Buenos Aires, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — Argentina could take another sharp political turn in Sunday's presidential elections, with center-left Peronist candidate Alberto Fernández favored to oust conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri amid growing frustration over the country's economic crisis.
Macri was elected president in 2015 as Argentines rejected a successor chosen by former President Cristina Fernández, who is now running as vice president on the Peronist ticket with Alberto Fernández. The two are not related.
A victory by the Fernández ticket would mark another political swing in South America, which has seen conservative governments elected in Brazil, Colombia and Chile in recent years. Cristina Fernández was considered part of the "pink tide" of leftist governments that arose in the region in the 1990s and 2000s.
Now the region is being rocked by unrest in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador fueled by discontent over corruption, inequality and slowing growth.
Poverty under Macri has soared, the value of the local currency has sharply depreciated and the inflation rate remains among the highest in the world.
Frustration over the economy has eroded support for the pro-business former mayor of Buenos Aires. It has also propelled the candidacy of Alberto Fernández, whose surge has sent jitters in the financial markets over a possible return to interventionist polices of Cristina Fernández's 2007-2015 administration.
Macri's camp has tried to capitalize on that unease, portraying her as a puppet master waiting in the wings. But the presidential candidate has dismissed those fears and voters gave him a decisive victory over Macri in August primaries, which are a barometer of support for candidates ahead of the presidential election.
"I don't see a conflict there," Alberto Fernández said recently in an interview with The Associated Press. "Argentina's problem is not Cristina. It's what Macri has left behind."
Fernández served as chief of staff from 2003 to 2007 for Cristina Fernández's predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner. He remained in the position during a portion of her term as president but left after a conflict with farmers in 2008.
Peronism is a broad and splintered political movement that many Argentines claim some allegiance to.
On the election trail, Fernández has criticized Macri's decision to seek a record $56 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, a deeply unpopular institution in Argentina that is blamed for creating the conditions that led to the country's worst economic meltdown in 2001.
Macri is credited with returning Argentina to international global markets following a break after the 2001 crisis and with helping strike a free trade deal between South America's Mercosur bloc and the European Union amid global trade tensions and rising protectionism. But he failed to deliver on promises to jumpstart the economy of the recession-hit country.
On the campaign trail, Macri has pleaded for more time to reverse fortunes and reminds voters of the corruption cases facing Cristina Fernández, who has denied any wrongdoing and remains a powerful if divisive figure in Argentina.
To avoid a runoff on Nov. 24, a candidate needs to win 45% of the vote, or 40% support with a 10 percentage point lead over the nearest rival. Nearly all recent surveys give Fernández more than 50% support, which would guarantee his outright victory in a first round.
Nearly 34 million Argentines are eligible to vote in Sunday's election. Argentines will also pick 130 lower house seats and 24 senators in Congress, as well as regional mayors, governors for three provinces and the head of government for the Argentine capital.
Montevideo, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — Fifteen years of leftist rule hangs in the balance as Uruguay faces a tight presidential election that is likely to head to a runoff vote.
The left-leaning Broad Front coalition has governed the small South American nation since 2005 and its achievements include laws to approve gay marriage and the creation of the world's first national marketplace for legal marijuana.
But opponents have capitalized on growing disenchantment with the government over slowing economic growth and rising insecurity.
Polls give the Broad Front's Daniel Martínez, the socialist former mayor of Montevideo, an edge over his strongest rival, Luis Lacalle Pou, a centrist former lawmaker from the National Party. But neither is expected to get the 50% plus one vote needed to win outright and avoid a runoff in November.
With the Broad Front at the helm, Uruguay has seen significant economic growth. Poverty has dropped dramatically, to 8.1%, while the legalization of gay marriage, abortion, and the sale of marijuana in pharmacies has strengthened the country's reputation as a trailblazer in the region.
"Even though I'm a Christian and I'm not in favor of things like legalizing abortion, I'm voting for the Broad Front because the country has progressed, people are better off," said Nicolás Robledo, 24, who works at car wash. "Who could buy themselves a car before?"
But the current administration of Tabaré Vázquez has been hampered by scandals that have taken a bite out of its approval ratings. Vice President Raúl Sendic had to resign in 2017 over corruption allegations, the government has failed to address a dismal high school graduation rate, and a record 414 homicides last year have made public safety an urgent issue.
"I think Martínez is a good person, but I'm not voting for him because I don't want the Broad Front to win and open the door for some of the shameless people in this government to show up," said Susana López, a 60-year-old shop worker.
Martínez, a 62-year-old engineer who has held posts in government and the private sector, has urged voters to stick to the process of "change and social justice" that his party promotes.
Lacalle Pou, 47, who was the runner up in the 2014 election, has a political pedigree, with a father who was president and a mother who was a senator. He has been plugging his own policies and those of a range of other parties from the center-left to the right that he hopes will help him form a government.
Although the Broad Front leads in the polls, political scientist Adolfo Garcé said a second round win could be difficult. A number of other parties have already declared their intention to support the National Party or the candidate with the strongest chance of beating the incumbent in a second round.
Uruguayans will also elect 99 deputies and 30 senators and they will be voting on a series of referendums on tough on crime measures. They include introducing possible life imprisonment for the most serious crimes, creating a new unit of the military to help with public safety, and scrapping early release of prisoners convicted of the worst offences.
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."