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Brazil

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Mexican Election 2018

Almost all the foreign coverage of next Sunday’s Mexican election focusses on the drug wars and the murder rate: 30,000 killed last year, and looking to be even higher this year. But there are 127 million Mexicans, so it’s not really all that bad by Caribbean standards.

Mexico is not even in the top ten countries in terms of its murder rate, although seven out of those top ten are in the Caribbean: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Colombia. In fact, Mexico is ranked at number 20 worldwide, behind apparently safer countries like Brazil, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.

The Caribbean is a tough neighbourhood, but Mexico is actually one of its safer places. So why is everybody, including the Mexicans themselves, obsessed with the local murder rate? It’s because the killings are so brazen and spectacular – and that is largely due to the fact that so many of them are part of the incessant wars between the rival drug gangs.

‘Cartels’ is no longer the right word for these gangs: they have splintered into a multitude of rival organisations fighting to maintain or expand their access to the lucrative US market. It’s a bloody business, but it’s not what the election is about – or at least not openly.

We already know who is going to be the president of Mexico for the next six years. It’s ‘AMLO’, short for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The last opinion poll, with only a week to go, put him at 37% of the vote, and his nearest rival at only 20%. He has little to say about the drug war, apart from vague talk about giving some criminals an amnesty. What he concentrates on is inequality.

Traditionally a far poorer place than the other big economies in Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, Mexico is now level-pegging with Brazil in per capita income, though still trailing Argentina. Indeed, if you calculate it in PPP (purchasing power parity), Mexico is now even with Argentina and well ahead of Brazil. The problem is that the income (in all three countries) is so unevenly shared.

At least a third of Mexico’s people live in poverty, and if anything the inequality has become worse as the economy grew. Some of the slums around the big cities are such deprived and violent places that even ambulances will not go there at night. That is López Obrador’s priority: he will be Mexico’s first left-wing president.

His rivals paint him as a Chávez-style radical who will ruin the economy, but his record as mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005 suggests a much more pragmatic politician: ‘Mexico’s Bernie Sanders’, as some have called him. “No expropriations, no nationalisations”, he pledges – but he does promise to address income disparity as no previous Mexican government has done.

It’s remarkable that Mexico had to wait so long for the emergence of a successful left-wing politician. The 60-year stranglehold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – what it institutionalised was corruption – was broken in the 2000 election, but the winner was the National Action Party (PAN), a centre-right, business-friendly organisation.

In 2006 PAN made the fatal mistake, at the behest of the United States, of launching the ‘war on drugs’. In the place of PRI’s policy of co-existence – you sell the drugs in the US, give us a share of the profits, and we’ll leave you alone – it set out to smash the cartels.

It succeeded all too well. That’s when the murder rate took off, as the many fragments of the old cartels fought each other for market share. As long as the demand is there in the US, the drug trade will thrive, but now there is also highly visible carnage in Mexico. Indeed, one of the reasons that PRI came back to power in 2012 was the horror Mexicans felt at the violence unleashed in their streets.

PRI did nothing to solve the problem, however, and it will be an also-ran in this election. López Obrador’s government will be a very different proposition. It may or may not declare a ceasefire in the local drug war, but it will certainly shake up the Mexican elites.

It will also annoy Washington greatly. López Obrador is promising that all 50 Mexican consulates in the United States will help to defend migrants caught up in the American legal system.

“Trump and his advisers speak of the Mexicans the way Hitler and the Nazis referred to the Jews, just before undertaking the infamous persecution and the abominable extermination,” López Obrador wrote just after the Great Distractor’s election.

It’s quite likely that within a year the US intelligence services will be tasked with the job of finding ways to bring him down.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 4. (“Mexico…Bahamas”; and “Cartels…openly”)

Brazil Impeachment

Q: What’s the difference between the coup that overthrew the elected government in Thailand in Thailand in 2014 and the coup that has now removed the elected government in Brazil?

