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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Peru

A 'miracle' in Chile, but mining accidents are often tragedies across Latin America

 Esteban rojas chile mine rescue reuters

If the remarkable rescue of 33 miners trapped in Chile for 69 days was a "miracle," as some have dubbed it, other mining accidents in recent years have had less happy endings, claiming dozens of lives in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

Though mining accidents are relatively rare in Chile, a 2007 collapse in the same San Jose mine where "Los 33" were trapped left a miner dead and forced the mine's temporary closure. At another mine in the Copiaco region, a truck collision in 2006 left two miners dead and 70 others trapped for several hours (link in Spanish).

As metal prices rise and companies continue to seek Latin America's rich deposits of minerals and coal, the industry grows faster than some countries can regulate it, says a Forbes report. There are regular conflicts with workers over pay and safety conditions, as well as numerous reports of illegal mining operations -- with hardly any safety oversight or regulations -- in so-called wildcat mines.

Here are some major recent mining accidents in Latin America:

* This month, five miners died in a collapse at a coal mine in northeast Colombia (link in Spanish).

* In August, while the 33 Chile miners were trapped underground, an explosion at a wildcat gold mine in a remote jungle in Venezuela killed six miners. Miners in the area said that the actual toll was 14 or 15.

* In June, an explosion at a coal mine in northwestern Colombia left 70 miners dead, one of the largest death tolls recorded in recent mining accidents worldwide.

* In February, eight miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Peru.

* In 2006, 65 miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Mexico (link in Spanish).

President Sebastian Pinera has vowed to overhaul safety regulations at mines in Chile, the world's top copper producer. Pinera announced the formation of a new commission to examine workplace safety in mines and fired the previous mining minister early in the rescue effort. But safety and regulatory issues remain a major challenge for the industry across the region.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Esteban Rojas kneels and hugs his wife after being the 18th miner rescued from the San Jose mine in Chile. Credit: Reuters

Mario Vargas Llosa: Reaction in Latin America turns on Nobel winner's political views

Mario_Vargas_Llosa campaigning 1990 el pais

Now that Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, an award seen as a victory for Spanish-language and Latin American letters, comes the backlash over the Peruvian author's politics.

Vargas Llosa, 74, known for his novels such as "The Time of the Hero" and "The War of the End of the World," is also strongly identified with "boom"-era writers in Latin America who initially supported leftist political movements but eventually moved rightward in their views -- much like the last Nobel Prize winner in literature from the region, Mexico's Octavio Paz.

"What a horror!" the novelist Luisa Valenzuela told the Mexican daily La Jornada at the Frankfurt book fair in Germany upon hearing the news (link in Spanish). "With the political swerve that Mario took, I would have preferred Carlos Fuentes."

On Twitter, some reaction was even fiercer. One user wrote: "Nobel Prize given to racist fascist pro-Hispanic, anti-Indigenous rights writer Mario Vargas LLosa LatAm is backyard of Europe."

Why such severity of critique?

The Nobel Prize in literature, awarded once a year to an author for literary output in any language, is invariably viewed through a political lens, particularly in Latin America, where writers often play prominent roles as so-called public intellectuals. As news of Vargas Llosa's win spread, many writers and lit-lovers in Latin America generally felt that Vargas Llosa deserved the prize for his long trajectory and beloved novels, but attention also turned to Vargas Llosa's political views.

An almost orthodox liberal, the author supports same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of drug use. Yet he also reserves his strongest criticism in the political sphere for hard-line leftist leaders in Latin America, including President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and former President Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Vargas Llosa considers himself, above all else, an opponent of dictatorships, both left and right.

Speaking on air to CNN Español after receiving the Nobel, Vargas Llosa made reference to previous authoritarian regimes in Peru, and even to the Franco regime in Spain, as targets of his political passions (link in Spanish).

"I can say in a certain way that I'm an expert in dictatorships," the author said. "Maybe that's why dictatorships appear so much in my novels, and maybe that's why I'm critical of all dictatorships, without exception."

In another CNN interview, the author was asked what he would say if he had a chance to meet Chavez or Castro in person. His response was blunt and stone-faced: "That they should leave, that they should leave the government, that they are a barrier to progress in their countries."

L.A. Times book critic David Ulin, citing author and professor Ilan Stavans in a piece in The Times, notes that Vargas Llosa's career as a writer is often rendered in a binary: before and after the 1990 presidential election in Peru.

