Economist, North America

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Updated: 10 hours 27 min ago

Justin Trudeau’s flying unicorn hits a storm

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 07:51

TO OPPOSE the government of Justin Trudeau has been no fun. Canada’s prime minister has shrugged off controversies that would have hurt a less charismatic politician. Few Canadians seemed to mind when he accepted a helicopter ride from the Aga Khan to holiday on his private island in the Bahamas; most yawned when the government paid C$10.5m ($8.4m) to settle a lawsuit brought by a former inmate of Guantánamo. After a flattering cover story on Mr Trudeau appeared in Rolling Stone in July, Michelle Rempel, an MP from the opposition Conservative Party, vented her frustration: the press treat him and his team as “Prince Charmings who can do no wrong, all while flying through a rainbow on a unicorn”.

But mistakes and mishaps are starting to hurt Mr Trudeau’s Liberal government as it nears the mid-point of its four-year term on October 19th. Among the goofs are a cultural policy that enraged Quebec, the French-speaking province, and a tax-reform proposal that...

Brazil’s congress starts to reform itself

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 07:51

Congress is clean on the outside

BRAZILIAN election campaigns are costly affairs, featuring big rallies, glitzy television commercials and lavish leafleting. Presidential candidates criss-cross a country whose territory is bigger than that of the 28 members of the European Union combined. In 2014 candidates for the presidency, governorships, congress and state assemblies spent 5bn reais ($2bn). Undeclared donations, mostly from companies, may have been twice that.

Brazilians have learned through the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations that companies expected favours from politicians in return. In 2015 the supreme court declared corporate contributions unconstitutional. This month Brazil’s discredited lawmakers came up with a scheme to replace them. It is part of a broader rewriting of political rules ahead of national elections due in October next year. The changes are worthwhile, but do not finish the job of reforming Brazil’s sleazy politics...

The people who read to Cuban cigar-factory workers

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 07:51

EVERY morning at 8:30 Gricel Valdés-Lombillo mounts a platform at the H. Upmann cigar factory and starts the first of her 30-minute shifts reading to an audience of 150 torcedores, or cigar rollers. Throughout the day she will divert them with snippets of news, horoscopes, recipes and, most important, dramatic readings of literature. In a career that began in 1992 she has read “The Count of Monte Cristo”, a longstanding favourite among torcedores, three times. The popularity of this tale of revenge is the origin of Cuba’s Montecristo brand. Another 250 workers—despalilladoras (leaf strippers), rezagadores (wrapper selectors) and escojedores (colour graders)—hear Ms Valdés-Lombillo’s readings through the public-address system.

Lectores have been reading at cigar factories since 1865, when Nicolás Azcárate, a leader of a...

Time to bury Che Guevara for good

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 07:51

ON OCTOBER 9th 1967 the Bolivian army, with the CIA in attendance, shot Ernesto “Che” Guevara in cold blood, on the orders of Bolivia’s president. Thus ended his short-lived attempt to ignite a guerrilla war in the heart of the Andes. Fifty years on, Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, and several thousand activists assembled there this week to honour Guevara’s memory.

In death Che, with his flowing hair and beret, has become one of the world’s favourite revolutionary icons. His fans span the globe. Youthful rebels wear T-shirts emblazoned with his image. Ireland this month issued a commemorative stamp. But it is in Latin America where his influence has been greatest, and where his legacy—for the left in particular—has been most damaging.

The ascetic, asthmatic Argentine doctor first fought alongside Fidel Castro in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. After the Cuban revolution had imposed communism on the island, Guevara left to try to “liberate” first...

Deciphering Donald Trump’s thinking on Latin America

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 07:54

IT IS a mystery that has baffled American and Cuban officials for months. Who and what was behind what the State Department calls the “attacks of an unknown nature” that inflicted hearing loss and headaches on 18 staff and four spouses from the United States’ embassy in Havana? With no sign of an answer, on September 29th the State Department announced that it was withdrawing all but emergency personnel from Havana. Noting that some of the “attacks” took place in hotels, it also advised Americans not to visit Cuba. This week it expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Despite this, the administration of Donald Trump does not contradict Cuba’s claim that it had nothing to do with the incidents. Cuba has allowed the FBI to investigate. Even so, the strange episode is helping to reverse the opening to Cuba that was a central element in the Latin American policy of Barack Obama, Mr Trump’s predecessor.

