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Bolivia’s other intoxicating export—fine wine

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 07:50

IN 2010 the Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, which is financed by the government, sent Cees van Casteren to Bolivia. His mission was to help Bolivia’s vintners break into Europe. It was a tough assignment. Back then, Bolivia’s main winemakers—Kohlberg, Campos de Solana and Aranjuez, all family-owned—competed fiercely to sell cheap wine to a tiny protected domestic market. The intoxicating export for which Bolivia is famous is cocaine.

The idea that Bolivia might aspire to bottle something better is not silly. Spanish priests made wines there in the 16th century. The modern industry started in the 1960s, when the Kohlbergs brought vines from Europe to make wine to relieve a family member’s heart condition.

Bolivia’s vineyards in the Andean region of Tarija are among the world’s highest, at 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) above sea level. Intense sunshine gives grapes’ skins more tannin and wide daily temperature swings increase the acidity of their juice. That makes tannats, malbecs and cabernet sauvignons “fresh”, and “spicier” than lower-altitude wines, says Mr van Casteren, one of 394 “masters of wine”.

But putting them on European tables has not been easy. The first step was to bring the feuding families together to agree on how to spend the Dutch aid and to come up with a...

Cuba on the edge

Thu, 04/23/2020 - 07:50

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IT IS THE dream of every exile to die in the home country, but not in the circumstances of Víctor Batista Falla. A member of a wealthy banking family, he left his native Cuba in 1960 when Fidel Castro’s revolution moved towards communism. He devoted his life to publishing the work of exiled writers and thinkers, especially of social-democratic and liberal persuasions. Last month he visited Cuba for the first time in 60 years. On April 12th he died, aged 87, in a Havana hospital, of covid-19. He had probably brought it with him from Madrid, where he had lived for decades.

Since the 1990s Cuba has been open to mass tourism and family visits. It is not surprising that it is vulnerable to covid-19, like the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. As of April 23rd it had reported 1,189 cases and 40 deaths. In proportion to its population, that is similar to Argentina’s caseload.

Even as it has failed to offer Cubans...

Argentina’s make-or-break moment

Wed, 04/22/2020 - 13:10

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

UNTIL RECENTLY advisers to Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, quoted the old saw that crisis brings opportunity. Inaugurated in December, he is dealing with two calamities that no one can blame him for: a deep recession inherited from his predecessor, Mauricio Macri, and the covid-19 pandemic. Argentines give Mr Fernández high marks for his response. On becoming president he raised taxes and froze pensions and salaries to stabilise public finances. He acted early to slow the spread of covid-19, shutting borders, business and most transport by decree on March 12th. People who break the rules face fines and prison sentences.

The lockdown is having an effect. On April 23rd Argentina had 3,288 confirmed cases of covid-19 and 159 deaths from it. That is far fewer than in Spain, which has roughly the same number of people (though it may be an underestimate). Mr Fernández’s approval rating has soared. A...

The flickering light of liberalism in Latin America

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 07:47

IN “THE LIGHT THAT FAILED”, an influential recent book, Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political thinker, and Stephen Holmes, an American law professor, argue that the rise of populist nationalisms in central and eastern Europe is in large part due to frustration with the way that liberalism was foisted on these countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The practice of copying a foreign model, presented to citizens as if there were no alternative, is a humiliating one that denies national traditions and identities, they write. For Latin America their argument raises an interesting question. It, too, formed part of the global wave of democratisation in the 1980s and 1990s, and it, too, has seen a recent resurgence of populist nationalisms. So are the troubles of liberalism in Latin America down to it being a foreign import, with few local roots?

The answer must start with liberalism’s long history in Latin America, a region that has seen waves of copying of foreign ideas and of their rejection. It achieved political independence two centuries ago under the twin inspirations of the European enlightenment and the constitutionalism and republican values of the fledgling United States. But those Latin American founders who set out to build nations, ravaged by the independence wars, on liberal principles quickly ran into crude local...

