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November 10, 2004 [LINK]

Comeback for Guzman in Peru?

The shaky government of Peru was embarrassed a few days ago when terrorist leader Abimael Guzman and his Shining Path co-defendants began raising their fists and chanting revolutionary slogans as their retrial began. The trial was interrupted but has now resumed, with no cameras allowed in the courtroom. The feckless government of Alejandro Toledo has discredited democracy itself in the eyes of many poor Peruvians, so a resurgence of political violence in the highlands can't be ruled out.

October 20, 2004 In Mexico, there are big protests against the planned construction of a Wal-Mart superstore within a mile or so from the pyramids of Teotihuacan, about 25 miles north of the capital city. See cnn.com. (That photo is from our trip to Mexico last year.)

October 18, 2004 Take that, European colonizers! In Venezuela, supporters of President Hugo Chavez commemorated the 514th anniversary of the discovery of America by toppling a statue of Christopher Columbus. Chavez has declared October 12 to be "Indian Resistance Day." See cnn.com. Yesterday a high-rise office building in Caracas went up in flames, but no fatalities were reported. President Chavez has warned opposition governors that they will be jailed if they fail to give up their office should they lose the October 31 elections. Many regime opponents have charged that the elections are being rigged, just as the referendum in August apparently was.

October 11, 2004 In Peru, a reporter of the "Fourth Branch" investigative television program resigned under pressure after a sharp confrontation with President Toledo over allegations of corruption.

Former President of Costa Rica Miguel Angel Rodriguez resigned as General Secretary of the Organization of American States only two weeks after he took office. It was reported that he had received kickbacks from the French Alcatel company for a cellular telephone contract. He denied the accusations. Costa Rica is regarded as one of the most peaceful, prosperous, clean, and democratic countries in Latin America, and this case was a setback for the country's international prestige.

September 28, 2004 In Haiti, the death toll has climbed past 1,500 people, and about 900 are still missing. Looting is rampant, as desperate survivors of Hurricane Jeanne overwhelm the 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers (mostly from Brazil) who are trying to help CARE distribute food and water. Many bodies are being buried in mass graves, in hopes of avoiding an epidemic. The regime that took power by forcing former President Aristide to flee back in January has lost what little control of the country it had. Street gangs now rule in many neighborhoods. A Canadian peacekeeping officer was quoted by CNN.com as saying, "There is no security right now. There are no patrols. There are no functioning police. We're on our own."

September 23, 2004 In Ecuador, police have wrested control of the Galapagos Islands from park wardens who were protesting against the appointment of a new governor who is believed to be a political hack who cares nothing for nature. The wardens have been involved in clashes with local fishermen, whose numbers in the Galapagos have been rising sharply in recent years as the mainland economy continues to stagnate, and good jobs remain scarce. (BBC News)

In Haiti, over a thousand people died in flooding caused by Hurricane Jeanne. The city of Gonaives was hardest hit, and much of it is still under water and/or mud. After stalling for a few days, Jeanne is heading toward the Florida coast again.

In Mexico, sex-crazed pop singer Gloria Trevi was released from prison after a judge ruled the evidence against her was not sufficient to warrant further incarceration. Before being extradited to her native land of Mexico, she had been serving prison time in Brazil, on charges of corrupting youth, during which time she somehow managed to conceive and bore a child fathered by her co-defendant boyfriend Sergio Andrade.

September 17, 2004 Venezuelan Prsident-for-Life Hugo Chavez just met with Brazilian President "Lula" da Silva, reaching a preliminary agreement to proceed with South American economic integration, including a possible giant petroleum conglomerate that would bring all the countries' state-owned petroleum company under a single roof. A mass media enterprise "to rival CNN" was also mentioned. As a leftist, Lula probably feels obliged to express solidarity with Chavez, but as a pragmatist, he probably won't do any more than is necessary to help the would-be Napoleon achieve his Bolivarian dreams of continental union.

September 4, 2004 In Panama, left-populist Martin Torrijos was just inaugurated as president. Just before stepping down as president last week, Mireya Moscoso pardoned four Cuban exiles who were convicted of having conspired to commit violent acts against the Castro regime. Cuba reacted by recalling its ambassador, though the diplomatic breech is only temporary. The question is whether the U.S. government was involved. Some of the Cubans quickly took refuge in Florida -- just in time for Hurricane Frances! (NOTE: To my dismay, my default Latin America news source, cnn.com en español Web site no longer carries news updates.)

