Leahy flexes his muscle on El Salvador

Mandatory Sentences_Nost
A single U.S. senator can change history in Central America. I’ve seen it several times in past decades. It certainly happened with the late Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina who grew deeply involved in efforts to halt communism in the isthmus.

Now, it’s happening with Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Vermont who has been in the headlines everyday this week in El Salvador. That's Leahy above, left, standing next to Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican.

Leahy has had a long interest in Central America, and he has committee heft to make his voice heard. In addition to chairing the Judiciary Committee, he chairs a foreign operations subcommittee.

That means he keeps his hands on purse strings for foreign aid. He’s been in the news here since his office issued a statement last Friday regarding a $277 million pending investment in El Salvador under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S.-government designed aid program.

Leahy noted that the program was designed “to reward countries whose governments are taking effective steps to address key issues of governance, particularly combating corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and supporting equitable economic growth.”

In many ways, he said, El Salvador is coming up short. Corruption and money laundering are rampant, and organized crime is on the upswing, he wrote. El Salvador must fortify the attorney general’s office and keep the judiciary independent.

He also fired a shot across the bow of President Mauricio Funes, noting concerns “about some public officials in positions of authority who have promoted individuals within the police and security forces who have no business being in public office because of their involvement in illegal activities.”

Whew! And who might those be? Leahy didn’t say but scratch just about any Salvadoran with his ear to the ground and several names emerge.

Funes, notoriously prickly, lambasted Leahy over the weekend, calling him “misinformed.”

Leahy issued a new statement Wednesday, citing “disappointing that Salvadoran officials reacted as they did to my remarks last week.” He noted that Congress has the power to disburse the funds, and “it should not be taken for granted.”

In case President Funes didn’t get the message, or hasn’t studied Central American history, Leahy suggested that he reconsider his response “for the good of the Salvadoran people and if they want a second (Millennium Challenge) compact to be funded.”

Traveling through time in El Salvador

MisterDonutSometimes visiting Central America feels like traveling through time. Here’s an example: In San Salvador, where I am currently, Mister Donut shops are everywhere.

Anyone of a certain age in the U.S. or Canada can certainly remember the Mister Donut chain. It was the biggest competitor to Dunkin’ Donuts, and had more than 550 stores across the continent.

In 1990, the chain was acquired by the parent of Dunkin’ Donuts and virtually disappeared in North America. But it stayed alive in Asia and Central America.

While the logo for Mister Donut is the same as always – a one-eyed chef with a toque -- the Salvadoran shops are bigger than their American counterparts once were and offer Salvadoran specialties, such as stuffed pupusa patties.

Another thing about Mister Donut here: In September, the chain seems to always offer two-for-one doughnuts so all the stores have long lines, so long that it discouraged me from buying a cup of coffee yesterday for an academic whom I met there and was interviewing.

In any case, Salvadorans just can’t seem to get enough doughnuts.


A lack of diversity on the coffee farms

I toured several coffee-growing cooperatives in Guatemala today, and one of the surprises I encountered was the prevalence of a certain species of tree used for shade-grown coffee.

It used to be in decades past that shade-grown coffee was considered better for the environment. Farmers used numerous kinds of trees to cast shade, providing some diversity. But everywhere I went today, there was just one kind of tree, a silky oak, an import from Australia. It’s been in Guatemala for decades. It's not a real oak, by the way, but more like a eucalyptus.

You can see it in the background in the photo above, taken at the San Pedrano Cooperative near Esquintla.

The silky oak can be shaped with pruning, and is highly frost resistant, two qualities that coffee farmers like. Other trees, like the endemic Inga, can die in a hard frost. So the silky oak has taken over at some coffee farms.

One of the benefits of shade-grown coffee disappears if the trees providing the shade are a monoculture. Juan Carlos Toledo, an agent with the Federation of Coffee-growing Agricultural Cooperatives of Guatemala, said some U.S.-based specialty coffee buyers were pressuring Guatemalan growers to diversify their trees to replicate natural forest. 

I’ll sip to that.

I've just come across what looks like a Guatemalan coffee industry website that indicates the silky oak, also known as by its Latin name as Gravilea Robusta, is used on only 22 percent of coffee farms in the nation. If still up to date, that would be good news. 


Mexico and its contrarian indicators

For those bullish on Mexico, Sunday was a big day. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist, published a glowing essay on why Americans should look next door to Mexico as the country to watch, not China or India.

The essay, titled How Mexico got Back in the Game, notes that Mexico has 44 free-trade agreements, more than any other country in the world, and the country sits atop “massive cheap natural gas finds.”

The three main political parties have signed a pact “to fight the big energy, telecom and teacher monopolies that have held Mexico back.” Americans, Friedman says, need a “more nuanced” view of Mexico but should be quite bullish on the nation.

There are many ways to slice Friedman’s essay. And some analysts went to work immediately. One is George Baker, a Houston-based energy analyst who lived for a time in Mexico. He quickly whipped off a comment to the Grey Lady taking apart Friedman’s argument. Here is one paragraph on trade:

“Take out intra-firm transactions in which Chrysler-Mexico sells to Chrysler-China, and daily trade will shrink to the value of commerce in oil and food products, services (including oilfield services), plus the remnants of a tourism industry battered by violence. Meanwhile, Carlos Slim skims off the top of the Mexican economy monopolistic rent whose value has been estimated by Mexican economists at 3% of Mexico’s GDP.”

Baker dismissed the reference to huge shale oil reserves – “Pemex has no plans to develop shale fields” – and concludes that, “Celebrations about Mexico’s advances in its economy and governance are premature.”

If the enthusiasm (or hype) about Mexico is reminiscent of the euphoria for Brazil back around 2009, then Friedman’s essay may actually be a contrarian indicator. Friedman was a regular visitor to Brazil back then. Here’s one of his columns. 

As a colleague noted at a weekly bull session we foreign reporters hold on Friday evenings, Brazil seemed at the top of the emerging market heap back then, the lead nation of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, later, South Africa). But the BRICS are now passé. And Brazil has posted anemic growth for several years.

Indeed, the benchmark Bovespa index is down 16% since the end of 2010.

Maybe the apathy for Brazil is overdone. And the euphoria for Mexico also an overreaction.

Certainly the number of free-trade agreements that Mexico has signed does not indicate how open the economy is. It only takes a trip to Office Max, the neighborhood supermarket or a furniture stores to see hidden barriers to entry in Mexico. Why are Hewlett Packard printers assembled in Mexico not available here? Why are Sony plasma screen TVs assembled in Mexico cheaper in the States than here? If it's so open, why are there so many monopolies and duopolies? 

This is not Taipei, Singapore or even some Central American capitals. There are many things you cannot get here or that are quite costly. Anybody go in the Liverpool department store and look at prices lately?

I don’t find my reporting colleagues here a cynical group. Mexico-bashing is not a practice. Many are married to Mexicans, are Mexican themselves or have lived here for decades. That’s a short way of saying they want Mexico to progress and flourish. But the obstacles are many. Governance and security issues are critical. Corruption is rampant. It is too early to pop the champagne.


A grotesque assassination in Honduras

Only watch the above video if you have a strong stomach. It shows a cold-blooded gangland style assassination of two youths on Nov. 21, 2012, in the Comayagüela neighborhood of the capital, Tegucigalpa. The images are from a security camera.

The video appeared on the website of the El Heraldo newspaper in Honduras last week. According to this blog, "El Heraldo claimed that the authorities failed to open an investigation into the shoot-out and that the prosecutor's office had not filed the video as evidence."

Since then, the public security minister, Pompeyo Bonilla, who has failed to rein in a runaway murder rate that has made Honduras the world's most homicidal country, or oversee the capture of a single suspect in the slayings, had the audacity to lash out at the newspaper, claiming the video marked "total disrespect for the bereaved" and also defamed the image of Honduras.

My opinion: These videos, as awful as they are, need to be in the public sphere. Maybe someone will recognize one of the killers and help bring them to justice. Only if the killers are handed to Bonilla on a platter will he have courage to take action rather than taking aim at the journalists. If he takes effective action, the image of Honduras will improve.  


A mystery kidney disease and its toll

Across Central America, hundreds of sugar cane workers succumb each year to a mystery kidney disease that leads them to an agonizing death. This is a well-done Associated Press video about the disease that focuses on sick workers in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. If you drink rum, sip sugary sodas or have candy bars, then you should be concerned about the how sugar cane is harvested. I first learned of this illness from this Center for Public Integrity investigative report. Since it came out a year ago, PBS has also reported on the issue, followed most recently by this AP report. A report in Nephrology Times says mortality from kidney disease increased tenfold between 1984 and 2005 in El Salvador, a sign of how severe this public health epidemic is. The most prevalent hypothesis is that sweltering heat and chronic bouts of dehydration cause the disease, rather than exposure to pesticides. But while this is a strong theory, experts aren't willing to rule out other causes. 


The Mother of all Christmas parties

When it comes to riotous Christmas parties, the Honduran Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, chalked one up for the annals.

On Dec. 20, according to press reports, while diplomats at the embassy cavorted with prostitutes, others ransacked the mission, stole a laptop computer and even pooped on the floor of the ambassador’s office.

The Honduran ambassador until last Saturday, Carlos Humberto Rodriguez, says he was in Miami on vacation at the time of the party and left a personal assistant in charge of the mission, who decided to have the party of a lifetime.

Rodriguez handed in his resignation on Saturday. Yesterday, he told the HRN radio network: “I feel very ashamed of what occurred. I wish this had never happened, but it happened and now I find myself in this situation.” (Transcript in Spanish).

The Honduran El Heraldo newspaper said the Christmas party turned into an orgy, and that attendees left the embassy in shambles.

Rodriguez said his secretary called him the next day and related what had happened. He tried to cover up the incident.

“I wanted to keep it at a low level that did not leak out. The country doesn’t deserve another scandal,” Rodriguez told HRN last night.

But someone called police Dec. 21 in the morning and reported a theft from the embassy. When police arrived, they found Rodriguez’s assistant, Jorge Mendoza, asleep in the embassy.

Even though he wasn’t an employee of the embassy, Mendoza apparently had keys to the mission and the run of the place. Honduras says it’s sending investigators to interrogate the six formal employees of the mission about what happened. Colombian police, meanwhile, are trying to track down the two prostitutes.


The long road to the Rose Parade

If you happened to glimpse the televised Rose Parade on New Year's Day, you might have noticed the performance of the Banda El Salvador. If so, here's the rather amazing back story of the marching band.

Southern California is home to the greatest concentration of Salvadorans anywhere outside of Central America. For many of the 147 high school age members of the band, the overland trip to California was as much about family reunion as performance.

They almost didn't raise enough money to go. Once they arranged transportation for the four-day overland journey, they didn't have enough for lodging. So they camped out at Duarte High School, a little to the east of Pasadena, site of the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl. Here's what KPCC public radio said about their conditions (click here for a slide show of the band, too): 

Money for flights and hotels didn’t materialize. So 147 teens are sleeping and showering in the high school gym and taking their meals in a large, very drafty vinyl tent.

Away from the parade, band members found themselves in emotional family reunions.

Twenty-year-old clarinet player Nelson Hernandez saw his older brother for the first time since he came to the US to study and work 12 years ago.

“It was perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences in my life,” he said.

Hernandez says his brother is more like a father to him because he sent money to pay for Hernandez’s college tuition.

Andres Trigueros plays saxophone. His father left El Salvador 14 years ago to look for work in Los Angeles. This trip’s only the second time he’s seen him since.

“I’ve felt his absence a lot,” Trigueros said. He keeps in touch with his father through social media.



Off the beaten path in the region


We foreign correspondents have enviable jobs. We consort with princes and poker players, bankers and brewers. We poke our noses in all kinds of places.

It’s the end of the year nearly, so I can’t help but think of the fun places and interesting people I’ve been blessed to write about in 2012. Sure, there’s been plenty of serious things to report on. But then there’s been the fun things, those that are personably memorable.

Topping the list for me this year was a trip to Baja California to visit Scammon’s Lagoon where thousands of gray whales migrate each winter. I actually got paid to do this so I could write this story. That’s my video above.

Less than a month later, I visited a town in Veracruz state that created its own currency. I had never considered the ramifications of alternative currency till I did this story.

I’m still the butt of jokes in our house for something that happened after I was sent by editors to Costa Rica to write about “poker refugees” – American online poker players who moved abroad once several online poker sites became illegal. I expected to find frat boys swigging beer and playing online. To my surprise, I found brainy engineers, Russian literature experts, math whizzes and assorted other oddballs, all of whom I quite liked.

Then I made a mistake. I mentioned to our older daughter, who is very good at math, how much money these guys were making and, er, OK I confess: I suggested that she might want to look into online poker as a temporary career option.

I might as well have suggested a life of crime for all the guff I got about this later.

Still, it was a fun story. Almost as fun was this story about an artisanal chocolate maker in Nicaragua, and this one about a ghost town that has come back to life on the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I also enjoyed writing about the Kuna Indians in Panama, a surprising number of whom are albinos.

It’s been a great year. I head off tomorrow through the end of the year to Florida so no more blog postings till January. To all my readers, Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo!


Celebrating journalists all the time

Tomorrow is Journalists’ Day in Guatemala. You might think it would be the same day to honor journalists all over the region. You’d be wrong.

Like Mother’s Day, which is set on different days in different countries, no nation around here seems to celebrate journalists on the same day. Mexico does so on Jan. 4, Nicaragua on March 1, Honduras on May 25, Costa Rica on May 30, and El Salvador on July 31.

None of them set the day to coincide with International Day of Solidarity of Journalists, which is on Sept. 8.

Reminds me of the confusion in our house over when to celebrate Mother’s Day. In Mexico, Mother’s Day is May 10. Stay home that day if there’s any way possible. The roads are jammed as every Tomas, Ricardo and Enrique takes his mother out for a meal. In the U.S., Mother’s Day is on the second Sunday of May. In Nicaragua, my wife’s land of birth, Mother’s Day is on May 30th.

When I mentioned the confusion to a friend about when to celebrate, he wisely said: “Every day is mother’s day.” Well put. May every day be journalists’ day as well.

Another mismatch is Labor Day. In some 80 countries of the world, Labor Day is May 1, also called International Workers Day, which commemorates the slaughter of workers in 1886 in Chicago who were protesting for an eight-hour work day. It may have occurred in the United States, but in the U.S. we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September.  



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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