Mexico’s bazooka-shy president

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 07:47

NO ONE CAN accuse Andrés Manuel López Obrador of panicking. As covid-19 sickened people and ravaged economies across the globe, Mexico’s president snapped selfies with supporters. Now that the cost to Mexico’s economy is becoming clear, he is sticking with the idiosyncratic mix of populism and austerity that has guided policy since he became president in December 2018. His stubbornness may worsen what could be Mexico’s deepest recession in almost a century. That could wreck the popularity of a leader whose approval ratings have been among the world’s highest and end his dream of a pro-poor “fourth transformation” of Mexico.

The country’s economy, which shrank by 0.1% last year, is among the most vulnerable in Latin America. It depends on trade with and remittances from the United States, tourism and exports of oil, all of which are being battered by covid-19. In the four weeks to April 6th Mexico lost 347,000 formal jobs, more than the total created in 2019. The IMF expects GDP to contract by 6.6% this year. In Latin America only Venezuela’s economy will shrink more.

Governments the world over are fighting recessions with fiscal bazookas. Mr López Obrador, usually known as AMLO, has resisted. Although his plans for transforming Mexico call for lavishing money on infrastructure and the poor, he has been committed to...

Venezuela’s navy battles a cruise ship, and loses

Wed, 04/08/2020 - 07:48

IT WAS, ON the face of it, a mismatched contest. The ANBV Naiguatá, a Venezuelan patrol vessel, was armed with a 76mm naval gun, a German-built anti-aircraft system that sprays a cloud of tungsten bullets and a pair of deck-mounted machine guns, among other weaponry. The RCGS Resolute, a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship with an 80-seat theatre, had the top speed of an oil tanker. But in the early hours of March 30th it was Venezuela’s Bolivarian navy whose ship ended up on the seabed—in the first decisive naval skirmish in the Caribbean for 75 years.

The Resolute, en route to Curaçao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, had been drifting for a day in international waters near La Tortuga, a Venezuelan island, as it tinkered with its starboard engine. At midnight it was approached by the Naiguatá and ordered to come into port. As the Resolute contacted its head office for instructions, the Naiguatá opened fire—a video released by the Venezuelan navy shows a sailor firing an AK-47 in the howling wind and darkness with Rambo-like enthusiasm—and rammed the cruise ship, according to its parent company.

Unfortunately for the Naiguatá, the...

Jair Bolsonaro isolates himself, in the wrong way

Wed, 04/08/2020 - 07:48

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ONE BY ONE the doubters have made their peace with medical science. Only four rulers in the world continue to deny the threat to public health posed by covid-19. Two are flotsam from the former Soviet Union, the despots of Belarus and Turkmenistan. A third is Daniel Ortega, the tropical dictator of Nicaragua. The other is the elected president of a great, if battered, democracy. Jair Bolsonaro’s undermining of his own government’s efforts to contain the virus may mark the beginning of the end of his presidency.

Since the new coronavirus was first detected in Brazil in late February Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a fondness for military rulers, has made light of it. Dismissing its effects as “just a little dose of flu”, he said “we’re going to face the virus like a man, dammit, not like a little boy.” He added, helpfully: “we’re all going to die one day.” In the 15 months since he became president, Brazilians have become...

Latin America’s health systems brace for a battering

Wed, 04/08/2020 - 07:48

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub

A PROCESSION OF disappointments awaits residents of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, when illness strikes. Those who report symptoms of covid-19 to the health-care hotline get appointments scheduled for several weeks later, by which time they will probably have recovered or died. With ambulance services overwhelmed, stricken people arrive at hospitals in pickup trucks, only to find there are no empty beds. When somebody dies at home, the corpse joins a long waiting list for removal. The city has run out of wooden coffins. Some relatives dump loved ones’ bodies in the sweltering streets.

Guayaquil is the first place in Ecuador where covid-19 has struck with force. That is probably because the country’s Pacific coast takes a long school holiday starting in early February, five months before the Andean region, including Quito, the capital. Guayaquileños flew to and from Europe after the novel coronavirus began...

