News, links and observations about Latin America from Times correspondents

Posted in Latin America | 24-Aug-07 | Source: Los Angeles Times

Fashion police can cop Pinochet threads

Fancy an old dictator’s threads? The son of late Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet has put up for sale some of his dad’s former wardrobe, the Chilean daily La Tercera reports.

Pinochet’s eldest son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart, said the collection includes "street clothes without historic significance: suits and old jackets that my father gave to me."

There are none of the garishly teutonic uniforms from "emblematic or special moments," nor anything dad wore while in custody on human rights charges in London during 1998-2000.

A Santiago tailor is said to be offering the collection, discreetly. Why the son needs the cash remains unclear, since papá allegedly stashed away millions in secret funds for his family.

The infamous captain general, who died last December at 91, was finicky about his look, even ordering an extra-big hat size so his chapeau would rise above those of inferior rank.

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

Sunday drivers still OK in Mexico City

Mexico City’s air quality is so putrid that city officials are proposing banning the capital’s car owners from using their vehicles for one Saturday per month.

The plan would be an extension of the so-called Hoy No Circula (roughly, Don't Drive Today) program that requires vehicles 10 years of age or older to stay parked for one working day per week.

The latest proposal, which would apply to all but the newest cars, adds Saturday to the list. It is being hailed by environmentalists as a needed weapon in Mexico City’s fight to breathe easier. Cars and trucks are the capital’s single largest source of air pollution.

But some critics are dubious of the benefits of a Saturday ban, which could lead to more cars, rather than fewer. Why? When Hoy No Circula began in 1989, it prompted many capital dwellers to buy second cars to drive while their old heaps sat idle for a day, according to Sergio Sarmiento, a political analyst and columnist with the national daily Reforma.

Saturday is a prime day for Mexico City residents to run errands or to escape the concrete jungle. If the city’s plan becomes law, many might be tempted to buy used junkers so they can keep on trucking on the weekends.

Posted by Marla Dickerson in Mexico City

Grim reaper gets some flesh in Mexico City

Death just isn't what it used to be, the Associated Press reports.

The Death Saint, once represented by a skeletal grim reaper, has been given a makeover by devotees in Mexico. It's now embodied by a beatific woman in a flowing gold dress.

The group that worships in the Santa Muerte sanctuary in the rough Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City has denied that the new image is related to its struggle for government recognition.

David Romo, the Traditional Mex-USA Church's archbishop, told the Associated Press that the new incarnation of the saint appeared to a woman in a dream in December. The apparition reportedly instructed the dreamer to ask Romo to commission a new statue.

A new documentary on the cult, "La Santa Muerte," written, produced and directed by Eva Aridjis, was shown at the L.A. Film Festival recently.

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan in Los Angeles

Mexican governor says no to condoms

Jalisco Gov. Emilio Gonzalez wasn’t happy about the Condom Fair staged Sunday by his own health department to combat AIDS/HIV in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.

Volunteers gave away information pamphlets and condoms.

"Why only condoms?" he later fumed to local reporters. "Maybe we should be giving out six-packs and motel vouchers so the government can pay for all the young people’s fun. I don’t think so."

A day later, Gonzalez thought he’d better clarify his position after critics howled: "AIDS is the result of promiscuity, not not using condoms," he said. Instead of promoting condoms, he added, the government ought to be "promoting sexual abstinence among youth and fidelity among couples."

Posted by Cecilia Sanchez and Sam Enriquez in Mexico City

Bolivia, the Switzerland of South America?

Bolivian President Evo Morales has experts shaking their heads about his bold prediction that Bolivia, generally regarded as South America’s poorest nation, ``could become Switzerland in the next, 10, 15, 20 years.’’

The Daily La Razón promptly ran a chart illustrating some of the differences, like Switzerland’s almost $400 billion GNP, beside Bolivia's $11 billion, and Switzerland's top-10 rank in per capita income beside Bolivia's ranking of 115.

Bolivia does have some advantages: it’s more than 20 times larger than Switzerland and has vast deposits of natural gas and other resources.

The two disparate nations share a landlocked status. But Morales hopes to work out a deal with long-time nemesis Chile for a sea corridor, possibly in exchange for gas sales. But the sea-lane-for-gas notion remains in the realm of the theory.

``The president must have a magic formula,’’ concluded Napoleon Pacheco, an economist.

Others gave the president credit for thinking big. ``If we accept the challenge, it’s very interesting, said Gonzalo Chavez, another economist. ``Very positive.’’