August 18, 2004 In Venezuela, President-for-Life Hugo Chavez won the recall referendum by a 58% to 42% margin, and the results have been acknowledged as legitimate by the United States and international observers. While not unexpected, the referendum signifies yet another setback for the cause of freedom in the Third World. It may simply be that the uncommitted segment of the Venezuelan population was more afraid of what might happen if Chavez had lost the referendum and decided to stay in office anyway. Civil war would have erupted, most likely, shutting down one of our biggest sources of crude oil.

August 4, 2004 In Paraguay, at least 400 people died in a fire in an suburban supermarket whose exit doors were locked, apparently to prevent theft. In Mexico, the once-dominant Revolutionary Insitutional Party (PRI) won gubernatorial elections in Oaxaca (where we visited in Feb.-Mar. 2003) and Tijuana.

July 31, 2004 In Bolivia, a strike shut down all of the airports in the country for one day, until the general director of civil aeronautics resigned. Getting from city to another on land is extremely difficult because of the high mountains and deep valleys in Bolivia.

July 28, 2004 The Republic of Peru was proclaimed 183 years ago today. As elsewhere in Latin America, however, political independence from Spain did not translate into economic independence, and the consolidation of authority under the new regime was never really completed.

July 27, 2004 In Peru, which celebrates its independence day tomorrow, the Congress just elected Antero Flores-Araoz as its "president" (like speaker of the house) for the next year, defeating Luis Solari of President Toledo's party Peru Possible. The incumbent is Henry Pease Garcia, a former leftist who also belongs to Peru Possible. With the legislative branch in opposition hands for the first time in recorded history, the wheels of government in Peru will grind ever more slowly. This choice also signals a growing possibility that Toledo will be removed from office, on charges of extremely low popularity -- his approval rating is somewhere between six and eight percent.

Brazil defeated Argentina in the championship game of the America Cup soccer tournament, held in Lima. The tournament has been held in various Peruvian cities over the past two weeks. Twelve of the 20 nations of Latin America competed in the first round.

The Mexican government was moving toward charging former president Luis Echeverria with "genocide" for having ordered the killing of dozens of students during protests in 1971. Even Amnesty International questioned whether that action qualified as "genocide." In any case, a judge has thrown out the charges on the grounds that too much time has lapsed. This is seen as a defeat for President Fox, who has tried to shed light on the abuses of power by the formerly dominant PRI. Meanwhile, Mexico and Cuba have reestablished diplomatic relations, which were broken after Mexican voted to condemn Cuba for it human rights abuses earlier this year.

July 17, 2004 In Peru, which has become increasingly tense and unstable in recent months, a general strike called by the leftist labor confederation apparently was apparently not very successful. Former (and perhaps future) President Alan Garcia was participating in a march with strikers, and was videotaped impatiently kicking the guy who was clearing a way through the crowd for him. (He said it was just a nudge.)

The ultra-prestigious Riggs National Bank in Washington handled money for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while he was under house arrest in Britain a few years ago. Riggs was also caught up in a scandal involving the Saudi amassador Prince Bandar, and it was just announced that it will be merging with another bank.

July 5, 2004 Political violence is getting worse in Peru, and there are signs that the long-subdued terrorist movement Shining Path is instigating some of it. Several people were injured and a tourist hotel was set on fire in the highland city of Ayacucho. As with the protest march we witnessed in Cuzco in March, the far-left-wing teachers' union SUTEP has taken a leading role in the disturbances.

June 9, 2004 Latin American communists have heaped scorn on the late Ronald Reagan, the defender of Freedom who once tormented them. An announcer on the state-controlled Cuban radio declared "The one who never should have been born has died," adding that he was a warmonger and the "father of the homeless," among other insults. Former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Party, adopted a more pious though still bilious tone, lamenting Reagan's death but accusing him of committing crimes, apparently referring to Reagan's policy of supporting the Contras. Ortega concluded by saying, "may God pardon him." What is most galling is that such sentiments seem to be widespread in Latin America these days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped in Mexico on his way to the G-8 summit on the coast of Georgia. He signed agreements with President Fox that will pave the way for building a new factory in Mexico to produce Russian-designed military equipment. Is Mr. Fox trying to get President Bush's attention?

June 3, 2004 In Venezuela, the National Elections Council ruled that sufficient petition signatures have been validated in order for the recall referendum against President Hugo Chavez to go forward. The constitution stipulated that signatures of 20 percent of the electorate were necessary for such a referendum to be held. It will be interesting to see whether Chavez lives up to his promise to abide by democratic norms.

