Wednesday, 26 November 2008

No Surprises: Highest Murder Rates in the World

Latin America has the highest murder rates for young people in the world, according to a recently published study by the Brazilian research group - the Latin American Technological Information Network, Ritla

For youngsters growing up in crime-ridden countries like El Salvador, Colombia or Venezuela the chances of being murdered are almost 30 times higher than in Europe. The study looked at 83 countries across the world and depressingly Latin America came out as the region with most youth killings in proportion to its population. And the readings become even more depressing if you choose to include Caribbean nations - as this grim top 10 list of youth killings per 100.000 indicates:
  1. El Salvador: 48.8
  2. Colombia: 43.8
  3. Venezuela: 29.5
  4. Guatemala: 28.5
  5. The Virgin Islands: 28.4
  6. Brazil: 25.2
  7. Santa Lucia: 24.5
  8. Puerto Rico: 19.1
  9. Guyana: 18.0
  10. Ecuador: 18.0
A news article of this story can be found on the BBC website: "Latin America tops murder tables",

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Venezuealan Regional Elections

The media spotlight was again on Venezuela this last weekend as regional elections were held. Would President Chavez consolidate power, would the opposition make significant gains, and would the perceived under-attack democratic norms be upheld?

In the end it was a case of both sides being able to claim some form of victory - Chavistas won the popular vote (53.5%) and 17 of the 22 states; the main opposition group won 5 states, amongst which were Miranda and Zulia, the country's two most populous states. The opposition was also able to win the mayoral elections in Caracas. As the map below shows, support for president Chavez remains on the face of it pretty solid throughout the country. However the fact that the opposition gained support in the highly populous and electorally crucial "coastal corridor", seems to suggest that the large sway of red Chavista support marginally overstates the extent of Chavez's popularity.

All in all these elections haven't told us anything that we didn't know before. Yes, Chavez remains popular throughout much of Venezuela. But also, the opposition support is gaining momentum, bouyed by the victory in the last referendum alongside good mobilisation of supporters in the country's larger cities. And of course the substantial downturn in oil prices has its effects on which way the votes swing. Drop any further and Chavez will be unlikey to dare push for a referendum that would allow him to run for re-election (again) in 2012.

As far as democratic norms are concerned the electoral commission described the conduct of voters as exemplary, and Hugo Chavez was almost magnamonious in defeat:

"We lost the governorship of Miranda and we recognise the triumph of our adversaries," he said. "How can anyone say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela? I, as head of state, recognise their triumphs and I hope that they'll recognise the head of state."

For a detailed, though slight pro-government, review of the election try the Venezualan Information Centre (VIC) Bloggers at Caracas Chronicles also have detailed reports, graphs and opinions on the outcome of the elections.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

James Bond to the Bolivia!

A whole series of predominantly negative reviews have meant that I have yet to see the new James Bond film, the Quantum of Solace. Nevertheless I have to admit to being mildly tempted to see how the Bond series could possibly include a storyline that references the struggling campesinos of the Bolivian Altiplano and their fight against Western multinationals:

Bond is on a mission to stop a faux-environmentalist billionaire from secretly appropriating all of Bolivia’s water supply by replacing its left of centre president with a handpicked despot, in a coup which the USA blithely ignores

Having done the Cold War, terrorist and media mogul villains to death I guess it was time for Bond to move on to tackle the perceived villains of the 21st century. But are we honestly meant to believe that theses battles can ever be won by action-man bravado alone?

As this article in The New Statesman, "007 Bolivian socialist?", points out, the Bond story writers have obviously scant regard for the capabilities of Bolivian social uprising in the face of corrupt governments and grasping multinationals – Bolivia needs not the intervention of some dinner jacket-clad action hero, but has been able to succeed over the years with more simpler means, such as demonstrations, road blockades and even the ballot box. Hmm...I think the New Statesman article does take the Bond film a tad too seriously - I don't think they've ever been held as depicting a realistic political commentary on the pressing security issues of the day.
Still, it's a shame the film was never actually filmed in Bolivia. Indeed I'm sure the fact that they used Chile as a stand-in for Bolivia, is hardly to endear Bolivians to film.

