September 02, 2014

Hugo Chavez gets his own prayer

IMG_0122In some quarters, Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez is treated like a saint.

Shortly after his death in March 2013, an informal shrine to him popped up by his hilltop grave. Now he's got his own prayer.

Ultimas Noticias reports that at the close of a socialist workshop on Monday attended by President Nicolas Maduro the delegates were led in the "Prayer of the Delegate," which is being referred to as the Chavista "Our Father."

Here's the opening line: "Our Chavez who art in heaven, the earth, the sea and in us, the delegates, hallowed be thy name."

Maduro could use some divine intervention. With plummeting approval ratings and a tanking economy he's announced a shakeup is in the works.  


February 06, 2014

Ecuador cartoonist cartoonist tries to turn government sanction into laughing matter


Boni0402Last week, Ecuador’s newly formed media watchdog ordered El Universo newspaper to print a “correction” of an editorial cartoon.

The drawing, which provoked tirades from President Rafael Correa, depicted the moment that government security raided the house of Fernando Villavicencio, a journalist and opposition adviser, and confiscated hard drives and laptops.

El Universo cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla put a caption on the bottom of the drawing saying officials were carting away proof of administration corruption.

On Wednesday, the newspaper ran the “correction.” This time, Bonilla’s cartoon shows Villavicencio inviting authorities into his home, inviting them to take everything they want, and blaming them for being too courteous.

“Call your lawyer,” one of the policemen tells him in a frame, to which Villavicencio responds: “Don’t BONIL1worry, I trust all of you.”

Correa has said the raid was sparked after Villavicencio was suspected of hacking into the presidential email account. During his weekly broadcasts, Correa has also unloaded against Bonilla, most recently calling him a “shameless, ignorant, hating coward disguised as a cartoonist.”

The Superintendent of Communication, the government watchdog, said Bonilla and the paper broke the law for taking “an institutional position on the innocence or guilt” of a person who is being investigated. But the watchdog also said that Bonilla should have put quotes around the caption on his original cartoon and indicated its source.

El Universo Director Carlos Perez said the sanction was so ambiguous that it has created confusion at the paper.

“Before, we were keeping an eye on [Bonilla’s] work to make sure it didn’t make the people ‘up there’ [the government] too uncomfortable,” Perez said. “But it’s difficult.”

He said the paper might have to quit writing editorials about ongoing cases.

The newspaper, which has faced multi-million-dollar defamation suits from Correa in the past, is also required to pay a fine for the cartoon of 2 percent of its quarterly revenues. Perez said the fine is equivalent to more than $93,000. The sanction has been paid, but the newspaper is appealing, Perez said.

Correa, whose socialist reforms and public works have made him one of Latin America’s most popular leaders, has long accused the media of playing politics shielded behind the banner of free speech.

Ecuador passed a sweeping communications law last year that advocates say makes the Andean nation among the most repressive media environments in the region.

“It has been apparent for some time that Ecuador’s new communications law was designed to muzzle journalists critical of the administration. That this has been extended to cartoonists is ridiculous,” Carlos Lauría, the senior program coordinator for the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.

“Ecuadoran authorities should reverse this decision and allow the press to function freely without fear of official reprisal. Tolerance for dissent — whether written or drawn — is a touchstone of any democratic government.” Read the full story here.

[Pictures courtesy of El Universo]

February 05, 2014

Colombia nabs Colombia spying on Colombia

There's something very  Philip K. Dickian about this latest spying scandal in Colombia. 

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In an escalating scandal that could lay bare the deep divisions in this Andean nation, President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday ordered a thorough investigation into allegations that factions within the army might be spying on the government’s own peace negotiators in Havana.

Santos ordered his staff to find the “dark forces” that may be trying to “sabotage” the peace talks, which aim to end the 50-year civil conflict with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

The announcement came after, one of the country’s most respected media outlets, reported late Monday that the army was working with civilian hackers to break into the email and text-message accounts of government peace negotiators, including chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle.

“Who could be interested in investigating, in recording, in intercepting our peace negotiators?” Santos asked during a meeting with the national police. “What dark forces are behind this?”