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

Jamaican Anglicans irie with the rasta hymns

Jamaican reggae pioneers Bob Marley and Peter Tosh may have worshipped a different divinity than their countrymen of the Anglican Church but the believers of both faiths will soon be singing from the same songbooks.

In a move aimed at celebrating the late Rastafarian artists’ contributions to Caribbean culture and spirituality, the Anglican Church of Jamaica has announced that it will include Marley’s “One Love” and Tosh’s “Psalm 27” in a modernized collection of hymnals soon to be printed and distributed throughout the island.

“They may have been anti-church, but they were not anti-God or anti-religion,” Anglican Church spokesman Rev. Ernle Gordon said in announcing the first inclusion of reggae songs in mainstream religious materials.

Marley, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, died in 1981 at age 36 after refusing surgical treatment to remove cancerous tissue, in accordance with Rastafarian belief that the body should remain whole. Tosh was killed in a botched robbery attempt at his home in 1987.

Posted by Carol Williams in Miami

Koala girls prove unbearable to Chilean legislators

No more koala hugs in the halls of the Chilean Congress. Please.

“It is not the role of the Parliament to be doing koala dances,” Sen. Eduardo Frei admonished his colleagues. “We’re here to do other things.”

This rebuke followed an embarrassing infiltration into the congressional sanctum by several scantily clad and stiletto-heeled dancers of “Team Koala,” whose impromptu hugs and hip shakes are featured on Chilean television.

One artiste leaped into the arms of a smiling Congressman Manuel Rojas, whose photos with the cavorting lovelies ignited a scandal.

“I did nothing wrong,” protested Rojas.

Outraged Chilean legislators, not particularly known for their collective sense of humor, are considering new access limits.

“Congress is the place where the laws of the Republic are created,” one lawmaker told El Mecurio. “It merits a certain solemnity and respect.”

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

Brazil president brushes off boos

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has had it with the boos already. But he’s trying to be philosophical.

"God made us perfect, with two ears, one to hear jeers and the other to hear applause," Lula mused this week. "Boos and applause are two moments of human reaction."

Catcalls and hisses have greeted the chief executive in recent weeks, notably at the opening of the Pan-American games three weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro’ storied Maracanã stadium. Lula compared his Rio rebuff to arriving at a friend’s birthday party, only to find he wasn’t welcome.

``I’m certain that’s not the way people in Rio de Janeiro think,’’ Lula said.

More boos followed his government’s widely perceived mishandling of the country’s air-travel scare, brought on by the July 17 crash that killed 199 people at Congonhas international airport in Sao Paulo.

From the perspective of Lula and many of his supporters, the jeers largely come from prosperous Brazilians who have never warmed to Brazil’s first working-class president, despite his fiscally conservative economic policies that have helped make many rich.

``Those who are booing,’’ said Lula, ``are the ones with the most reason to applaud.’’

-- Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires

Can you hear me now? Then pay up.

Reuters reports that a growing number of Colombian mobile telephone users are being scammed by criminals posing as phone operators.

The bogus callers instruct the users to turn off their phone for two hours. The con artists then call the user's family to report that their loved-one has been kidnapped, and instruct them about where to drop off the ransom before the two-hour deadline expires, Reuters reports.

Needless to say, the scam only works if the relative doesn't have a home phone and isn't nearby. But many poor residents in Latin America don't have home telephone service, and get by with inexpensive cell phones and pay cards.

Posted by Geoffrey Mohan in Los Angeles

Buenos Aires pays homage to Bergman

The passing of Ingmar Bergman has unleashed a global wave of appreciation for the work of the Swedish film director, whose impact on international cinema was far-reaching. On its cover Tuesday, the Buenos Aires daily Pagina/12 said Bergman had left an ``indelible’’ mark on Argentine culture.

Cartoonist Daniel Paz chose a tribute from Bergman’s art-house classic, The Seventh Seal, which featured a medieval knight in plague-wracked Europe trying to outwit Death in a chess match.

``Checkmate, Ingmar,’’ declares the black-hooded reaper below the headline announcing Bergman’s death.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires

"Indian" remark causes flap in Argentina

"How could this Indian be a diplomat?"

Celima Torrico, Bolivia’s justice minister, said she overheard an Argentine immigration official use this expression of incredulity when she presented her credentials upon arriving at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires. An appointee of President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous chief of state, Torrico is a Quechua Indian who favors indigenous-style dress.

