Montevideo, Oct 26 (AP/UNB) — The center-left coalition that has governed Uruguay for 15 years is going into Sunday's presidential election as the front-runner, but spreading unease among voters is feeding a strong challenge from a bloc of opposition parties that is expected to force a second round.
The governing Broad Front has campaigned on its achievements in implementing a social agenda that has improved life for the poor, allowed gay marriage and created the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana. The opposition coalition has capitalized on growing disenchantment over slower growth and rising insecurity in the South American nation of 3.4 million people.
Analysts say neither of the top two contenders among 11 candidates has enough support to secure a victory in the first round, setting the stage for a runoff in November. Polls give Daniel Martínez, the former mayor of Montevideo who is the Broad Front's candidate, between 36% and 43% support, while Luis Lacalle Pou, leader of the National Party and candidate for the coalition, has 24% to 28%. To win outright, a candidate has to get 50% of the ballots plus one vote.
"What's at play is continuing with a model that is looking to align growth with equality, with an emphasis on an agenda of new rights for minorities, or a change toward more market-friendly policies that respond to the demands for more order and public safety," political scientist Adolfo Garcé said.
Uruguay has enjoyed strong economic growth since the Broad Front took power in 2005. Poverty fell dramatically, from about one-third of the population in 2006 to just over 8% as people saw their purchasing power climb.
Broad Front administrations also have adopted a series of progressive laws such as legalizing gay marriage, abortion and the sale of marijuana in pharmacies. But the coalition, led by outgoing President Tabaré Vázquez, has hit choppy political waters: An education reform aimed at tackling a high school graduation rate of only 40% failed, Vice President Raúl Sendic had to resign in 2017 over corruption allegations, and a record 414 homicides last year has made public safety a pressing concern. Economic growth has slowed and unemployment is up.
"There's a possibility of a return to the past, or sticking to a process of change and social justice," the Broad Front's Martínez, 62, said during a televised debate.
An engineer by training, Martínez was a union leader at the Uruguayan state energy company before he left government to work in the private sector. He returned to lead the same energy company and went on to become minister of industry and energy. He is an avid cyclist who sets aside time for long rides every weekend.
The National Party's Lacalle Pou, 47, is a longtime legislator with deep political roots — his father was president in the 1990s and his mother was a senator. He ran for president in 2014, losing to Vázquez in a runoff.
Political scientist Daniel Chasquetti said Lacalle Pou has moved more to the center since then. On the campaign trail, he has plugged not only his own policies, but those of a range of other center-left and right-wing parties that he hopes will help him form a government.
"I support him because he is young, with education and he seems to really want to do things properly," said María Eugenia Genche, a retiree.
Others, like Camilo Romero, a teacher, aren't convinced. "Lacalle is very prepared, but in my view he represents interests and an economic position that would directly affect people in weaker positions in the short- and medium-term," Romero said.
Although the Broad Front leads in the polls, Garcé, the political scientists, predicts it has the more difficult path to victory, and needs to secure at least 45% of the votes Sunday to have a realistic chance in the second round.
The parties that have been running third and fourth in the polls, including a new right-wing party led by an ex-military commander, have said they would back Lacalle Pou in a runoff.
Voters will also be electing 99 deputies and 30 senators while deciding on several referendum questions, including whether to assign part of the military to a new unit that helps with public safety, add life imprisonment as a penalty for serious crimes, allow judge-approved nighttime raids, and repeal the possibility of early release for people convicted of the most serious offences.
Rio De Janeiro, Oct 25 (Xinhua/UNB) -- Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles implied Thursday that environmental protection NGO Greenpeace caused the oil spill which has polluted over 200 beaches in the country's coast.
Salles published a photo of a Greenpeace ship on Twitter, saying that the ship was navigating off Brazil's northeastern coast when the spill is believed to occur.
The photo, however, was reported to be taken in 2016, when the ship was crossing the Indian Ocean on the other side of the globe, according to local reports.
Greenpeace immediately denounced Salles' words as "lies", saying they will take legal action against the minister.
Salles later backtracked and said he meant that Greenpeace's ship was sailing near the Brazilian coast but did not offer any help.
The oil spill, the third major environmental disaster to hit Brazil this year after the collapse of a tailings dam in January and the rampant fires in the Amazon rainforest, started in early September.