Cuba’s doctors are in high demand

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 07:50

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see our coronavirus hub

WHEN THE number of patients mounts but the number of healers does not, whom do you call? That was the question for Giulio Gallera, the health minister in Lombardy, the Italian region worst hit by covid-19. The army was erecting a field hospital with 32 beds in a car park in Crema, 50km (30 miles) south-east of Milan. But what about doctors to attend them? “Someone said to me: ‘Write to the Cuban ministry of health,’” recalls Mr Gallera. Barely a week later, on March 22nd, 52 medics arrived from Havana, waving Cuban and Italian flags. Locals sent them warm clothing and bicycles for their commute.

Cuba’s Central Medical Collaboration Unit, which for six decades has sent doctors across the world, is having a busy month. Some 14 countries, from Angola to Andorra, have received a total of 800 doctors and nurses. Politicians in Buenos Aires and Valencia in Spain, and indigenous groups in Canada, are pressing national governments to request Cuban brigades....

The wisdom and witlessness of Latin America’s leaders

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 07:50

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see our coronavirus hub

SINCE HE TOOK over as Peru’s president two years ago Martín Vizcarra, an otherwise nondescript politician, has not flinched from taking bold decisions. He pushed political reforms through by referendum. Faced with a serially obstructive Congress, last year he shut it down, calling a fresh legislative election. Characteristically, he was the first Latin American leader to react to covid-19 by imposing a lockdown and curfew, on March 15th when his country had only 71 reported cases. Peruvians appreciate this restriction on their liberties for the public good. In an Ipsos poll his approval rating soared from 52% to 87%.

That is the pattern in Latin America. In Argentina Alberto Fernández, who took over a politically divided country in December, has seen his popularity rise to over 80% after he imposed a quarantine and sealed borders. In Colombia the new mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, stole a march over a hesitant national government when she imposed a...

The unintended consequences of indicting Nicolás Maduro

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 07:50

IT WAS, INSISTED William Barr, the United States attorney-general, “good timing”. Amid the covid-19 pandemic and a collapse in global oil prices, on March 26th America’s Department of Justice unsealed indictments on drugs charges of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, and members of his inner circle. No longer should his regime be seen as merely corrupt and incompetent, argued Mr Barr. Now he has formally labelled it criminal—a drug gang masquerading as a government. The State Department offered rewards for information leading to the arrest of the accused ringleaders: $15m for Mr Maduro, $10m for Diosdado Cabello, the thuggish head of the pro-government “constituent assembly”.

The administration of Donald Trump seems to hope that the indictments will finally remove a regime that has been subject to punishing sanctions since early last year. But branding Mr Maduro a criminal blunts any incentive he might have to relinquish power. On March 31st the Trump administration changed its tone a bit. It suggested a “democratic transition framework” that envisages a role for the regime.

Venezuela’s situation is terrifying. Under Hugo Chávez, who became president in 1999, high oil prices hid the costs of the regime’s economically illiterate policies. But since 2013, when Mr Maduro took over, the economy has shrunk by two-thirds...

Mexico and the United States shut their border, sort of

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 04:33

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see our coronavirus hub

TIJUANA AND San Diego are rumbustious siblings. The San Ysidro border crossing, which links them, is the world’s busiest. Some 5m people a month make the northward journey between the cities. But covid-19 has brought about an abrupt change in their relationship. On March 19th California’s government ordered the state’s 42m residents to stay home to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The next day Donald Trump, the American president, announced that the United States-Mexico border would be closed to all but “essential” traffic.

San Diego immediately became a ghost town, its streets bare but for a few dog walkers and homeless people. At each stop on an empty tram, a gloved attendant wiped clean the buttons that operate its doors. Traffic at San Ysidro slowed to a trickle. But at Tijuana beach, a few hundred metres across the border, couples strolled, vendors sold hot dogs and party-goers congregated around fires. Despite the notable absence of...

Covid-19 will sicken Latin America’s weak economies

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 04:33

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see our coronavirus hub

IN BRAZIL, COPACABANA beach is deserted and football stadiums are being turned into field hospitals. Colombia has shut its border with Venezuela. Seabirds have taken possession of Peruvian beaches and a puma was spotted ambling through the suburbs of Santiago, Chile’s capital. Covid-19 has now arrived in strength in Latin America. With it have come lockdowns in many countries, though some leaders remain in denial, storing up trouble. Everywhere, it is threatening and testing both public health and livelihoods.