The episode of alleged discriminatory behavior hit the Bolivian and Argentine press in recent days, prompting embarrassed Argentine officials to vow an inquiry. Torrico had traveled to Buenos Aires to participate in an event about the status of Bolivian immigrants, who often toil in sweat-shops and other low-wage jobs in Argentina.

Reports of bigotry against Latin America’s indigenous minority are an extremely sensitive matter. Bolivia has one of the Americas’ highest proportion of indigenous residents, and President Morales, an Aymara Indian, has championed indigenous rights and customs. In Argentina, as in the United States, Indian populations were decimated and European immigrants and their descendants became dominant.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires

Fujimori loses election bid in Japan

The Lima daily La República labeled Sunday’s Japanese election results a ``humiliating defeat’’ for ex-President Alberto Fujimori.

The self-designated ``last samurai,’’ free on bail in neighboring Chile pending an extradition request from Peru, failed in his absentee bid to win a Senate seat in far-off Japan. Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, holds Japanese and Peruvian citizenship.

``I couldn’t conduct my campaign and that resulted in a lamentable ending,’’ Fujimori told Japanese reporters in Santiago.

The long-distance senate campaign was widely seen among critics a ploy for Fujimori to gain diplomatic immunity and thus sidestep extradition back to Peru, where he is wanted for human rights and corruption counts arising from his tumultuous presidency (1990-2000). Fujimori fled to Japan after being implicated in a bribery scandal, but he has denied any wrongdoing.

In 2005, Fujimori traveled to Chile in the quixotic hope of launching a new political career in Peru. That move backfired: Fujimori was arrested in Santiago at the behest of Peruvian authorities.

A Chilean judge ruled this month that Lima had provided insufficient evidence to justify extradition. But Peru’s government is appealing.

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

U.S. to boost bedside manner in Latin America

The United States is stepping up its Latin American “medical diplomacy” in a bid to counteract the influence of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, whose free medical care to the poor in Central and South American have won them ardent supporters.

The U.S. doubled its operations in Panama this year, and on June 15 sent the USNS Comfort, a military hospital ship, on a 12-nation tour. So far, the ship’s medical staff has seen 55,465 patients in Belize, Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua. It will soon call on ports in Colombia, Haiti, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

The ship’s medical staff has performed 274 surgeries and 9,102 dental procedures, dispensed 24,129 orders for pharmaceuticals, and given out 5,304 pairs of eyeglasses, according to the U.S. Military's Southern Command.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

No bodies, no answers in Colombia

The Organization of American States announced Friday it will form an international forensic commission to investigate the killings last month of 11 Colombian legislators held hostage by leftist guerillas since 2002.

The lawmakers were reportedly killed in a clash with an unidentified military group, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said. One legislator survived the alleged confrontation.

President Alvaro Uribe denied that the victims died in a bungled rescue attempt by Colombian forces, saying there were no such military operation on June 18, the date the rebels said the clash occurred.

Since then, the FARC has apologized for the deaths and promised to return the bodies. But a month later, there is still no sign of the victims’ remains.

Colombians are keen to find out whether the killings show evidence of a military crossfire, or, as Uribe insists, summary execution.

The OAS said the forensic commission would begin work as soon as the bodies are found.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

Buzz over Chilean icon's private papers

She was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1945), though today her fellow Chilean poet (and former student) Pablo Neruda has wider international fame.

But Gabriela Mistral remains an icon, her stern visage adorning Chile’s 5,000 peso note. Now, the Chilean literary world is abuzz with news of the imminent opening of Mistral’s long-closed archive, sealed for 50 years in the United States (where she died in 1957).

As many as 300 unpublished poems are found Mistral’s voluminous private papers, Luis Vargas Saavedra, a professor at Catholic University in Chile, told the daily El Mercurio, outlining plans for a new book. The archive also contains correspondence, photographs, tapes, prose pieces and other papers of Mistral (born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga), who was also a noted educator, prolific journalist and longtime Chilean diplomat.

An agreement has been reached to return the originals to Chile and make copies available to researchers.

"This really means we’re going to have to sit back and reconsider Mistral’s entire career,’’ said Elizabeth Horan, a Mistral expert at Arizona State University who is working on a new biography.

Horan is also co-editor of a collection of letters between Mistral and Victoria Ocampo, the late Argentine literary figure and feminist, that is to be published in Buenos Aires in October.

Posted by Patrick J. McDonnell in Buenos Aires

Guatemalan candidate faces ungodly fight

Alvaro Colom wants you to know that he is not the devil.