The secret spying office, called “’Andromeda,” operated out of a commercial district in Bogotá and was disguised as a restaurant and a computer lab. The office was set up in 2012 and operated for more than a year before being shut down by judicial authorities in late January, reported.

The article was the result of a 15-month investigation and relied heavily on anonymous sources, but no high government official has suggested that it’s false.

Fernando Hernández, the director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which studies the Colombian conflict, called the allegations “extremely serious.”

Read the full story here.

January 27, 2014

Paperless Venezuela - News workers raise alarm about lack of newsprint

The inability of Venezuelans to score foreign currency through legal mechanisms has caused all sorts of problems. Toilet paper, flour, chicken, car parts and scores of other items have been difficult - if not impossible - to find as importers say they don't have the foreign cash they need to pay suppliers. Now it's the turn of newspapers. The National Syndicate of Newspaper Workers said Monday that 80 broadsheets and tabloids are facing newsprint shortages. Some have already gone under and more than a dozen others have scaled back production due to the lack of newsprint. On Monday, workers began hanging signs around Caracas like this one, which reads: "Without paper there's no newspapers / jobs." The government is struggling to get its arms around the problem. Last week, they devalued the bolivar and vowed to double the amount of dollars available at weekly auctions. Far too soon to tell if that will work. Here's more on slow-mo economic crisis.



January 21, 2014

TV Violence: Venezuela wants to end it, Colombia exports it to Afghanistan

PabloescobarAs Venezuela tries to crack down on violence by cracking down on violent TV, Colombia continues making a mint with its televised tales of crime and blood.

Still reeling from the murder of beauty queen Monica Spear early this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with broadcasters to get them to tone down the violence. It’s still not clear if the government will force them to do it, but in Venezuela’s restrictive media environment it wouldn’t be surprising.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s Caracol TV just announced that its hit series about the life of drug don Pablo Escobar will start airing in Afghanistan this month.

This from Caracol’s release: “Afghan audiences will witness the terrifying moments that changed not only the history of Colombia, but of the entire world and know the details that turned a common man into the lord of the drug trafficking business and one of the richest and most cruel criminals in the entire world.”

Read more about the PE series here.


January 20, 2014

Ecuador Journalist may seek U.S. asylum amid continued media pressure

UPDATE: Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was NOT a fan of our story about increased media pressure. According to this Prensa Latina post, he called The Miami Herald "the worst newspaper on the continent." 


Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian opposition adviser and journalist, says he may seek asylum in the U.S. after the government last week ratified an 18-month jail sentence and ordered him to pay part of a $140 million fine.

The government is pursuing him on libel charges after he suggested that the National Assembly open an investigation into the 2010 police riot that led to President Rafael Correa briefly being held hostage.

Correa has always maintained it was a coup attempt - his critics say he basically fanned the flames of a police labor dispute by going to the strike and then daring the cops to shoot him.

Additionally, Villavicencio's home was raided just after Christmas on separate charges. Here's a Miami Herald story about that: 

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Two days after Christmas, masked and armed police raided the home of Fernando Villavicencio in the predawn hours, hauling away a lifetime of data and documents.

Hours later, President Rafael Correa said Villavicencio — an opposition advisor who also writes about corruption and the oil industry — was suspected of hacking into the president’s email.

Ten days later, Ecuador’s state-run El Telégrafo newspaper wrote about a proposed online media outlet that is seeking funds in the United States, including with the National Endowment for Democracy — whose Cold War origins and “democracy building” efforts have made it a bogeyman in the Americas.

There was one problem with the El Telégrafo story: According to Martha Roldos, a former legislator and government critic who was pitching the idea, the only way the paper could have had access to the information was by hacking her email.

The twin “hacking” stories shed light on the small Andean nation that has been hounding the independent press even as it builds one of the most sophisticated state-run media apparatuses in the Americas, behind Venezuela and Cuba.

Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, has repeatedly called the media his “greatest enemy” and has leveled multimillion-dollar lawsuits against those who cross him. This week, as he celebrated his seventh year in power, there were no signs of a truce. Read the full story here.