May 26, 2004 Venezuela is about to begin the process of verifying signatures on the long-delayed recall referendums -- one of which seeks to remove Hugo Chavez, and the other his opponents in Congress. An op-ed signed by Hugo Chavez himself appeared in today's Washington Post, along with an editorial that pretty much scoffs at Chavez's claims. He says he is ready and willing to allow the recall referendum to go ahead, as if all those months of heavy-handed obstructionism never happened:

To be frank, I hope that my opponents have gathered enough signatures to trigger a referendum, because I relish the opportunity to once again win the people's mandate.
But it is not up to me. To underscore my commitment to the rule of law, my supporters and I have publicly and repeatedly pledged to abide by the results of that transparent process, whatever the results may be.

"Rule of law"??? Coming from a former coup leader who has not hesitated to use force and intimidation against his opponents, such pious boasting is truly scary. So just what was the point the Post was trying to make by giving Chavez (or his ghostwriter) a platform? It would be interesting to see the negotiations involved whenever controversial political actors are given access to the op-ed page. More background on this lengthy dispute can be found at the Carter Center, which has been very active in seeking a pacific solution to the bitter standoff.

Nearly a thousand people have died from flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. When such extreme death tolls occur in the Third World, however, it just doesn't seem merit front page coverage in the American news media. It's that same veil of ignorance about what is happening in the rest of the world that contributes to our country's low prestige worldwide, and which makes teaching global issues courses so difficult.

May 25, 2004 In Peru, army and police units are patrolling the town of Ilave, where the mayor was lynched by an angry mob in late April. It would appear that the discontent I witnessed in the protest in Cuzco in early March (see photo HERE) is real, deep, and widely felt. President Toledo's approval ratings have sunk into the single digits again, and the national mood seems to be despondent.

Apr. 2, 2004 In Peru, the railroad line between Cuzco and Machu Picchu (which Jacqueline and I rode on less than a month ago) was closed for a few days because of mudslides. That is the only way into Machu Picchu, which is Peru's biggest tourist attraction, and helicopters were used to ferry passengers over the closed stretch of railway. I saw some televised images of the twisted rails and washed-away railbed, and couldn't believe that they were able to repair it so quickly.

Mar. 3, 2004 This will be the last posting to this Web site for the next two weeks or so, as Jacqueline and I are headed to the southern hemisphere for spring break! After we return, prepare to be blown away by exotic tales of adventure and awesome photos from the Land of the Incas!

To me, it's rather ironic that the first time I went to Peru nearly ten years ago, the United States had just used armed force to restore Jean Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti, whereas this time our government has just taken the lead in encrouaging him to pack up and leave. Uncle Sam installeth, Uncle Sam removeth from power... Aristide's claim that he was in effect "kidnapped" by American soldiers, however, would appear utterly ludricrous, which would confirm the conventional impression that he is an irresponsible and highly deluded man.

While our attention was distracted by events in Haiti, opponents of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela turned violent once again. Army troops fired on demonstrators in Caracas who were trying to disrupt the summit meeting of the Group of 15 nations, which represent Third World interests in various international forums. The Venezuelan election commission ruled by a slim majority that too many of the signatures on the recall petition were questionable, halting the process once again. The matter has not been definitively resolved, however, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in Peru, the association of truck drivers just called off a strike that had severely curtailed the supply of food and fuel to the capital city, Lima, for almost a week. Just in time for our arrival! The government has apparently responded to their demands for a "minimum freight charge" and lower taxes on fuel. It was a very aggressive gesture that illustrates, once again, the weakness of President Toledo.

Feb. 29, 2004 After increasingly blunt hints from the United States (and others) that stepping down would be in the best interests of the Haitian people, President Aristide finally fled into exile in Morocco early this morning, leaving a brief written statement to be read by his vice president. It seemed odd that Aristide failed to make a farewell speech to give his supporters guidance on how to receive the new government, but he's always been an odd man. Rebel leader Guy Philippe appeared on TV for the first time today, and he came across as a reasonable person. We'll see... For its part, the Bush administration handled this situation better than it did when Venezuelan opposition leaders tried to overthrow President Hugo Chavez in April 2001, but that earlier episode still undermines U.S. credibility. France has expressed interest in the deteriorating situation in its former colony, and this would be an excellent opportunity to heal the trans-Atlantic breach and pursue peacekeeping under multilateral auspices.

Feb. 25, 2004 Neither President Aristide nor the rebel leaders are willing to compromise, and the conflict has turned into a "winner take all" situation. Aristide is relying on armed militias to defend his government, as the remaining police forces in Port-au-Prince seem to be disintegrating. The French government is calling for an international peacekeeping mission. Indeed, why not?