Colom, the candidate of the center-left National Unity for Hope, is leading in the polls ahead of Guatemala's Sept. 9 presidential election. His detractors have been sending mass emails with PowerPoint presentations that show him dressed as the devil, pointing out that Colom spelled backward is Moloc, the Prince of Hell in Christian mythology (in English more commonly spelled Moloch).

After countless Internet megabytes, and with the rumors spreading in the Guatemalan media, Colom finally decided to fight back this week. In a press release entitled "Clarification to the People of Guatemala," Colom states: "I ask the people of Guatemala not to take seriously the acusations against my person, since I am not, nor do I represent, the devil, or Satan. Nor am I the evil biblical god Moloc. I am Alvaro Colom, a Mayan priest who aspires to lead Guatemala as your president."

Yes, Colom is the rare non-Mayan initiated as a Mayan priest. This happened a couple of decades ago. He keeps an altar at his home, where he burns incense with "the sacred fire of nature." In his press release, Colom acknowledges that his Mayan altar might be one source of the rumors. "If these offerings and rituals were diabolical or evil, do you think I would expose my wife and children to damnation and diabolical forces, or to the punishment of Our Lord God, just as the Bible warns us? Of course not!"

Posted by Héctor Tobar in Mexico City

Colombia's new export: Chinese immigrants?

Colombia saw a huge increase in Chinese visitors earlier this year after it suspended visa requirements for Chinese tourists: 5,589, more than five times the 2006 entry tally.

That's a a troubling sign for U.S. immigration officials concerned about "trampoline" countries funneling illegal immigrants to the United States.

The Colombian government found that significant numbers of the Chinese who entered vanished with no record of having left the country through official channels. Many others were found crammed a dozen to a room in suburban Bogota hotels, apparently in preparation for being smuggled to the United States.

Some of the well-heeled "tourists" had paid $60,000 to be brought to Colombia, with assurances it was a way station to the United States, according to an official with the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia’s FBI equivalent.

The smugglers sometimes promised to provide the Chinese visitors with fake Japanese passports to facilitate entry into the United States.

So far this year, Colombia has deported 300 Chinese, up from 37 all of last year. And it recently began requiring Chinese to apply for visas. The flow of` “tourists” has fallen accordingly.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

Colombian paramilitaries may end confessions

The Colombian peace process hit a speed bump this week when dozens of paramilitary leaders threatened to cease all public confessions and reparations to victims, two of the three conditions that form the basis of the 2003 demobilization pact they signed with President Alvaro Uribe.

The militia leaders, most of whom are holed up in a Colombian prison, began confessing last year to their numerous crimes, including mass murder, election fraud and extortion, in expectation they would later receive lenient sentences. But now they are balking, claiming that the Uribe is imposing more stringent terms.

Critics say the paramilitaries have made limited confessions and paltry reparations to their victims. Four years into the process, only 5,000 acres of land have been surrendered, out of the hundreds of thousands of acres the paramilitiaries are alleged to have illegally appropriated, according to Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper. In addition, an official reparation fund has received three cars, 152 head of cattle and two horses. The number of registered victims eligible to receive reparations now totals 70,000.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

Colombian rebel groups blasted for land mine use

Colombian rebels’ increased use of landmines in the country’s civil war came under fire Wednesday in a report issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The report, titled “Maiminig the People,” noted that civilian casualties, especially among children, are rising: 314 civilians were killed, maimed or blinded in 2006 by the devices, up from 66 in 2000.

The two biggest users of the anti-personnel mines are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the report said. Paramilitary groups also are known to stockpile the devices.

The Colombian military, wich is party to a 1997 international accord banning land mines, says it does not use the devices. Troops suffered nearly 800 casualties from land mines last year, according to HRW.

ELN spokesman Francisco Galan told HRW in an interview that “international humanitarian law” does not apply to his group.

The report also slammed the Colombian government for failing to provide education, training and social services to landmine victims, many of whom live on welfare.

Posted by Chris Kraul in Bogota

Recount won't help Mexican candidate

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the charismatic former Mayor of Mexico City who narrowly lost last year’s presidential election, has suffered a new defeat. This week, officials of his Democratic Revolution Party announced that Lopez Obrador’s slate had won barely 20% of the votes in the election for delegates to the party’s Aug. 18-19 convention.

The “New Left” wing of the party, led by Jesus Ortega and Jesus Zambrano, were the big winners, pulling in 80% of the vote.

After proclaiming himself the “Legitimate President of Mexico” before hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered in Mexico City last December, Lopez Obrador has been touring the country criticizing the government of Felipe Calderon.

Posted by Héctor Tobar in Mexico City