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Updated: 2 hours 28 min ago

Argentina’s new government gets to grips with the economy

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 09:35

IT IS A MONTH now since Alberto Fernández took over from Mauricio Macri as Argentina’s president and, contrary to some forecasts, the sky over the Pampas has not yet fallen in. Having inherited a dire economic situation, including what Mr Fernández, a Peronist, called a “virtual default” on the country’s debts, his government has begun by doing more or less what he said it would. Adopting almost the opposite approach to its predecessor, it has laid out a tough fiscal policy and a loose monetary policy and has yet to say much about how it will handle the debt. Exchange and price controls, and the southern summer lull, have combined to buy the new team time. But will they use it wisely?

It was trying to buy time to reform a sick economy that got Mr Macri into trouble. A free-market conservative, he ran up debt to finance a gradual fiscal adjustment until investors took fright, prompting a run on the peso and forcing the government into the arms of the IMF. The economy slumped into recession, inflation surged to 54% last year and Mr Macri lost the presidential election. The new team’s first objective, according to Martin Guzmán, the economy minister, is “to halt the fall”.

They have swiftly pushed through an emergency package of mainly fiscal measures. These include tax increases on farm exports and travel abroad, and a...

Baseball-mad Andrés Manuel López Obrador throws money at the game

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 09:35

“TRAITOR. YOU ARE A TRAITOR.” That is how Eduardo Galeano, a leftist writer from Uruguay, greeted Che Guevara in Havana in the early 1960s. The Argentine’s crime had been to abandon Latin America’s favourite pastime, football, for North America’s. A Cuban newspaper had published a photo of him playing baseball. Guevara, who said it was “the first time someone calls me a traitor and keeps living”, learned to play in a Mexican prison while jailed with Fidel Castro in the 1950s. 

He is not the only left-wing leader to have caught the baseball bug in Mexico. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s president, has been a fanatic since childhood. He won the election in 2018 by pledging to go to bat for the poor and vows to “strike out” Mexico’s “mafia of power”.

Under his programme of “republican austerity”, the government has slashed spending on everything from child care to medicines. Baseball is an exception. In March Mr López Obrador opened an Office for the Promotion and Development of Baseball. It got 350m pesos ($19m) to spot and nurture talent. Bureaucrats at non-baseball agencies were enraged. 

Mexico’s constitution tells the government to “promote and stimulate” sport. It does not say which ones. Mr López Obrador has cut funding for Formula 1 and American-football events. Baseball, though, is “...

Jovenel Moïse tries to govern Haiti without a parliament

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 09:35

PETER CONFIDENCE lounges against a broken lamppost in a park in Petionville, a prosperous suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, basking in the afternoon sun. As he rubs a tattooed St Peter on his neck he explains that Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s president, is the only man strong enough to fix the country. Before he can finish, a passer-by selling food from a large metal pot that he lugs around interjects that the Americans should lock Mr Moïse up. Within seconds, a crowd assembles to discuss the state of the nation and the quality of its leader, nicknamed “Banana Man” because he once helped create a big banana plantation. The conversation pinballs between tirades and black humour.

Though such debate is a feature of Haitian life, the country’s parliament is silent. A new session should have begun on January 13th, the day after the tenth anniversary of a devastating earthquake. But a legislative election, due in October 2019, was never held. In the absence of a functioning legislature, the president will rule by decree. For a country with a history of brutal dictatorship, coups and dodgy elections, the prospect of one-man rule is ominous.

Even before it was dissolved, parliament was dysfunctional and its relationship with the president was broken. The 119-seat lower house was divided among 20-odd parties, which mostly...

