Costa Rica scenic photos
UPDATE: I've just posted a batch of thirty nine (39!) scenic photos from Costa Rica. For the first time, I have used specialized software (Graphic Converter by Lemke Software, GmbH, to be precise) to create thumbnail images that are links to full-size photo versions. That way, you can get a good overview of our trip without having to wait an eternity for all the photos to load, and you can pick and choose the ones you want to see better.
Bolivia in turmoil again
After several weeks of escalating protests, President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation on Monday, but this turned out to be a ploy aimed at rebuilding political support. In an emergency session last night (Tuesday), the Bolivian Congress unanimously rejected the offer. Mesa had set conditions for staying in office, specifically that his political opponents support the restoration of order in the streets of the capital city. Most political parties realized that if they don't support Mesa, democratic authority would wither and the country would teeter on the brink of anarchy.
To understand these events and what possible grievances might be motivating the protesters, it is important to put Bolivia in the context of the continent-wide upsurge of indigenous political activism that began in the 1990s and is still gathering momentum. President Mesa assumed power in October 2003 after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, resigned after a similar wave of violent protests. On that occasion, the protesters were complaining about the proposed exports of natural gas via a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean. That would have been a very lucrative enterprise for Bolivia, but many radicals and indigenous rights advocates are so deeply suspicious of private enterprise and foreigners that the potential benefits meant nothing to them. The main complaint this time is lack of water service in the slum service of El Alto, near the La Paz airport. As in Peru elsewhere in Latin America, water utilities have been privatized in recent years in order to improve efficiency, but the French company running the water works in La Paz has not satisfied the many poor customers.
There is no question that much of the impetus behind the protests of the last two years comes from Evo Morales, leader of the "Movement Toward Socialism" party that represents coca growers. Growing coca for domestic use and pharmaceutical purposes is perfectly legal in Bolivia, so the demands for abolishing restrictions on coca cultivation amount to a blatant bid to legalize large-scale commercial coca sales to narcotics traffickers. If Bolivia went down that path, American interests would be seriously affected, and the Bush administration would have little choice but to enact stiff punitive sanctions. In the face of greed backed by violence (though cloaked in the garb of social justice), the Bolivian government really has no room to negotiate with the coca lobby.
Miguel Centellas (via Randy Paul) points out that Bolivia's armed forces have taken a strong stand in defense of democracy and constitutional authority. Such a transformation from their old habit of constant interference in civilian politics, via coups and subtle intimidation, is one of the few positive trends in Latin America recently.
Free trade falters in Guatemala
Protesters succeeded in forcing a delay in the scheduled vote by the Guatemalan Congress on whether to ratify the CAFTA free-trade agreement between Central America and the United States that was signed last spring. Conservative President Oscar Berger rejects the proposal to put the ratification question to a nationwide referendum. Army troops have been mobilized in case the protesters return to lay siege to the Congress again. There have also been protests against CAFTA in Honduras, and I observed many signs of opposition to it when I was in Costa Rica and Nicaragua recently.
Inauguration in Uruguay
Tabare Vazquez, a member of a leftist party that has never before held power, was sworn in as the country's new president on Tuesday. One of his first officials acts was signing a food-for-oil agreement with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Nevertheless, he is expected to shun radicalism and follow the example of Brazil's "Lula" da Silva, a pragmatic leftist who has had some success during his first two years in office.
In the Dominican Republic, 120 inmates died in a prison riot that sparked a fire that got out of control. As with similar recent incidents in Central America, turf wars between rival gangs were the cause. In most Latin American prisons, police don't try to control what goes on inside the prison walls, so gangs often fill the role of guards, obviously preferential. Overcrowding is a big part of the problem.
I've begun another overhaul of the Latin America pages on this site. Background material formerly included on the main Latin America page has been moved to the Latin America culture or Latin America war pages.