Feb. 21, 2004In Haiti, armed rebels have regained the momentum, forcing the police to retreat from the streets of several cities. On Thursday, the OAS held an emergency session, and nearly all members made the ritualistic call to uphold constitutional norms, which mean virtually nothing in Haiti. I watched most of the speeches on CSPAN-2, and the U.S. ambassador was almost alone in criticizing incumbent President Aristide for his abuse of power, which has left opponents with no peaceful outlet for dissent. My initial impression that the whole thing was hatched by the old elite seems to have been wrong; in fact, virtually the entire middle class has turned against Aristide. Today Aristide agreed to meet with opponents, so a bloodbath may yet be averted.

Feb. 16, 2004 In Peru, the approval rating of President Toledo has fallen even further, and is now in the single digits. The political crisis has reached the point where the OAS foreign ministers felt it necessary to issue a proclamation in support of democracy in Peru. Apparently, this is because there are veiled rumors of a coup. I saw ex-President Alan Garcia on TV criticizing the Toledo government while acting as statesmanlike as possible, as he prepares the way for a triumphant return to power -- one way or another. The Peruvian economy remains in relatively good shape, ironically. Meanwhile, Chile has finally responded to Bolivia's call for talks on the old ocean access issue. In Haiti, opponents of President Aristide seized control of a few towns last week, but police forces seem to have regained control. Pro-Aristide crowds used burning barricades to intimidate the opposition.

Feb. 6, 2004 In Peru, [first] Vice President Raul Diez Canseco resigned because of a scandal involving influence-peddling and favoritism. This is yet another big blow to the political fortunes of the hapless President Toledo. It's also rather sad, since the late former President Belaunde told me in an interview several years ago that Diez Canseco (his nephew) was a fine, well qualified leader. Peru and Bolivia seemed to have calmed down compared to a few months ago, while both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have erupted in large-scale violence in recent days. Stay tuned... Also, Chile has reacted defensively to Bolivia's latest push for a concession of land on the Pacific Ocean, which Chile conquered in 1879. President Lagos has begun a diplomatic public relations campaign to explain his country's (rather intransigent) position.

Jan. 12, 2004 President Bush is in Monterrey, Mexico attending an emergency "Summit of the Americas." (Hence the update to the Latin America section of this Web site, after a SIX-month delay!!) These summits are normally every other year, and the next one had been scheduled for 2005, but in light of recent crises in Bolivia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, it was decided to hold a special meeting. Mr. Bush has come out with a proposed immigration reform program, after many months of intensive lobbying for such a move by his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox. Attracting Latino votes is certainly part of Bush's political calculations, but it has much more to do with garnering cooperation from Latin countries in the war on terrorism. The extremely porous southern border constitutes one of this country's biggest security weaknesses.

One of the recent security-related measures is that persons visiting from certain parts of the world are now required to have their fingerprints taken upon entering the United States. Since this does not apply to "white" countries in Europe, however, it has caused great affront in Latin America. Last week a Brazilian judge ordered visiting Americans to be subjected to the same measures. Though it may seem to be a mere fit of pique, this was yet another sign of the mounting resentment against Yankee "imperialists" south of the border, exemplified by protests in places like Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Fortunately, Brazil's leftist President "Lula" da Silva continues to act with restraint and has declined to pander to anti-American sentiment, to the immense relief of capitalists in Brazil and throughout Latin America. So far, fears that the radicalism of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez might become "contagious" have not come to pass. (Chavez, by the way, has managed to outwit his opponents thus far, blaming the U.S. for all his country's ills, and his supporters have launched a recall campaign against opposition legislators in response to the recall campaign against Chavez. The last few months have seen incessant arguments over the validity of the signatures on the recall petitions.)

As for the merits of the immigration proposal itself, there are worrisome signs that it fails to address the painful dilemmas that few political leaders of either party are willing to acknowledge. Indeed, could our economy even run without all the cheap menial labor provided by the millions of folks who are, in effect, indentured servants? Afraid that mass upward mobility will eventually deprive them of a majority electorate, Democrats want a new pool of prospective voters. Republicans, in contrast, tolerate undocumented workers because they are afraid that, given all the government-mandated fringe benefits such as health insurance, the U.S. cost of living would soar and corporate profits would plummet if American businesses had to hire 100% legal laborers. Given the hypercompetitive nature of contemporary American politics, the inattentiveness of the American public (who are accustomed to having it both ways and tend to resent suggestions to the contrary), and the consequent scant incentives for any political leaders to expose themselves to the political risks of real immigration reform, a continuation of the status quo is all but certain.