veins.”
Gregoria Flores walks through rows of Swiss chard alongside Julio Cortana. Mr. Cortana grows the leafy greens to feed his family – seven children and 12 grandchildren – and earn income at markets in Lima’s nicer neighborhoods. Ms. Flores provides technical assistance as the program’s only paid employee.
She suggests to Cortana which greens to cut and when, and tells him that if he cuts the chard when it’s young, he’ll sell at a better price at the market. Flores gives him advice on how to avoid bugs organically, too: The growers here are working toward an organic certification that would let them sell at one of Lima’s growing bioferias, open-air markets of higher priced organic products.
“This was a dump,” Flores says, pointing to a new garden being cleared of trash lower on the hill. “This was fertile ground for gangs.”
Villa María del Triunfo is the southern part of what has become known as Lima’s conos, or “cones,” the urban sprawl that has pushed the capital’s northern, eastern, and southern limits. The southern cone is one of the metropolitan area’s poorest and most problematic, a place seemingly left behind by Peru’s economic boom of the past decade.
Today, beets, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, chard, onions, and lettuces freshen the only stretch of available land amid the concrete block houses and shacks roofed with aluminum that crowd the hills of Villa María del Triunfo. Flores says the families who participate increase their average monthly income 50 percent from $143 to $214.
The global nonprofit Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security, which works with IPES on the Peru project, reports similar urban agriculture successes in Cuba, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina over the past decade. In Peru, Ms. Paredes says sustainability is the next major challenge. That means helping the growers learn to produce their own seeds and earn enough to maintain the grounds season after season. Right now, REP supplies seeds three times a year for plantings.
Flores, who has seen how the garden has expanded and how the community has made it their own, puts it another way: “We’re birds of passage, and they’ll have to generate their own seeds. Soon, we have to stop holding their hand.”
Colombia's half-century of conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives, and while the country tries to negotiate an end to the war, the number of victims continues to climb.
Taking stock of the human costs of the internal war, the independent National Center for Historical Memory presented the findings of a six-year study to President Juan Manuel Santos yesterday in a ceremony witnessed by dozens of survivors of the atrocities that have marked the past 54 years.
"We have to recognize that we've hit bottom, and that the war has become dehumanized and it has dehumanized us," Mr. Santos said. The government is currently engaged in peace talks with the nation's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC,) in what is seen as the best chance yet to bring an end to its 49-year insurgency. But the negotiations are taking place amid continued fighting, and 19 soldiers were killed last weekend in two separate clashes with the rebels.
The study found, however, that it has been civilians – not combatants – who have borne the brunt of the war, accounting for 4 out of 5 conflict-related deaths. The study also said that as many as 5.7 million Colombians were forcibly displaced and more than 25,000 people forcibly disappeared, although some estimates put the latter figure as high as 60,000.
The authors of the study recognize their figures are approximations.
"Despite their chilling magnitude, these figures are estimates that do not account for what really happened because part of the dynamic and the legacy of war is anonymity, invisibility, and the impossibility of recognizing all its victims," the study's coordinator, Marta Nubia Bello, wrote.
The investigators used 1958 as their starting point, the year that marked the end of a period of bipartisan fighting known as La Violencia (the Violence) and the rise of armed resistance movements that would evolve into guerrilla armies. And the study charted the intensity of the conflict, finding that the most brutal period was between 1982 and 2002, when leftist rebel groups strengthened, right-wing paramilitary militias were created and expanded, and the government struggled through repeated crises.
Guerrillas were responsible for the more than 27,000 kidnappings recorded since 1970, while paramilitary groups were blamed for nearly 60 percent of the massacres that took place in the country from 1980 to 2012, in which 11,751 people were killed. Government forces committed 8 percent of the massacres and 42 percent of forced disappearances.
Santos called the information on the involvement of the police and armed forces in such atrocities one of the "uncomfortable truths" in the report, adding that the crimes must be investigated and punished to offer truth and justice to the victims.
But just one day after addressing the victims, Santos today defended a government-sponsored law that, according to Human Rights Watch, could lead to impunity for thousands of crimes by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and government forces alike. The framework for peace, which aims to pave the way for a peace deal with the FARC, stipulates that, in a context of transitional justice, only those with "maximum responsibility" for atrocious crimes would be prosecuted.
