Friday, 24 October 2008

South Park does Peruvian Panpipe Music

This is for everyone who has pondered over why there always seems to be a travelling Peruvian panpipe band doing your local High Street. All that was missing was that they started up playing "El Condor Pasa".

Thanks to "The Latin Americanist" for finding this.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Financial & Economic Crisis hits Latin America

It was the turn of Latin America's stock market to take a nose dive this Wednesday - "Dark day for faltering LatAm stocks" . In Chile they dropped 6.3%, in Mexico by 7 %, in Brazil by 10%, and last but by no means least Argentina, where they dropped by 18%.

The magnitude of the drop in Argentina was provoked when President Cristina Fernandez announced plans to nationalise the private pension funds.

She said the nationalisation would protect retirement funds from the global financial crisis, but analysts said the move would drain company access to private capital. Argentina's Congress is expected to approve the proposal within weeks. BBC News: "Turmoil in Latin American Markets".

Privare investors have been upin arms, not least a Merrill Lynch executive who stated bluntly that his bank had now written off any investment plans in Argentina "for at least the next half decade." - AFP, "Latin America in Jaws of Global Crisis"

As I mentioned in an earlier post - "Global Depression: So What About Latin America" - much of the worry in Latin America on the back of the current world financial crisis, stems not so much from the so-called credit crunch, but rather the sharp recession that's meant to hit the world's major markets in the Northern hemisphere, and the decline in commodity prices that it will entail.

Correspondents say international demand is declining for many of Latin America's commodity exports, including oil, copper, iron ore and soy as global growth slows amid the current financial global crisis BBC News, "Turmoil in Latin American Markets".

Whilst demand may be faltering in the US and Europe, demand from the likes of China is still bouyant.
This is not to say that all is as gloomy as one could fear. Precious global recessions have tended to hit Latin America harder than most. The analogy of "when the US economy sneezes, the rest of the world cathces a cold, but Latin America catches phnuemonia" having proven to be quite fitting in th past. This time round things may be slightly different. According to former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda:

the region would be largely impervious to the recent crisis. Mexico, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay should manage just fine, emerging with only bruises and scrapes, he argued. Colombia and Peru would weather the storm, though suffering greater harm. But he warned of "severe damage" for Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Central America and the Caribbean. BBC News, "Brazil squares up to an economic storm"

The severe damage awaiting Venezuela has much to do with the sudden drop in oil prices. Overdependent on oil revenues, Venezuela's extensive public spending could be seriouly affected if oil prices continue on this downward trend. It is therefore no surprise that Venezuela qill be pushing for oil output cuts at this week's hastily convened OPEC gathering in Vienna.

Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael D. Ramirez said the OPEC members "have to take some action now, now," adding that Friday's meeting will reach "consensus to take a very, very, very fast action." Xinhua, "OPEC members divided over oilput cut"

Last week I attended a public meeting at the Houses of Parliament here in London, where Venezuelan ambassador to the UK, Samuel Moncada, whilst almost gleeful in his depiction of the collapse of the world's financial system, had to admit that Venezuela faced difficult times ahead. So what about all the windfall funds from record-high oil prices that the Venezuelan had been meant to have store away for precisely those times when the oil prices were on the fall? Well, according to the ambassador this would only cover Venezuela's problems for a mere 2-3 months.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Is Obama right to object to Colombian FTA?

In my previous post, I mentioned how US Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain had a relatively heated exchange on the pros and cons of a free trade agreement with Colombia. McCain came out in favour of it, with Obama arguing against it due to Colombia’s problematic human rights record, especially with regard to trade union members.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial - "Obama makes it up" - strongly criticizing Obama’s stand and eluded to the fact that he is backed by the very same US trade unions that are perhaps not to keen to see a FTA with Colombia. Here is a video excerpt that shows columnist Mary O’Grady explaining why Obama’s objection to the FTA is nonsensical and based on facts that just don’t add up.