Hundreds of volunteers have been cleaning up the beaches affected by the spill. Local media said at least 17 volunteers need medical treatment after suffering allergic reactions and feeling sick.
Caracas, Oct 21 (AP/UNB) — Motorists in socialist Venezuela have long enjoyed the world's cheapest gasoline, with fuel so heavily subsidized that a full tank these days costs a tiny fraction of a U.S. penny.
But the economy is in such shambles that drivers are now paying for fill-ups with a little food, a candy bar or just a cigarette.
Bartering at the pump has taken off as hyperinflation makes Venezuela's paper currency, the bolivar, hard to find and renders some denominations all but worthless, so that nobody will accept them.
Without cash in their wallets, drivers often hand gas station attendants a bag of rice, cooking oil or whatever is within reach.
"You can pay with a cigarette," said Orlando Molina, filling up his subcompact Ford Ka in Caracas. "Heck, it's no secret to anyone that it goes for nothing."
Gas is so dirt-cheap that station attendants don't even know the price. Emptyhanded drivers get waved through, paying nothing at all.
This barter system, while perhaps the envy of cash-strapped drivers outside the country, is just another symptom of bedlam in Venezuela.
The South American nation of roughly 30 million people is gripped by a deepening political and economic crisis. People live with a nagging feeling that anything from violent street protests to a massive power failure could throw their lives into chaos at any moment.
More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, escaping low wages, broken hospitals, failing basic services and lack of security.
The International Monetary Fund says inflation is expected to hit a staggering 200,000% this year. Venezuela dropped five zeros from its currency last year in a futile attempt to keep up with inflation. Soaring prices quickly devoured the new denominations.
The smallest bill in circulation, 50 bolivars, is worth about quarter of a U.S. penny. City buses and even banks don't accept it, arguing it would take such a thick wad of bills to pay for even the most modest items that it wouldn't be worth the trouble. The largest bill, 50,000 bolivars, equals $2.50.
Venezuela, which sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, was once rich. But the economy has fallen into ruin because of what critics say has been two decades of corruption and mismanagement under socialist rule.
President Nicolás Maduro's hold on power is under challenge from opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who has the backing of the United States and more than 50 other countries that contend Maduro's re-election in 2018 was crooked.
Gasoline prices are a deadly serious matter in Venezuela. Roughly 300 people died in 1989 during riots that erupted after the country's president at the time ordered a modest rise in fuel prices.
Amid the economic crash, Maduro has not substantially raised gas prices, a strategy that was probably reinforced after violent protests recently forced the president of Ecuador to back off plans to end fuel subsidies there.
Maduro has acknowledged that the state-run oil company, PDVSA, loses billions of dollars a year because of the discrepancy between the price of gasoline and the costs of production.
At the most, a tank of Venezuelan gasoline has historically cost the equivalent of a few U.S. pennies. Because of inflation and devaluation of the currency, that has plunged even further.
Caracas resident Maria Perez filled up one day recently, handing the attendant the equivalent of one penny, the smallest bill she had. Most drivers would gladly pay the true price of gas if the government would use the proceeds to invest in services, she said.
"Our roads are unbearable," she said while running errands on her day off with her mother in the passenger seat. "There are huge holes — craters — that not only damage our cars but also put our own lives at risk."
Gasoline in Venezuela's capital of Caracas, the seat of power and largest population center, has so far been immune from the shortages and mile-long lines that plague other parts of the country and can leave drivers waiting for days to reach the pump. Officials blame the shortages on U.S. sanctions against PDVSA.
Service station attendant Orlando Godoy stacked the food and drinks he received from drivers on top of the pumps — a bag of cooking flour, cooking oil, a bottle of mango juice. He earns minimum wage, which amounts to a few dollars a month, so the food helps feed his family.
"A lot of people show up saying they don't have cash to pay," he said. "The idea is to help people because Venezuelans are going through a rough situation."
Rio De Janeiro, Oct 22 (AP/UNB) — With pressure from the public and courts growing for Brazil's government to do more, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said Monday that 5,000 more troops will be dispatched to help clean up oil polluting the nation's northeastern coast.
Mourão told reporters about 600 tons of crude had been recovered since the sludge began appearing at the start of September. He said the origin of the leak remained unknown.
"The most we can do today is have trained people to collect this oil that is reaching our beaches," Mourão said, adding that investigations into the source of the contamination continued.