Vargas Llosa, spurred by his opposition to nationalization reforms under Peruvian President Alan Garcia (then in his first term in office) ran in the 1990 race as a right-leaning free-market candidate. He lost that race to little-known Alberto Fujimori -- who now sits in prison for human rights crimes.

"Before, he was a writer and an apprentice politician; literature was his obsession," Stavans told Ulin. "Afterward, it was no longer fiction that mattered to him. He became a first-rate essayist instead."

Vargas Llosa also became identified with abandoning Latin America for Spain, which is what the author did, taking Spanish citizenship after losing the 1990 election. This move was also seen as a betrayal in some intellectual circles. His open and expressive affinity for Spain, which he's reiterated in interviews since Thursday's prize announcement, doesn't win Vargas Llosa points among those who regard him as antagonistic -- or at least indifferent -- to indigenous-rights movements in Latin America.

The author is quoted as saying in 2003, while commenting on indigenous movements in Latin America in general (link in Spanish): "Development and civilization are incompatible with certain social phenomenons, the principle being collectivism. [...] The indigenism ... that appears to have been forgotten is now behind phenomenons such as the señor Evo Morales in Bolivia."

Two years later, Peru's neighbor Bolivia elected Morales, its first indigenous president in history -- a moment regarded as a victory for long-oppressed indigenous groups in the Andean region. Vargas Llosa was unimpressed, dismissing Morales in 2008 as a "typical Latin American criollo [Spaniard born in the Americas], a Spanish-speaking mestizo, who is finishing off Bolivia." (Link in Spanish.)

(Morales, for the record, is an Aymara Indian.)

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Author Mario Vargas Llosa campaigns for Peru's presidency in 1990. Credit: El Pais

Mario Vargas Llosa: Nobel prize-winner punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez to make a political point

Mario_Vargas_Llosa EL Pais

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa, a leading figure of the so-called "Boom" in Latin American literature in the 1960s and '70s and an outsize political figure in his native Peru, has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Swedish Academy, announcing the award early Thursday, said Vargas Llosa took this year's prize for "his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Vargas Llosa, 74, is the first Latin American and Spanish-language writer to win the award since Mexican essayist and poet Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel in 1990. The last South American author to win the award, in 1982, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Here is Vargas Llosa's official website, and the Nobel's official page on this year's award, with live "greetings" to the author from fans around the world.

Born in 1936 in the provincial Peruvian city of Arequipa, Vargas Llosa was sent to a military school before going on to study law and literature in Lima and Madrid. He later worked as a journalist in Paris for Agence France-Presse. His early experiences in a military setting inspired his first novel, "La cuidad y los perros" (1963), which appeared in English as "The Time of the Hero." The book was hailed for its literary innovation but sparked controversy and condemnation by Peru's military.

Vargas Llosa went on to write more than two dozen titles in fiction, nonfiction, drama, and journalism, and he continues to write and publish.

He first heard he had won the award early Thursday morning from a Peruvian radio station that reached the author in New York. Vargas Llosa initially thought the call was a prank, the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio reported (link in Spanish). When he was read the Swedish Academy's reasons for awarding him the Nobel, the author reportedly remarked: "Look, how nice. I hope it's true."

Politics have defined Vargas Llosa's life and literary output. He supported the Cuban Revolution but by the 1970s had become one of the sharpest critics of Fidel Castro. In 1990, in a conversation with Paz live on Mexican television, he coined the now-famous phrase describing Mexico's quasi-authoritarian regime under the Institutional Revolutionary Party as "the perfect dictatorship."

In 1990, at the height of the bloody Shining Path guerrilla insurgency, Vargas Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru as a "reform-minded, center-right candidate," Reuters notes. "He proposed budget-cutting and free-market policies, which appealed to wealthy conservatives but alarmed the poor." The author lost the election to Alberto Fujimori, and disappointed many in Peru when he left the country for Spain.

In recent years, Vargas Llosa has traded barbs with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In an infamous incident in a Mexico City theater in 1976, Vargas Llosa punched his former friend Garcia Marquez in the eye over personal and political disputes. The two have been estranged ever since.

On Thursday, Peruvian President Alan Garcia called the Nobel announcement a "great day for Peru" and dubbed Vargas Llosa a "universal Peruvian" (link in Spanish). El Comercio has an interesting Google Maps feature pinpointing locations throughout the world where Vargas Llosa has lived or been honored. The direct link, in Spanish, is here.

In an 2002 interview with The Guardian, Vargas Llosa gave some insight on his view of the writer's role in society: "I think a writer has some kind of responsibility at least to participate in the civic debate. I think literature is impoverished, if it becomes cut from the main agenda of people, of society, of life."

