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
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 town-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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The nations ranked "Not Free" were:
Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay tied at 134
And at the bottom of the barrel was Cuba at 191. It's tied with Iran.
For another look at how the European economic crisis is hitting South America, check out today's IDB report on remittances. The study found that while remittances were up slightly (0.6 percent) in Latin America and the Caribbean during 2012, inflows were down 1.1 percent in South America.
Look at the full report here, or my colleague Mimi Whitefiled's story here, but, in short, the study shows that regions that rely on the U.S. for remittances were faring better than those that rely on Spain and Europe.
In Central America, for example, remittances were up in every country. In South America, they were down in eight out of 12 nations.
The top receivers in SouthAm were Colombia ($4.1 billion), Peru ($2.8 billion), and Ecuador ($2.5 billion.)
Three Colombian police officers were killed today along the Venezuelan border as they were on the lookout for gasoline smugglers, authorities said. Venezuela's gasoline cost just pennies the liter, and there's a thriving blackmarket for the cheap fuel on this side of the border.
The government has not released details about today's murders but authorities have increasingly accused ELN and FARC guerrillas of muscling into the trade.
I recently talked to the commander of the Pacific Navy fleet and he said there are indications that the FARC are not only in the blackmarket gas business but illegal logging, too.
Here's that story:
BUENAVENTURA, Colombia -- In a muddy creek on the outskirts of town, hundreds of thick logs were piled up waiting to be turned into planks and plywood. Luis Mercedes, a veteran logger, admits he felled the trees and floated them downriver without a permit, but he says poverty forces him to cut corners.
Authorities see it differently. They fear that unregulated logging, mining and other gray-market activities along the coast are turning into sources of income for rebels and criminal gangs that haunt the area.
Colombia and the nation’s largest guerrilla group resumed peace talks in Havana this week in hopes of ending a bloody, 50-year civil conflict. The talks come as the country is braces for a possible new spate of violence starting Sunday when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, lift a unilateral ceasefire imposed over the holidays.
Both sides have said they’re optimistic that the sweeping five-point peace plan will bring an end to the violence by year’s end. But hurdles remain. Among them, the FARC will be required to give up the drug trade.
But on this marshy western Pacific coast, long-known for its cocaine smuggling routes, authorities say the guerrillas are diversifying into industries that are harder to detect because they’re easily camouflaged amidst the poverty, and the final products — wood and gold — are legal.
“The narco-terrorists have realized how lucrative these businesses are, and there are areas along Colombia’s Pacific that are abandoning coca cultivation and turning to illegal mining and other activities,” said Vice Admiral Rodolfo Amaya, commander of the Pacific Navy fleet. “These bandits want to control any industry that is producing cash.”
Spain's El Pais published and then pulled a picture that purported to be Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the operating table, after the government began circulating the YouTube video the image was captured from. (On the left is another screen shot from that same video, in which the soon-to-be intubated gentleman is most definitely not the Venezuelan leader.)
The govenrment routinely charges the press with being part of a global conspiracy against the Bolivarian Revolution, and this unfortunate incident has only given the administration fodder.
In this follow up story, El Pais said the image was on its website for about half an hour and that it suspsended printing when it realized its mistake.
Venezuela is getting the Jon Lee Anderson treatment in the Jan. 28 issue of the New Yorker.
Anderson has had the chance to interview Chávez on several occasions and was in Cuba in 1999 when the newly-elected president traveled to Havana and played nine-innings with Fidel.
In this 12-page spread, titled Slumlord - What has Hugo Chavez wrought in Venezuela, Anderson spends much of his time studying how the administration’s lax regulations and socialist ideology have led to a massive squatter’s movement and soaring crime.
José Argenis, the leader of Caracas’ El Milagro invasion, tells Anderson “This government has been more permissive—previous governments were more repressive. And so the cultura malandra”—the thug culture—“ has ﬂourished, and it has gone out from the prisons to the schools, to the universities, to the streets. It has become the national culture.”
It appears Anderson was in Caracas in November, shortly after Chávez won his third six-year term, but he didn’t get the chance to meet with the ailing leader, who has been in holed up in a Cuban hospital since Dec. 10.
For the Venezuelans who continually voted for him, Chávez’s possible death “represents the end of a long and enthralling performance,” Anderson writes. “They gave him power, in one election after another: they are the victims of their aﬀection for a charismatic man, whom they allowed to become the central character on the Venezuelan stage, at the expense of everything else.”
As most people know, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hasn’t been seen or heard from since he traveled to Cuba on Dec. 10 to undergo another round of surgery for an undisclosed form of cancer.
His prolonged silence has fueled all sorts of rumors that he was in an induced coma, on life support, etc. Those suspicions only grew deeper last week when Chávez purportedly wrote to the National Assembly to say that he would not be at his Jan. 10 inauguration. That letter, however, was not signed by Chávez, but by his VP Maduro.
But now a Chávez signature has turned up. On Tuesday, Maduro said the ailing president had appointed Elías Jaua as his new foreign minister. Today, VTV has running with this image of the Official Gazette, which show’s the president’s signature as part of the Jaua designation.
Still, most people want to see or hear their leader, but this does seem to support the administration’s claims that Chávez is making a recovery.