Friday, November 29, 2013
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras careened toward a new political crisis Monday, a day after voters in the country turned out in record numbers to elect a new president and Congress.
At a midday news conference, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, the leftist president toppled in a 2009 coup and the husband of presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, told a hotel ballroom full of feverish supporters that their Free Party had rejected the electoral process and would “take to the streets if necessary” to force a ballot-by-ballot recount.
“To the streets!” his red-clad, boisterous followers screamed. “To the streets!”
Zelaya’s wife, who trails the top vote-getter by five percentage points with two-thirds of the ballots counted, was nowhere to be seen.
Her conservative rival, Juan Orlando Hernández, declared himself the country’s new president and promised followers that he would begin working to bring “peace and tranquility.” Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate, a weak economy and pervasive corruption, all of which have fueled waves of illegal migration to the United States.
As of late Monday, Hernández maintained a lead over a field of eight candidates with 34 percent of the vote and said he had received calls from Latin American presidents offering congratulations, including one from Sandinista leftist Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
“This win isn’t up for negotiation,” Hernández said.
The vote-tallying proceeded at a sluggish pace, with the percentage of ballots counted increasing from 54 percent to only 67 percent over the course of the day. Honduran election officials remained behind closed doors until late in the evening, when the election supervisor, David Matamoros, appeared briefly on national television and said the tallying would continue Tuesday. Some ballots had yet to arrive from rural areas, and others were en route from the United States.
But even Matamoros seemed to endorse a Hernández win, despite saying the previous day that no winner would be declared until all ballots had been counted.
“These results reflect an irreversible tendency,” said Matamoros, a former member of Hernández’s conservative National Party. “They are not going to vary."
Porfirio Lobo, the outgoing president and a close Hernández ally, also hailed him as the country’s “president-elect” and urged other candidates to accept defeat.
The balloting in this crime-plagued country appeared to proceed largely without incident Sunday, and international observers — including from the United States and the Organization of American States — said they did not detect irregularities.
U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske told Honduran television reporters that the process had been transparent and that legal mechanisms were in place for candidates to peacefully challenge the results.
“The will of the voters must be respected,” she said. “What we want is a process that works.”
But calls to refrain from declarations of victory fell on deaf ears, with the leftist Castro the first to declare herself a winner, only to reject the results outright as the official count put Hernández ahead. Most polls had her slightly ahead or tied with Hernández.
Honduras remains sharply split along class lines, particularly after the 2009 coup that removed Zelaya from office and banished him from the country for two years. Castro rose to prominence leading street protests in defense of her husband.
Now she and her husband must decide whether they’ll return to the streets once more, risking an escalation. Castro’s campaign rhetoric was moderate, but Zelaya was less restrained Monday, denouncing their opponents as a “fascist oligarchy” and working his supporters into a frenzy.
The U.S. State Department called for a peaceful resolution to any dispute. “Honduran and international observers, including those from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, reported that the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The United States calls on Hondurans to await the completion of the counting of official results and to resolve election disputes peacefully through established legal processes.”
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Tegucigalpa (AFP) - Hondurans went to the polls amid tight security Sunday to pick a new president for their Central American nation, the world's deadliest and among the region's poorest.
The election pits Xiomara Castro, leftist wife of ousted former leader Manuel Zelaya, against conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Some 5,400 polling stations opened at 1300 GMT with a ceremony at a school in the capital Tegucigalpa, where electoral tribunal chief David Matamoros expressed hope the vote would "heal the wounds" of the 2009 coup d'etat that toppled Zelaya.
He also urged the 5.4 million voters to carry out their electoral duty with "faith, dignity and civility."
The candidates are vying to succeed President Porfirio Lobo, who was elected after the coup in a controversial election boycotted by Zelaya's leftist allies.
The heavily guarded polling stations, to which some 800 foreign election monitors have been dispatched, close at 2200 GMT. Initial projections are expected at about 0100 GMT.
Castro, with the Libre Party, could become the first female president of Honduras, the poorest country in the Americas after Haiti. An estimated 71 percent of the population lives in poverty.
In a tweet, the 54-year-old heralded the end of the current political regime. She told AFP she was seeking "peace and tranquility" in Honduras.
Her main rival, National Congress President Hernandez, is a supporter of the 2009 coup and a law-and-order conservative who has vowed to bring order by flooding the streets with soldiers.