Vargas Llosa currently lives in New York while he lectures at Princeton University. Here is a summary of five essential novels by Vargas Llosa. His newest book, El Pais reports, is titled "El Sueño del Celta," or "The Celtic's Dream," and described it as an "adventure that begins in the Congo in 1903 and ends in a jail in London in 1916."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Author Mario Vargas Llosa. Credit: El Pais

Report: Mexico is not Colombia, here's why

Mayor mexico body reuters

Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."

Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.

In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:

The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.

Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."

Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.

State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.

What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."

The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."

On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.

On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.

In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Shining Path founders marry in prison

Shining path leaders sendero luminoso afp

The founder of Peru's violent Shining Path guerrilla movement married his long-time partner and former second-in-command at a maximum security naval prison in Peru on Friday. Abimael Guzman, 75, married Elena Iparraguirre, 62, in a 15-minute civil ceremony that was permitted after President Alan Garcia affirmed that even "the most despicable criminal" has the right to wed.

Guzman and Iparraguirre, who are serving life sentences in separate prisons for terrorism and treason, had not seen each other since their last trials in 2006. Their lawyers said they will be allowed to see each other every one or two months as a married couple.

Nearly 70,000 people -- an estimated half of them rebels -- were killed in the 20 years that the Maoist group, Sendero Luminoso in Spanish, was active, beginning in 1980.

In a related development in Peru this week, American Lori Berenson, who acknowledged collaborating with another guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, was sent back to prison after losing a parole bid.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Elena Iparraguirre and Abimael Guzman during a trial in 2004. Credit: AFP

Colombia court rules against U.S. military agreement

Juan manuel santos hugo chavez

A high court in Colombia has voided an accord with the United States that would allow an increased U.S. presence on seven Colombian military bases. The ruling on Tuesday by the Constitutional Court declared the agreement signed by outgoing President Alvaro Uribe unconstitutional because it bypassed approval of the Congress.

The agreement was signed in October and faced intense criticism from Colombia's more left-leaning neighbors, including Venezuela and Bolivia. President Juan Manuel Santos (pictured above right), who was inaugurated on Aug. 7, enjoys a wide political majority in Colombia's Congress and told reporters Wednesday that the ruling would have no effect on cooperation between the U.S. and its closest ally in Latin America.

It remains unclear whether Santos will seek ratification of the pact by lawmakers, says the website Colombia Reports.

"What's important is the cooperation is going to continue. The fight against drug runners, the fight against terrorism does not let up," Santos said, according to Reuters. "And this decision by the court is not going to affect what we've been receiving from the United States."

Colombia has received more than $7.3 billion in U.S. aid since former President Clinton signed the Plan Colombia pact in 2000. The funds have helped Colombia disrupt the FARC rebel group and narco-trafficking operations, primarily cocaine production. But there have also been increasing human rights claims against Colombia's military and 21,000 combat-related deaths since Uribe took office in 2002, according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America.

The entire report is here. It cites human rights groups' estimates of an additional 14,000 deaths of non-combatants and a rise in so-called "parapolitics," or the elections of leaders with known or alleged ties to paramilitaries or drug traffickers.

Santos, a former defense minister, was elected in a vote for continuity after eight years of Uribe's get-tough approach against the FARC and other rebel groups. The new president is seeking to restore deeply strained ties with Venezuela while also maintaining Uribe's strategy for the country's security challenges, Times special correspondent Chris Kraul reports from Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Uribe's government frequently accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of harboring FARC rebels in his country's territory, a charge Venezuela's government has denied. Colombia remains the world's biggest supplier of cocaine, but Peru may soon overtake the distinction as coca leaf production rises in the neighboring Andean nation.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez meets Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos days after Santos assumed office. Credit: Reuters via The Christian Science Monitor.

Giant whale fossil found in desert in Peru

Ancient sperm whale peru Paleontologists have discovered remnants of the fossilized skull of an ancient whale in a Peruvian desert -- and named it after Herman Melville, the author of "Moby Dick."

The newly discovered species, Leviathan melvillei, lived about 12 million years ago. Scientists believe it feasted on smaller whales that shared what were oceans at the time, as seen in the artist's rendering at left.

The international team that discovered the fossil announced its findings last week in the journal Nature. The whale skull was found in late 2008 in the Pisco-Ica desert in southern Peru, known as a veritable "Jurassic park" for paleontologists (link in Spanish).

Upon catching glimpse of the whale skull's giant teeth, the researchers at first thought they had come across elephant tusks.