A: The coup-makers in Thailand wore uniforms.

The Brazilian Senate has just voted 55 to 22 to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. She will be suspended for the next 180 days while the same body tries her on the charge of understating the size of the budget deficit before the last election.

If two-thirds of the senators find her guilty, she will be permanently removed from office. Since they have just voted to impeach her by a bigger majority than that, we may take it for granted that she is a goner.

As the long evening droned on, it was quite clear that most senators were only interested in the outcome, not the evidence. On several occasions the Speaker even had to tell them to stop talking and put their phones away. This was about politics, not about justice, and the deal was already done.

Two justifications have been offered for this unseating of an elected president, but both of them are pretty flimsy. The first is the legal justification, which is that Rousseff’s government tweaked the accounts a bit to make Brazil’s financial situation look less bad before the last election in 2014.

She did, but which elected government anywhere does not try to put the best face on its figures? Anyway, nobody believes that this is the real reason for her removal from power.

The broader political justification is that she has made a mess of the economy. The economy certainly is in a terrible mess – in each of the last two years it has shrunk by 4 percent, one-tenth of the population is unemployed, and inflation is exploding – but every big commodity-exporting country has been in the same mess since the global financial crash of 2008. The demand for their exports simply collapsed.

Rousseff didn’t create this crisis, but inevitably she gets the blame for it. That, rather than some obscure legal issue, is why nearly two-thirds of Brazilians think she should be impeached. But while she might done better at managing the crisis, in a democracy political questions like this are normally settled by elections, not by impeachment.

The 55 senators who voted to impeach her all know that, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to take her down. Which brings us to the real motive behind all this, and the worrisome comparison with Thailand, where the generals took over in 2014.

The Thais, like the Brazilians, evicted their military rulers from power in the 1980s by non-violent political action. As is bound to happen in a democracy, both countries then developed powerful political movements that demanded a redistribution of wealth in favour of the impoverished half of the population. And in both countries the prosperous urban middle classes mobilised against this threat.

The hopes of the Thai poor were focussed on Thaksin Shinawatra (prime minister 2001-2006) and later, after the military forced him into exile, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra (prime minister 2011-2014). In Brazil the left-wing leader was Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (president 2002-2010), and subsequently his close ally Dilma Rousseff (president 2010-2016).

In Thailand the struggle between the rural and urban poor (the ‘yellow shirts’) and the defenders of the economic status quo (the ‘red shirts’) descended into the streets early, and had got quite bloody by the time the generals seized power in 2014. They intervened in favour of the ‘red shirts’, of course, but they seem determined to hold on to power themselves for the forseeable future.

Brazil’s politics have been less violent and the military have not intervened (yet), but it is just as much a class struggle – made more intractable by the fact that in Brazil social class is colour-coded. The white half of the population is mostly prosperous, the “pardo”(mixed-race) and black half mostly poor.

The most important single measure of the Workers’ Party government is the famous Bolsa Familial, a straight cash paymen to those whose income is below the poverty line. To qualify, they must only ensure that their children attend school 85 percent of the time and are fully vaccinated. It has lifted 45 million people, a quarter of the population. out of poverty.

Nobody will admit that this crisis is about ending government subsidies for the poor, but the crowds demonstrating against Rousseff’s government have been almost entirely white. So is the cabinet sworn in by the new interim president, Michel Temer. But Temer is going to have a very hard time running the country.

Outraged Workers’ Party supporters are already being radicalised by the “coup” that has driven Dilma Rousseff from power and the struggle is moving into the streets. Mass demonstrations and barricades are now a common sight, and the protesters will find it hard to resist disrupting the Olympic Games that start in Rio de Janeiro in early August.

Which may provide the excuse for the Brazilian right to welcome the military back into power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 15. (“As the long…done”; and “The most…poverty”)

Brazil’s Corruption Crisis

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Next Sunday, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil faces an impeachment vote in the lower house of Congress. The charge? That she manipulated government accounts to make the deficit look smaller than it really was before the last election.