To counter her argument Benjamin Gaden on notes:

Neither O'Grady nor the WSJ editorial make note of a new 140-page report from Human Rights Watch, released last Thursday, that accuses Uribe of "jeopardizing efforts to secure justice for crimes committed by paramilitaries and their accomplices in Colombia." The report also points out that international pressure, such as delays in passing the Free Trade Agreement, "has in some cases prevented the government from trying to let paramilitaries’ accomplices off the hook." "Colombia’s justice institutions have made enormous progress in investigating paramilitaries and their powerful friends," José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press release announcing the report. "But the Uribe administration keeps taking steps that could sabotage these investigations."

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Latin America Debated in the US Presidential Debates

Latin America has been notable only its absent from the US Presidential debates.

In the first two debates between Barack Obama and John McCain and the VP debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin Latin America was mentioned fleetingly, Hugo Chávez denounced as a demagogue and Palin accusing Obama of wanting to have sit down in direct talks with the ‘Castro Brothers’. Nothing very substantial at all.

To everyone’s relief the 3rd debate proved a whole lot more invigorating and most noteworthy, for this blog, a couple of important issues relating to Latin America were discussed - dependency on Venezuelan oil, NAFTA, FTAs with Peru and Colombia.

Here is a transcript excerpt from the debate:

SCHIEFFER: All right. Can we reduce our dependence on foreign oil and by how much in the first term, in four years?

MCCAIN: I think we can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Venezuelan oil. Canadian oil is fine. By the way, when Senator Obama said he would unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Canadians said, "Yes, and we'll sell our oil to China." You don't tell countries you're going to unilaterally renegotiate agreements with them.


OBAMA: I think that in ten years, we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. I think that's about a realistic timeframe. Now I just want to make one last point because Senator McCain mentioned NAFTA and the issue of trade and that actually bears on this issue. I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. And NAFTA doesn't have -- did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements.


MCCAIN: Now, on the subject of free trade agreements. I am a free trader. And I need -- we need to have education and training programs for displaced workers that work, going to our community colleges. But let me give you another example of a free trade agreement that Senator Obama opposes. Right now, because of previous agreements, some made by President Clinton, the goods and products that we send to Colombia, which is our largest agricultural importer of our products, is -- there's a billion dollars that we -- our businesses have paid so far in order to get our goods in there. Because of previous agreements, their goods and products come into our country for free. So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. The same country that's helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country that's killing young Americans. And also the country that just freed three Americans that will help us create jobs in America because they will be a market for our goods and products without having to pay -- without us having to pay the billions of dollars -- the billion dollars and more that we've already paid.Free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.

OBAMA: Let me respond. Actually, I understand it pretty well. The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions. And what I have said, because the free trade -- the trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement. But I think that the important point is we've got to have a president who understands the benefits of free trade but also is going to enforce unfair trade agreements and is going to stand up to other countries.

And here's a video excerpt from the debate that highlights Obama's and McCain's differences regarding a possible FTA with Colombia:

Monday, 20 October 2008

South American World Cup Qualification - 10th Round

In a brief post here are the results from matchday 10 of South American qualifying competition for the World Cup.

  • Chile vs. Argentina: 1-0
  • Bolivia vs. Uruguay: 2-2
  • Paraguay vs. Peru: 1-0
  • Brazil vs. Colombia: 0-0
  • Venezuela vs. Ecuador: 3-1

These results leaving the qualifying table looking like this:

  1. Paraguay: 23 pts.
  2. Brazil: 17 pts
  3. Argentina 17 pts.
  4. Chile 16 pts.
  5. Uruguay 13 pts.
  6. Ecuador 12 pts.
  7. Colombia 11 pts.
  8. Venezuela 10 pts.
  9. Bolivia 9 pts.
  10. Peru 7 pts.

