In the eye of the storm

The devastating storms of recent days have generated dozens of avalanches that have swept away entire villages. There have been 271 confirmed deaths in Nova Friburgo, 261 in Teresopolis, 55 in Petropolis, 19 Sumidouro and four in Sao Jose do Vale do Rio Preto – and many people are still unaccounted for. Heavy rains in five municipalities of Rio de Janeiro have added to the problems – here there are 610 dead, according to official figures, and 7,000 families homeless.

A mobilization of rescue forces has seen the Ministry of Defence dispatching 586 soldiers to help the victims, while the armed forces have moved 12 helicopters, 74 vehicles, two bulldozers, a field hospital, three ambulances, a generator and lighting tower into the region. In addition, the Ministry of Justice has sent 225 men to Rio de Janeiro, of whom 80 are military fire rescue specialists, 130 police and 15 military experts to assist in identifying bodies.

The intensification of storms caused a temporary suspension of the rescue work. Colonel Luiz Castro, commander of the Civil Defence, reported that a planned rescue of 80 people in Brejal, had to be postponed because of bad weather. Colonel Pedro Machado elaborated on the problems: ‘We are having problems with the weather. Helicopters are failing so far to make the long distance trips [needed] to provide care to people who are still isolated in rural areas.’

In the face of one of Brazil’s greatest tragedies, governor of Rio de Janeiro Sergio Cabral declared seven days of official mourning starting on Monday of next week. He also decreed a state of emergency for a period of 180 days and said the state will build 3,000 houses for the victims. President Dilma Rousseff has also decreed three days of official mourning.

The world is witnessing increased frequency and power of extreme weather events. As in Brazil, so in Australia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. And the situation will not improve until measures to mitigate climate change and to end greenhouse gas emissions reach the required level.

World leaders need to work seriously to meet the needs of millions of environmental refugees – whose number will continue to grow. It is clear that much remains to be done. The Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo recently published a document that the Brazilian government had sent to the UN three months ago, recognizing that the country was ‘not prepared’ to cope with natural calamities. The report is signed by Ivone Maria Valente, member of the National Secretariat of Civil Defence (Sedec).

The type of climate catastrophe we are witnessing must force leaders to rethink where and how to build cities, and their future plans for dealing with such events.

Chile for Palestine

The Chilean foreign minister Alfredo Moreno has announced that Chile will recognize Palestine as a ‘free, independent and sovereign’ state. This decision follows similar announcements by Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador in recent weeks. According to the Palestinian diplomatic mission at the UN, some 104 countries now recognize the Palestinian state, including most Latin American countries.

Chile has one of the world’s largest Palestinian communities outside the Middle East. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera says that his country is contributing to find a solution that would allow a Palestinian state and a state of Israel to co-exist peacefully in the Middle East.

Foreign minister Moreno has said that recognition was based on UN resolutions regarding the conflict with Israel. ‘Many resolutions refer to the Occupied Territories, so that there already is a basis for conversation,’ he told Radio Cooperativa. The UN has encouraged a peaceful resolution of conflict and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Occupied Territories.

The Palestinian ambassador in the country, Kaila Mai, welcomed the announcement: ‘Chile recognizes the Palestinian state, according to UN resolutions, leading to the borders of 4 June 1967.’

However, Moreno did not explicitly acknowledge Palestinian borders prior to the 1967 conflict with Israel, when the latter took control of Gaza and the West Bank. Other Latin American countries recognized the Palestinian state within 1967 borders, prior to Israel’s occupation.

This deliberate omission caused a senior leader of the Chilean Jewish community, lawyer Gabriel Zaliasnik, to note that Chile has opted for a prudent and moderate course that is different from Argentina and Brazil: ‘That’s why we appreciate the government’s official position.’

A senior Israeli official told AFP ‘off the record’ that the Latin American recognition ‘is a useless and meaningless gesture because it will not change anything in the real situation, and at the same time will not move at all the cause of peace.’