The virus has struck a patient that in economic terms has a serious pre-existing condition. Since 2014 the region’s economy has grown at an annual average rate of less than 1% a year and income per person has dropped. Now it faces a contraction even more severe than that induced by the financial crisis in 2009, when Latin America’s GDP fell by 1.7%. Back then, thanks to prudent economic management, many countries were able to soften the blow by...

Brazil’s president fiddles as a pandemic looms

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 04:18

Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For more coverage, see our coronavirus hub

THE FIRST person to die from covid-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro was a 63-year-old maid who commuted each week to a beachside apartment in Leblon, the priciest neighbourhood in Brazil. Her employer had recently returned from Italy. The maid, who had diabetes and high blood pressure, died on March 17th in a city 100km (60 miles) away, where she and five relatives shared a cinder-block house. Several hospital workers there have since fallen ill. 

If the virus in Italy jumps between generations living together, in Brazil it started by hopping between classes, which are socially distant but physically close. One vector may be the populist president, Jair Bolsonaro. On March 15th, after his communications secretary tested positive for the virus, he ignored quarantine orders and took selfies with fans. When the first Brazilian died of covid-19 on the next day, he denounced “hysteria” about the virus.

Other leaders are less complacent...

Venezuela’s political quarantine

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 08:48

AS IF IT were needed, coronavirus is a cruel reminder that the man who holds all the power in Venezuela is not Juan Guaidó, whom some 60 countries recognise as its president, but Nicolás Maduro, the dictator who kept the office by electoral theft. Blaming foreigners for 36 detected cases of covid-19, on March 16th Mr Maduro ordered a lockdown of the country similar to those in Spain and Italy, placing the armed forces in charge of enforcing it. That may be medically sensible. It is also politically convenient.

Mr Guaidó, who is the speaker of the National Assembly, last month began a new round of street demonstrations against Mr Maduro’s regime, which will now presumably stop. They are a shadow of the massive protests that followed his proclamation as “interim president” 14 months ago, when Mr Maduro began a second term after a fraudulent election. In theory the opposition remains committed to ousting Mr Maduro and calling a democratic presidential ballot. But sweeping American sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry have so far failed to break the regime. Talks between government and opposition broke down in September. That leaves the opposition with a dilemma.

Under the constitution an election for the National Assembly is due towards the end of this year. In 2015, in Venezuela’s last free election, the opposition won a...

Canada’s quest for a national lichen

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 08:48

CANADA HAS a national tree (the maple), a national animal (the beaver) and a national horse (the Canadian horse). Conspicuously missing is a national lichen. Scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa want to put that right. It is conducting an online poll to choose one. More than 9,000 people had voted by March 17th. The ballot closes on March 26th.

The case for choosing a Canadian lichen is compelling. The country has more than 2,500 species of lichen, a composite of fungi and another element, algae or cyanobacteria (free-living photosynthetic bacteria). Only Russia has a comparable number. Inconspicuous on suburban tree trunks and driveways, lichens help prevent soil erosion and fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil. They provide winter food for caribou (reindeer). So far, California is the only jurisdiction with an official lichen (lace lichen, chosen in 2015). Iceland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands have issued stamps, so at least their citizens are licking lichen.

The tough question is not whether to designate a Canadian lichen but which one. Lichenologists have drawn up a shortlist of seven. They include the common freckle pelt lichen, which “blankets moss, soil and low shrubs in exposed moist areas”, says the museum’s website. Canada has half the world’s endowment of this sort.

The bright orange...

A tale of two crises in Colombia

Sat, 03/14/2020 - 12:29

A PLUME OF pink smoke wafts above the treetops, signalling where the Black Hawk helicopters should land. They circle down and, one at a time, rest their front wheels on the hillside. It is too steep to land properly, so they keep their rotors whirring while the passengers alight and then immediately lift off again.

The Colombian government is pulling up coca bushes, the leaves of which are used to make cocaine. It is a costly task, both in blood and treasure. Ten Colombians were killed during coca-eradication operations in 2019, and 50 were wounded.

