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Aug. 9 2010 — 4:23 pm | 16 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Hasta la vista

Dear readers, serious thanks for reading and visiting over the least year or so. I’ve learned a lot about Latin America and online writing since I began thinking aloud about the region here, and look forward to hearing from some of you again at this column/blog’s next version.

True/Slant was a great venue, and though it is closing after its purchase by Forbes, I still feel the impulse toward almost daily posting and analysis, so I won’t hang up my spurs yet. After all, there is all that buzz lately about the 2010’s being the decade of Latin America, and Latin America ruling the world. Well, I doubt it, but there is enough going on to make for very interesting times.

Please look for updates on where I will be blogging next, and doings meanwhile, at my personal webpage. In September, I’ll be a Lemann Fellow at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs studying Brazil’s economy. Around that time I will definitely take my online writing elsewhere, so do stay in touch. My email is ballve[at]gmail …



Jul. 25 2010 — 5:43 pm | 72 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The old bones at the root of the Venezuela-Colombia rift

Venezuelan officials and scientists surround Bolívar's coffin during the exhumation (Image - Venezuelan government)

When Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia last week, amidst bellicose talk, the Andean war-risk meter inched up a couple of points. At issue, according to President Hugo Chávez, were the Colombians’ claims that his government was offering sanctuary to narcoguerrillas, claims that Chávez deemed offensive and untrue.

Most analysis of this latest spat (like the L.A. Times article linked above) puts the reasons behind it in the political opportunism category. Chávez, a former army parachutist, facing a deteriorating economic situation at home, wants to shore up his popularity with left-leaning and nationalist Venezuelans. Colombia’s conservative government is a convenient and nearby punching bag.

But that’s a rational explanation for the actions of an administration riddled through with preoccupations that are much more esoteric. Chávez is trying to rewrite South America’s 19th Century history, and his saber-rattling in Colombia’s direction may have as much to do with myth-making as it does with politics or diplomacy.

The dispute with Colombia coincides with Chávez’s ongoing effort to prove that Venezuelan founding father and independence hero general Simón Bolívar was poisoned with arsenic by a Colombian rival, Francisco de Paula Santander, in 1830 (Bolívar died in Santa Marta, Colombia, presumably of tuberculosis).

Santander, persona non grata in Chávez's Venezuela

There is only spotty evidence to support the arsenic theory (mainly the opinions of Johns Hopkins M.D. Paul Auwaerter, who in any case thinks the chronic arsenic poisoning was unlikely to have been deliberate, since contaminated water could have caused it). But nonetheless, Chávez had Bolívar’s remains exhumed on July 16 in order to conduct forensic tests. He is also having Bolívar’s sister’s remains disinterred to verify the identity of Bolívar’s remains.

Why would a convincing case against Santander (Bolívar’s Colombian rival) be significant?

Because it would rewrite South American history in Bolívar’s favor. Bolívar’s death would go from being sad and almost anticlimactic death-in-exile to a tragic injustice, a slow murder perpetrated by a double-dealing rival. And this would go a long way to rehabilitate Bolívar’s image and denigrate that of Santander, who thought Bolívar was amassing too much power. This rewriting of the narrative would play into Chávez’s own personal view of South American history, in which Bolívar’s dream of a united continent has been constantly foiled by sellouts like Santander, who, once Bolívar was out of the way, cozied up to the United States and pushed free trade (much as Colombia’s leaders are doing today). continue »

Jul. 24 2010 — 12:11 am | 562 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Southwest governors square off on immigration

This week, a district court judge in Phoenix heard arguments for and against SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, which makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without citizenship or residency papers.

Meanwhile, Govs. Janice Brewer of Arizona, and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, debated the propriety of states creating and enforcing their own immigration policies (as SB 1070 does for Arizona) in the pages of the upcoming issue of Americas Quarterly.

It’s still not available online, but the journal’s issue features a side-by-side detailed exposition, written by each Brewer and Richardson, about why they’re on opposite sides of the immigration debate on this score. It’s a nice summation of where these two governors stand on immigration. Their states may be next-door neighbors but they definitely don’t see eye-to-eye.

Richardson believes that states should not legislate their own immigration policies, to avoid creating a patchwork quilt of such laws, or worse, as he puts it– creating a kind of immigration “arms race among neighbors.” Brewer, meanwhile, thinks that in the face of federal inaction, states have no choice but to get tough on illegal immigration.

What’s striking about Brewer’s stance is the extent to which she uses organized crime, mainly the  threat posed by Mexican drug cartels along the border, to justify Arizona’s move to make illegal immigration a crime on the state level. She writes:

Because of Washington’s failure to secure our southern border, Arizona has become the superhighway for illegal drug and human smuggling activity. In December 2008, the U.S. Justice Department said that Mexican gangs are the “biggest organized crime threat to the United States.” In 2009, Phoenix had 316 kidnapping cases, turning the city into our nation’s kidnapping capital.

Although crime as a whole does not seem to be a problem in the border states, despite all these nightmare stories, Gov. Richardson of New Mexico knows that it is not necessarily overall statistics, but anecdotally spectacular crimes and incidents, which attract public attention. And so he widely does not soft-pedal the issue, but shares New Mexico’s own strategies against cross-border crime, which, notably, did not include legislating immigration:

In 2005, I declared a state border emergency as a result of violence, damage to property and livestock, and increased drug smuggling near the New Mexico border town of Columbus. That emergency declaration freed up state money to pay for local law enforcement and a National Guard presence at the border to supplement the Border Patrol, which has primary responsibility for enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Working “collectively” with agencies in the United States and Mexico, and calling on both governments to take action, Richardson says, “is a much more productive way to to address the need for immigration reform than enacting a hodge-podge of state laws.” continue »

Jul. 23 2010 — 10:21 am | 212 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

An emerging emerging markets bubble?

Cover of "How Markets Fail: The Logic of ...

Cover via Amazon

The next global economy-wrecking bubble could come in emerging markets. I just finished reading John Cassidy’s book How Markets Fail, which is mainly about bubbles, such as the 2002-2007 mainly U.S.-based but also global credit bubble. So excuse me if all of a sudden I am looking for bubbles everywhere.

But, in truth, I had written about the glut of investment in emerging markets before, and the possibility that it is creating bubble-like conditions. So it can’t be all Cassidy-inspired paranoia.

But, a global investment bubble, focused in countries that only ten or twenty years ago were still considered economically irrelevant?

One of Cassidy’s points in his analysis of the U.S. real estate bubble is that the true believers in unstoppable home prices always said that the U.S. housing market had never declined on a national level, and that any drop offs in home prices had been regional, isolated to certain U.S. areas that for one reason or another had seen peak-and-valley dynamics. No one wanted to believe this could happen countrywide. It did, of course, after hundreds of thousands of subprime mortgages were written.

This leads me to wonder if there’s an analogy on offer here. Everyone knows there are risks in emerging markets (even the big ones, China, India, Brazil, Russia), especially political risks. But I wonder if there is enough thought given to the global risks being created by all the money pouring into emerging markets, independent of country or region-specific risks. In other words, are the value of emerging market-based investments being pumped up beyond reason everywhere, because of the enthusiasm for the potential upside in these places?

I’m no economic expert. But others, including “Dr. Doom,” have made a similar point (the following is from a May Bloomberg story):

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who predicted the global financial crisis, said the Brazilian, Chinese and Indian economies may be overheating and developing asset bubbles.

The outlook for Brazil’s economy is “very positive,” though the crisis in the euro zone countries and a slow “u- shaped” recovery globally could dent the country’s growth, Roubini said today at an event in Sao Paulo.

“In Brazil, like in many other emerging market economies, there is now evidence of overheating of the economy,” Roubini said.

And there’s data already out there showing that the money flowing out of stocks in Europe and the United States is being pumped into emerging markets, according to the Financial Times today (one of the ramifications of this is that the value of emerging market currencies is being pumped up):

Investors are piling into emerging market equities even as they are pulling out of stocks in the sluggish developed world. According to EPFR, equity funds saw a net outflow of $3.16bn globally in the week to July 21 but emerging market equity funds posted a $1.5bn inflow.

Of course, here are plenty of reasons to believe that emerging markets merit all the investment and attention they have received. continue »

Jul. 21 2010 — 6:59 pm | 135 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Chinese investors look to Brazil for farmland, water

Here’s more news that in the new global economy populous China and commodity-endowed Brazil may become inextricably linked: well-financed Brazilian land investment group Agrifirma, backed by UK-based investors Ian Watson and Jim Slater, along with Jacob Rothschild, has secured major backing in Hong Kong.

Why does this triangulation make sense?

Because Hong Kong investors see a future for land and water-rich Brazil as the world’s breadbasket, and recognize China’s need to have its eye on foreign sources for foodstuffs. Here is a piece of the FT story that broke this news:

Ian Watson, Agrifirma Brazil’s London-based chairman, said: “The wealth in the developing world is going to cause foodstuffs to go up in price.” He noted that Brazil had 14 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, while China’s populous northern provinces and cities were perennially parched. “When you export agriculture you are exporting water.”

(Agrifirma) has raised $179m to date, including investments from two Hong Kong tycoons – Raymond Kwok and Adrian Fu – and Lake House, an investment group.

“There is a shortage of farmland in China itself,” said Mr Fu, a hotel developer. “Eventually China will have to go abroad to source crops.” The Kwok family controls Sun Hung Kai Properties, Hong Kong’s largest property developer.

Agrifirma, which already controls some 70,000 hectares in western Bahia state (about one-fifth the size of Rhode Island), was considering an IPO in Hong Kong, the FT story reported. But a subsequent statement on Agrifirma’s website says the IPO, when it comes, could be held in Hong Kong, Toronto, São Paulo, London, or elsewhere. continue »

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    About Me

    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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    Contributor Since: June 2009

    What I'm Up To

    • For longer pieces, and a portfolio of published work please see my web page.


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      Since 2002 I have been a contributing editor at New America Media, where I write about Latin America and the politics of immigration in the United States.

    • 1248375172-waxpoetics__issue36ju_101b

      Wax Poetics issue #36, with my essay on Brazilian singer-songwriter Jards Macalé.

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