Paraguay are seemingly running away with the qualification campaign leaving the region's giants - Brazil and Argentina - to fumble about, scrapping points against teams they should normally be able to put away with ease. For Argentina, their defeat away to Chile, the first time this has happened in absolute eons, marked the end for Argentine coach Alfio Basile. The writing had supposedly been on the wall for a good few months now. Lacklustre performances, an endless procession of drab draws in recent matches was not want the Argentine public were demanding. Especailly since Argentina stormed to a gold medal at the Olympics, sweeping aside Brazil along the way. But, this under the guidance of the younger a more attack-minded Sergio Batista - Basile having opted of a leading the young Argentine squad at the Olympics.

Here is what BBC's Latin American football specialist Tim Vickery of Basile's legacy:

But as Basile leaves the scene, he deserves to be remembered. He is one of the game's romantics, for whom the joy of expression speaks louder than the fear of defeat - a philosophy that might be old fashioned, but which should never be out of date.

He remains the last Argentina coach to win a title at senior level - the 1991 and 93 Copa America triumphs from his first spell in charge, which ended with one of the great World Cup matches of recent times, the 3-2 defeat to Romania in 1994. It was a classic tie of attack versus counter-attack, made attractive by the fact that Argentina accepted the risks of taking the game to their opponents.

The highlight of his second spell, before the breakdown in relationships started corroding performance, came last year in the Copa America.It ended in tears, stiffled and picked off by Brazil in the final. But the previous matches were an exhibition of passing football, patient and audacious, hypnotic and dazzling. Being there in Venezuela to watch Alfio Basile's side in action was an immense privilege

Qualification games take a bit of a break for the next few months, with the next not taking place until late March. Plenty of time I'm sure for the Argentine media to get hyped up about the return of the prodigal son, Maradonna, as a possible successor.

The Freezing of US-Bolivian Relations

Before the world financial crisis enveloped the world's news media and when news from Latin American actually made it across the Atlantic, there was the episode of diplomatic tit-for-tat tussling that involved the expulsion of US ambassadors from Bolivia, Venezuela and Honduras. Media outlets jumping naturally at the chance to picture yet another fiery anti-imperialist outburst by demagogue Hugo Chávez.

That the flurry of departing ambassadors had its origin in Bolivia is now long forgotten. With the US having retaliated by expelling Bolivia’s ambassador to Washington I would have that would have been that…just let the simmering US-Bolivian hostilities be. Let's just wait until a new US administration can come into the White House and proclaim their ‘good neighbourliness’ towards the region it sort out the mess – but that’s a topic to be discussed in another post further down the line.
But no... George Bush has taken it upon himself to ensure that Bolivia realizes the errors of their ways. Since 1991, Bolivia has benefited from the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPDEA) that allowed certain Bolivian exporters favourable access to the US market. This in exchange for Bolivian cooperation in tackling illegal coca production. Overriding Congress and their decision two weeks ago to extend the agreement, Bush has chosen in a single stroke threaten the livelihood of thousands of Bolivians, by suspending the agreement. A possible 20,000 Bolivians may lose their jobs as companies face closure without access to the lucrative US market.

Here is a video the Bolivian-based NGO, The Democracy Center posted showing the plight of a number of workers face in light of this decision by the Bush administration.

As much as I can sympathise with those who point to Morales' lack of diplomatic finesse in throwing out the US ambassador, I find it hard to agree that this justifies the decision by Bush to, in a single stroke, threaten the livelihood of thousands of Bolivians, especially in the midst of world financial crisis where it will be the Bolivias of the world that will face the direst of consequences. Besides, won't this only legitimise his anti-American stance and worsen legitimate US attempts to tackle coca production?

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Once Glorious Uruguayan World Cup Winners

In the wake of the weekend's South American world cup qualifiers, The Times, had a great piece on the River Plate derby, Argentina vs. Uruguay - Past masters Uruguay burdened by the weight of history.

On Saturday, Uruguay succumbed to a 2-1 defeat away to Argentina and will need a win away to Bolivia this Wednesday if they are to get back into the automatic qualifying places for the World Cup.

