Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Acute shortages in Venezuela (Feb. 16, 2016)

Big-picture analyses of Venezuela's slow-motion economic collapse have piled up over recent years, and especially recent months.

But what might get lost in that picture is the desperate situations Venezuelan citizens are increasingly finding themselves in, reports the Wall Street Journal. The piece catalogues problems such as deaths in hospitals due to lack of medications and functioning respirators, and the daily hunt for accessibly priced food in Venezuela's official markets -- or the high-priced illegal counterparts -- amid electricity and water cuts in Caracas.

Earlier this month the New York Times' newly dispatched Venezuela correspondent, Nicolas Casey, published an in-depth piece saying Venezuela is looking like "Zimbabwe at the start of its collapse." He chronicles the a country moving deeper into economic disarray, and the quotidian coping mechanisms in "a country where hospitals already lack syringes, supermarkets struggle to stock basic goods, and the government has declared an economic emergency while sitting upon the world’s largest reserves of oil."

The health crisis is particularly acute, reports the WSJ. "Medical associations and health-care specialists say preventable deaths have been on the rise because of lack of medication, equipment and doctors. The country’s leading trade group for drugstores says 90% of medicines are scarce."

Last week the opposition-led National Assembly declared a food emergency, an attempt to force President Nicolas Maduro to ease price controls that have created national shortages of almost everything.

Widespread nationalizations and price controls have gutted the private sector, leaving the country more dependent on imports, a problem as it faces a foreign currency shortage that has experts predicting an imminent debt default this year. (See last Thursday's post on default predictions.)

As bad as it currently is, it will get worst, warn economists. Venezuela will not be able to afford its food imports this year, writes Pedro Rosas Rivero at Caracas Chronicles. The piece examines the increase in food imports under Chavismo, pinning the phenomenon on a government policy to make up for declining domestic production, "but also because the overvalued official dollar rate makes it wildly profitable to import food – or to be seen to import food, as a way of getting at the dollars."

Last week the country's Supreme Court granted Maduro expanded authority in the face of an economic emergency, which had earlier been denied by the National Assembly. (See Friday's post.) On Friday the opposition declared the decision to be a an attempt to render the legislative body useless, reports the New York Times.

The emergency decree grants Maduro powers to increase domestic production and ensure that Venezuelans have access to food and water. The confrontation suggests that large political fights are ahead over how to solve Venezuela's economic crisis, notes the NYTimes.

But the decree allows the president to evade needed reforms and could even deepen the crisis, according to the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece.
Venezuela is expected to have an inflation rate of 720 percent this year according to the IMF. The country's GDP is expected to contract 8 percent this year. Yesterday Maduro named a businessman as the country’s new economic czar, which raises hope of more substantial reforms, reports the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece.

Pro-government media includes tips such as how to wait in line for hours without "getting bitter," writes a horrified Manuel Llorens at the Caracas Chronicles. "It is a hilarious text of positive thinking stupidity that tells people to just take it easy in the unending queues Venezuelans have had to endure in recent months to buy almost any necessity because of the economic nightmare we're in."