The law has already passed in the Congress, but was challenged by human rights organizations before the Constitutional Court, which is hearing arguments today from the president, the attorney general, and rights groups.
"There is no better way to repair victims than peace," Santos said. But observers say Colombia must strike a balance between peace and justice: Too much justice may stifle any chance for peace and too little may spark new conflicts in the future.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
One of the most interesting elements of Brazil's protests, which continue to simmer across the country in smaller numbers, is the use of new media to plan, broadcast, and report on the demonstrations. Mídia Ninja is perhaps the best known group to emerge, and has used social media and webcasting as tools to cover the protests.
Given its role, Mídia Ninja could have simply been evidence of a rise in citizen journalism, but it has also gained a role as a protagonist in the protests. On July 22, during a Rio protest on day one of the Pope's visit to Brazil, two Mídia Ninjareporters were arrested (and subsequently released) after police claimed they were trying to "incite violence" by broadcasting the event. A total of seven people were arrested, and one of the protesters was initially denied bail. He spoke to ninja reporters with the hope that someone would find a video to prove his innocence and through social media, Mídia Ninja advocated for his release. The coverage worked, and he was released on Tuesday afternoon. Nevertheless, the backlash against the arrests exploded on social media, and while the full repercussions have yet to be seen, there are echoes of police brutality and arrests of journalists at Occupy Wall Street. And if the original São Paulo protests proved anything, it's that police violence against journalists will fuel the protests even more.
Plus, Midia Ninja gained enough clout that Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes gave reporters an interview this week. The interview surprised traditional journalists, some of whom felt the ninjas were unprepared. But the fact that the mayor appears to have offered the interview indicates how far the group has come.
To learn more about the group, I spoke to Felipe Altenfelder, one of the Mídia Ninja editors, about the "ninjas" and the future of citizen journalism in Brazil.
This group arose out of another organization called Casa Fora do Eixo in São Paulo. The collective of artists and cultural producers was created in 2005 and sought to promote and produce art, cultural events, and online content. Developed by Fora do Eixo's communications team, Mídia Ninja – which stands for Independent Narratives, Journalism, and Action – came about after using new digital tools and contact with traditional journalists in São Paulo. In fact, one of the founders, Bruno Torturra, quit his job in the mainstream media to start Mídia Ninja.
Mídia Ninja is now present in 200 cities across Brazil, in places Fora do Eixo previously established networks. "The ninja is defined by working collectively," Altenfelder explained. "It's not anonymous; it's a collective identity." During the protests, the ninjas broadcast the demonstrations on livestream channels on Twitcasting and on the group's channel, PosTV. They also posted live updates and photos onTwitter and Facebook, as well as Tumblr, Google Plus, Instagram, and Flickr. In some cases, ninjas use iPhones or bare bones equipment; in others, they push around a shopping cart complete with a generator, speakers, a computer, cameras, a microphone, and an editing table. "We want to democratize information," ninja Filipe Peçanha told O Dia. "The purpose is to show what conventional TV networks don't show."
The concept of livestreaming came about in 2011 when Fora do Eixo created PosTV to originally broadcast concerts. Later, it was used to broadcast the Freedom March, which took place after São Paulo's so-called Marijuana March experienced a crackdown by police. In 2012, PosTV did a month-long, daily broadcast before São Paulo's local elections. Altenfelder explained that digital communication methods used by Mídia Ninja not only help create new protagonists, but are a tool to support and promote "direct, participatory democracy."
But where does Mídia Ninja fit in within the world of journalism? The group never tried to be a part of that world, Altenfelder explained. Still, he noted, "journalism is alive and well," and people are hungry for information. Mídia Ninja represents an "alternate model led by a new generation of independent, autonomous, empowered communicators who no longer trust the news that's for sale." The way Mídia Ninja covers the news, Altenfelder believes, will influence mass media in the long term. The group, Altenfelder claims, "is a global embassy in this new world of possibilities."
Now Mídia Ninja is planning its next steps. The group plans to expand PosTV's activities and increase the number of ninja collaborators. It also will launch a website, which will feature blogs by traditional journalists and act as a communication hub for other citizen journalist initiatives. "We're pretty optimistic," Altenfelder said. With the expansion of the middle class, more people are empowered, which expands people's abilities to reflect critically on the world around them. "There's no going back now," he noted.