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Demise of Regional Division in Bolivia?

The rise of Santa Cruz as the political and economic hegemonic power has been evident the last many decades in Bolivia. Under President Evo Morales however, it has seen its ability to frame the shape of the country undermined. This has resulted in clashes, both in Congress, the constituent assembly and in the streets of Santa Cruz and other ‘media luna’ towns. The media in its typical simplistic terms depicting the struggle as one of poor, indigenous, ardent Morales supporters of the Western Highlands up against the rich, white, land-rich Eastern Provinces of Santa Cruz et al.

Where do these regional clashes leave Bolivia and what is the future of Santa Cruz’s political and economic power base? These were some of the questions the Bolivian academic, George Grey Molina, tried to answer in a brief talk he gave at the Institute for the Study of the Americas here in London this week. After weeks and months of bad news and confrontation coming out of Bolivia, George Molina’s hypotheses had a surprisingly upbeat tone about them.

He began his talk by going over recent events since the violent clashes that erupted across Bolivia, and most notably in Pando - the remote northern department. See "State of siege, more violence in Bolivian province Pando (Roundup)"

Essentially, the out-of-control violence that threatened to escalate across the nation forced Morales supporters and opponents to sit down and set out a timeline for an upcoming constitutional referendum. A constitution that now includes enough amendments to keep the majority of Morales’ opponents content for the time being. It has also given it the necessary nationwide legitimacy that makes it likely to pass when it’s put to a referendum early next year.

George Molina was at pains to point out that Morales had emerged from these agreements with his power consolidated , whilst the power of Santa Cruz had been severely constrained. Santa Cruz’s power has traditionally stemmed from its economic power ( i.e. it’s ownership of the wealthy soya- exporting lands of the East) and its ability to transfer this economic leverage into political power through an increased presence on the national political stage and in its move towards greater regional autonomy. However for a number of reasons these foundations seem to be slowly crumbling:

  1. National Politics: the national political stage has been transformed under Morales’ presidency with the old Santa Cruz elite having been usurped by a Morales elite that has consolidated itself after this summers’ national recall referendum.

  2. Santa Cruz Economy: The Cruceño economy is perhaps not as strong as it once was. Commodity prices, on which it heavily depends, haven fallen through the floor. Vast tracts of arable land are no longer the most country’s most important asset – there will a transfer of economic power to those actors in the economy who can process the country’s resources, i.e. those who can produce value-added goods.

  3. Demographics: Santa Cruz is no longer predominantly made up of the white European decedents, who in their day were able to create a unique Cruceño identity – migration to the region from across Bolivia has meant that it is taking on other characteristics that are…more Bolivian.

  4. Did Not Create a Viable National Politics: Whilst Santa Cruz was on the ascendency it showed little in its politics that it could become the vessel of change that Bolivia so badly needs. It did little to diversify its economy from primary resources and next to nothing in cooperating with neighboring countries. Instead it promoted a politics that retained the status quo and essentially the privilege of the few over the masses.

  5. Natural Gas Capital has moved to Tarija: Unlike Santa Cruz, Tarija has no history of separatist ambitions and looks unlikely to spear-head a new regional hegemony.

As far as George Molina is concerned the above arguments point towards a situation in Bolivia where regional politics no longer plays the same divisive role as it has done in the past and with so much intensity during Morales’ presidency until now.

Of course that is not to say that this will mark an end to all regional disputes. Indeed it is now up to Morales and his grand goals of moving the Bolivian economy beyond commodity-led growth; towards an economy that creates industrialists and deep linkages within the economy and between regions. Only if this is achieved will regionalist movements, like the ones in Santa Cruz, cease to have the influence that they have had for the last many decades.