A crude attempt to stifle what’s left of Venezuela’s democracy

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 08:50

ON SUNDAY JANUARY 5TH Juan Guaidó found himself perched unsteadily atop the ornate wrought-iron railings outside Venezuela’s national assembly, being pushed back by the riot shields of the National Guard. Since Mr Guaidó is the speaker of the assembly and was due to be re-elected to the post that day, the image said everything about the assault on the last vestiges of Venezuela’s democracy by the regime of Nicolás Maduro, who rules as a dictator. It underlined that a year after Mr Guaidó proclaimed himself “interim president” of the country, on the grounds that Mr Maduro’s election for a second term was fraudulent, he has legitimacy but no power. And it suggested that Mr Maduro has no interest in negotiating a solution for Venezuela’s long agony.

In December 2015 the opposition triumphed in a legislative election, the last fair contest the country has seen. It won 112 of the 167 seats in the assembly, a two-thirds majority and thus enough to change the constitution and appoint new judicial and electoral authorities. Mr Maduro’s regime went into action. The puppet supreme court barred three opposition legislators from taking their seats. In 2017 the regime set up a parallel “constituent assembly” of loyalists, which rubber-stamps its actions. The courts have stripped 29 opposition parliamentarians of their immunity. Two are in jail....

Justin Trudeau’s less ambitious second term as Canada’s prime minister

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 08:50

JUSTIN TRUDEAU returned from his Christmas break in Costa Rica with a new look. Canada’s prime minister has sprouted a salt-and-pepper stubble, making him look slightly less youthful. His makeover hints that he intends to govern differently in his second term, which began late last year. He has plenty of reasons to change his approach. The election on October 21st was a close shave. Mr Trudeau’s Liberal Party won 1m fewer votes than it had four years before and lost its majority in Parliament. He now leads a minority government dependent for support on other parties, especially the left-wing New Democrats (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois, which advocates independence for Quebec. The Liberals won no seats in the western prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Mr Trudeau interprets this setback as a rebuff to his governing style rather than to his policies. He was a global cheerleader for every progressive cause, from welcoming refugees to expanding transgender rights. This grated on some voters. Ethical lapses, especially demoting the justice minister after she refused to help a big engineering firm avoid prosecution for bribery, compounded the damage.

Mr Trudeau’s first-term policies are easier to defend. They included legalising cannabis; a new child benefit, which cut poverty and lifted middle-class incomes; a...

Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, outlines his plans

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 08:50

ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI, who will become Guatemala’s president on January 14th, did not have an easy ride to the top. The 63-year-old developed multiple sclerosis in his youth and walks with forearm crutches. His only previous government job was a brief stint a dozen years ago as head of the country’s prisons, which ended in his own incarceration. He spent ten months in jail during the investigation of the killing of seven inmates. Charges were dropped. He has a 20-year record of losing elections to be president and mayor of Guatemala City, the capital. This time, more popular rivals were disqualified.

The country he is about to lead is also bruised. Crime is high, corruption is unchecked and hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans a year seek better lives in the United States. Mr Giammattei’s answer, etched in English on a Guatemala-blue bracelet that he wears, is “hope”.

His predecessor, Jimmy Morales, failed to provide it. A former comedian and political outsider, he won the presidency in 2015 in a protest vote against corruption. But he sent home a UN-backed anti-graft agency, the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), which had investigated allegations that he had violated campaign-finance laws (which he denies). After handing power to Mr Giammattei, Mr Morales will scurry across town for a same-day swearing-...

Jair Bolsonaro’s contentious first year in office

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 08:50

SINCE JAIR BOLSONARO became Brazil’s president on January 1st 2019, he has quarrelled with an impressive array of foreign leaders and celebrities. After France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, accused him of encouraging deforestation of the Amazon, Mr Bolsonaro called his wife ugly. When Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish climate activist, highlighted the murder of indigenous people in the Amazon, the Brazilian president called her a “brat”. Michelle Bachelet, the UN human-rights commissioner (and a former president of Chile), criticised a rise in killings by police in Brazil. Mr Bolsonaro responded by praising Chile’s dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, which tortured her father.

These spats are a sign of the gulf between Brazil’s far-right president, who has made a career out of attacking liberal ideas about tolerance, human rights and conservation, and the elites who espouse them. Mr Bolsonaro’s put-downs suggest he does not mind causing offence. But senior officials in his government do worry, especially when NGOs threaten to promote boycotts of Brazilian products and governments reconsider whether to ratify trade deals.