According to Mexico's national statistics institute, just 1.8 percent of the homicides registered in 2012 have resulted in a sentence, a grim reminder of the challenges that Mexico faces in speeding up its judicial process.
As Animal Politico reports, sentences have been issued in just 523 of the 27,500 homicides registered in Mexico last year, according to statistic agency INEGI.
The numbers show that in two states, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, no homicide cases from last year resulted in sentences.
Things aren't much better in some of Mexico's most crime-racked regions, including San Luis Potosi (where 99.6 percent of homicide cases have not been resolved), Sinaloa (99.2 percent), Chihuahua (98.3 percent), Tamaulipas (97.5 percent), and Michoacan (96.8 percent).
The state with the highest rate of sentencing is the Federal District, although 81.4 percent of cases here remain unsolved.
As noted by Animal Politico, local governments have misleadingly registered some murder cases as "processed" – meaning that a suspect was presented before a judge – even though they ultimately did not result in a sentence. In Hidalgo, for example, 106 people were reported as having been "processed," although none of the cases saw convictions.
InSight Crime Analysis
The challenges facing Mexico's judiciary are well noted. It is not just a matter of stalled homicide cases – last year, the Attorney General's Office reported that only 30 percent of those detained on drug trafficking charges between 2007 and 2011 were convicted. The United Nations has said that 90 percent of those arrested during the first five years of President Felipe Calderon's administration eventually went free.
Improving the efficiency of the judiciary remains one of the major challenges facing President Enrique Peña Nieto, as it was under Calderon, who oversaw a series of dramatic reforms in 2008. One issue is the number of public servants who still need to trained in Mexico's new accusatorial trial system. The US is helping with this, but the process is moving slowly.
The image of old, rickety Mexican buses chugging two-lane roads in Hollywood films might have rung true in another era. But in modern Mexico, the bus system is an efficient, comfortable and inexpensive way of getting around the country.
I first traveled long distance on Mexican buses more than 10 years ago, when my husband and I flew from Phoenix to Mexico City and, after spending some time in the capital, hopped on a bus to Querétaro and Guanajuato in the central region. On each leg of our trip, we encountered a luxurious bus with comfortable reclining seats, air conditioning, several screens to watch movies and ample overhead space. We gave kudos to our travel agent.
The country's bus system is even better now, though safety concerns linked to organized crime are now part of the traveling equation. But Mexico is a big country, something the State Department now acknowledges in travel warnings that point to specific trouble spots.
With that in mind, in early July I boarded a bus with my 12-year-old son bound for the Guanajuato state capital, which I fell in love with all those years ago. We were the only members of our family with the time and inclination to go on a long bus ride from the border town of Nogales, Sonora to colonial Mexico. We usually travel south of the border by car or plane, so this would be an adventure.
My son, who had been exposed to the more basic US bus travel at least once before, was impressed to discover Wi-Fi and a screen right in front of him when we got on a bus headed for Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state. Much to his delight the familiar "Iron Man 2" was the featured movie.
As Robert Downey Jr., rambled on in Spanish, my thoughts wandered to the story about the Arizona woman who spent several days in jail after being accused of smuggling marijuana under the seat of a Sonora bus headed for the border. Although we were going in the opposite direction, I instinctively checked under our seats. All clear.
Three hours of riding and a couple hours' waiting at the central de autobuses in Hermosillo later, we transferred to another bus that would take us to Guadalajara, Jalisco. This was the longest part of the trip, about 850 miles.
I started to wonder if traveling through Sinaloa at night would be a good idea. The state is, after all, home to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán's powerful drug-trafficking organization. Even before leaving Arizona I had mulled over the idea of staying overnight in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city. I decided against it. After all, incidents involving Mexican buses in recent years had happened in the northeastern region, not on the west coast.
My son and I slept through most of Sinaloa as the bus rolled through toll roads, considered safer both for buses and cars. Sinaloa's cornfields gave way to Nayarit's majestic mountains and about 22 hours later, the vibrant sights and sounds of Guadalajara came into view. Buses leave so frequently in this major hub that we quickly found a connection to Guanajuato, about 180 miles away.
