Latin America

John Paul Rathbone

Was it the man or the country? Roberto Azevêdo is a polished negotiator, a seasoned trade diplomat and in many ways a perfect pick to head the World Trade Organization.

He knows his way around the Geneva-based organisation, can hit the ground running fully briefed on all the issues, and is well known and liked around the developing world – not least for his record of criticising the farm-subsidy policies of the USA and Europe. If anyone can revive the Doha round of trade talks, launched 12 years ago in an attempt to cut tariffs and trade-distorting farm subsidies around the world but now on life-support, it is surely him.

Yet Azevêdo, 55, is also Brazilian, a country with a patchy record on trade liberalisation and little openness to the rest of the world. Trade accounts for only 20 per cent of Brazilian gross domestic product. Brazil is also the leading member of Mercosul, a regional Latin American trade pact created in 1991 with great hopes that have since foundered. If Brazil can’t boost trade locally, what chance it can boost trade globally? Azevêdo’s nationality therefore makes him an unlikely leader of the WTO, especially as the organisation’s role as a broker of ambitious trade deals is in doubt given the rise of so many regional trade initiatives, such as the mooted US-European trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles protest in front of riot police in Caracas on April 15, 2013 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Henrique Capriles protest on April 15 (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

“I will continue governing the country with its people. Street government.” So tweeted Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday night as Venezuela’s president-elect sought to strengthen his hold on the country amid deadly street clashes, a teetering economy and an angry opposition that has disputed his narrow election victory.

It’s a febrile atmosphere: seven people died in riots overnight, 60 were injured and 170 arrested. Back in Europe, fresh from a recent trip to Caracas, many have asked me: is this country nuts?

One way to imagine yourself into the Venezuelan mindset is to picture yourself in an old fashioned American automobile – a yank tank – cruising along one of the rain-stained concrete flyovers that define Caracas’ cityscape. Towering sky-scrapers, built during the 1970s oil boom and now thick with grime, flit by on either side. You have a full tank of gas (it cost just $3 to fill up). It’s tropical hot, and the car’s air-conditioning is broken and unfixable because the spare parts needed to repair it are imported and thus unobtainable due to currency restrictions. No matter: the windows are open. Other cars are jouncing along at high speed in the adjacent lanes. The atmosphere is exhilarating – although you are just making a regular trip to the airport, a half hour drive down to the coast, and your suitcase is in the back.

When I made that trip on the Friday before the election, our way was momentarily blocked by an accident. Think of what follows as just another regular day in Caracas. To avoid the traffic back-up, a white SUV with blue tinted windows was bucking over the concrete lane divider, and then started heading backwards against the traffic towards a slipway a couple of hundred metres behind. Further on, we passed a turning to Ciudad Caribe, a “socialist new town” where earlier that week two police had accidentally shot a child. A furious mob subsequently lynched one of the police officers.

Later, checking in at the airport, I was pulled aside for a routine security check. A bored young soldier rummaged through my suitcase. He found a DVD set of a hit Colombian soap opera I was watching: “Pablo Escobar, Father of Evil”. The badges on his olive green tunic proclaimed him a member of Venezuela’s “National Boliviarian Guard – anti-drugs unit.” His interest perked up, although not for the reasons I expected.

“You know, for me, Pablo Escobar was one of the greatest of men, ever,” he said fingering the DVDs covetously. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Nicolas Maduro celebrates with his wife, Cilia Flores, after being declared the winner of Venezuela's presidential election (Reuters).

Only six weeks in the grave, and Hugo Chávez’s socialist dream is fading fast. Last night, the chosen successor of “el commandante”, Nicolas Maduro, won Venezuela’s presidential election, but only by a whisker.

Maduro – “the self-proclaimed son of Chavez” – got 50.7 per cent of the vote, versus 49.1 per cent for Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader. That compares to an 11 point win for Chavez in October’s presidential election. Capriles has refused to accept the result until the votes are fully audited.

Assume, for now, that the result stands and no evidence is found of jiggery-pokery. That is still no kind of mandate for Maduro and Venezuela’s ruling socialist party. This is a country split down the middle. Such a close result will also undermine Maduro’s standing within the ruling socialist party. The 50-year old former foreign minister and bus driver will struggle to reconcile chavismo’s various factions, many of whom may think they could do a better job. But the country is in a mess, whoever comes to govern it. Read more

Esther Bintliff

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 14, Venezuelans will choose a president for the second time in less than a year. Hugo Chávez won October’s election; following his death, it’s expected that his chosen heir – former vice-president and acting President Nicolás Madurowill be voted in. But even if Maduro wins comfortably, the presidency is a poisoned chalice. Here are six reasons why.

CHAVISMO When Chávez died, thousands of ordinary people flooded the streets to mourn. They spoke of him in familial terms – as a father, a protector, a benefactor. Their affection reflected the fact that Chávez’s rule brought about material change in the lives of many, particularly the poorest – he cut poverty by half, and increased access to healthcare and education. But it’s worth noting that other countries in the region made similar social progress without the divisions that Chavismo generated.

While there was growing opposition to Chávez – in October, his rival Henrique Capriles secured 44 per cent of the vote – his supporters loved him with a devotion that will be hard for any leader to replicate. That has repercussions for his political movement. ‘Chavismo’ would face a far more uncertain future without the charismatic former tank commander at its head; it was always a highly personalised political project,” John Paul Rathbone noted in December.

The final dividend of Chávez’s charisma will probably be the election of his chosen heir, as even voters uncertain about Maduro are swung by loyalty to the wishes of their former leader. In a video for the New York Times, Simon Romero asks an 80-year-old lady who she will vote for. “Well naturally, this last request of my president who pleaded from his heart that we vote for the one he chose, to vote for Maduro.” Read more

John Paul Rathbone

The optimism of the early Chávez years is fading (Getty)

Landing in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main international airport, is always a bit like stepping through the looking glass no matter where you’re coming from. But arriving from neighbouring Colombia is a stark reminder of just how far the fortunes of these two countries have diverged over the past 15 years or so.

At the turn of the century, Colombia was under the cosh – from the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, often all at the same time. Bogotá was an austere, gloomy place. The only way seemed to be down. Today, its refurbished El Dorado airport is all gleaming efficiency – perhaps the slickest entrepôt on the continent. The capital’s streets are thrumming, the Colombian personality remains upbeat and can-do, democracy is effervescent (and bumpy, like all healthy democracies), inflation is low, and while the country’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas is sometimes a halting process, government security officials have a spring in their step. I suspect the talks are going far better than many believe and a deal could be possible in a number of months. Peace could then see the economy really take off and the country properly attack its glaring inequalities and income disparities.

In Venezuela everything is al reves – the opposite. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

They say that a bad agreement is better than a good fight. But not, it seems, in Bogotá. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos launched a formal peace process with Colombia’s Farc guerrillas. This sparked hopes that the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict might finally draw to a close. As the Farc has also funded itself with drug-smuggling (although it denies this), the process has other international implications too. The talks, held in Havana, have already proved a hard slog. But over the Easter holidays, they suffered a series of unexpected and damaging attacks – not from the guerrillas themselves, as you might expect, but from two former Colombian presidents.

Álvaro Uribe, who led an all out offensive on the Farc while president from 2002 until 2010, fired off a series of withering tweets, lambasting the peace process as an attempt to “cozy up to terrorists”. Then Andrés Pastrana, who ironically led a failed peace process in 1998, joined the fray, saying that Mr Santos had no mandate to seek peace. Further souring the mood, both former presidents attacked the person and family of Mr Santos. To outsiders, this can look odd as he served with a distinction in both Pastrana’s government (as finance minister) and Uribe’s (as defence minister). Either way, the attacks have fed growing pessimism that the peace talks will succeed. Many Colombians were anyway sceptical at the outset. Read more

Stunned, then overjoyed (Getty)

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti

The first pope from the Americas, the first from the Jesuit order, the first to name himself Francis … the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio signals a break with the past on many fronts for a Roman Catholic Church in desperate need of renewal. Yet he is also regarded as a theological conservative in the mold of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and at the relatively advanced age of 76 he will have to overcome fears that he too will be a transitional pope.

Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s normally unflappable spokesman and a fellow Jesuit, was just as stunned at the choice as the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “Personally I am shocked that I have a Jesuit pope,” he told reporters, noting that Jesuits usually eschew positions of authority. He added: “He had the courage to pick a name that has never been chosen. It expresses simplicity and evangelical testimony.”

Rebecca Rist, an expert in papal history at Reading University, said the choice of Francis – echoing both the 13th-century St Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first followers of the Jesuits – signalled that the new pope would emphasise poverty and reform. Furthermore, by choosing a name never used before he was indicating “something new – that he would not emulate a predecessor”. Read more

Geoff Dyer

Lets just say that the idea of a post-Chávez rapprochement between the US and Venezuela did not get off to a great start.

Even before the death of Hugo Chávez had been formally announced on Tuesday, two US military officials were expelled for “planning to destabilize the country”.

Vice-president and heir apparent Nicolás Maduro then promised an investigation into the prospect that Venezuela’s “historical enemies” had induced Mr Chávez’ terminal cancer. There had been “too many historical cases” of such under-hand assassinations, he warned. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

It is a common error in politics to underestimate your adversary. Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption. But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.

Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s – another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book. Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong “chavismo” for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Peña Nieto: taking on the old guard (Getty)

Elba Esther Gordillo encapsulates everything that is wrong with the “old Mexico”. The optimistic view of her arrest on Tuesday night, after the 68-year old union leader decamped from a private flight from San Diego, is that it shows what the “new Mexico” might become – a country where nobody is untouchable and the rule of law reigns. The cynical view is that it shows the government of Enrique Peña Nieto pursuing Mexican politics-as-usual: anyone who gets in the president’s way will be metaphorically decapitated and their head stuck on a pike as a warning to others.

Either way, Gordillo, a.k.a. “La Maestra”, is one of the most loathsome figures in Mexican politics. The head of the 1.5m teachers union, the largest in Latin America, has long been a byword for corruption, influence peddling and old-school clientelist politics. Yet although accusations have been brought against her before, no charges have ever been pressed. Now, they have. Read more