This adds to the difficulty of deciphering Mr Trump’s approach to...

The death of Venezuela’s Humboldt glacier

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 07:54

VENEZUELA is a tropical country, with rainforest in the south and east, and baking savannah stretching towards its northern Caribbean coast. The Sierra Nevada de Mérida mountain range in the north-west offers relief from the heat. In 1991 five glaciers occupied nooks near their peaks. Now, just one remains, lodged into a cwm west of Pico Humboldt. Reduced to an area of ten football pitches, a tenth of its size 30 years ago, it will be gone within a decade or two. Venezuela will then be the first country in the satellite age to have lost all its glaciers.

The retreat of the Humboldt glacier, named for Alexander von Humboldt, a German explorer of the 19th century, is the final stage of a 20,000-year process, the recession of an ice sheet that covered 600 square km (about 230 square miles) of Venezuela in the most recent ice age. Climate change has sped it up.

Scientists want to study the glacier in its final years but Venezuela’s tumultuous politics is...

Rio’s post-Olympic blues

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 07:54

IN THE warren of alleyways that make up Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, the air is heavy with foreboding. A feud between factions of the Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends, or ADA), a drug gang that has controlled the slum since 2004, erupts in daily violence. Police in patrol cars creep through the lanes, their rifles poking out of the windows. Residents share news of shoot-outs on WhatsApp. “We are scared to walk around,” says Raquel, who sells colourful prints to a few brave tourists. At a command post a squad of policemen prepares for yet another operation. “It’s a never-ending war,” sighs José (not his real name), an officer drafted in from a nearby neighbourhood.

The city of Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the Olympic games in 2016, is having a grim year. Shoot-outs in favelas, or shantytowns, have killed dozens of people. A third of adults aged 18 to 24 are out of work. Many Olympic venues are abandoned; a fire in July damaged...

A Sikh becomes leader of Canada’s left-leaning opposition party

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 11:18

Very visible Singh

JAGMEET SINGH could have done many things when a heckler accused him at a rally last month of plotting to subject Canada to sharia law. The turbaned politician could have pointed out that he is a Sikh, not a Muslim. He could have skewered her with lawyerly wit (he is a criminal lawyer) or asked security guards to remove her. Instead he told the heckler that everyone loved her and led a chant of “Love and courage”. She eventually walked out.

A video of the encounter went viral and helped Mr Singh, a member of the Ontario legislature, win the leadership of Canada’s left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) on October 1st. He is the first member of a “visible minority” to lead a party at federal level. Canada’s Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, congratulated his new rival on his “barrier-breaking win”.

Mr Singh faces a difficult task. The NDP lost the election in 2015 in...

Clueless on Cuba’s economy

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 04:18

GABRIEL and Leo have little in common. Gabriel makes 576 Cuban pesos ($23) a month as a maintenance man in a hospital. Leo runs a private company with revenues of $20,000 a month and 11 full-time employees. But both have cause for complaint. For Gabriel it is the meagre subsistence that his salary affords. In a dimly lit minimá (mini-mall) in Havana he shows what a ration book entitles one person to buy per month: it includes a small bag of coffee, a half-bottle of cooking oil and five pounds of rice. The provisions cost next to nothing (rice is one cent per pound) but are not enough. Cubans have to buy extra in the “free market”, where rice costs 20 times as much.

Leo (not his real name) has different gripes. Cuba does not manufacture the inputs he needs or permit enterprises like his to import them. He travels abroad two or three times a month to get them anyway. It takes six to eight hours to pack his suitcases in such a way that customs officials don’t...

Clueless on Cuba’s economy

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 04:18

GABRIEL and Leo have little in common. Gabriel makes 576 Cuban pesos ($23) a month as a maintenance man in a hospital. Leo runs a private company with revenues of $20,000 a month and 11 full-time employees. But both have cause for complaint. For Gabriel it is the meagre subsistence that his salary affords. In a dimly lit minimá (mini-mall) in Havana he shows what a ration book entitles one person to buy per month: it includes a small bag of coffee, a half-bottle of cooking oil and five pounds of rice. The provisions cost next to nothing (rice is one cent per pound) but are not enough. Cubans have to buy extra in the “free market”, where rice costs 20 times as much.

Leo (not his real name) has different gripes. Cuba does not manufacture the inputs he needs or permit enterprises like his to import them. He travels abroad two or three times a month to get them anyway. It takes six to eight hours to pack his suitcases in such a way that customs officials don’t...

Latin America’s battle over “gender ideology”

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 04:18

THIS year Peru introduced a new curriculum for its primary schools as part of an effort to improve education. One of the new curriculum’s principles is that boys and girls have the same right to education. It notes that “while what we consider to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ is based on biological-sexual differences, these are roles which we construct from day to day, in our interactions.” And “some of those [socially] assigned roles” lead to girls dropping out of school to take on domestic chores.

To many people, this is a statement of the obvious. Yet it provided fuel for a growing campaign that holds that there is a conspiracy in Latin America, known as “gender ideology”, whose aim is to feminise boys, turn girls into lesbians and destroy the family. This might come as news to many in a region notorious for machismo. Nevertheless, the campaigners are scoring victories.

In March a group called Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas (“don’t mess with my...

Canada makes amends to descendants of black loyalists

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 03:03

WHEN Britain needed reinforcements to fight American revolutionaries it tried to entice enslaved blacks to join up by promising them “freedom and a farm”. More than 200 years later, the offer has come back to haunt the governments of Canada and Nova Scotia, where many black loyalists settled. In September a UN human-rights working group criticised them for failing to ensure that the loyalists’ descendants have clear title to land they inherited. Despite Canada’s reputation for celebrating multiculturalism and diversity, said the group’s report, it is “deeply concerned by the structural racism that lies at the core of many Canadian institutions”.

Those stinging words prodded the provincial government into action. On September 27th it said it would spend C$2.7m ($2.2m) over two years to help descendants of black loyalists and other early settlers, including Jamaican Maroons, establish their claims in five mainly black communities, including Sunnyville and Cherry Brook. “We’re turning a corner,” said Tony Ince, the provincial minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

The 3,000 black loyalists who followed the defeated troops north to British-held Nova Scotia were given land as promised, although their lots were often smaller and less fertile than those given to their white comrades in arms. Some “farmland” lay beneath swamps or was covered with...

Modernising Brazil’s waste-picking trade

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 03:03

Cazuza, a real cool catador

EVERY night Gabriel Cazuza drags his two-wheeled, metal-framed carroça through the streets of São Paulo collecting aluminium, paper, cardboard and other recyclables for sale to scrap merchants. He is one of tens of thousands of catadores in Brazil’s biggest city, plying a trade that has employed poor Brazilians since the 19th century. Brazil’s last census, in 2010, counted 387,910 waste-pickers nationwide; that number may be too low. The work is back-breaking and unappreciated. “People don’t like to see us,” says Mr Cazuza.

The developers of Cataki, an app, hope to change that. Since July it has been matching people who have rubbish with catadores operating in their neighbourhoods. Catadores cart off unwanted non-recyclables like sofas and televisions as well. On the Cataki map their carroças show up Uber-...

Venezuela’s war on cuteness

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 07:44

On second thought, hold the onion sauce

VENEZUELA has a hunger crisis, with 12% of children suffering from acute malnutrition. But the country’s socialist president, Nicolás Maduro, has a cunning plan. Under Plan Conejo (Plan Rabbit), poor settlements are to receive cages containing baby rabbits which, when fattened up, will provide the protein and calories many people lack. Freddy Bernal, the urban agriculture minister, recently delivered the first consignment of bunnies to 15 communities.

It makes more sense than some of Mr Maduro’s other ideas. They “will breed like rabbits”, he predicted. While shops run out of bread, butter and other staples because of price controls and scarce foreign exchange, the rabbits will reproduce, oblivious of market forces. The “imperialist” United States, which is waging “economic war” on Venezuela, will only be able to watch and fume.

But the hutch-based solution that Mr Maduro has hatched has run into a...

The parting shots of Brazil’s chief prosecutor

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 07:44

Janot, the fastest gun in the tropics

LIKE a sheriff in one last gunfight, Rodrigo Janot hoped to end his career in a blaze of glory. On September 14th, three days before the end of his term as Brazil’s chief prosecutor, he accused the country’s president, Michel Temer, of obstructing justice and of racketeering. In a 245-page document, Mr Janot alleges that Mr Temer was the ringleader of a “mega-gang” made up of politicians from his Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and others. It extracted bribes worth at least 587m reais ($188m) from companies in return for public contracts and favours. Mr Temer also allegedly paid to silence potential witnesses.

This is the second volley Mr Janot has fired at the president. In June he accused Mr Temer of negotiating bribes and obstructing justice. The charge was based on testimony from Joesley and Wesley Batista and on tapes recorded by Joesley Batista. Their family...

Small consolations from Mexico’s terrible earthquake

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 07:44

THE timing seemed supernatural. At 1.14pm on September 19th, just a couple of hours after Mexicans had completed an evacuation drill marking the 32nd anniversary of an earthquake that devastated the capital, the ground shook once again. The second big quake to hit the country in a fortnight killed at least 230 people, injured several hundred and left many more without homes.

In Mexico City, the site of around half the deaths, it caused terror and heartbreak. It was “the strongest that I can remember”, said Susana Bustamante, an employee of a telecoms firm. “Some people really panicked.” Around 40 buildings collapsed in the capital. They included the Enrique Rebsamen primary school, where 21 children and four adults were killed. At least one trapped child was alive on the following day, but other people were still missing. According to Eduardo Corona of the government’s civil protection agency, the building had collapsed on top of the children and was “very compact…like a pancake”....

Peru loses its prime minister. What next?

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 07:44

PEDRO PABLO KUCZYNSKI has been Peru’s president for little more than a year, but already he has lost or reassigned 15 ministers. The biggest cull came on September 15th, when his government lost a vote of confidence in congress. That led to the resignation of the prime minister, Fernando Zavala, who was also finance minister, along with the rest of the 19-member cabinet. Mr Kuczynski reappointed most of them two days later. But Mr Zavala is gone, as are Marilú Martens, the education minister, whom the opposition accuses of mishandling a teachers’ strike, and three others. To many Peruvians the president, who has four years to go in office, already looks like a lame duck.

The source of his problems is his incomplete victory in last year’s presidential election. He narrowly won the popular vote in the second round against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who is in jail for human-rights crimes. But her party, Fuerza Popular (Popular...

Punishing Nicolás Maduro

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 07:54

DESPITE four months of protests, more than 120 deaths and mounting diplomatic pressure, Nicolás Maduro has got away with it. Venezuela’s president has imposed a rigged constituent assembly to replace the elected, opposition-controlled parliament. He is ruling as a dictator, jailing or harassing scores of opponents. This poses a stark question: what, if anything, can be done to restore democracy?

In the short term, the answer is not much. The protests have stopped. Mr Maduro has the opposition where he wants it: split as to whether or not to participate in an overdue election for regional governors next month, organised by the same tame electoral authority that shamelessly inflated the turnout for the constituent assembly vote from under 4m to 8.5m. For now, the main threats to Mr Maduro’s regime come from elsewhere—from outsiders and from its acute shortage of money.

The United States has responded to the slide to dictatorship by ordering sanctions against 21...

The Caribbean’s pioneering form of disaster insurance

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 07:54

ON SEPTEMBER 12th, before it could reckon how much damage Hurricane Irma had caused, Turks and Caicos got some heartening news. Within a fortnight the tiny Caribbean territory would get $13.6m to pay for disaster relief. Days earlier, Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis and Anguilla were pledged $15.6m. The sum, a substantial 1% of their combined GDP, won’t come from foreign do-gooders. It is a reward for home-grown prudence.

Like 13 other members of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and Nicaragua, the four had been paying into the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF). Created in 2007, it has so far doled out $69m to places battered by storms, floods and earthquakes. Unused funds are retained as reserves. Besides its own resources, CCRIF can draw on around $140m underwritten annually by reinsurers.

Spreading risk across Caricom and beyond—CCRIF is open to associate members such as Anguilla and, since 2015, to Central American...

Mexico’s quake of the century

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 07:54

The strongest earthquake in a century struck the coast of Mexico on September 7th, killing at least 96 people. Most died in the southern state of Oaxaca. In the town of Juchitán the quake destroyed the hospital and made a third of the houses uninhabitable. The death toll was far lower than in the earthquake off the coast of Michoacán in 1985, in which at least 10,000 people died, many of them in Mexico City. That caused political tremors, discrediting the then-president, Miguel de la Madrid, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who seemed paralysed by the disaster. Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who also belongs to PRI, is hardly more popular. But in the hope of avoiding his predecessor’s mistakes, he visited Juchitán on September 8th.