Gun-toting police stand guard on the hillside, near Tumaco in south-western Colombia, to scare off gangsters. Riot police with shields, batons and tear-gas grenades stand ready, too. Their job is to deal with angry coca farmers, who object to having their crops destroyed. They wear anti-slash gloves in case a farmer expresses his feelings with a machete.

Dogs sniff the field for landmines, which gangsters sometimes plant to make eradication more hazardous. Happily, they find none. Finally, men working in pairs uproot the coca bushes with a shovel and a two-handed tug. They are farmers, flown in from other parts of Colombia so they cannot be identified by the gangs. They are paid well, to compensate for the risk and long absences from home.

President...

Can Chile reinvent itself?

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 09:16

WALK NORTH-EAST along the Alameda, the main avenue of Chile’s capital, Santiago, to the well-heeled neighbourhood of Providencia, and for several miles the scene on either side is one of desolation. Hundreds of businesses are boarded up, some operating through doors between shutters. The Baquedano metro station and a large hotel next to it are partly burned out. Pavements have been ripped up, leaving earth and rubble. Traffic lights are disabled. Walls and statues are plastered with graffiti. Many denounce as “murderers”, variously, Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s centre-right president, the Carabineros (the national police force), the state and capitalism. Others hail a coming revolution, or at least a new constitution.

The trouble began on October 6th with a 30-peso (four-cent) rise in the price of peak-hour metro tickets. That set off mass fare-dodging by school pupils. Days later much of the metro in Santiago suffered arson attacks (by foreign agitators, claimed the government, without evidence). Declaring that Chile was “at war”, Mr Piñera imposed a state of emergency for ten days and sent the army on to the streets for only the second time since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-90). That prompted peaceful protests, including a march in Santiago of perhaps 1m people—in a metropolitan area of 7m. At the same time,...

Mexico’s new feminist wave

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 08:55

FROM THE rooftop of an office block in Mexico City, Sonia Barroeta tells of a lifetime of small abuses. If she wears a skirt, men “won’t leave me in peace”, she says. She has been wearing black trousers for 30 years. She counts six occasions on which she used pepper spray on aggressive men. Now nearing 60, she plans to take part in a demonstration for the first time, a protest to be held on March 8th, International Women’s Day.

On the next day she will join a “national women’s strike”. In her case that will mean staying home from work, along with the other 40 female staff and students of the Asteca Aviation School, which trains (mostly male) pilots and (mainly female) flight attendants. Women suffer not just on the street, but also the office, the home and everywhere in between, says Ms Barroeta. “As a woman, you are worth less from the day you are born.”

Feminist groups called the march and the strike after two brutal murders in February. Ingrid Escamilla, 25, was killed and skinned by her husband. Fátima, a seven-year-old, was abducted, sexually abused and murdered. The Women’s Day march is expected to be the biggest feminist mobilisation in Mexico’s history. This fight against violence is the first big social movement to form during the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist who took office...

Brazilians dominate surfing (for now)

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 08:55

GABRIEL MEDINA (pictured), arguably the best surfer in the world, grew up in Maresias, a coastal town in Brazil known for its white sand and rolling waves. As a child in the early 2000s, he watched his fellow Brazilians compete in the world surf championships in Hawaii. They were known as “small-wave surfers”: scrappy but second-rate. Australians and Americans took home all the trophies. 

That changed in 2014, when Mr Medina’s daring aerials and cut-throat competitiveness led him to victory. His generation, called “the Brazilian storm”, professionalised the sport. “Fifteen years ago,” says his trainer, Allan Menache, “you got out of the water and drank a beer.” Adriano de Souza, a Brazilian surfer who went pro before Mr Medina, introduced unprecedented discipline. Cross-training (eg, swimming and yoga) gave him and his compatriots an edge. English lessons helped them secure sponsorships. Last year, Brazil clinched its fourth win in six years. 

The World Surf League (WSL) recently opened an office in São Paulo. Globo, Brazil’s largest television network, expanded its coverage of the sport in 2015 and made Mr Medina’s rags-to-riches tale into an on-demand film. More man about town than beach bum, the 26-year-old arrived at its premiere in January wearing a sleek blue suit, trailed by an entourage.

Surfing...

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