"This part of the Peruvian coast, about 500 kilometers south of Lima, is probably the richest place in the world for fossil marine mammals," says one of the scientists involved in the study, in this video at Nature.

Scientists expect to return to the Peruvian desert to search for more clues about the Leviathan melvillei. The prehistoric whale skull is currently on view at the Natural History Museum in Lima, Peru's capital.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image credit: C. Letenneur for Nature, via the Associated Press

Santos wins: A vote for continuity in Colombia

Juan manuel santos colombia The presidency of Colombia for the next four years is in the hands of Juan Manuel Santos. The former defense minister defeated Antanas Mockus by a margin of more than 40% in Colombia's presidential runoff on Sunday, Chris Kraul reports in The Times.

Santos' landslide win is a vote for continuity. The former military chief under current two-term incumbent President Alvaro Uribe promised in his campaign to extend Uribe's get-tough approach to guerrilla groups and to cocaine production. Analysts said the rescue of three hostages in rebel captivity announced a week before the voting also boosted the candidate's margin of victory.

Santos, who has never held elected office, assumes the presidency on Aug. 7. More from Kraul:

Santos is expected to continue Uribe's good relations with the United States, which regards Colombia's current leader as its chief Latin American ally and which over the last decade has delivered more than $6 billion in military and development aid to help the country fight drugs and terrorism.

His win also maintains the current ideological polarity in Latin America, between the United States-aligned right led by Colombia and the left led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Uribe frequently clashed with Chavez, and as Uribe's defense minister, Santos led a 2008 incursion into Ecuador's territory against FARC rebels that heightened regional tensions.

But Santos received congratulations on Monday from both the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, suggesting better relations with Colombia are possible under a Santos presidency. Santos told an interviewer that he would like to invite Chavez to his inauguration. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, is ready to attend if invited (link is in Spanish).

The runoff was marked by less violence than previous Colombian elections but was not entirely peaceful. Rebel forces seeking to disrupt the vote killed seven police officers and three soldiers on Sunday, reports said.

A United Nations report released Tuesday notes that coca leaf production in Colombia dropped between 2008 and 2009, and that the world's leader of coca growth is now Peru.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president-elect. Credit:

American Lori Berenson freed from Peruvian prison after 15 years


Lori Berenson, a New York-born activist convicted of aiding Peruvian guerrillas in the 1990s, has emerged from prison, paroled after serving 15 years of a 20-year sentence.

Berenson and her husband-lawyer Anibal Apari Sanchez, a former guerrilla, had to virtually fight their way through crowds of reporters and TV crews Thursday to reach their car and drive off (and then have a minor wreck with a camera truck a few blocks away).  The chaos is captured, rather chaotically, on a video found here. And you can see the CNN Spanish-language service video account here.

Berenson was convicted in 1996 of collaborating with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, leftist rebels who sought the overthrow of the Peruvian government, blew up banks, took hostages and killed people — but who were never as vicious as the more infamous Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.

A judge granted parole  to Berenson on Tuesday under a law that allows some prisoners to be released after completing two-thirds of their sentence. As The Times' Chris Kraul reported, her family's efforts over the years to gain her release were undercut when, at a public news appearance, she clenched her fist and defiantly described Tupac Amaru as revolutionaries, not criminals.

Berenson, who gave birth to a son while in prison, may not find freedom so welcoming. Neighbors in the upscale Miraflores neighborhood where she is to live were already grumbling bitterly about the "terrorist" in their midst.

— Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Lori Berenson as she leaves prison near Lima, Peru. Credit: Associated Press.

Latin America Digest: Uruguay's Bordaberry sentenced, Brazil's heat wave, Paraguay's energy crisis and Peru's tourism push

Today's One-Line News Briefs:

Montevideo, Uruguay— Former dictator Juan Maria Bordaberry was sentenced to 30 years in prison for violating the constitution when he led a 1973 coup that began 12 years of dictatorship in Uruguay, the prosecutor said Wednesday.

Brasilia, Brazil — Thirty-two elderly people died in the southeastern Brazilian coastal city of Santos this week because of a heat wave, a health official said.

Asuncion, Paraguay— An energy crisis in Paraguay is disrupting factories and testing leftist President Fernando Lugo, who ordered the lights to be switched off at the presidential palace to save power.

Lima, Peru— Peru’s government is cutting air fares and hotel rates hoping to draw tourists to the Inca city of Cuzco even though the country’s top tourist destination, the nearby Machu Picchu fortress, remains inaccessible as a result of landslides and floods in late January.

--Times wire reports


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