Latin America

The turmoil in Venezuela
While the crisis in Ukraine has grabbed the headlines, Venezuela, once the toast of the radical left around the world, has also been in the grip of a violent political crisis. In the last three weeks, protests have left at least 20 dead. Gideon Rachman is joined by Latin American editor John Paul Rathbone, and correspondent Andres Schipani to discuss the background to the situation, and where the country goes from here.

John Paul Rathbone

“We could turn Venezuela into Ukraine!” a student protester shouted in Caracas this weekend. It is striking how similar the situations are in the two countries, despite the significant differences.

There have been many tragic deaths in both countries – although about 100 people have died in Ukraine, versus “only” around ten in Venezuela. This difference is one reason why the troubles in Venezuela has not yet captured the same attention as the protests in Ukraine.

Just because Venezuela lacks Ukraine’s immediate geo-political heft – there are no borders in question in Venezuela; Europe’s energy security is not under threat; nor is the reach of Russia’s power or Vladimir Putin’s reputation – does not mean it lacks wider significance.

Caracas provides important economic assistance to Havana, without which Cuba’s economy would sink. Communist Cuba therefore has a vested interest in what happens in Venezuela, just as Russia does in Ukraine – a situation ripe for Cold War style comparisons. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
In 1996 a friend of mine called Jim Rohwer published a book called Asia Rising. A few months later, Asia crashed. The financial crisis of 1997 made my colleague’s book look foolish. I thought of Jim Rohwer (who died prematurely in 2001) last week as a I listened to another Jim – Jim O’Neill, formerly of Goldman Sachs – defending his bullish views on emerging markets in a radio interview.

John Paul Rathbone

Barack Obama shakes hands with Raul Castro during the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela (Getty)It is not often that a handshake has such power to titillate. But then it depends on who is doing the shaking. Barack Obama and Raúl Castro briefly greeted each other when they met on Tuesday at the memorial service of former South African president Nelson Mandela – only the second time that leaders of the two countries are known to have shaken hands since 1960, when the two countries broke off diplomatic relations. Yet it is hard to read too much into this. In fact, it would have been awkward for the two leaders to have avoided it. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

While Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernández face rising political uncertainty in Brazil and Argentina, across the Andes plucky Chile soldiers on in time-honored fashion – that’s to say, predictably.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet after winning primary elections in Santiago, on June 30, 2013

Michelle Bachelet, the former president, steamed towards another presidency on Sunday with a romping win in the primaries – which pretty much guarantees her a landslide win in November’s presidential election. But then again, is everything so certain, even in stolid Chile?

Brazil’s recent protests, and student riots in Chile last week over university tuition fees, have led some to wonder if “Chile is the next Brazil?” (Although, truth be told, it would be more accurate to call “Brazil the next Chile” as Chile’s student riots, despite the country’s booming economy, pre-date Brazil’s turbulence by several years; the first were in 2006.) Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Edward Snowden is fast becoming a hot potato nobody wants to handle. Russia does not want him – so he can’t leave the legally-grey area of the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on foot. He could fly away – that is Putin’s preferred solution and, indeed, it seems that he now has travel papers, after Ecuador granted him a “safe pass” for temporary travel, according to images of travel documents posted by Spanish language Univision late on Wednesday.

But Snowden’s flight path to the apparent safety of possible political asylum in another country, such as Venezuela (which has offered the possibility) or Ecuador (which has said it would consider it), is blocked by a problem. All commercial flights between Moscow and Quito or Caracas touch down in third countries with which the US has extradition agreements. And that includes Cuba. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Rafael Correa (Getty)

While no one knows with certainty where Edward Snowden is heading after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, Ecuador appears to be his most likely destination – a small country on the equator, as its name tells us, with fiery Rafael Correa as its outsize president. However, Correa is not the only larger-than-life politician that Ecuador has produced for the world. Indeed, for much of its history, Ecuador seems to have drawn its political inspiration from the gigantic volcano Chimborazo depicted on its coat of arms. Furthermore, like many of the titans who have dominated Ecuadorean politics, Correa has brought a rare stretch of political continuity to his country, although, as critics might argue of him but certainly his forebears, it has been at a cost. Read more

John Aglionby

A demonstrator holds a Brazilian flag in front of a burning barricade during a protest in Rio de Janeiro on Monday

The protests sweeping Brazil began in São Paulo, the country’s commerical capital, last week as a demonstration by students against an increase in bus fares from R$3 to R$3.20 ($1.47) per journey. They have swelled into an outpouring of popular discontent over everything from the billions of dollars the 2014 football World Cup will cost the taxpayer to the police’s heavy-handed reaction to last week’s protests. Commentators say they are probably the country’s largest since the end of the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

Here’s a reading list to help assess whether they are likely to escalate further or fizzle. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

Xi Jinping visiting a coffee farm in Costa Rica (AFP/Getty)

Where the US leads, China follows close behind. Or is that vice versa? The question is especially pertinent in Latin America, where China’s president, Xi Jinping, is midway through a regional tour that culminates in Mexico before he meets Barack Obama in California. What makes Mr Xi’s trip noteworthy is that it follows a similar regional tour by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.

For fans of a multi-polar world, Mr Xi’s trip illustrates how fast the world is changing – and how China is prepared to pay to expand its sphere of influence too: in Trinidad & Tobago, Mr Xi stumped up $3bn in loans. Read more

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