October 28, 2013

Peace, Politics clash in Colombia as presidential race heats up

Ever since President Juan Manuel Santos announced last year his intention to pursue peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, he’s been under attack from his predecessor and former boss Alvaro Uribe. Over the weekend, Uribe unveiled his latest weapon in the war: a candidate to face Santos in the April 25 presidential race.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, a former mayor, senator and minister of finance, beat out two rivals to clench the nomination for Uribe’s Democratic Center party. He called himself Uribe’s most loyal pupil and made it clear where he stands on the peace talks taking place in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

“Peace is not in Havana,” he said in his nomination speech. “The national agenda isn’t up for negotiation with the FARC.”

“I have never believed in this [peace] process because it’s based on a mistaken premise,” he told El Tiempo newspaper. “A legitimate state cannot sit down on equal terms with an organization that commits terrorist acts and finances itself through narco-traffic.”

Read more here:

October 27, 2013

Four month ordeal of US veteran held by Colombia's FARC comes to an end

A few weeks ago, we wrote this post about Kevin Scott Sutay, the former US soldier who has been in FARC custody since June 20. Today, Cuba and Norway announced that Sutay had been released in good condition. 

This was a win for President Juan Manuel Santos who was trying to keep Sutay's release from becoming a high-wattage media circus, despite the FARC's insistence that they would only free the young man to former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba or US Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ultimately, just as the government had been calling for, Sutay was handed over to the International Red Cross with little fanfare. He's now in US custody. It will be interesting to see if he speaks to the press.

Finally, I have to wonder if the timing of his release has anything to do with Alvaro Uribe's new party, Uribe Centro Democratico, picking its horse yesterday to face Santos in next year's election.

Oscar Ivan Zuloaga -- Uribe's former minister of finance -- got the nod and has vowed to stay true to his former boss and oppose ongoing peace talks. That cranks up the pressure on the FARC and the government to prove their getting results in Havana. 

October 16, 2013

Ecuador's Chevron trial goes on trial, as plaintiffs' lawyer faces RICO allegations

IMG_3479One of the hemisphere’smost contentious and longest-running environmental trials is going on trial. On Tuesday, a New York judge will begin hearing testimony that a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for polluting Ecuador’s Amazon decades ago was the product of fraud.

The oil giant claims that Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, engaged in racketeering by manufacturing evidence and bribing judges in the Andean nation to win the record-setting verdict.

Donziger and his legal team say Chevron is trying to evade its responsibility. Since it couldn’t win the pollution trial on its merits, they say, it’s going after the lawyers.

The case has dragged on — in one form or another — for 20 years, has produced more than 200,000 pages of evidence, spawned documentaries and television programs, and dragged celebrities and politicians into its wake. Movie star Daryl Hannah has dipped her hands into oily muck for the cameras, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has called the case a matter of national honor and asked for a Chevron boycott.

Read the full story here

October 15, 2013

Leaders of Dominican Rep. and Ecuador top new ranking, US and Uruguay at bottom

Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky recently put out its annual ranking of regional leaders, which found Dominican Rep. President Danilo Medina on top and US President Barack Obama at the very bottom. The ranking is based on approval ratings in each country and they’re not strictly comparable, but let's not let the small print get in the way of a good list.

Two interesting points:

1)      Ecuador’s Rafael Correa remains hugely popular. (Compared to last year he fell one spot in the rankings but his approval numbers are actually up.)

2)      Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro debuts on the list at #8 after his late boss, Hugo Chávez, exited the rankings at #4 last year.

Check out the full report here.

Otherwise, here are the takeaway numbers:

#1 Dominican Republic  - Danilo Medina 88%

#2 Ecuador  - Rafael Correa 84% [He was ranked at #1 with 80% last year]

#3 Panama – Ricardo Martinelli 69%

#4 Nicaragua - Daniel Ortega 66%

#5 El Salvador – Mauricio Funes 64%

#6 Bolivia – Evo Morales 59%

#7 Mexico – Enrique Peña Nieto 56%

#8 Venezuela - Nicolás Maduro 48% [The late Hugo Chávez was #4 last year with 64% approval]

#9 Guatemala – Otto Perez 48%

#10 Uruguay – Jose Mujica 45%

#11 USA – Barack Obama 44%


jim wyss

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

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