It was Brazil’s now former president, Lula da Silva, who set off the domino effect in December last year. Lula clearly marked his country’s position as very different from that of the US, which called the decision of Brasilia and Buenos Aires ‘premature’.

In March, President Piñera will visit Israel and Palestine to reaffirm his support for peace negotiations. Other Latin American countries, such as Peru and Paraguay, are expected to officially recognize the Palestinian state in the few next months.

Enter stage left: Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff took office on 1 January with the difficult task of continuing the work of her predecessor Lula, who left power with a popularity rating of 87 per cent, having lifted 30 million of his compatriots out of poverty. Thus Brazil joins other Mercosur countries that have (Cristina Kirchner in Argentina) or had (Michelle Bachelet in Chile) female presidents.

 In her first speech as president Dilma said she would seek to consolidate Lula’s work: ‘My task is to continue his legacy of lifting the poor out of poverty in order to lift the country. Our goal is to be a nation that achieves the success it has always sought and to be a government that achieves its goals with certainty.’

The president stressed that while during the Lula administration, 30 million people came out of extreme poverty, the priority of her government was to try to finally eradicate this scourge – 20 million Brazilians still live in extreme poverty.

The Brazilian economy is currently going through a sustained economic expansion, with growth of 7.6 per cent of GDP expected for 2011 and an unemployment rate of 5.7 per cent in November, a record low.

Among the measures that she is seeking to promote, the new president announced she will fight against speculative capital inflows, try to reform the tax code, and try to contain inflation, which is slowly increasing with the growth of the economy. Looking to build investor trust, Dilma, a former guerrilla imprisoned and tortured during the 1970s, has appointed an economic team containing many officials from the previous administration, in order to ensure continuity. Prominent among these is Antonio Palocci, Lula’s finance minister during his first years in office.

To reach her targets, the new president will count on the help of the absolute majority in the Congress, where her party has 372 of 513 deputies and 60 of 81 senators.

The inauguration ceremony was attended by the presidents of Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, Surinam, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Also attending were the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the prime ministers of Portugal, South Korea and Bulgaria (where Rousseff’s father was born).

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez predicted that the new president of Brazil would form ‘a wonderful government’ and said that ‘Lula is not going’ because Brazil’s political will continues to be ‘dedicated to the Latin American cause’. The president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, said Lula ‘was, is and will remain a great leader’.

Thus, Lula bowed out after eight years in office – a leadership feat once considered unthinkable given his humble beginnings as a metalworker who never completed primary school. But Lula, who persevered despite three election defeats in 1989, 1993 and 1995, finally won over his people – fewer than 3 per cent of Brazilians believe his leadership in government was bad.

Rousseff’s first international trip later this month will be to Argentina – the new president is keen to maintain her government’s regional leadership position by improving international political relations.

Photo: Rede Brasil Atual under a CC Licence.

Caught in the rain

The National Relief Division of the Red Cross has reported that the rains that have affected Colombia this year have left 281 dead and 271 wounded. Carlos Iván Márquez, director of the Red Cross also said that 68 were missing and more than 2.2 million have been made homeless throughout the country, with 3,000 homes destroyed and more than 300,000 buildings damaged.

So far, the most affected departments are Bolivar, Magdalena, Atlántico, Guajira, Córdoba and Sucre, all in the north of the country.

The Colombian government has estimated that about 5,000 million dollars is needed to repair the damage caused by the storms. So far, $10.5 million in donations has been received or promised from 21 countries in solidarity with the victims. For example, Ecuador’s government has said it will send 36 tonnes of aid for regions affected by floods in Venezuela and 32 for Colombia.

Germain Vargas, Interior and Justice Minister, promised that the government would give to the Red Cross 22 farms confiscated from drug dealers, so that they can house people there who have lost their homes. The minister said that if the procedure worked it would do the same in other parts of the country.