News Briefs
  • Haitian lawmakers chose the Senate leader, Jocelerme Privert, as provisional leader on Sunday, filling the gap left by outgoing President Michel Martelly last week, reports theAssociated Press. Privert a cabinet minister under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was one of three candidates vying to lead an interim government that is supposed to last only 120 days. Factions of Aristide's Lavalas movement were heavily represented at the inauguration ceremony at Haiti's national palace, which some had not visited since the ex-president was toppled 12 years ago, reports Reuters. His position is that of a powerbroker, according to theWall Street Journal, with the aim of smoothing over the deep tensions that resulted in postponed and heavily questioned elections and a caretaker government.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issued a decree last Friday ordering her administration to reduce spending until deeper budget cuts are agreed on, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • An ambitious public education campaign aimed at helping the public eliminate Zika-bearing mosquito breeding grounds in Brazil took place this weekend, and involved nearly a quarter of a million soldiers, sailors and other military personnel, reports the New York Times. President Dilma Rousseff came to Rio de Janeiro on Saturday to take part in the effort, noting that the city is one of the government’s priority cities, in part, because it is hosting this summer’s Olympic Games, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Health officials in Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil suspended use of a mosquito larvicide that an Argentine doctors’ group warns could be behind the recent surge of babies born with microcephaly, though the federal government and U.S. health authorities say there is no link, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Pregnant women who have suffered the Zika virus in Colombia are being offered a difficult choice. Some can legally have an abortion, but the virus has arrived to the country too recently for most pregnant women who contracted the disease to abort their fetuses. But most cases of Zika infected pregnancies have not yet come to term and there are no confirmed cases of microcephaly, reports the New York Times.
  • As the virus spreads, Catholic officials who had remained silent, are beginning to speak up, warning against use of contraceptives or getting abortions, reports the New York Times. The leadership is out of touch with the flock though, according to an Univision poll, the region is home to the highest proportion of Catholics who already disagree with the church on abortion and birth control.
  • Pope Francis' Ecatepec mass on Sunday placed him at "the center of Mexico's identity crisis," according to the New York Times. Speaking in one of the country's largest, poorest and most violent cities, the Pontiff said Mexicans are in need of a conversion. Around 1.3 million people gathered along the streets of the city, where about 74 percent of its 1.65 million inhabitants live in poverty, reports the Wall Street Journal. Residents endure dismal public services and violent crime. They usually spend hours to commute some 12 miles to Mexico City because of poor public transport and are easy targets for organized crime groups, experts say.
  • Earlier in the weekend he chastised Mexican bishops, and told them they had lost their way in "gossip" and "intrigue," and challenged them to "begin anew" and tend to the church’s worshipers, reports the New York Times.
  • In his Saturday Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe he alluded to the "preferential option for the poor," an expression associated with the 1960s "Liberation Theology," reports the Wall Street Journal
  • Yesterday he celebrated a Mass in Chiapas held in three native languages, thanks to a new Vatican decree approving their use in liturgy. His visit emphasizes the new importance of indigenous communities to the Catholic church, reports the Associated Press. The region's "Indian church," features a mixture of Catholicism and indigenous culture that includes pine boughs, eggs and references to "God the Father and Mother" in services. It's an attempt on the part of the Church to fight against the growth of Protestant churches in the area, reports theWall Street Journal.
  • Yet Francis is treading carefully in Mexico, despite pushing on controversial topics such as corruption and immigration. He has avoided direct criticism of the government and its specific failures, notes the New York Times.
  • Ahead of the Pope's Mexico visit, the New York Times asked readers to share what they thought he should know about their lives. "A young mother living in one of Mexico's most violent states said she had gone to sleep with the sound of grenades and guns outside her home. Another woman, in Mexico City, wrote that kidnappings had become so commonplace, they are spoken of like the weather. Many others complained about living under a corrupt government."
  • The Mexican peso has fallen more than 30 percent against the dollar over the past year, with an especially sharp drop last week. The tumble is causing anxiety in a country where currency collapses have led to triple-digit inflation and deep recessions, reports the New York Times.
  • The Cuban government returned a Hellfire missile to the U.S. The inert training missile was mistakenly shipped to the island in 2014. (See Jan. 8's briefs.) American officials had been trying to recoup the missile for several months, reports the Associated Press.
  • The U.S. government approved the first American factory in Cuba since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, reports the Associated Press. A two-man company from Alabama received permission to build a plant assembling as many as 1,000 small tractors a year for sale to private farmers in Cuba.
  • CEPR's Alexander Main criticizes the O.A.S.-sponsored anti-corruption mission in Honduras. Experts and human rights groups say Honduras' MACCIH is more toothless than the U.N. sponsored anti-corruption commission in Guatemala, and that it will not be able to independently combat entrenched interests. (See Jan. 20's post.) "Whether the mission can achieve anything will depend on whether there is sufficient political will. There is little cause for optimism: Mr. Hernández and the National Party have a record of running roughshod over the rule of law," he writes in a New York Times op-ed. Main calls on the U.S. Congress to effectively certify that Honduran officials are taking adequate steps to combat corruption and prosecute security forces members who have violated human rights, and to withhold aid if not.

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