The crude has washed up on at least 200 beaches in nine Brazilian states, according to the most-recent report from the country's environmental regulator, Ibama.
Oceanographers and environmental groups have been criticizing the government's response as slow and ineffective, and many Brazilians are working to clean beaches themselves.
The government suffered similar criticism when fires destroyed large swaths of the Amazon region in June and July. It eventually sent soldiers to help local firefighters extinguish the blazes.
In the oil spill, 1,500 troops had already been deployed in various locations. Environmental groups say the number of servicemen is insufficient considering that contamination spreads over 1,300 miles of coastline.
Federal courts in Pernambuco and Alagoas states said the government had 24 hours to install protection barriers around sensitive natural areas and ecosystems such as mangroves, rivers and sea turtle spawning areas.
Mouão said all necessary means were adopted for the crude's collection, reiterating prior comments from the environment minister.
Bolivia, Oct 21 (AP/UNB) — President Evo Morales led in early returns from the first round of Sunday's presidential election, but he appeared to have failed to get enough votes to avoid a runoff in the tightest political race of his life.
The Andean country's top electoral authority said Sunday night that a preliminary count of 84% of the votes showed Morales on top with 45.3%, followed by 38.2% for his closest rival, former President Carlos Mesa. If the results hold, the two men will face off in December and Morales could be vulnerable to a united opposition in the first runoff in his nearly 14 years in power.
Mesa told supporters shortly after the first results were announced that his coalition had scored "an unquestionable triumph," and he urged others parties to join him for a "definitive triumph" in the second round.
Morales claimed a victory for himself, saying that "the people have again imposed their will."
"We are not alone. That is why we have won again," he told supporters at the presidential palace.
To avoid a runoff and win outright, Morales would have needed to get 50% of the votes plus one or have 40% and finish 10 percentage points ahead of the nearest challenger.
Morales came to prominence leading social protests in the landlocked country of 11 million people and rose to power as Bolivia's first indigenous president in 2006. The 59-year-old leftist is South America's longest-serving leader.
Mesa is a 66-year-old historian who as vice president rose to Bolivia's top office when his predecessor resigned the presidency in 2003 amid widespread protests. Mesa then stepped aside himself in 2005 amid renewed demonstrations led by Morales, who was then leader of the coca growers union.
Voting, which was mandatory, was mostly calm, though police said they arrested more than 100 people for violating the country's rigid election-day rules against drinking, large gatherings or casual driving. In a surprise result, Chi Hyun Chung, a physician and evangelical pastor of South Korean ancestry, was in third with 8.8% of the vote.
Bolivians also elected all 166 congressional seats. Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party lost seats although it retained a majority in Congress.
Morales voted early in the coca-growing region of El Chapare, where residents threw flower petals at him and he said he remained confident of his chances.
In his years in office, he allied himself with a leftist bloc of Latin American leaders and used revenues from the Andean country's natural gas and minerals to redistribute wealth among the masses and lift millions out of poverty in the region's poorest country. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average.
Morales, the son of Aymara Indian shepherds, has also been credited for battling racial inequalities.
Many Bolivians, such as vendor Celestino Aguirre still identify with "Evo," as he's widely known, saying people shouldn't criticize him so much. "It's not against Evo, it's against me, against the poor people, against the humble."
But Morales also has faced growing dissatisfaction even among his indigenous supporters. Some are frustrated by corruption scandals linked to his administration — though not Morales himself — and many by his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms. While Bolivians voted to maintain term limits in 2016, the country's top court, which is seen by critics as friendly to the president, ruled that limits would violate Morales' political rights as a citizen.
"I'm thinking of a real change because I think that Evo Morales has done what he had to do and should leave by the front door," said Nicolás Choque, a car washer.
Mauricio Parra, who administers a building in downtown La Paz, said he voted for Morales in 2006 as a reaction against previous center-right governments, but this time, he voted for Mesa.
Morales "did very well those four years. ... (But) in his second term there were problems of corruption, drug trafficking, nepotism and other strange things," Parra said, saying that led him to vote against repealing term limits in the 2016 referendum. "He hasn't respected that. That is the principle reason that I'm not going to vote for Evo Morales."
"A runoff will be a heart-stopping finish," Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja said ahead of the results. "It would break with the myth that it's hard to beat Evo Morales."