US engineers working in the area described the incident as ‘one of the worst’ tragedies in the country’s history and estimated it would take at least 10 years to rebuild what has been lost.

But as always with this kind of tragedy, one of the main concerns now is how to control disease. The National Director of Public Health, Lenis Urquijo, said that there have been outbreaks of seasonal flu, stomach ailments, diarrhoea and hepatitis. Colombia currently has the highest number of dengue cases in its history – 149,000 – and 196 patients have died. In addition, 109,000 people have been affected by malaria, of whom 20 have died. The executive has ordered that supplies of vaccines be replenished and has called on governors and mayors to incorporate additional budgets for prevention plans.

According to statements by Dr Juan Carlos Nunez, a specialist in emergencies and disasters, to the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, the situation in the shelters is poor. Dr. Nuñez explained in the interview that there are water leaks in the basement, that latrines are inadequate, and that victims are overcrowded.

The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, suggested in an interview with Caracol Radio, that it was time to ‘think big’ and even suggested the creation of new cities. The president said that ‘too many people are living in coastal areas or slopes on the mountains, taking risks on most days, and the country should worry about their safety.’ In this regard, he added: ‘The ideal is that 100 per cent of the population live on safe land.’ In his statement he also explained that one of the decrees issued was to evacuate all high risk places, ‘because the government’s priority is to ensure the safety of its citizens.’

‘Cablegate’ causes a stir in the south

The cables revealed by WikiLeaks this week have caused a revolution in international politics. Latin America is no exception; almost all governments in the region have made statements to establish its position on the disclosure of documents and US foreign policy.

In Argentina, the person responsible for responding was the chief of staff, Anibal Fernandez. In a TV interview he said: ‘This is a US problem, not ours. It’s a problem for the United States government and Department of State. I’m not willing to give authority to such stupidity.’

In the cables, there is mention of a possible proximity of the Argentine official to drug trafficking. On that Fernandez responded: ‘I do not care. It was the only government to stop drug gangs.’ And as for the person who apparently let this information slip out, Thomas Kelly, Fernandez retorted: ‘I’m disappointed, if it is true that he wrote that. It seems a mess, his career is going to the trash.’

In Ecuador, the WikiLeaks hurricane caused a stir in local politics. In principle, Deputy Foreign Minister Kintto Lucas said on 30 November, his government was willing to grant a residence permit to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

But today, the country’s President disavowed Lucas. ‘The director of WikiLeaks has not made any formal proposal; that was a personal statement from the Vice Chancellor, and it did not have my approval,’ Correa said in a press conference in the city of Guayaquil. Moreover, the President continued, ‘we are never going to support the breaking of the law in a country.’ He criticized Washington in strong terms and suggested a penalty for the website. ‘I think the US has committed a serious error which has destroyed confidence in the allied countries, friendly countries, with these kinds of messages.’

However, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño again invited the founder of WikiLeaks to hand over information concerning his country and reiterated that he was not offered residence. ‘[Because of] the processes of destabilization in the Alba countries such as Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia and Ecuador, we are concerned,’ he said.

The former president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, said he would denounce the United States before the International Criminal Court (ICC) as leaked cables revealed that the US allowed the coup of 28 June 2009 that expelled him from power.

In an interview with Venezuelan channel Telesur, Zelayaaid leaked cables from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa would allow him to go to the ICC ‘to denounce the US as a State violator of human rights because it did not take steps to prevent the coup. This revelation of WikiLeaks is very embarrassing [for the US] because knowing the crime, they hid it.’

Uruguayan President José Mujica played down the cables, which in the case of his country do not contain much relevant information. ‘They’re gossip. The diplomats were bored and write, write and write. Do not give much attention to it because they do not write anything important,’ Mujica was quoted as saying in the local media.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro also commented on the issue, publishing an article that said: ‘America is enveloped in a huge scandal as a result of documents released by WikiLeaks.’

