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May 20, 2013

Colombia’s fight against coffee blight may show the way for stricken Central America

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CHINCHINÁ, Colombia  At a sprawling central Colombia coffee laboratory and research facility — full of coffee plants trapped in jars and shimmering test-tubes — workers poked their heads out of cubicles to share the latest news from Central America and Mexico.

“Did you read that story about Nicaragua?” one asked a visiting delegation. “They’re really suffering.”

Just a few years ago, the Colombian coffee industry was on its knees as a virulent fungus known as coffee-leaf rust – or roya in Spanish — infected 40 percent of the crop.

Millions of dollars and a massive re-planting effort later, this Andean nation is showing signs of recovery just as its neighbors to the North are being slammed by the blight.

Analysts believe roya could hit 30 to 50 percent of the Central American and Mexican coffee crop over the next few years, and some aid agencies fear it could lead to hunger or even famine in a region where farmers live from harvest to harvest.

If Colombia’s fight with roya is any indication, Central America could have a long, expensive and rough road ahead. Read the full story here

May 13, 2013

Once shunned by the church, Madre Laura becomes Colombia's first saint

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JERICÓ, Colombia -- In her lifetime, Laura Montoya’s stubborn determination to help Colombia’s indigenous people brought the reproach of society, the political elite and the church, which viewed her work with suspicion and accused her of being unstable.

But on Sunday, an adoring nation celebrated the woman, better known as Madre Laura, as this Catholic country’s first saint.

In this hilltop town where she was born, surrounded by coffee farms, revelers crammed the central plaza to watch the Vatican canonization ceremony that began at 2:30 a.m. local time. As Pope Francis announced her name, bells rang, fireworks frightened pigeons out of the trees and a giant portrait of Montoya – her young face framed by a nun’s habit – was unveiled on the city’s cathedral.

This town was always bittersweet for Montoya, who died in 1949 at age 75. Her father was killed here when she was two and, in her autobiography, she recalls being shuttled from IMG_5517town-to-town impoverished, lonely and insecure.

“She thought of herself as defective and incapable,” said Estefanía Martínez, 90, a nun who took care of Montoya during her final years. “But she was so brave and so sure of the job that God had given her.”

Montoya said her relationship with God began when she was six or seven. She was helping the ants in her neighborhood move their cargo of leaves, when she said she felt like she was “injured by lightning” and so overwhelmed by the presence of God that she screamed and sobbed in joy.

“Today, after all my studies and learning,” she wrote years later, “I don’t know more about God than I knew that day.”

Montoya eked out a living as a teacher to support her family, but her passion was missionary work.

In 1914, even before she was ordained, Montoya organized an expedition of six women, including her aging mother, and took a 10-day trip into the wilderness to live with and minister to an indigenous Emberá Katío clan near the town of Dabeiba. Initially, the mission didn’t have the church’s backing, as officials thought that such risky ventures were best undertaken by men. Church leaders called her “crazy” and “visionary,” and suggested that she might be looking for a husband in the wilderness, according to her biographer Manuel Díaz Álvarez.



May 09, 2013

Colombian mobile drug lab will give partiers a chance to test their stash

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I recently wrote a story about Bogota's new public health program that aims to use medical marijuana to wean addicts off of  bazuco. Bazuco is a cheap, crack-like drug -- made with residue from cocaine processing, kerosene and sulfuric acid --that seems to turn people (at least the bazuqueros in my neighborhood) into raving, teeth-gnashing zombies. More on that below.

But Accion Tecnica Social, one of the groups spearheading that project, is launching another program today. It's called Echale cabeza cuando se de en la cabeza, which very roughly translates to: Give it some thought before you blow your mind.

In brief, ATS plans to set up mobile drug labs at raves and parties so revelers can test their pills and powders before ingesting them.

ATS has a long history of trying to promote safer partying, and this is part of that effort. But the organization's head, Julian Quintero -- who has a tattoo down his arm that reads "Nice people take drugs" -- said the labs are also likely to be a deterrent. The quality and purity of many street drugs, but particularly ecstasy and cocaine, has gone down hill, he said. The drug tests will give users a sense of how dirty their drugs truly are and how much money they might be wasting. It's an interesting idea, particularly if it can help people who are going to consume anyway do it a bit more safely.

I met the two people pictured above at a recent marijuana-legalization rally in Bogota. Although smoking and selling weed is illegal here, people are allowed to carry a small amount, known as a "personal dose," and grow their own plants. The city's new medical-marijuana initiative plans to capitalize on those laws to make the program work. 

But before you start booking flights in this direction, many partakers say the police have little regard for "minimum dose" laws and are happy to throw folks in the clink.

Now, here's the story about the marijuana-for-bazuco plan:

***

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Marijuana has long been accused of being a gateway to deadlier vices. But could cannabis be a swinging door that might also lead people away from hard drugs? That’s what this capital city is trying to find out.

In coming weeks, Bogotá is embarking on a controversial public health project where it will begin supplying marijuana to 300 addicts ofbazuco — a cheap cocaine derivative that generates crack-like highs and is as addictive as heroin.

Bogota has 7,500 bazuco users among its 9,500 homeless population, said Ruben Dario Ramirez, director of the Center for the Study and Analysis of Coexistence and Security, which is spearheading the project.

Addicts are often driven to panhandling and crime to support their habit, turning pockets of this thriving city into bazuco wastelands where junkies huddle to smoke the drug. In the last three years, 277 homeless people have been murdered, he said.

For the most desperate users, the cannabis cure may be the only way out.

“People accuse us of turning bazuco addicts into marijuana addicts but that’s an urban myth,” he said. “This program is about reducing personal harm and the risks to society.”

Authorities believe that by supplying addicts with quality-controlled medical marijuana with a high THC content (the mind-altering component of marijuana) and that is specifically selected to relieve the anxiety that comes with kicking bazuco, they might be able to rescue some of them.

The idea is controversial. Critics have accused Ramirez and his colleagues of smoking their own medicine and say the project risks making city government an enabler.

May 01, 2013

Nicolas Maduro says opposition instigated last night's legislative brawl, used "paralyzer" gas

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said opposition lawmakers were to blame for the bloody, chair-throwing brawl in the National Assembly Tuesday night. During a May Day speech he said the opposition had provoked the violence and had arrived at the Assembly with "paralyzers," which is a "gas" they intended "to throw in the face of the deputies."

He also said he would be showing videos to prove it. You can see some of the footage that's already out there here

And here's today's Miami Herald story about Tuesday's May Day marches.

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Government supporters and opposition groups in Venezuela held dueling May Day marches Wednesday amid growing tensions over last month’s contested presidential election and one day after the legislature devolved into a bloody, chair-throwing brawl.

The rallies were, ostensibly, to celebrate international workers day, and counted on the support of rival unions and labor organizations. But they were also a show of political strength in a nation still at odds over the April 14 presidential vote.

President Nicolás Maduro and rival Henrique Capriles spearheaded the marches but tried to avoid confrontation by routing their supporters through different parts of Caracas.

In his ongoing battle to prove that the election was plagued by fraud, Capriles, 40, the governor of Miranda state, told throngs of supporters he would be handing over evidence of irregularities to the Supreme Court on Thursday. “We will make our case to every institution even though we don’t trust the state,” he said. “In any moment this [government] will fall, but its exit has to be constitutional. … This is a peaceful fight to defeat their lies.” Read the full story here.

New study finds the press in six Latin American nations "not free."

The percentage of the world’s population living in societies with a fully free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade, according to a Freedom House report released today.

The study, "Freedom of the Press 2013," found an overall downturn in global media freedom in 2012 "punctuated by dramatic decline in Mali, deterioration in Greece, and a further tightening of controls in Latin America."

In Latin America, 15 countries were ranked with a "free press," 14 had a "partly free" press and six had "not free" press.

Among the Latin America highlights are:

St. Lucia ranked among the top for press freedom coming in at 12 out of 196 on the list.

Costa Rica came in at  23 (tied with the United States.)

Peru came in at 89

Bolivia and Panama tied at 94

Argentina 109

Colombia 112

The nations ranked "Not Free" were:

Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay tied at 134

Honduras 140 

Venezuela 168

And at the bottom of the barrel was Cuba at 191. It's tied with Iran. 

See the full Freedom House list here

ABOUT THIS BLOG

jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read Jim's stories at MiamiHerald.com.

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