Scrapping to get into the World Cup, and then failing to make it pass the group stages seems to be the perennial outcome of every Uruguayan World Cup campaign. Never likely to reach the lofty heights they once achieved back in the first half of the 20th century when they lifted the World Cup trophy in 1930 and 1950.

Watching Uruguay play is a bit like driving past the boarded-up shop-fronts of a once-thriving city centre. The phantasms of a glorious past haunt you. Occasionally you see flashes of pride and quality, more often you see a rage against the dying of the light. Except, whereas a depressed city centre might hold out hope to be regenerated, Uruguay will probably never regain its footballing greatness

To read about plight of Uruguayan football and their resignation to being a mere Latin American football minnow, do check out this article. Past masters Uruguay burdened by the weight of history.

South American World Cup Qualification: Round #9

Here are the results and standings from the weekend's South American Qualification games:

  • Bolivia vs Peru 3-0
  • Argentina vs. Uruguay 2-1
  • Colombia vs. Paraguay 0-1
  • Venezuela vs. Brazil 0-4
  • Ecuador vs. Chile: 1-0
  1. Paraguay 20 pts.
  2. Brazil 16 pts.
  3. Argentina 16 pts.
  4. Chile 13 pts.
  5. Uruguay 12 pts
  6. Ecuador 12 pts
  7. Colombia 12 pts
  8. Bolivia 8 pts
  9. Venezuela 7 pts
  10. Peru 7 pts

Paraguay remain on course for World Cup 2010 qualification and with a home game coming up against Peru this Wednesday should be able to consolidate their standing at the top of the South American group. Any doubts that Brazil would be struggling in this qualification group are being slowly laid to rest as they notched up another victory, albeit against minnows footballing minnows Venezuela.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Global Depression: So What about Latin America?

In the midst of the financial turmoil that has swept ominously across North America and Europe, news how this may affect Latin American economies – traditionally so dependent upon the state of the U.S economy – has been somewhat hard to come by in the British press.

Nevertheless, last week’s The Economist did have an article highlighting the numerous pessimistic scenarios that may be played out in Latin America as a result of the financial turmoil in the world’s credit markets – “Keeping their fingers crossed”. True to its right-of-centre, pro-market editorial line it predicted that the “badly behaved” economies (i.e. overly statist and anti-neoliberal), such as those in Venezuela and Argentina, are the one that are most vulnerable.

Their vulnerability stems not so much from the lack of credit available to them, but their overreliance on commodities: Venezuela on oil, Argentina on agricultural produce. The belief being that a downturn in the world economy would naturally lead to a slump in commodity prices.

Other Latin American countries look set to be hit by a decline in commodity prices as they have fallen to the age-old temptation of overspending when times have been good and consequently saving little for when times worsen. Bucking the trend, as is so often the case when it comes to perceived sound economic management, is Chile where its copper stabilization fund should insolate the economy from a slump in copper prices.

Fortunately for the likes of Brazil, Colombia and Peru – “the well-behaved countries” in The Economist’s tinted eyes – their trade surpluses and balanced budgets, records of year-on-year growth, and lack of dependency on the increasingly limited sources of foreign credit should offer their respective economies the means to avoid the recession that has so often followed in the wake of U.S. downturns.

But all isn’t rosy in the case of Mexico, and indeed with most Central American and Caribbean nations. By remaining so dependent on US markets and remittances from relatives working in the US, the severity of the economic crisis facing the US will have the inevitable effect of casting a long murky shadow over their economies. Perhaps this will nail home the argument that despite the lure of the US market Latin American nations can only benefit from diversifying trading partners, increasing regional trade and so on.

In the aftermath of all this financial mess it seems likely – especially if the Democrats retake the White House – that all proposed free trade agreements with Latin America are to be put firmly on hold; furthering the need for Latin America to look towards China and the rest of Asia.

Despite the relative upbeat tones, The Economist makes sure to hammer home that it will be the Bolivarian following of Chavéz et al and their economic populist policies that have most to fear from the global credit crunch.