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Colombia election: Voters polarised ahead of run-off

Colombia may no longer be in armed conflict but these past few months of presidential election campa..



Colombia may no longer be in armed conflict but these past few months of presidential election campaigning have proven to be a political battleground.

It is true that with a 2016 peace deal signed between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the left-wing rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), these elections offered an opportunity for candidates to talk about more than the country's security situation.

Corruption, the economy and inequality have all been big themes as front-runner Ivan Duque and his rival Gustavo Petro have tried to woo voters ahead of Sunday's run-off vote.

But the campaign has also revealed the deep polarisation of Colombian society.

Conservative newcomer

The two men in the running for the top job after the first round of voting in late May couldn't be more different. Ivan Duque was, until recently, a political unknown.

He spent years in Washington working with the Inter-American Development bank until former President Alvaro Uribe asked him to run for the senate in 2014.

With Mr Uribe still Colombia's most popular politician, Mr Duque has benefitted from that backing.

The conservative politician wants to cut taxes and boost investment, raising money by shrinking the state. For business, he's the top pick.

But his critics have called him Mr Uribe's puppet. They fear that the former president will call the shots if Mr Duque wins.

The rise of the left

At the other end of the political spectrum is former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro. Once a rebel from the now-defunct M19 group, Mr Petro's campaign promises have been about creating a more equal society and ensuring people have access to health and education.

His rise, according to experts, is partly down to the success of the peace process. A legitimising of the left, if you like.

"Never before has a left-leaning candidate managed to get close enough to have a viable shot at the presidency," says Jorge Restrepo of the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Centre. He thinks that the success of the peace deal has also added to political polarisation in Colombia.

"In the past the discussion of politics has been stymied by the fact that we had an armed left and there was no way of having a viable left," he says. "There were always centrist or centre-right candidates."

A more inclusive Colombia

Andres Garzon is a 23-year-old computer student who lives in Bosa, one of Bogota's slums on the outskirts of the city. Born with brittle bone disease, he uses an adapted tricycle to move around the city.

Andres welcomes Mr Petro's promises of inclusion – from better wheelchair access on public transport to improved healthcare. But it's education Andres thinks is key to improving the country.

"If you make education free, violence would drop considerably," he says. "Education gives people an opportunity, through knowledge, to have a better future."

Divided over peace process

The two candidates differ in their approaches to most things and none more so than the peace deal.

Mr Duque has criticised the way that the former rebels were able to form a political party before facing justice. Mr Petro, on the other hand, has said he will keep the deal intact.

For Derly Araujo, the decision is simple. Her father was killed by the Farc seven years ago and she says that so far the guerrillas have got away with murder.

"Colombia became so polarised because there's not been true justice," she says, blaming the peace deal for dividing the country. "It's become black and white, left or right. That's it. It shouldn't be like that."

She says Mr Duque is the only candidate who can put the peace deal straight, but many Colombians worry about derailing peace achieved in the country.


With Colombia traditionally ruled by the conservative elite, the fear of the left still remains.

The Duque campaign has taken advantage of Mr Petro's avowed left-wing policies and past admiration for former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by putting up billboards telling people to vote for Mr Duque or else risk Colombia turning into a new Venezuela.

The term "castrochavismo" has become a buzzword in Colombia, creating this fear of a new communist state. It may be scaremongering but it's a message that resonates with many people here.

"It is clearly a strategy of the right because there's real fear and the effects, the consequences, are so clear and visible," says Nicolas Diaz Cruz, director of the citizens' platform Seamos. The Colombian government estimates that more than one million people have left Venezuela to live in Colombia in the past 15 months.

"It's very effective in terms of electoral marketing," says Mr Diaz Cruz.

Rise of populism

One thing this campaign has made clear is that people in Colombia want change. And Gustavo Petro, perhaps, is the biggest representation of that.

"A lot has been done to take people out of poverty but people want more and there's expectations," says Eduardo Pizano, the head of the school of government at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá.

"Populism has come on to the scene and it's an alternative. They play with people's dreams."

After decades of conflict, dreams are understandable in Colombia. As is the need for unity in this deeply divided nation. But whoever wins is unlikely to achieve either.

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Latin America

Three abducted Catholic clergy released in Haiti




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.

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Latin America

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




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.”

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Latin America

Honduran abortion law: Congress moves to set total ban ‘in stone’




Parliament in Honduras has initially approved a bill that will make it virtually impossible to legalise abortion in the country.

The new measure will require at least three-quarters of Congress to vote in favour of modifying the abortion law, which is among the strictest in world.

Honduras forbids abortion under any circumstance, even rape or incest.

Its latest move comes in response to Argentina legalising abortion last month.

Across Latin America, there has been increased pro-choice campaigning, known as the “green wave”, based on the colour worn by protesters.

The new legislation in Honduras hinges on an article in the constitution that gives a fetus the same legal status of a person. Constitutional changes have until now been permitted with a two-thirds majority, but the new legislation raises that bar to three-quarters within the 128-member body.

The measure still needs to be ratified by a second vote. However, support was clear on Thursday: with 88 legislators voting in favour, 28 opposed and seven abstentions.

Honduras has a stanchly conservative majority, which referred to the measure as a “shield against abortion”.

“What they did was set this article in stone because we can never reform it if 96 votes are needed [out of 128]”, opposition MP Doris Gutiérrez told AFP news agency.

Mario Pérez, a lawmaker with the ruling party of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, formally proposed the change last week, calling it a “constitutional lock” to prevent any future moderations of the abortion law.

“Every human being has the right to life from the moment of conception,” said Mr Pérez.

Ahead of the vote, UN human rights experts condemned the move, saying in a statement: “This bill is alarming. Instead of taking a step towards fulfilling the fundamental rights of women and girls, the country is moving backwards.”

Abortion has been constitutionally banned in Honduras since 1982.

In 2017, lawmakers voted on decriminalising it in the case of rape, incest or when there was danger to the mother or the fetus, but the move was roundly rejected.

Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti also have complete bans on abortion, but Honduras is the only country to also prohibit the use of emergency contraceptives in all cases, including after rape.

Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana and Argentina are the only Latin American countries to permit abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy.

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