This, according to my son, was the "best bus ever." Here, passengers not only got lunch but also had access to the Internet and individual screens where each could watch various movies or listen to music in English or Spanish. Oh, and you could play video games, which explained my son's pleasant mood after so many hours on the road - and a few more at bus terminals.
Some 1,200 miles and 30 hours after leaving Nogales, we arrived safely in Guanajuato and handed a bus attendant the ticket we'd been issued for our luggage.Though I'd heard the infrastructure is dismal in some parts of Mexico, the roads we traveled were robust. Bus drivers were courteous and professional.
In all, the fare for both of us totaled about $220, with my son getting the usual 50 percent discount for minors. Our Guanajuato host picked us up, but bus terminals throughout the country are centrally located and finding a cab nearby is easy.
Two sites to explore long-distance bus travel in Mexico:
Last weekend Caracas saw opposing marches by university students and faculty. One march [was] in support of the indefinite strike called by faculty from the “autonomous" universities. The other [was] in support of the government’s efforts to expand access to higher education.
After several rounds of meetings with pro-government unions of professors and university workers, Minister of Universities, on June 14 Pedro Calzadilla announced that an agreement had been reached that will include both workers and professors in a single common contract and include average pay raises of 130 percent for all public universities personnel. However, faculty of the biggest independent professors union Federación de Asociaciones de Profesores de Venezuela (FAPUV) have declared that the indefinite strike which began on May 30 will continue. In this post we explain why the crisis has not abated even after the announcement of seemingly significant salary raises.
The problem lies in the nature of the rapid expansion of the university system in the past 14 years and in the government’s strategy of creating parallel institutions.
Free higher education was guaranteed under the 1961 Constitution. And indeed in the ensuing decades the government expanded existing institutions (Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), Universidad de los Andes (ULA), Universidad de Zulia (LUZ)), and created new public universities (Universidad del Oriente (UDO), Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB)).
But the deterioration of the primary and secondary education system at the same time led to a situation in which admission to these public universities became highly regressive. Low quality public schooling meant that a high percentage of those who benefited from free higher education were middle class and wealthy students from private high schools. Public universities reached high academic and research standards during the 1970’s and 80’s relative to the region, but often seemed distant from the situation and needs of the rest of the country.
Furthermore, demand for university education expanded much faster than the system, meaning many young people who wanted to, could not attend.
The 1999 Constitution reaffirmed the right of free higher education for all. The Chávez government made serious attempts to comply with this obligation and to expand what it regarded as an elitist system. But since existing public universities have far reaching administrative and academic autonomy, and were reticent to rapid expansion plans, they moved at their own pace.
This same autonomy has meant that the autonomous universities are the one part of the public sector that the Chávez government was not able to gain control over. Indeed Venezuela’s autonomous universities are still the most important source of informed criticism of the government.
With its plans impeded by the autonomy of existing universities, the government has progressively developed a parallel system of higher education that it could more closely control, both economically and ideologically.
The government created several new national universities (such as the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela UBV, and the Universidad de Nacional Experimental de las Fuerzas Armadas UNEFA), or joined existing institutions into new national universities (such as the Universidad Nacional Experimental de las Artes UNEARTE, a fusion of existing music and arts schools across the country). A total of 29 new higher learning institutions have been created since 2000. Most of these new institutions incorporate in their statute an “experimental” character, which means they enjoy only limited autonomy: their authorities are not directly elected by the university community but directly appointed by the government.
The Venezuelan government says this expansion has increased the number of university students by 170 percent since 1999 and increased the budget by 800 percent (calculated in official rate dollars. At the parallel rate it would be closer to 200-300 percent). But critics claim that these new universities lack minimum academic standards and are only universidades de carton (cardboard universities).
Of course the increase is not only in the number of university students but also of faculty size (even if in most of the new universities teaching is done by temporary adjuncts on an hourly basis). Because professor’s salaries are equal by law, according to rank across the public university system, this expansion of faculty size means that it is almost impossible to raise faculty and staff salaries without straining the education budget.
A stagnation of salaries has ensued in which a full time Profesor Titular (highest faculty rank), even after a previous rise of 40 percent announced in September 2011, earned an average monthly salary of around Bs. 5,000 (less than $900 at the current official exchange rate. Less than $200 at the current parallel rate). The salary of an Instructor was close to minimum wage.
In February this year faculty began protesting their low wages with a series of one day strikes which eventually led to the indefinite strike ongoing since May (a timetable of the protests can be read here).
The government began a round of negotiations in February, but again relying on its institutions paralleling strategy, announced it would talk to the pro-government union which includes both professors and university workers in a single organization, Fetrauve (Federación de Trabajadores Universitarios de Venezuela).
FAPUV was invited to the negotiations, but refused to attend upon learning that it would be only one of the negotiating actors together with the government backed union and that single negotiations would be conducted with professors, administrative personnel, and workers lumped together.
The government has argued that the strike only affects 15 percent of the universities, but at other times has said that “the conflict has put at risk the continuity of studies of an important sector of students of university education in Venezuela.”
Striking professors have been recurrently accused in state media of denying students their constitutional right to education, of being coopted by the “right,” and of having an “electoral/political” agenda.
The agreement reached by the Ministry and the pro-government unions is unlikely to quell the crisis for three reasons:
First, even if the salary increase announced seems significant in nominal terms (a Titular will now earn 10,645Bs.), the increment will only be progressively paid in parts: a 25 percent increase retroactive from January 2013, a 25 percent increase starting September 2014, and a 25 percent increase to take effect in January 2014. Faculty and workers fear that high inflation will eat up most of their raises by January 2014.
Second, and more importantly, university workers and professors feel that the way the government refused to even acknowledge its legitimately elected unions, and instead negotiated with a parallel pro-government union, will seriously break faculty and workers negotiation power in the future. The agreement on a single proposal was reached by government appointed union leaders and not by elected representatives of workers, administrative employees, and professors.
A third issue source of faculty discontent is that the collective contract includes both professors and university workers. The government claims this makes the agreement different form previous negotiations and, in words of Minister Calzadilla “truly fair:” “For the first time in Venezuela’s history, workers, administrative employees, and professors, reached an agreement and made a single proposal, and this is an accomplishment.” From the faculty perspective a unified agreement threatens their negotiating power vis-à-vis the stronger university administrative and workers personnel unions.
The NBA announced this week that two games during the 2013-2014 season will be played internationally – one in London and another in Mexico City, where the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves are likely to receive a warm welcome.
Basketball is the country’s second most-practiced sport – after much-adored soccer – according to Mexico’s National Professional Basketball League, or LNBP. People play in the thousands of courts that anchor schoolyards, gyms, and public parks.
When indigenous Zapatista communities in Chiapas gather for a celebration, the festivities often open on a basketball court. Women play fierce games, sometimes in skirts, frequently preferring bare feet to sandals.
Tournaments for both men and women take over public parks in Mexico City on Sunday mornings. And Mexico’s northern states, where people are known for their height, have produced three NBA players.
NBA is coming
Luis Balmore ignores an impending rainstorm as he dribbles and shoots hoops in a Mexico City park. He plays in a local league and says he practices every day – and he’s excited to hear the NBA is coming.
Ever since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, he’s been a San Antonio Spurs fan.
“There are a lot of Mexicans over there,” he says. “Plus, it’s an international team with players from France and Argentina.”
The one Mexican currently in the NBA, Gustavo Ayon, plays for the Orlando Magic. But there were two others before him, Horacio Llamas who played for the Phoenix Suns during the 1990s and Eduardo Najera who played for the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, among other teams, during the 2000s. All three men top 6 feet, 8 inches.
The LNBP was founded in 2000 and, according to its retired president Modesto Robledo, it has become, “in a very short time, one of the three most important [leagues] on the continent,” after the NBA and Argentina’s professional league.
The Dec. 4, match-up will be only the second regular-season NBA game played in Mexico City; the last was in 1997. It will be the league’s 21st game played in Mexico.
The NBA has been working to reach more fans internationally, especially in the Spanish-speaking world. It started a website in Spanish, éne-bé–a, in 2009. The two teams slated to play in Mexico City feature well-known Spanish speakers, including the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili from Argentina and the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio from Spain.
“Given the deep-rooted Mexican heritage of San Antonio and our proximity to the Mexican border," said Rick Pych, the Spurs' president of business operations, in a statement, "Mexico City is an ideal location for us to play our first regular-season game outside of the United States and Canada.”