The message from the ruling National Party candidate has resonance in this country of 8.5 million that records 20 murders a day -- the highest in the world, according to UN figures.
"I am happy, joyful that the Honduran people are voting peacefully... united to take our country forward," said Hernandez, 45.
He spoke surrounded by supporters, after voting in Gracias, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the capital.
Government institutions are so weak and the police so corrupt that Honduras is on the brink of becoming a failed state.
Gangs run whole neighborhoods, extorting businesses as large as factories and as small as tortilla stands, while drug cartels use Honduras as a transfer point for shipping illegal drugs, especially cocaine, from South America to the United States.
"We want more work and less crime," said Sandy Rivera, 31, who sells used clothes in the San Miguel neighborhood.
That sentiment was echoed by Pedro Garay, a 72-year-old retired economist, as he left a polling station.
"The main problem is violence caused by unemployment," he said.
Hernandez has promised to end violence by deploying 5,000 military police officers. Castro, in turn, has proposed a community police force to fight local crime, and deploying soldiers to the borders to halt drug trafficking.
Castro, who proposes "Honduran-style democratic socialism," wants to rewrite the constitution and "re-found" the country -- a move similar to the one that led to the coup that ousted her husband in 2009.
Hernandez claims that he can create more than 100,000 jobs by supporting Hong Kong-style "model cities" in Honduras.
Many Hondurans are ambivalent about his proposal to use soldiers to fight crime, because abuses attributed to the military during the coup period are still fresh in voter's minds.
A pre-election Cid-Gallup survey showed Hernandez with 28 percent support against 27 percent for Castro -- a statistical tie -- in a pack of eight candidates. There is no runoff, so whoever wins does so with a plurality of the vote.
Since 1902, the Liberal Party and the National Party, both politically conservative, have traded the presidency with military dictators. Zelaya was elected in 2005.
"The Honduran two-party system is now the oldest in Latin America," said sociologist Matias Funes. "There has never been such a real chance (of breaking it) until now."
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Venezuelan MPs have granted President Nicolas Maduro yearlong decree powers that he says are essential to regulate the economy and stamp out corruption but adversaries view as a thinly veiled power grab.
Hundreds of supporters of the ruling Socialist Party cheered outside the National Assembly as the so-called Enabling Law was passed, while a recording of Mr Maduro's late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, singing Venezuela's anthem rang out inside the hall.
Though winning the decree powers hands Mr Maduro a political victory in the runup to Dec. 8 municipal elections, he still faces a severely distorted economy with embarrassing product shortages and inflation surging to nearly 55 percent.
"With this Enabling Law we are following an order by President Chavez," said Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly and a staunch supporter of Mr Maduro.
"He told us to pass all the laws necessary to wring the necks of the speculators and the money launderers."
The result of Tuesday's vote on decree powers had been widely expected after Maduro garnered votes he needed during a preliminary debate last week.
Mr Maduro, 50, who is staking his rule on preserving the late Chavez's socialist legacy, says he has already planned the first two laws he would decree - maybe as soon as Wednesday.
One is intended to limit businesses' profit margins to 15 per cent to 30 per cent as part of a state "economic offensive" against price-gouging. Another would create a new state body to oversee dollar sales by Venezuela's currency control regime.
Mr Maduro's original justification for the decree powers was to widen a crackdown on corruption, drawing skepticism from critics who say he zealously targets opposition officials while turning a blind eye to the worst of state-linked graft.
"Why don't you punish people who have not complied with the (existing) laws? You want the Enabling Law to concentrate power," one opposition leader, Julio Borges, accused "Chavista" lawmakers during a charged debate ahead of the vote.
"The reality is that the origin of this economic crisis is named Nicolas Maduro."
High-profile targets of the president's "war on corruption" have included an opposition advisor accused of running a transvestite prostitution ring and an opposition legislator stripped of parliamentary immunity for allegedly mismanaging a state-owned stadium.
But the crusade also toppled a high-profile Socialist Party mayor, executives from a China-financed state investment fund and the former head of a state-run iron mining firm.
Opponents say Mr Maduro should be chasing military generals and other senior officials they blame for turning Venezuela into a major supply route for Colombian drugs. The government denies that, saying narcotics seizures are on the rise.
