News, links and observations about Latin America from Times correspondents

Posted in Latin America | 15-Jun-07 | Source: Los Angeles Times

Venezuela, Panama seize cocaine shipments

It was a good weekend for counter-narcotics officials in Venezuela and Panama.

The Venezuelans seized 2.5 tons of cocaine Saturday on Margarita Island, 200 miles east of Caracas, as it was being loaded onto a DC-8 bound for Sierra Leone.

West Africa has become a lively hub for Colombian cocaine bound for Europe, where one-third of the powder is now thought to be consumed.

Venezuela has been criticized for lax anti-drug enforcement, as shipments of cocaine and heroin have skyrocketed since Venezuela and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency stopped cooperating in August 2005.

Among the nine arrested were 4 Venezuelan police officials who were caught helping load the drugs onto the aircraft. One Sierra Leone national and one U.S. citizen were also detained.

Meanwhile the Panamanians seized 1.6 tons of coke in two weekend operations. Most of it was found under the false bottom of a boat stopped off the Pacific island of Coiba, where in March the U.S. Coast Guard helped Panamanian police make one of the biggest maritime busts in history, seizing 20 tons of cocaine on its way to the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Four Colombians were arrested in last weekend’s two Panamanian raids.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

Buenos Aires: the new New York for Coppola

Sightings of Francis Ford Coppola with black beret and flowing green scarf have been reported in the trendier precincts of Buenos Aires.

The renowned director is in town during the chilly southern hemisphere autumn preparing for his latest project, Tetro, an autobiographical saga about an artistic family descendent from Italian immigrants (not unlike Coppola’s).

Buenos Aires, with its vast Italian immigrant heritage, will substitute for Coppola’s native New York.

The film, scheduled to be shot in Buenos Aires and environs next year, stars Matt Dillon, who collaborated with Coppola in the 1980s films The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.

The Argentina press reported that the Spanish actor Javier Bardem will co-star, while Coppola was contemplating local casting for a female lead.

The legendary director of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation is said to have purchased a two-story boutique hotel in the upscale Palermo district, reportedly as a base for a new Zoetrope Argentina to oversee the Tetro production. Meantime, the noted vinter and bon vivant can sample the capital’s gastronomic delights.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires

Ecuador leader: just say 'no' to Microsoft

A political leader in the Western hemisphere is making an aggressive push for his country to become a global leader in technololgical self-sufficiency, but it’s not George W. Bush or Hugo Chavez. It’s Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s controversial president, best-known to many Americans for his intention to set a socialist political course for his country, and for his at-times harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy.

Now Correa is pushing his fellow citizens to embrace the use of free software “on a public and private level” as a way to “guarantee the sovereignty of our states.”

“We will depend on our own efforts, and not on the external forces of the region,” Correa announced over his presidential video channel. “We will be producers of technology, and not simple consumers. We will be the owners of the source codes, and we can develop many products that can, with cooperation of this effort, be very useful to public and private companies in the region.”

There’s some interesting, well-informed buzz on the blogosphere at Harvard’s Global Voices Online. While one blogger points out the apparent irony of Correa “paint[ing] a layer of nationalist rhetoric onto the benefits of open-source software,” another commentator responds that adopting free software is a smart way for developing nations to generate domestic job growth and create software tailored to local needs, while avoiding being stigmatized as software pirates.

Posted by Reed Johnson in Mexico City

Hold the boliche, comrades

The Cuban and U.S. governments may have little in common but the people of both countries do: their waistlines.

A study by two prominent Cuban health institutes found 30% of the island’s men and 31% of its women are overweight, with a quarter of the 11.2 million population trending toward obesity.

Cuban health officials blamed the expanding problem on poor diet, lack of exercise and spending too much time in front of televisions and computers - familiar themes in El Norte.

Results of the study by the Nutrition and Food Safety Institute and the Hygiene and Epidemiology Institute were published by the Juventud Rebelde newspaper, which has been tackling some of Cuba’s most pressing with unprecedented candor in recent months.

Those most susceptible to obesity, the health institutes found, were Cubans in their 50s. The study focused on urban Cubans, who account for 76% of the population, because those in the countryside have a less sedentary lifestyle and better access to affordable produce.

"We have vegetables and fruits all year, but they are very expensive," endocrinologist Malicela Barcelo told the newspaper. Urban farmers markets are among the few venues where suppliers can set their own prices.

Posted by Carol Williams in Miami

"Hand of God" deja vu for Argentine fans

The young Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi has often been compared to the legendary Maradona, long retired. But last weekend fans of the Spanish club Espanyol weren’t especially pleased when Messi, playing for rival Barcelona, seemed to take a page out of Maradona’s play-book and scored what appeared to be a hand goal in a close Spanish League match.