But that’s ridiculous. Governments always try to downplay the deficit before an election. I’ve covered dozens of elections, and at least one-third of the time it later came out that the government had been hiding how bad the financial situation was. It’s naughty, but it’s not a hanging offence.

Never mind. The knives are out for Dilma Roussef in Brazil, and if she loses the Congressional vote this weekend she is heading straight for impeachment. That would mean that she would be suspended for 180 days even if she ultimately survived the process. So who would take over while Rousseff is on trial?

Vice-President Michel Temer, of course, and he would be more than happy to do that. In fact, a recently leaked audio tape reveals him rehearsing the speech he would make after Rousseff was suspended. “Many people sought me out so that I would give at least preliminary remarks to the Brazilian nation, which I am doing with modesty, caution and moderation…” he modestly begins.

Rousseff was furious, accusing Temer of betrayal (he only led his party out of her coalition government last week), and she now talks about him as the chief conspirator in a coup plot against her democratically elected government. But she shouldn’t worry too much about Temer, because he is also facing impeachment, on the very same charge of cooking the government books to hide the scale of the deficit.

Who would take over if Temer was also impeached? The speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, is next in line – but he is facing money-laundering and other grave charges connected with an immense scandal in the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. (His secret Swiss bank accounts hold over $5 million.)

So the job of running Brazil would go to the speaker of the Senate, Renan Calheiros – except that he is also being investigated on the same charges. Indeed, more than 150 members of Congress and government officials are currently facing charges of bribery, corruption and money laundering as part of the “Operation Lava Jato” (Car Wash) investigation into the affairs of Petrobras.

This is not some banana republic. This is Brazil, a country of 200 million people with the sixth biggest economy in the world. Yet the entire political class is under suspicion of criminal behaviour, apparently with good reason, and day after day the streets are full of angry demonstrators.

Brazil has been fully democratic for the past three decades, yet Rousseff now worries openly about a coup. Some of the anti-government demonstrators are openly calling for a military takeover. This is a country in meltdown – but why now? Because the economy has gone belly-up.

The global economy was booming when Rousseff’s Workers Party first came to power in 2003 under the leadership of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, and Brazil’s economy was booming with it. There was money then for huge social spending – enough to lift 40 million Brazilians out of poverty – and Lula was beloved by all.

But the Crash of 2008 had already taken the bloom off the rose before Dilma Rousseff succeeded Lula in 2011, and Brazil’s export-dependent economy has taken a terrible beating since then. It was growing at 3.5 percent annually under Lula. It was already down to 2.2 percent in Rousseff’s first term, but it shrank at the rate of 4 percent annually in 2014 and 2015.

It’s mostly not Rousseff’s fault, although she could have done better. China, Russia and South Africa have seen similar declines as commodity prices plunged and exports dwindled.

Indeed, among the BRICS, the big, fast-growing economies of the former Third World, only India has escaped. And this collapse in growth is why opinion polls show that 68 percent of Brazilians now want to see Rousseff removed from power.

There is unquestionably a major political crisis in Brazil, but it may not be quite as bad as it looks. The latest head-count suggests that the vote in the lower house of Congress may not produce the two-thirds majority of votes that is needed to impeach Rousseff.

Even if it does, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court. If that fails, the Senate must vote on impeachment – and if it also votes yes, Rousseff can appeal to the Supreme Court again. And so far the military show no signs of wanting to seize power again.

So Rousseff may still be lumbered with the miserable and deeply unpopular task of running a large and boisterous country that is going through a severe cyclical economic downturn for another two and a half years. She’ll probably be glad when her term is up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The global…2015”)

Insecticide

It was a typically anodyne statement by the World Health Organisation: “Given the magnitude of the Zika crisis, WHO encourages affected countries and their partners to boost the use of both old and new approaches to mosquito control.” Anodyne, that is, until you realise what they mean by “new approaches”.