The world is “misreading” Mr Bolsonaro, said the economy minister, Paulo Guedes, during an interview in Brasília, the country’s capital, last month. He has “bad manners, but great principles”. Mr Guedes...

The troubles of Bogotá’s TransMilenio

Thu, 01/02/2020 - 08:50

DURING ONE recent morning rush hour Yuraima Salas, a cleaner running late for work, found herself squeezed in a crowd of commuters waiting for a bus. When it arrived the crowd surged, she tripped and someone trod on her foot. She ended up in hospital, with severe bruises and a sprained ankle.

Ms Salas was a casualty of Bogotá’s TransMilenio bus system, which uses stations on dedicated lanes to mimic an underground metro. Cities smaller than Colombia’s capital, such as Curitiba in Brazil, pioneered such bus rapid-transit (BRT) systems. Bogotá, with 8m people (four times the population of Curitiba), was the first to build one on a large scale. Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor who built it in the late 1990s, became a star among urban planners. Now the TransMilenio is overcrowded and unpopular. Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, who took office on January 1st, campaigned against expanding it and in favour of adding to a planned overground train system. Bogotá is the largest Latin American city without an urban rail network. She may have to reconsider those ideas.

At first, the TransMilenio was a triumph. Bogotá built the first 40km (25 miles) of lanes in a third of the time and at a sixth of what it would have cost to create an overground metro of the same length. In 2000, its first year of operation, TransMilenio reduced average...

More dollars and fewer protests in Venezuela

Wed, 12/18/2019 - 08:51

THE HUMBOLDT, a pencil-shaped luxury hotel overlooking Caracas, has long symbolised broken promises by Venezuelan governments. Built in 1956, during the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, it has been empty most of the time. The cable car to its mountaintop location keeps breaking down. The current regime, a socialist dictatorship led by Nicolás Maduro, promises that the Humboldt will soon be relaunched as Venezuela’s first “seven-star” hotel.

On December 14th it threw a party. Christmas lights twinkled. A DJ pumped out reggaeton hits. Models cavorted around the empty swimming pool. Enchufados (plugged-ins), made rich by their connections to the regime, sipped imported vodka at tables with panoramic views while two green laser lights beamed down upon the capital of a country that is suffering from the world’s deepest recession. “Caracas has become like something out of ‘The Great Gatsby’,” said Karina González, a young secretary, as she looked up at the light show. “Decadence alongside penury.”

The Humboldt bash is a sign of change. It is not a return of prosperity, which does not spread beyond the party-goers and their sort. Nor is it the democratisation demanded by the opposition and by the 60-odd countries that back it. Rather, it points to the regime’s growing confidence that...

Canada’s legal cannabis market gets off to a slow start

Wed, 12/18/2019 - 08:51

COLOURFUL CANS labelled Pink Kush, Moon and Trail Blazer are arranged invitingly in the glass-doored cooler at Superette, a cannabis store in the trendy Westboro area of Ottawa. But they are just models for marketing purposes. A sales clerk, wearing a white Superette toque and matching T-shirt, explains that cannabis-infused drinks and edibles, like chocolates, biscuits and sweets, will probably not go on sale until early January, even though the government finished its review process by December 16th. “Wheels of bureaucracy,” the salesman explains.

In October 2018 Canada became the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to legalise cannabis for recreational use. But it has proceeded with caution. Sales of the plant, oils and seeds were legalised right away. Drinks, edible confections and vaping products followed a year later. This, plus slow approvals of retail outlets by some provinces, turned an expected bonanza into a bit of a bust. The industry is hoping that what it calls “Cannabis 2.0” will revive its fortunes. It may not.

The government said that legalisation would help keep cannabis out of the hands of children and put criminals out of business. Progress has been slower than it wanted. Just 28% of consumers bought only from legal sources in the third quarter of 2019. The rest presumably are still buying on...

Latin America’s second “lost decade” is not as bad as the first

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 08:53

THINK BACK to the start of 2010, when Latin America was awash with optimism. The region rode out the global financial crisis with only a brief economic dip and no damage to its banks. In Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, preparing to step down after eight years as president with an approval rating of 75%, proclaimed that his country had shed its inferiority complex. The commodity boom had lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty. The 2010s, declared Luis Alberto Moreno of the Inter-American Development Bank, would be “the Latin American decade”.

As these years come to an end, Latin Americans might think that they turned out to be a “low dishonest decade”, to echo W.H. Auden’s description of the 1930s. It started with a bang, with economic growth of 5.9% for the region in 2010, which quickly became a long whimper. Since 2013 growth has averaged 0.8%, meaning that income per person has fallen slightly. The UN estimates that 31% of Latin Americans are poor, the same share as in 2010. Income inequality is continuing to fall, but much more slowly than it did before 2014. Then there are political discontents. Polls show that Latin Americans see their politicians as corrupt and cynical. More than a quarter would like to emigrate, according to Gallup, a polling firm. Popular anger has exploded in street protests in half a dozen...

Asbestos, Quebec wants a new name, maybe

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 08:53

OLDER RESIDENTS of Asbestos, Quebec remember when the substance for which their town is named was thought to be a miracle material. The furry silicate mineral was woven into textiles and incorporated into building materials so that they would not burn. Kaiser Wilhelm sheltered in a portable asbestos hut during the first world war. During the next one the American armed forces used the stuff to insulate ships, tanks and aircraft and to make fireproof uniforms. Asbestos found its way into cement, pipes, tiles and shingles. The Canadian navy launched a corvette in 1943 called the HCMS Asbestos. “It [would be] a fantastic material if it didn’t kill people,” says Jessica van Horssen, author of “A Town Called Asbestos”, a book about the town and its place in the global industry.

Now it is known to cause a deadly form of lung cancer. The 2km (1.2-mile) open-pit Jeffrey Mine, once the largest asbestos mine in the world, shut down in 2012. It remains the most visible feature of the landscape near Asbestos. The town’s 5,000 inhabitants are now considering whether to change its name. That might make it easier to attract investment.

Hugues Grimard, the mayor, says prospective investors treat councillors as if they had a contagious disease. Some even refuse to take their business cards. He believes that a new...

How Alberto Fernández plans to cope with Argentina’s economic crisis

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 08:53

ALBERTO FERNÁNDEZ drove himself and his girlfriend, Fabiola Yáñez, to congress for his inauguration as Argentina’s president in their Toyota. That gesture, as much as anything he said in his hour-long speech, signalled that he intends to swiftly help ordinary Argentines who are suffering from recession, high inflation and rising poverty. But some wondered, as the Peronist accepted the presidential sash and baton from Mauricio Macri, his centre-right predecessor, whether he would drive the country forwards or backwards.

The question was provoked in part by the presence of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the new vice-president, who preceded Mr Macri as president. Ms Fernández, a populist who governed from 2007 to 2015, created the economic mess whose clean-up Mr Macri botched. She has been indicted in nine separate court cases for acts of corruption and other misdeeds. In the new administration she has already amassed unprecedented influence for a vice-president. The new president (no relation to Ms Fernández) wants to be a crowd-pleaser as she was, at least for poor Argentines, but without repeating her mistakes. That will be tricky.

The “social catastrophe” that Mr Fernández promises to end is real. Two-fifths of Argentina’s citizens cannot afford a monthly basket of staple goods. The year-on-year inflation rate exceeds 50%....

