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Deepening divisions: Venezuela’s haves and have nots

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The Hotel Humboldt sits atop El Ávila, a national park overlooking Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

At more than 2,000m (6,500ft) above sea level, you have to take a 20-minute trip in a cable car to the top of the mountain to reach it.

From there, a golf buggy drives guests along the ridge to an impressive glass and aluminium structure surrounded most of the day by rolling clouds that suddenly clear to reveal the most astounding view.

The hotel was built in 1956. Finished in less than 200 days, it was the pet project of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who ruled Venezuela from 1950 to 1958.

At a time of great oil wealth, it was a show of pomp and modernity.

National icon

It operated as a hotel for just a few years before falling into disrepair, but it has remained an icon, one that the late President Hugo Chávez wanted to restore to its former glory. After his death in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been intent on finalising the restoration.

“This building means so much for the Venezuelan people,” says Carlos Salas, one of the hotel’s managers.

He shows me around the hotel, which has just started accepting overnight guests after nine years of renovations.

“It’s a representation of a golden era for Venezuela.”

But that golden era is long gone.

The economy is in crisis, oil prices have slumped as has production and around 60% of Venezuelans now live in poverty, according to researchers at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

Financially sound or a folly?

A stay at the Hotel Humboldt costs around $300 (£225) a night.

Clearly a lot of hard work has been put into restoring this architectural jewel but it is not your typical five-star lodgings. Indeed, the classification was awarded by the government which is promoting it, and the hotel is still a bit rough around the edges, despite having been inaugurated a month ago.

The Marriott hotel chain was given the concession to run it in 2018 but it did not stay long as partner. The team now in place is clearly proud of its achievements but in crisis-hit Venezuela, the hotel’s restoration feels like a folly, promoted by a president with his head buried in the sand.

“One banana here costs triple the price [elsewhere],” Mr Salas says, explaining the logistical challenges of getting supplies up the mountain to the hotel.

“My people here, we have to pay them more, the maintenance of the building, water, electricity, it’s really difficult.”

So what, I ask, is the demand for a hotel like this, in a country where the minimum wage is around $2 (£1.50) a month.

He responds without flinching, arguing that five-star hotels are not within everyone’s reach anywhere in the world. Venezuela is no different, he says.

Emerging elite

The hotel is seen by many as a symbol of the rise of a group of newly wealthy Venezuelans, in particular those who have become rich thanks to their close ties to the government.

And Hotel Humboldt is not the only sign of an economic revival in Venezuela.

Faced with US sanctions, rampant hyperinflation and a spiralling economic crisis, President Maduro responded by removing the price controls and easing the capital controls introduced by his predecessor and fellow socialist, Hugo Chávez.

With the local currency increasingly hard to come by due to the sky-high inflation rate – a cup of coffee with milk can set you back almost 1.5m bolivars in Caracas – Mr Maduro also begrudgingly accepted the use of the US dollar.

The result of this easing of economic restraints can be seen across Caracas, where new “bodegas” (shops) have opened up, selling all sorts of imported goods to people long-used to shortages of even the basics.

The Caracas stock exchange is another beneficiary, booming because of an uptick in private enterprise, although it is still comparatively small.

A brighter future?

It has made life a bit more bearable for many, especially in this toughest of years, but not everyone is positive about these changes.

“The government is building on the ashes of this wrecked economic model in a very disorganised fashion,” says economist Tamara Herrera.

“This re-accommodation of the economy is amorphous, disorganised and positive results are difficult to judge. This won’t mend the tragedy that you can see in the population,” she argues.

And there is no doubt that while there may be an emerging class of haves, there are still plenty of have nots – those with little or no access to dollars, or basic services.

In the poor neighbourhood of Catia, on the outskirts of Caracas, I met former housekeeper Diurka González, who is helping out in a soup kitchen. Every day, the kitchen provides lunches for as many as 140 children, including her two-year-old daughter.

“My boss couldn’t keep me on because she was scared of the pandemic,” Ms González tells me.

She did not even earn $2 a month, but now she gets nothing. The soup kitchen allows her daughter to eat one decent meal a day.

Hard realities

A few doors down, Jonathan Fermenal is feeding his two-year-old daughter Samara with the lunch they have just picked up from the soup kitchen. He relies on the free lunches for Samara and his other two children.

Mr Fermenal’s wife, Laila, left to find work in Colombia at the beginning of the year.

The plan was for the rest of the family to follow a few months later, but then came the coronavirus pandemic. They have not been able to see her since.

“At the beginning, it was horrible, horrible,” he says about his wife’s departure. “My youngest was 18 months old, she was still breastfeeding and had to stop suddenly. The first month, I didn’t sleep at all.”

Mr Fermenal has had to learn to play the role of both mother and father. “For my wife it’s also been hard, everything is done by Whatsapp, a photo here, a voice message there, but it’s not the same,” he says.

“And the way I live is how thousands and thousands of Venezuelan families are living,” says Mr Fermenal about the more than five million Venezuelans who have left to escape their home country’s economic hardships over the past six years.

Lives – and hardships – that are far more common than those who invested in the Hotel Humboldt would like to believe.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55364444

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Nicaragua opposition figure Chamorro put under house arrest

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Police in Nicaragua have placed opposition presidential hopeful Cristiana Chamorro under house arrest.

Prosecutors have accused Ms Chamorro of money laundering, which she denies, and demand she be barred from running in November’s election.

Ms Chamorro is seen by many in the opposition as their best hope of defeating President Daniel Ortega, who is expected to run for a fifth term.

Her mother defeated Mr Ortega in the 1990 presidential poll.

The arrest is the latest in a series of measures which the opposition says are aimed at crushing its chances of defeating the government in the upcoming election.

Who is Cristiana Chamorro?

The 67-year-old journalist comes from one of Nicaragua’s most influential families.

Her father, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was the editor of newspaper La Prensa, which opposed the autocratic Somoza family that ruled Nicaragua for decades. He was assassinated in 1978.

Violeta Chamorro, her mother, won the 1990 election to become the first female president in Latin America, putting an end to Daniel Ortega’s first 11 years as president.

Cristiana Chamorro had until recently been leading the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, which is focused on press freedom. But she stepped down from the post earlier this year.

On Tuesday, she announced she would seek to become the presidential candidate for the opposition Citizen’s Alliance. The Alliance wants to field one single name in the hope of defeating Mr Ortega.

The president, who has been in power since January 2007, is widely expected to run again, though an official announcement is yet to be made.

How did things get here?

Shortly after Ms Chamorro’s announcement, prosecutors accused her of “abusive management [and] ideological falsehood” during her time at the helm of the foundation.

She has also been charged with “the laundering of money, property and assets, to the detriment of the Nicaraguan State and society”.

The investigation against her was opened in May at the request of the Ortega government. Ms Chamorro says they are trumped up charges to prevent her from challenging the president.

On Wednesday, shortly before Ms Chamorro was due to give a news conference, police raided her home in the capital, Managua, and placed her under house arrest.

What’s the reaction been?

In a statement issued before Ms Chamorro’s arrest, the regional body Organization of American States (OAS), of which Nicaragua is a member, said the country was “heading for the worst possible elections”.

“The use of the prosecutor’s office, injunctions and precautionary measures, the politicised handling of justice and the de facto banning of candidates are in violation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the OAS Charter, the instruments on human rights and of international pacts to which Nicaragua is party,” the statement read.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned the move, saying on Twitter: “Arbitrarily banning opposition leader [Ms Chamorro] reflects Ortega’s fear of free and fair elections. Nicaraguans deserve real democracy.”

Opposition parties in Nicaragua accused the government of “unleashing a witch hunt”, alleging Mr Ortega feared “going to a free, transparent and observed” election.

Meanwhile government-friendly newspapers printed the arrest warrant issued for Ms Chamorro.

What’s the background?

Last December, the legislative, which is dominated by parties allied with the government, passed a law giving the government the power to ban candidates from running for office if they are deemed to be “traitors” to Nicaragua.

The government says the law aims to protect “the independence, the sovereignty and self-determination” of Nicaragua. It claims the country is under threat from imperialist powers in the US and “coup-mongers” within Nicaragua who are determined to overthrow the government.

The opposition alleges that repression has grown since 2018, when anti-government protests swept through the country and were met with a violent police response.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-57341542

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Three abducted Catholic clergy released in Haiti

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Three members of the Catholic clergy kidnapped in Haiti earlier month this have been released, officials say.

But seven other people – including a French nun and a French priest – abducted in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets remain in captivity.

The kidnappers had demanded $1m (£722,000) as a ransom payment after they seized the group on 11 April.

Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse has vowed to “do everything the law allows” to secure their release.

“Three of the seven clergy kidnapped on April 11 were released,” Father Loudger Mazile, spokesman for the Bishop’s Conference of the island nation, told the AFP on Thursday.

“The French were not released. There were no lay people among those released,” he said.

It is not known whether any ransom has been paid.

The attack happened when the Catholic clergy were on their way to the installation of a new parish priest.

A police source told AFP that a gang calling itself 400 Mazowo was most probably behind the abduction.

Kidnappings have surged in Haiti, with the Catholic Church describing the situation as “a descent into hell”.

While at first well-off business people were the main targets, victims have come from all walks of life. Religious groups have not been spared.

On 1 April, armed men burst into a service at an evangelical church on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and abducted the pastor and three other people. The service was being live-streamed on social media at the time.

The four were released three days later after an undisclosed sum was paid in ransom but the brazenness of kidnapping a pastor in the middle of a service shocked many Haitians.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56854273

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Coronavirus: What’s behind Latin America’s oxygen shortages?

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Before the clinic ran out of oxygen, Maria Auxiliadora da Cruz had been showing encouraging signs of progress against Covid-19. On 14 January, her oxygen levels had been above the normal level of 95% but, within hours of being deprived of that vital resource, her stats plummeted to 35%.

At this point, patients would normally be given intubation and oxygen by machine. Instead, the 67-year-old retired nurse died. “It was horrible,” her grieving daughter-in-law Thalita Rocha told the BBC. “It was a catastrophe. Many elderly patients began to deteriorate and turn blue.”

In an emotional video that went viral on social media, she described what was happening at Policlínica Redenção in the northern Brazilian city of Manaus. “We’re in a desperate situation. An entire emergency unit has simply run out of oxygen… A lot of people are dying.”

Brazil has the world’s second-highest Covid death toll with more than 221,000 fatalities. In Manaus, the health system has collapsed twice during the pandemic and deaths doubled between December and January.

Now there are fears the lack of oxygen supplies seen there could unfold elsewhere in Brazil and even in other parts of Latin America, where a second wave of Covid-19, in many countries, is proving to be worse than the first one.

In Peru, some hospitals have been unable to meet the demand brought by a steep rise in cases in recent weeks. As a result, patients’ relatives have had to hunt for oxygen in the black market. In some cases, they come back with nothing.

A black market is also thriving in Mexico, where more than 155,000 have died in the pandemic. To make things worse, there have been reports of thieves taking oxygen cylinders from hospitals and clinics.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) one in five Covid-19 patients will require oxygen. In severe cases, this rises to three in five. The organisation says some hospitals have seen demand for oxygen increase between five and seven times above normal levels because of the influx of patients with severe and critical disease.

The most dramatic situation in the world is in Brazil, where nearly 340,000 oxygen cylinders are needed every day, according to the Covid-19 Oxygen Needs tracker. The online tool helps estimate the scale of the challenge for policymakers and was developed by the Covid-19 Respiratory Care Response Coordination partnership which includes Path and Every Breath Counts.

Also according to the tracker, Mexico and Colombia each need more than 100,000 cylinders daily.

So how does a hospital run out of oxygen?

Oxygen has been considered an essential medicine by the WHO since 2017, but Lisa Smith, from Path’s market dynamics program, says ensuring adequate supply depends on many “components” falling into place.

This includes not only sources of production, but also training to enable medical staff to monitor and manage oxygen levels.1px transparent line

Medical oxygen is produced in large quantities at plants and delivered to hospitals in two ways: either in bulk in liquid tanks or as pressurised gas in cylinders containing smaller volumes.

Liquid oxygen is the cheapest and best technology available but it requires hospitals to have the right infrastructure to pipe oxygen to the patient’s bedside. This is common in developed countries such as the US and those in Europe.

Cylinders do not require pipes and can be delivered to clinics without a sophisticated infrastructure. However, their distribution on a smaller scale means they are less cost-effective, in addition to being cumbersome to transport and handle, which also carries an increased risk of cross-contamination.

Another source of production is on-site oxygen plants, which produce oxygen to be piped or compressed into cylinders. The WHO says it is currently trying to map how many such plants exist in the countries.

After Manaus reached crisis point, oxygen donations were sent from the federal government and other states – as the local providers said they were unable to increase production – and across the border from Venezuela. But even transporting them became a problem.

Jesem Orellana, an epidemiologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, said the risk of shortage continued and was exacerbated by global demand.

According to Path, medical oxygen accounts for just 5-10% of the world’s oxygen production. The rest is used in various industries, such as mining, chemical and pharmaceutical.

“We need to think about oxygen as much as we think about electricity, water or other essential utilities,” says Ms Smith. “This can’t be something that we’re only concerned about when it’s bad, because when it’s bad, people will die.”

In the meantime, there are concerns that the strain of Covid-19 on oxygen supplies could have a knock-on effect for the treatment of other diseases.

“Covid has shown us just how essential it is in countries where there is no vaccine against Covid, no medicines,” says Leith Greenslade, who leads the Every Breath Counts Coalition. “Often, it’s down to whether you get oxygen or not, whether you live or die.”

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55829424

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