In reference to Paraguay, the reports cite US government orders to ‘spy’ on the main presidential candidates for the 2008 elections. Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said these reports would not affect ‘in any way’ diplomatic relations between the countries. But he added: ‘We have not yet spoken with the presidents of the region, but it is possible that the issue will be raised in the Ibero-American Summit of Mar del Plata.’

When in 2008 the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, expelled the the American ambassador from his country, laughter and criticism from all over the world rained over him. Today many countries must be silently admiring the initiative and vision of the Bolivian leader.

Cholera protests reach Port au Prince

The Prensa Latina news agency reports that anti-UN protests have reached Haiti’s capital city Port au Prince, and that there is danger of the protests spreading further if the Nepalese contingent of the UN – which is accused of bringing the cholera into the country – is not withdrawn.

Hundreds of young people marched peacefully last Wednesday in the Square Champ de Mars, near the collapsed presidential palace; another group concentrated in the slums of Cité Soleil, which is particularly vulnerable to the cholera outbreak. To disperse the protest police used tear gas. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) claimed that the protests themselves threaten the healthcare needed to halt the epidemic, and called for a halt to the violence.

The protests against the UN lasted several days and left four dead, scores injured and dozens detained by the Haitian police.

PAHO reported that it has suspended the delivery of supplies to Port au Prince because of blocked roads. UN representatives and the Haitian government are calling the riots political, saying that they are being organized by ‘those who do not want the presidential and legislative elections of 28 November to elapse as normally as possible.’

The battalion of the United Nations Mission for Stabilization in Haiti (MINUSTAH) arrived in Haiti days before the onset of the epidemic and following an outbreak in Nepal, where the disease is endemic. The protesters have been specifically blaming the Nepalese battalion, saying that it has been disposing of its waste near the Artibonite River. The UN mission has denied this on several occasions, insisting that sanitation is being handled appropriately. The department of Artibonite is the most affected by the cholera epidemic – 655 people have died. Tony Banbury, the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for field-planning, told AFP that there were no plans to withdraw the Nepalese contingent.

The government has reported that there are now 57,000 cholera patients and that 1,344 Haitians have so far lost their lives. Four of the presidential candidates have called for the elections to be postponed.
But the country’s problems did not start with cholera or the earthquake in January. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Over 70 per cent of its population lives in poverty and 35 per cent are illiterate. Only half of Haiti’s children are vaccinated and only 40 per cent have access to basic healthcare.

On the eve of the elections, we must now wait to see whether Haiti is allowed to start down a path of progress, independence and justice for all its inhabitants, or whether foreign exploitation, forged with blood and pain at the hands of local butchers, will continue to deny Haitians the future they deserve.

Farewell to Argentina's former president

A great fighter has gone.

Those who understand that life is lived with passion and that struggles continue until the end will miss this skinny guy, who came from the southernmost part of Argentina to change the way Argentineans understand politics, their country and the future.

Last week, Néstor Kirchner, 60, former president of Argentina, president of the ruling party, husband of the current president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, national deputy and secretary general of UNASUR, died of a heart attack in El Calafate, Santa Cruz.

Néstor Kirchner. Photo: Emmanuel Buchot.

His death shocked Argentineans, many of whom were at home because of a national holiday.

Kirchner had had several heart problems, but always successfully confronted them. Nobody expected this outcome. Ricardo Alfonsín, son of former president Raúl Alfonsín, said that doctors had given Kirchner a choice between health and militancy. ‘And he chose political militancy.’

Despite thousands of differences, one cannot fail to recognize some of the best legacies of Kirchner: his human rights politics which returned the identity of dozens of children who had been abducted by the military and ended the impunity of the genocidal murderers of the last military dictatorship; the broadcasting law that started a path of democratization of communication; Argentina’s foreign policy, which abandoned the country’s subordination to the US and joined the interests of the brotherly peoples of Latin America; reduction of the country’s debt burden; nationalization of pension funds and national airlines; and universal child allocation, which enabled millions of children in need of assistance to escape poverty and hunger, among others.