Critics also note Venezuela has for years refused to publish details of how it spends money held in state-run funds created in the Chavez era even though required to by the country's main anti-corruption law, calling into question why he would need special anti-graft powers.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Venezuelan troops storm a local electronics retailer in the name of enforcing "fair prices," brazenly blaming the private sector for state policies. Sounds familiar — and not just because it's a communist takeover.
With municipal elections just around the corner on Dec. 8, it's no surprise to see Venezuela's failing socialist government turning to pork-barrel handouts to lure voters — as it always has.
Shovel the goodies to the red-shirted low-information voters and gain just enough votes in upcoming elections to claim a dictatorship is really a democracy.
Not coincidentally, President Nicolas Maduro declared that Venezuela would celebrate the beginning of Christmas in October — to distribute goodies.
But there's a new twist here: Venezuela is out of money to shovel pork. Its foreign reserves have fallen to $21.4 billion as oil prices slump. Instead of using its vast oil earnings to buy votes, as in the past, Venezuela's Marxist government is now making do by stealing from Venezuela's battered private sector.
Which is what brought the bizarre spectacle of the Venezuelan military occupation of Daka — the country's five-store equivalent of Best Buy, loaded with the flat-screen TVs, computers and smartphones favored by looters everywhere.
As troops stood by, crowds looted one Daka store, stripping its shelves bare. Call it government by looting.
Or in reality, call it communism. Because such destruction of private property in the name of redistribution has been a feature of every communist takeover from Russia to China, to Vietnam, to Cuba.
Defending his government-of-looters, Maduro officially blamed the store for charging "unfair prices," a preposterous statement since Daka's prices weren't inconsistent with the official inflation rate of 56% in an economy that must pay for 90% of its goods imports, including consumer electronics, with dollars.
There is even some speculation, by bloggers such as Miguel Octavio of the Devil's Excrement, that the viciousness of the government action could be due to the company engaging in high-profit arbitrage on the country's two-tier exchange rates.
There's also no doubt the government was sending a message to other retailers not to raise prices by making an example of one of them. Message received.
But the bottom line is, horrendous government policies forced retailers to do what they have. It wasn't Daka that created price controls or a corrupt two-tier exchange system that made the resulting inflation.
The black market currency rate is now 10 times higher than the official rate, meaning they're on the verge of hyperinflation due to a government that can't stop spending. This explains why imported basic commodities, such as chicken, milk and toilet paper, are now scarce, just as in the old Soviet Union, or in today's Cuba.
Were Venezuela a true democracy, such a destructive economic record would bring down the ruling party.
But this is Venezuela. It has benefited not just from having the U.S. as its top oil customer and consumer goods supplier, but also from a lot of White House love — from President Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's embrace of late strongman Hugo Chavez at a 2009 summit, to ex-President Jimmy Carter's dishonest endorsement of Venezuela's fraudulent 2004 recall, which the Bush White House meekly accepted.
And now the results: Venezuelan troops occupy electronics retailers while yelling about "fairness."
Sunday, November 10, 2013
CARACAS — Thousands of Venezuelans lined up outside the country's equivalent of Best Buy, a chain of electronics stores known as Daka, hoping for a bargain after the socialist government forced the company to charge customers "fair" prices.
President Nicolás Maduro ordered a military "occupation" of the company's five stores as he continues the government's crackdown on an "economic war" it says is being waged against the country, with the help of Washington.
Members of Venezuela's National Guard, some of whom carried assault rifles, kept order at the stores as bargain hunters rushed to get inside.
"I want a Sony plasma television for the house," said Amanda Lisboa, 34, a business administrator, who had waited seven hours already outside one Caracas store. "It's going to be so cheap!"
Televisions were the most in-demand item in the line outside one Caracas store, though people waited more than eight hours for fridges, washing machines, sewing machines and other imported appliances.
Water and snacks were being sold outside the store by savvy Venezuelans keen to profit from the commotion. Happy customers weaved giant television screens and other items back to their cars through the crowds.
Images circulating online as well as reports by local media appeared to show one Daka store in the country's central city of Valencia being looted.
"I have no love for this government," said Gabriela Campo, 33, a businesswoman, hoping to take home a cut-price television and fridge. "They're doing this for nothing but political reasons, in time for December's elections."
Maduro faces municipal elections on Dec. 8. His popularity has dropped significantly in recent months, with shortages of basic items such as chicken, milk and toilet paper as well as soaring inflation, at 54.3% over the past 12 months.
Economists are expecting a devaluation soon after the election, likely leading to even higher inflation.
The opposition, which has long struggled to gain ground against the country's socialist government, is hoping that the elections will be seen as a referendum against Maduro.
The president, who took over from Hugo Chávez in April 2013, appeared on state television Friday calling for the "occupation" of the chain, which employs some 500 staff.
"This is for the good of the nation," Maduro said. "Leave nothing on the shelves, nothing in the warehouses … Let nothing remain in stock!"
The president was accompanied on television by images of officials checking prices of 32-inch plasma televisions.
Daka's store managers, according to Maduro, have been arrested and are being held by the country's security services. Neither Daka nor the government responded to requests for comment.
Maduro has long blamed the opposition for waging an economic war on the country though critics are adamant that government price controls, enacted by Chávez a decade ago, are the real cause for the dire state of the economy.
With such a shortage of hard currency for importers and regular citizens, dollars sell on the black market for nine times their official, government-set value. Prices, at shops such as Daka, are set according to this black market, hence the government's crackdown.
Chávez often theatrically expropriated or seized assets from more than 1,000 companies during his 14-year tenure. This, among other difficulties for foreign firms, led to a severe lack of foreign investment in the country which, according to OPEC, has the world's largest oil reserves.
"This is more like government-sanctioned looting," said 42-year-old Caracas-based engineer Carlos Rivero. "What stops them going into pharmacies, supermarkets and shopping malls?"
Not all were for the bargain hunting. One taxi driver screamed at the waiting crowds as he went past a Caracas branch of Daka, accusing them of "abusing" the system.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
from the AP
MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) -- Evelina Gonzalez was supposed to undergo cancer surgery in July following chemotherapy but wound up shuttling from hospital to hospital in search of an available operating table. On the crest of her left breast, a mocha-colored tumor doubled in size and now bulges through her white spandex tank top.
Gonzalez is on a list of 31 breast cancer patients waiting to have tumors removed at one of Venezuela's biggest medical facilities, Maracay's Central Hospital. But like legions of the sick across the country, she's been neglected by a health care system doctors say is collapsing after years of deterioration.
Doctors at the hospital sent home 300 cancer patients last month when supply shortages and overtaxed equipment made it impossible for them to perform non-emergency surgeries.
Driving the crisis in health care are the same forces that have left Venezuelans scrambling to find toilet paper, milk and automobile parts. Economists blame government mismanagement and currency controls set by the late President Hugo Chavez for inflation pushing 50 percent annually. The government controls the dollars needed to buy medical supplies and has simply not made enough available.
"I feel like I've been abandoned," Gonzalez, 37, tells a bright-eyed hospital psychologist trying to boost her morale. Her right eye is swollen by glaucoma diagnosed two years ago but left untreated when she had trouble getting an appointment.
Doctors not allied with the government say many patients began dying from easily treatable illnesses when Venezuela's downward economic slide accelerated after Chavez's death from cancer in March. Doctors say it's impossible to know how many have died, and the government doesn't keep such numbers, just as it hasn't published health statistics since 2010.
Almost everything needed to mend and heal is in critically short supply: needles, syringes and paraffin used in biopsies to diagnose cancer; drugs to treat it; operating room equipment; X-ray film and imaging paper; blood and the reagents needed so it can be used for transfusions.
Last month, the government suspended organ donations and transplants. At least 70 percent of radiotherapy machines, precisely what Gonzalez will need once her tumor is removed, are now inoperable in a country with 19,000 cancer patients - meaning fewer than 5,000 can be treated, said Dr. Douglas Natera, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation.
"Two months ago we asked the government to declare an emergency," said Natera, whose doctors group is the country's largest. "We got no response."
The Associated Press sought comment from Health Minister Isabel Iturria but her press office did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Last week, a deputy health minister, Nimeny Gutierrez, denied on state TV that the system is in crisis, saying supplies are arriving regularly from Cuba, Uruguay, Colombia and Portugal, and additional purchases "will let us be moderately relaxed until the end of the year."
The interviewer read a viewer's question about Central Hospital patients being forced to buy their own supplies. "It's a hospital that received permanent stocks from us," Gutierrez said, promising to investigate.
The country's 1999 constitution guarantees free universal health care to Venezuelans, who sit on the world's largest proven oil reserves. President Nicolas Maduro's government insists it's complying. Yet of the country's 100 fully functioning public hospitals, nine in 10 have just 7 percent of the supplies they need, Natera said.
The other nearly 200 public hospitals that existed when Chavez took office were largely replaced by a system of walk-in clinics run by Cuban doctors that have won praise for delivering preventative care to the neediest but do not treat serious illnesses.
The woes are not restricted to the public system.
Venezuela's 400 private hospitals and clinics are overburdened and strapped for supplies, 95 percent of which must be imported, said Dr. Carlos Rosales, president of the association that represents them.
The private system has just 8,000 of the country's more than 50,000 hospital beds but treats 53 percent of the country's patients, including the 10 million public employees with health insurance. Rosales said insurers, many state-owned, are four to six months behind in payments and it is nearly impossible to meet payrolls and pay suppliers.
Worse, government price caps set in July for common procedures are impossible to meet, Rosales said. For example, dialysis treatment was set at 200 bolivars ($30 at the official exchange rate and less than $4 on the black market) for a procedure that costs 5,000 bolivars to administer.
"The health care crisis is an economic crisis. It is not a medical crisis," said Dr. Jose Luis Lopez, who oversees labs at the Municipal Blood Bank of Caracas.
Dr. Jose Manuel Olivares, a 28-year-old medical resident in Caracas, recounted having to tell a father who brought his son in with a broken ankle that the man would have to spend more than half his monthly wages on bandages, plaster and antibiotics.
At Maracay's 433-bed Central Hospital, mattresses are missing, broken windows go unrepaired and the cafeteria has been closed for a year. Paint peels off walls and rusty pipes lie exposed. In the halls, patients on intravenous drips lie recovering on gurneys.
"We have some antibiotics but they aren't usually appropriate for what you are specifically treating," said Dr. Gabriela Gutierrez, the surgeon caring for Gonzalez. There is no anesthesia for elective surgery.
Medical students quietly showed AP journalists around to avoid alerting government supporters, who bar reporters from recording images in public hospitals. Broken anesthesia machines and battered stainless-steel instrument tables, some held together with tape, filled one of five idled operating rooms. Foul odors and water from leaky pipes continue to seep into the rooms, doctors said.
In August, cancer patients protested at the eight-month mark since the hospital's two radiotherapy machines broke down. The machines remain out of order.
Half the public health system's doctors quit under Chavez, and half of those moved abroad, Natera said.
Now, support staff is leaving, too, victim of a wage crunch as wages across the economy fail to keep up with inflation.
At the Caracas blood bank, Lopez said 62 nurses have quit so far this year along with half the lab staff. It now can take donations only on weekday mornings.
The last pre-Chavez health minister, Dr. Jose Felix Oletta, said that while the public health care system had its problems, the Cuban-run program of 1,200 clinics is a politically motivated waste of billions.
It doesn't vaccinate or do PAP smears for uterine cancer, while the Chavista system reversed important gains against tropical diseases including malaria, Oletta said. Dengue fever, he said, is making a worrisome comeback. The number of women dying in childbirth has also risen, to 69 per 100,000 in 2010 from 51 in 1998.
Under Chavez, Venezuela began buying most medical equipment through Cuba, China and Argentina. That has led to considerable waste, because it is cheaper to buy direct from the manufacturer, critics say.
The Health Ministry's oncology chief, Dr. Morella Rebolledo, said it is negotiating with Argentina maintenance contracts for the idled radiotherapy machines that had lapsed.
Back home in San Mateo, a 90-minute bus ride away in a neighborhood where even the dogs look hungry, Evelina Gonzalez sits outside the tin-roofed, plywood-walled two-room shack she shares with her family of five. Because her last chemotherapy was in June, she needs more sessions before surgery, but the drugs are not available and the cancer has reached lymph nodes beneath her armpit.
Gonzalez says she adored Chavez for his anti-poverty programs, always voted for him and constantly applied for government benefits, though she never received any.
She has a good chance of survival if she gets the right care, Gutierrez said.
But that's not happening.
"I've got nowhere else to turn," Gonzalez says.