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is spreading panic around the world. It was first linked to hydrocephaly – a developmental defect in infants that results in abnormally small heads, severe learning difficulties, and often early death – only last year in Brazil. WHO estimates that it may infect 3 to 4 million people in the Americas alone this year – and its “new approach” is to exterminate the mosquitoes. Literally.

An alternative approach would be to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus – but that would take up to ten years, and the crisis is now. Zika has already been detected in 30 countries, and Brazil is investigating more than 4,300 suspected cases of microcephaly. The pressure is on to do something fast.

By the wildest of coincidences, something fast is available. It’s only twelve years since Austin Burt, an evolutionary geneticist at Imperial College in London, raised the idea of a “gene drive” that would spread some desirable quality (like immunity to malaria) through an entire population in a relatively short time. With a population of mosquitoes, whose generations are only a month long, you could do it in only a year or two.

Mosquitoes were the obvious first target for the new technology, since their bite transmits lethal diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya and, above all, malaria, which still kills 600,000 people a year. But “editing” a gene was a long, difficult process until CRISPR/Cas9, a fast, accurate, cheap gene-editing tool that was developed in 2012.

Scientists immediately set to work on mosquito genes, and by last year they had a genetically modified (GM) mosquito whose offspring do not survive into adulthood. They die as larvae, before they can breed.

By an even wilder coincidence, the species of mosquito whose genes they edited was Aedes aegypti, best known as a vector for dengue fever. But Aedes aegyti is also the main transmitter of the Zika virus, and Oxitec, the British-based company that was created to exploit this new technology, is already field-testing the GM version of the insect – in Brazil, as luck would have it.

In the town of Piracicaba, Oxitec has a “factory” that produces 800,000 mosquitoes each week that carry the OX513A gene, and a white van that sets them free all over town. In theory they should mate with the local females of the same species, whose children will never grow up to mate themselves, so the local population should go into steep decline. And in practice, it works.

It’s actually a rather labour-intensive process, and the little prototype “factory” is only producing enough GM males to cover a town of 10,000 people. To completely eradicate the local population of Aedes aegypti would take several dozen generations – that is, a couple of years – even if it was not replenished by fertile males from the surrounding area.

Obviously, the enterprise could be scaled up to cover all of Brazil, or even the whole world. The question is: should it be?

Human beings have wiped out entire species in the past, starting with the big animals that were wiped out in the “New World blitzes” when human hunters first arrived in the Americas, Australia and various ocean islands. But we never actually intended to exterminate a species before. This time it’s different.

Some environmentalists have already attacked the idea, ostensibly on the grounds that removing an entire species of mosquito would upset the ecological balance and possibly cause further extinctions among the animals that feed on them, or maybe open up an ecological niche that would be filled by an even nastier species.

But one suspects that their real worry is the “slippery slope”. If we edit Aedes aegypti out of existence today, what species will we next choose to remove for our own convenience? That is a legitimate concern, but nothing can make mosquitoes cuddly, whereas healthy babies definitely are cuddly. The threat of Zika will trump all their arguments.

Besides, there are some 3,000 species of mosquitoes (only 200 of which bite human beings), so some other species will just fill the niche left empty by Aedes aegypti and no other bird, fish or insect will go hungry. If you are still upset about “playing God”, keep a small breeding population of Aedes aegypti alive in captivity so you can repopulate the planet with the little pests if you need to.

The great American biologist and champion of biodiversity E.O. Wilson gets the last word on this. In his book “The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth”, he makes a exception for Anopheles gambiae, the mosquito that spreads malaria in Africa. “Keep their DNA for research,” he writes, “and let them go.”

The same goes for Aedes aegypti. We are going to commit insecticide. And we should.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Mosquitoes…2012″; and “It’s actually…area”)