Many things are still in the process of being implemented, but more important is the fact that without Kirchner, they would never have been made possible.

Minutes after the news of Kirchner’s death broke, people with flowers and posters began to arrive in the Plaza de Mayo.

On funeral day, vast crowds lined the streets of Buenos Aires, waving a last goodbye to their former president as his coffin was carried to the capital’s airport. Kirchner was buried in his home town of Río Gallegos.

Lupo, as his friends called him, was an example that by participating, you can change the world.

Journalist murdered in Buenos Aires <em>villa miseria</em>

Argentina is facing a possible attack on freedom of expression. Adams Ledesma was a Bolivian journalist living in Villa 31, the biggest slum of Buenos Aires. The founder of the community TV channel ‘Mundo Villa’ was stabbed to death on 3 September.

Two theories as to why he was killed have been circulating around this villa miseria (‘slum’); both are related to what Ledesma intended to do with his new TV channel.

‘We’re going to do reports about those who come in 4x4s to buy drugs in the neighbourhood,’ he announced to journalists who interviewed him when he started broadcasting, just two months ago.

Ledesma was also a delegate who mediated between the different parties fighting for grants awarded by the government of Buenos Aires. An article in La Vaca explained that in the last months, there have been serious clashes between the villa’s veterans and newcomers who are fighting for government funding.

‘A few days ago they wanted to take some houses adjacent to the Ledesmas’,’ one neighbour said. ‘He stepped in to help and said he would shoot them if they tried to re-offend.’ This is the other theory for the murder that is running through the neighbourhood.

For two years, Ledesma edited Mundo Villa, a neighbourhood publication. Taking advantage of Argentina’s new Media Law, he decided to create a television channel, the first slum TV channel in the country.

Ledesma’s neighbours highlight the professionalism that he wanted to make sure was the cornerstone of their channel. ‘You can have the truth, but to say it out loud here, you have to have the community’s support. This social commitment is more important than your journalistic work,’ agree neighbourhood leaders.

This is no reproach, but a crude description of reality. ‘And here we cannot change the reality of the top-down neighbourhood. It is a mistake you pay for dearly.’

FOPEA, a forum for defending freedom of expression, quickly issued a statement acknowledging Ledesma’s work as a journalist. It even decided to form an investigative commission to look into the murder. The Bolivian Press Association addressed the Argentine government, demanding an appropriate investigation.

The case went to the Congress of Argentina. The members of the Committee on Freedom of Expression of the Chamber of Deputies met on 23 September to be briefed on the details of the crime.

Ledesma’s widow, Ruth Torrico, demanded a quick investigation. ‘My husband was a social worker: he was there when others needed him,’ she said.

The police say they already have a named suspect, but are yet to find him. The officers believe Ledesma’s murder was the result of a conflict between neighbours. But his friends, family and colleagues don’t believe this to be the case.

Ledesma’s family lives in fear. His widow said she had been warned to leave the neighbourhood, otherwise her husband’s fate awaited her and their children. Torrico’s sister was also threatened.

During a march led by Torrico a few days after Ledesma’s death, his family members said: ‘They are killing our guys just because we have a dark complexion. This scares us because it has not happened in Buenos Aires in the past.’ 

In an interview with Chronicle TV Torrico also spoke of delays in medical care. She said the ambulance was called at 4.30 and arrived only at 7.30.

If it is true that Ledesma was murdered for his work as a social activist and a journalist, this would be one of Argentina’s most serious attacks on freedom of expression.

Moving towards equality

After a marathon session and heated discussions, the Argentine Senate approved the bill authorizing same-sex marriage, making Argentina the first Latin American country to legalize it.

The law was approved with 33 votes in favour, 27 against, and three abstentions, after discussions that lasted for nearly 14 hours.

The bill was supported by senators of different blocs of the ruling party Front for Victory (Frente para la Victoria), Unión Cívica Radical, Coalición Cívica, and socialist parties. However, the bill was opposed by most of the senators belonging to the dissident Peronist parties and a number of the most radical parties.

Throughout discussions, the main square in Buenos Aires ‘Plaza de Mayo’ was occupied by people from a variety of social movements and political parties.

Religious groups who arrived at Plaza de Mayo with the intention of  provoking the protesters into violence, failed to dampen the joy of all those who supported the amendment of the law.

The president of the Homosexual Community of Argentina (Comunidad Homosexual Argentina) issued a statement saying: ‘We congratulate members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate who voted in favour of the bill for not falling victim to the pressures of religious groups, and for advancing the recognition of the human rights of the LGBTI community.’ He added: ‘This important social debate highlights and confirms yet again the urgent need for a clear separation of Church and  State.’

Other countries with similar laws are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Iceland.

The new legislation will modify parts of the Civil Code by replacing the phrase ‘husband and wife’ with ‘spouses’, and providing equal rights to homosexual couples with adoption, inheritance and social benefits.

The president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez, sent a message from China saying she was ‘satisfied’ with the approval of the new law but also attacked the church for radicalizing the debate with talk of a ‘War by God’ against the proposals.

For his part, the chief of staff Aníbal Fernández, said that the ‘mainstreaming’ of support showed that ‘Argentina was at the forefront of discussion and vindication of the rights of every American.’

Assault and batteries

Using the slogan ‘What goes around comes around’, a new campaign launched by Greenpeace warns about the need for the careful environmental management of common household waste products – including batteries – at the end of their useful life.

A group of activists, dressed up as pets and holding up the logos of battery brands, launched the campaign at the Obelisk, a central point in the city of Buenos Aires. They were accompanied by a six-metre high inflatable battery emblazoned with the words ‘the polluter pays’. 

The campaign is urging consumers to demand that manufacturers take charge of used batteries. Over the course of just two weeks, more than 72,000 people sent messages to a range of transnational corporations, including Energizer, Panasonic, Kodak, Procter & Gamble, Canon, Hewlett Packard and Nokia. 

Batteries, which contain toxic components, often end up in landfill or on open-air dumps, in common with most of the garbage produced in the country.  

‘The consumption of batteries tends to increase year on year, not only because of population growth but also because of the constant increase in the amount of electrical and electronic equipment that uses them,’ explained Yanina Rullo, a member of Greenpeace’s campaign. ‘The management of this waste is a huge problem for the different municipalities trying to create plans for collection of batteries, which then do not get disposed of properly.’

While batteries represent a small percentage of total municipal solid waste they are, together with electrical waste and electronic equipment, one of the most significant contributors of heavy metals into the environment. All batteries contain hazardous metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, manganese, nickel, zinc and lithium. In countries like France, Canada, Sweden and Spain these metals are recycled and reused by industry. Today it is possible to recover up to 90 per cent of material from rechargeable batteries and about 50 per cent from common batteries, if systems are put in place to recycle properly.

Greenpeace wants to pass a law on the management of electronic waste which will take into account the responsibility of the producer.

‘Batteries, along with other electrical and electronic equipment, are currently in a grey area with regard to current waste legislation. On the one hand, they are treated as common waste and put in dustbins, because they arise from the usual flow of domestic waste, but on the other the battery’s components meet the criteria of hazardous waste,’ explained Maria Eugenia Testa, policy director of Greenpeace. ‘It is worrying that manufacturers ignore the problem of what happens to the waste generated by their products.’

Companies are shirking their responsibilities in Argentina, even though in other countries where they operate, they abide by the rules of the land and assume legal responsibility for disposal of their products.

Watch the video of the demonstration on YouTube.


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