Alberta’s secession movement spells trouble for Justin Trudeau

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 09:16

THE 700 PEOPLE who gathered on a recent Saturday night at the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall in Edmonton, the capital of the western Canadian province of Alberta, came not to boogie but to vent. Baseball caps for sale bore such slogans as “Make Alberta Great Again”, “The West Wants Out” and “Wexit”. On stage, before a Canadian flag held between hockey sticks and pointed upside down, Peter Downing recited the grievances that drew the crowd: cancelled plans to build oil pipelines, subsidies paid to the rest of Canada and snobbery towards Alberta from the central Canadian provinces. The country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, would get what’s coming to him, Mr Downing pledged. Someone near the back muttered, “Hopefully, a bullet.”

The anger at the Boot Scootin’ would be easy to ignore, except that it will be one of the dominant themes of Mr Trudeau’s second term in office, which began when he narrowly won re-election in October. His Liberal Party was wiped out in Alberta and in its equally resentful neighbour, Saskatchewan. Mr Trudeau appointed Alberta-born Chrystia Freeland, the foreign minister in the last government, to be deputy prime minister and minister of intergovernmental affairs. One of her main jobs will be to soothe western feelings. Canada’s governor-general was expected to outline the government’s ideas for bridging...

The surprising similarities between AMLO and Jair Bolsonaro

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 09:16

TO ALL APPEARANCES they are opposites and foes. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is a foul-mouthed former army captain of the hard right. Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a would-be revolutionary of the left. Mr Bolsonaro appeals to the worst in Brazilians, with his diatribes against women and gays, casual racism and fondness for guns and chopping down the Amazon’s trees. Mr López Obrador (known as AMLO) invokes the noble purpose of making Mexico fairer and less unequal. Yet for all their differences, the two most important presidents in Latin America are strikingly similar in many ways. After roughly a year in office, each faces difficulties.

Both are reactionaries in the purest sense, conjuring up an imagined golden past. Mr Bolsonaro lionises Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-85. AMLO, who stresses that he is a democrat, believes that everything was better in Mexico before a turn to “neoliberalism” in the 1980s. Both are nationalists with little interest in the outside world and would rather the outside world reciprocated. They are believers, and have inserted religion into the political discourse of hitherto secular states. Mr Bolsonaro, a Pentecostal protestant, campaigned on the slogan “Brazil above all, God above everyone”. AMLO implicitly compares himself to Christ, who was “sacrificed …for defending the poor”. Both defend...

Desi Bouterse’s murder conviction will not trouble him much

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 09:16

TWO DAYS after a military court found Desi Bouterse, Suriname’s president, guilty of murdering 15 political foes, he returned home from a visit to China. A throng of supporters, many wearing the purple of his National Democratic Party, turned up to greet him at Paramaribo’s international airport on December 1st. Mr Bouterse brought back a promise of $300m to upgrade airports and roads and install solar power and 5G internet services. But the welcome was a defiant show of loyalty to a leader who has dominated his tiny country’s politics for four decades.

Mr Bouterse’s conviction for murders that took place in 1982, and the 20-year sentence that goes with it, are unlikely to dislodge him. He helped lead a “sergeants’ coup” against an elected government in 1980, five years after independence from the Netherlands. He was elected democratically as president in 2010 and re-elected five years later. He may well repeat that feat next year. Few Surinamese expect Mr Bouterse to serve a day of his sentence. The appeal process could drag on for ten years, says the vice-president, Ashwin Adhin.

The murder victims were foes of Mr Bouterse’s regime—journalists, lawyers, scholars, soldiers and businessmen. Fearing a counter-coup backed by the Netherlands, the regime rounded them up at night and held them in Fort Zeelandia, built in the...

The street challenges Latin America’s politicians

Thu, 11/28/2019 - 08:43

ANOTHER WEEK, and another Latin American country is out on the street. Now it is Colombia, where large protests have been taking place since November 21st. In other places, demonstrations have been triggered by specific things, even if the protesters’ demands went beyond them—increases in metro fares in Chile and fuel prices in Haiti and Ecuador, and electoral fraud in Bolivia. But in Colombia there is just a pervasive feeling of discontent with an unpopular government. It has brought disparate groups onto the streets, from students, trade unionists and indigenous and gay activists to archaeologists against mining. A similar mood prevails in much of the region. The longer this goes on, the more it may paralyse governments.

The protests are not without precedent, nor are they confined to Latin America. In the early 2000s, elected governments were toppled in Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia (twice, in disorders led by Evo Morales, who has just suffered the same fate). Huge protests erupted out of almost nothing in Brazil in 2013.

As in 1968, this is a time of global discontent, but it is particularly intense in Latin America. The protests are not its only manifestation. Popular anger showed up last year in electoral victories for contrasting populists, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. The...

Cuba reintroduces the dollar

Thu, 11/28/2019 - 08:43

AMERICAN SALOONS from the 1950s and Chinese-brand cars still fill Havana’s streets. Lately, though, they have shared the road with brand-new electric scooters. Once rarities—sourced in Panama, Mexico or the Dominican Republic and sold at a big mark-up in the black market—scooters can now be purchased at home, and far more cheaply than before. The catch: Cubans must pay in American dollars or another rich-country currency.

In October Cuba’s communist government said citizens could open bank accounts that receive dollars, yen, euros and other European currencies. They will be able to use the money to buy imported goods from new state-owned shops, called Tiendas Moneda Libremente Convertible (or convertible-currency shops), where prices are given in dollars. More than 70 are planned. This ends a ban on dollar transactions introduced in 2004.

The Tiendas MLC are proving popular. Shoppers queue to buy refrigerators, air-conditioners, car parts and television sets. Some items, including freezers and scooters, cannot be restocked quickly enough.

By reintroducing the greenback, Cuba has in effect added a third leg to its dual-currency system. The state pays its employees (ie, most workers) in Cuban pesos, the currency for buying necessities like electricity, water and bus tickets. In 1994, during the “special period”...

AMLO uses his anti-corruption drive to gain power and scare critics

Thu, 11/28/2019 - 08:43

SINCE 2003 the boringly named Asset Administration and Disposal Service, or SAE, has sold off cars and houses seized by Mexico’s government mainly from smugglers and tax-dodgers. The SAE used to split the proceeds among the police, the judiciary and the health service. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president since December 1st last year, has jazzed things up. He now refers to the SAE as the “Institute for the Return of Stolen Goods to the People”. In June he promised 25.7m pesos ($1.3m) from an auction of ill-gotten goods to two poor indigenous villages in the southern state of Oaxaca. At a televised news conference, the president gave giant cheques to their mayors.

The episode sums up much about the presidency of Mr López Obrador, who is often known as AMLO. It shows his dedication to fighting graft, his flair for political theatre, his indifference to institutions and his belief in the virtue of ordinary people, among whom he counts himself. “To look like they were fighting corruption,” past governments “created so many rules,” he said at the cheque handover. The two lucky villages will be able to spend the cash as they like, without oversight. Mexicans “are an honest people,” says the president. “Corruption occurs from above, not from the bottom up.” His folksy way of fighting corruption is working for him. At a time when...

Chile staggers towards a new constitution

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 08:55

IN 2014 MICHELLE BACHELET, a Socialist, swept into Chile’s presidency for a second time on a programme of radical reform of tax, education and pensions. She also aspired to enact a new constitution that would guarantee “more balance between the state, the private sector and society”, as she told your columnist over tea at the Moneda presidential palace. She argued that her “struggle against inequality” was a last chance to deal with discontents that, if neglected, could push Chile towards populism.

At the time that seemed alarmist. And several of Ms Bachelet’s reforms were poorly designed. They faced implacable opposition from business and the right. Her public standing was hurt by a scandal involving a bank loan secured by her son. But in retrospect Ms Bachelet was right on the big things. For the past month, because of the discontents she identified, Chile has been seared by a social conflagration. This has seen huge peaceful protests, savagely violent disorder and heavy-handed policing.

A different country is set to emerge. Chile inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet both a fast-growing market economy and a “market society” of pay-for-it-yourself pensions, health care and education. Under democratic governments over the past 30 years, social provision has been incrementally reformed. Chileans are much...