Some immediately recalled Maradona’s famed "hand of God" score that helped lift Argentina past England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. British fans still fume at what they label a blatant hand goal, though Maradona said afterwards it must have been a divine limb that intervened in Argentina’s favor. Maradona remains reviled by many in England.

Messi later netted a second, clean goal, thus accounting for both of Barcelona’s scores. But the 2-2 final ultimately left Messi’s powerful Barcelona squad tied with Real Madrid going into the final weekend of league play. Messi, disappointed his club didn’t prevail, had little to say afterwards.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andrés D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires

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Soda Stereo is coming back, or so it seems...

The Argentine rock band, one of the most successful Latin America groups of the 1980s and 1990s, is poised for a comeback a decade after its breakup, Argentine media report. Definitive word on an upcoming tour is expected within days, but the exact details remain "the best-guarded secret of Spanish-speaking rock," reports Pagina 12, a Buenos Aires daily.

The trio includes Gustavo Cerati (guitarist/vocalist), Zeta Bosio (bass) and Charly Alberti (drummer). It emerged in the 1980s amid the cultural opening that accompanied the end of Argentina's military dictatorship. The group, influenced by bands such as the Police and Talking Heads, incorporated diverse musical styles. It became a runaway favorite throughout Latin America and among Latinos in the United States. Soda Stereo broke up in 1997 amid personal and artistic differences. The group played its last gig on Sept. 20, 1997, at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires at the end of a farewell tour that took it as far away as Mexico. The three rockers have since pursued separate careers. The best known, Cerati, has enjoyed solo success and has been on tour throughout Latin America, the United States and Europe in the past two years.

Rumors of a possible comeback have been circulating for months, and the news that a return was imminent caused a commotion among fans and rock aficionados in Latin America.

Soda Stereo on YouTube.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell and Andres D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires.

Uribe's gambit

With the Colombian government’s release this week of leftist rebel leader Rodrigo Granda at the urging of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, many are waiting to see whether the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will reciprocate. Among its hostages are former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship. The expectation in Colombia is that Sarkozy had an assurance from FARC intermediaries that Granda’s release would spring Betancourt. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has said there was no strict quid pro quo involved in the release of Granda, who is being given his freedom along with 190 other rebel prisoners.

FARC also holds three U.S. defense contractor employees, Betancourt’s campaign manager, Clara Rojas and Rojas’ 3-year old child, who was born in captivity. But others say Uribe’s gesture already has gained him points. At Sarkozy’s prodding, the G8 summit of world leaders hailed the prisoner release as “audacious and brave.” Uribe has long campaigned for European financial assistance for Colombia’s anti-drug war, a goal that is taking on more urgency now as the United States begins to wind down Plan Colombia. Large amounts of money are needed to help pay the costs of reinserting thousands of demobilized paramilitary soldiers and leftist rebels back into Colombian society and to fund alternative crop programs for coca farmers. The G8 statement offers Uribe hope that that aid might now be forthcoming.

Granda held a press conference Friday reiterating that he might act as intermediary in a hostage release negotiation, but said he first needed permission from the FARC command. “An exchange is imperative but I won’t perform any miracles,” he told families of the hostages. “Don’t get your hopes up. You have to be patient. “He also said he had nothing to do with the kidnapping and death of Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of a former president of Paraguay. That country wants to question Granda in connection with her death.

Posted by Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota

Support for RCTV

Students aren’t the only ones protesting the disappearance of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, from Venezuela’s airwaves on May 27 after President Hugo Chavez declined to renew the station’s license. Word has filtered out that on June 1 a group of cadets at Venezuela’s naval academy in La Guaira began chanting “Liberty, liberty, liberty” in between classes, in a show of support for the channel. Chavez reportedly met with the naval command on Tuesday to discuss how widespread the cadets’ sentiment is at the academy.

Meanwhile, in Caracas on Thursday a delegation of students presented a petition to the National Assembly asserting their right to free expression. But when Chavista members of congress proposed a debate, the student delegation left the hall, saying the right of free speech was “non-negotiable.” Diosdado Cabello, the Chavista governor of Miranda state, had a different take on the meeting. “They left with their tails between their legs,” he said.

In a gesture of solidarity, Globovision, the only remaining Venezuelan commercial TV network with national reach, said it would broadcast RCTV’s popular news program called “The Observer.” Caracol of Colombia is also broadcasting selected RCTV programs. RCTV denied rumors it might leave Venezuela and set up studios in another country. The channel continues to produce its popular telenovelas, which are sold throughout Latin America.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota