La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: health

Trapped miners in Chile begin receiving cigarettes

Fuerza mineros chile miners

The 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in a mine in Chile have persuaded officials to meet one of their most ardent requests since making contact with the surface: cigarettes. The regional governor in Atacama, where the San Jose mine is located, told reporters this weekend that the miners will now receive two cigarette packs a day, or 40 smokes, to ration among them.

"We're ready to do what we can to lift the miners' spirits," said Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich. A doctor in the rescue operation told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the miners were "responsible people" who could administer the cigarettes on their own.

The decision to send down smokes came after ventilation was improved in the shelter where the miners await their rescue. Previous measures to alleviate the miners' craving for cigarettes, nicotine patches and gum, were not effective, reports said.

The men are still not being allowed alcohol, however, another request they've insisted on.

"For tobacco companies chafing at advertising restrictions it could be a promotional dream, though it was not immediately known which brand was delivered, nor how many of the miners smoke," reported the Guardian.

The miners have been trapped underground since Aug. 5. Three holes are now being dug concurrently to reach them, but that's not expected to occur until November or even Christmas. As reported previously on La Plaza, the Chile mine rescue effort is now considered one of the most complex and difficult rescue efforts in history. Experts from NASA have been brought in to assess and advise on the effort. (The NASA people had recommended against cigarettes for the men.)

The miners are also expected to begin receiving electricity to improve lighting in the shelter and help the miners' sleeping patterns. They are also beginning an exercise regimen.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A message of 'Be strong, miners!' adorns a structure at the San Jose mine surface camp for rescuers and relatives. Credit: Associated Press

A long, precarious wait for trapped miners in Chile

Chile miners rescue video conference image

It's been more than a month of waiting now for "Los 33" of Chile, the miners trapped 2,300 feet underground at a gold and copper mine in the remote Atacama desert. The 33 men have had videoconferences with loved ones, watched a Chile-Ukraine soccer match on a tiny fiber-optic feed and sent "dirty jokes" up to the surface to keep their spirits up.

But as the rescue effort at the San Jose mine bears on slowly, concerns remain high for the miners' psychological state, reports Chris Kraul in The Times. Kraul notes that the miners' emergency shelter is "almost as deep as two Empire State Buildings laid end to end." By Sept. 18, Independence Day in Chile, rescuers will be drilling three competing holes 200 yards from one another in a race to reach the miners as quickly as possible.

The mine caved in Aug. 5, and the miners, all of them Chilean except for one Bolivian national, made contact with the surface Aug. 22 in a handwritten note: "We are fine, the 33 of us in the shelter." The news was met with cheers across Chile, but reality quickly set in. Efforts to dig a tunnel to reach and release the miners from their humid, dark chamber could take three to four months, or until late November or December.

Experts brought in from NASA, the U.S. space agency, said the miners were remarkably healthy and sound. They are already the longest-trapped miners in history, and the rescue operation is now considered one of the most complex and difficult ever recorded.

But in the waiting, could one of the miners "crack" and harm the others? What if the miners "rebel" against the rescue plans? What about the growing risk of skin infections?

The Guardian reports that the miners' requests for wine and cigarettes are becoming ever more insistent. They've complained about the practice of selective mail delivery (the government wants them to receive only positive messages), and they've ignored certain explicit government orders, using vehicles inside the mine even though they've been told not to do so.

"He totally cursed me out; they are not sending the letters to him," a son of trapped miner Victor Zamora told the Guardian. "He is going to blow up down there."

In the meantime, the miners aren't just waiting idly. The workers will have to move 4,000 tons of rock, in 24-hour shifts, as drilling continues to try to reach them.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Trapped miner Claudio Yanez speaks with loved ones Sept. 4. Credit: Chile federal government

Dissident on hunger strike in danger of dying, Cuba says

Cuba dissident farinas havana

A prominent Cuban dissident on a hunger strike has developed a blood clot that could kill him, Cuba's government said in an unprecedented official report in the Communist Party state-run newspaper. Here's the report in state-run Granma, in Spanish, headlined "Fighting for life is our responsibility." (The English version of the site does not appear to have the article posted.)

In the report, a doctor who has been treating Guillermo Farinas said the dissident is fed nutrients intravenously and has gained weight since being admitted to the Arnaldo Milian Castro University Hospital in the city of Santa Clara. But infections and a recent clot that could block the flow of blood to his heart is putting Farinas's life in danger, Dr. Armando Caballero said.

The Granma story fills two pages in the eight-page newspaper but does not mention that Farinas is on a hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The 48-year-old psychologist and journalist began the hunger strike Feb. 24; he was moved March 11 to the Milian Castro hospital, where he has access to a telephone line and a television. The dissident has carried out 22 hunger strikes in the last 15 years, reports said.

He has vowed to remain on hunger strike until all political prisoners and dissidents in Cuba are released.

Cuba usually ignores calls to release dissidents but has faced increased international pressure and protests on the island from the "ladies in white." The movement of mothers and wives of jailed dissidents grew after the February death of another hunger-striker, Orlando Zapata.

Late last month the Cuban government released one dissident, Darsi Ferrer. Ferrer had been jailed for 11 months for allegedly buying black-market cement. Critics said his punishment was excessive.

"The entire Cuban population buys black-market goods," economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A doctor treats Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas on March 5, 2010. Credit: Associated Press

Mexico City, Beijing top list for worst 'commuter pain'

Mexico city traffic

Mexico City and Beijing top a list released this week for the world's worst "commuter pain," citing length of commutes and effects such as stress and the effect of traffic on work. The IBM study interviewed more than 8,000 commuters in 20 cities, and gave the Chinese and Mexican capitals a mark of 99 on a scale of 100, followed by Johannesburg, South Africa, Moscow, and New Delhi.

Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires were the other Latin American cities ranking high in the IBM list. Not surprisingly perhaps, Los Angeles also makes the list.

In Mexico City, 22% of commuters said they spend at least an hour in the daily journey to work.

"This is no ordinary traffic," says this post at The Financial Times, waxing on gridlock in the D.F., or Distrito Federal, as Mexico City is known. "We are talking knots of steel and rubber so tight that they can turn a 30-minute journey into an ordeal lasting the length of a feature film. Whatever the delays, they are frequent and the daily jams make the city a bad place to do business."

But the study also noted that Beijing and Mexico City continue to invest heavily in public transit. Mexico City is expanding its Metrobus system to three lines, and adding a 12th line to the subway. The D.F. has also focused on encouraging bicycles as an alternative method of commuting in a place "where the car is king."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A typical traffic scene in Mexico City. Credit:

Evo Morales: 'Chicken causes baldness and homosexuality'

Evo morales

If you don't want to end up bald or gay, don't eat chicken, says Bolivian President Evo Morales. Speaking at an environmental conference this week in Cochabamba, Bolivia, (officially titled the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth) Morales told attendees in an inaugural address that chicken producers inject female hormones into the fowl, "and because of that, men who consume them have problems being men."

Thousands at the conference reportedly laughed -- perhaps nervously -- when Morales made the statements. He also said hormone-injected chicken causes young girls' breasts to grow prematurely, according to Noticias 24.

The Associated Press notes that most Western countries ban hormone injections in chicken, but Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, also went on to diagnose the practice as the cause of male baldness. "Baldness, which seems normal, is a sickness in Europe," he said. "Almost everyone is bald. And that's because of what they eat."

The Bolivian president pointed to his own shock of thick black hair as proof. No sign of baldness on his head, Morales said.

A gay-rights advocacy group in Spain sent a letter of protest in response to Morales' statements to Bolivia's embassy in Madrid, but otherwise, reaction on the international level has been somewhat muted.

The Cochabamba conference ended Thursday with accords calling for industrialized nations to "change the system of capitalism that is imposed upon us."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Bolivian President Evo Morales. Credit: EFE; Noticias 24

Sanitation crisis adds to Haiti's woes

Haiti_camp Relief officials are scrambling to confront a sanitation crisis that could spread malaria, cholera and other deadly diseases throughout the chaotic camps packed with hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors.

Shortages of food, clean water, adequate shelter and latrines are creating a potential spawning ground for epidemics in a country with an estimated 1 million people made homeless by the Jan. 12 quake.

On Saturday, a single portable toilet served about 2,000 people in a sprawling camp across the street from the collapsed National Palace, forcing most to use a gutter that runs next to an area where vendors cook food and mothers struggle to bathe their children.

"We wash the vegetables first from water brought in by trucks, but a lot of times the water isn't clean," said Marie Marthe, 45, cooking a large pot of collard greens, carrots and goat as flies gathered on her daughter's diaper. "We don't have any choice."

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Haiti earthquake news: live Twitter updates from Port-au-Prince and beyond


Click the link to follow our Twitter List of sources who are sharing news and updates about Haiti -- please let us know if there is someone we've missed that we should add. Also, feel free to use the comments section to share news of loved ones: lost, missing and found.

See our Haiti: Around the Web page for a curated list of the latest news sources, photos and videos, and our La Plaza blog for frequent dispatches from our Latin America correspondents.

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President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay undergoes prostate operation


President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay today underwent a successful operation for a noncancerous swollen prostate, officials announced.

Lugo, 58, is expected to leave Italian Hospital in Asuncion, the capital, on Saturday and spend several days recovering, said Communications Minister Agusto Dos Santos, according to the Associated Press. The president may return to work next week on a limited schedule, his office said.

Nestor Martinez, the president’s personal doctor, reportedly said the problem was noncancerous and that “in a few days he will return to normal life.”

-- Efrain Hernandez Jr.

Photo: Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo talks to a doctor in a recovery room at a hospital in Asuncion, Paraguay, where Lugo underwent prostate surgery. Credit: EPA / IPParaguay Official Agency

Mexico City allows first-trimester abortions, but other areas strengthen antiabortion laws

Nearly 34,000 women have undergone abortions in Mexico City since the capital city’s Legislature in 2007 voted to allow the termination of pregnancies in the first trimester.

But abortion remains mostly illegal outside of Mexico City, and states throughout the country are seeing successful antiabortion efforts. The Supreme Court’s validation of the Mexico City law last year has not stopped the antiabortion movement.

Abortion-rights activists fear many women will choose to seek abortions secretly, increasing their health risks. In addition, they object to women being treated as criminals for seeking abortions.

Read more from Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood, who reported on Mexico's abortion issue and the politics behind the legislative decisions.

-- Efrain Hernandez Jr.

United Nations commission reports on violence against women in Latin America

A new report out today says up to 40% of women throughout Latin America have been victims of physical violence. The rate of emotional abuse is even higher, says the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL).

Sexual attack, trafficking of women and discrimination against indigenous and migrant women are some of the forms of violence. It is often exacerbated by economic crisis or political conflict.

"Trafficked, sold, exploited for sexual reasons; excluded from employment and school because they are pregnant; discriminated or attacked for not hewing to masculine criteria.... Violence against women does not distinguish among social class, origin, generation, color of skin nor creed," said Laura Carrera, Mexico's national commissioner for the prevention of violence against women. She spoke in Mexico City at the opening of a seminar on the issue, part of U.N.-sponsored activities worldwide meant to shine light on the problem.

The CEPAL report says "a close relationship exists between inequality, discrimination and violence against women.

"Further, violence against women gains strength from and is promoted by the persistence of the balance of power that takes [from women] possibilities to exercise economic, political and physical autonomy."

The 65-page study also contains an interesting discussion of legal and political definitions of the word "femicide" -- woman-murder.

The complete report, in Spanish, is available at:

-- Tracy Wilkinson


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson