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Latin America’s inability to agree which country should represent it on the United Nations Security Council means that the matter will be put to a vote of the UN’s general assembly, probably on Monday. But don’t expect a clear-cut decision any time soon.

The word in New York is that neither Venezuela nor Guatemala, the candidate backed by the US, will secure the requisite two-thirds majority (128 of 192 votes) needed to win the two-year temporary seat being vacated by Argentina later this month (Peru holds the region’s other seat). Venezuela has been thought to hold the edge because of its ability to influence the vote of many of the UN’s smaller members in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

But the US is also campaigning fiercely, European diplomats are sceptical and Venezuela’s decision to sign a military agreement with Bolivia, its closest South American ally, may cost it the support of Chile and Peru. Chile has long standing territorial disputes with Bolivia.

Venezuela’s failure would represent something of a setback for President Hugo Chávez, given the amount of diplomatic effort that his government has invested in the bid. And the depth of the division between pro-US and pro-Venezuelan parts of the region is a bad sign, indicating that Latin America is more divided now than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, it is necessary to go way back to the late 1970s to find the region as divided as now. In 1979, an unprecedented 154 rounds of voting over four months failed to resolve deadlock between Cuba and Colombia. Only after the intervention of the secretary general did both parties step down, and Mexico was elected as the Latin American representative. This columnist urges the region to find a compromise candidate to avoid a recurrence.

Panama’s plan

Next Sunday, Panamanians will vote in a referendum on an ambitious project to expand the canal that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. If they know what’s good for them, they should vote in favour of the plan. The awkward truth is that one of the most remarkable engineering projects of the 20th century - and still a central aspect of the Central American country’s economy - is fast-becoming outdated. Unless the canal is overhauled it will lose gradually lose out to the competition.

For now, it looks as if most Panamanians will say yes to expansion, approving a plan, which the government says will cost a maximum of $5.25bn – more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product – and take seven years to complete.

But there is still significant opposition, and many experts agree that victory for the yes campaign is still far from assured.

The “no” camp claims that the project will run over budget, that future financing is far from secure, that the plan lacks detail and that it also represents an environmental threat.

Such claims appear overdone. True, many infrastructure projects run up unforeseen costs. But this project involves no new technology, is above ground and will be carried out on land for which there are countless geological studies. Moreover, about 30 per cent of the $5.25bn budget has already been earmarked for contingencies, many of which may never arise.

As for environmental concerns, the government insists that the system to be used only differs from the current one in that the new locks will recycle much of the water needed to lift the ships to the highest part of the crossing. Given that contamination from salt water has not occurred in almost 100 years of operation, there is little evidence that it will suddenly become an issue with the expansion.

Panama is a poor country; expansion of the canal is the best way of harnessing future revenue to combat that poverty and to secure steady economic growth. Panamanians would do well to remember that come October 22.

Corruption centre-stage in Brazil

Two events for Brazil-watchers this week. Tuesday brings the second televised debate between president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-leaning PT, and the man who wants his job, Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist PSDB. Then on Wednesday, the central bank’s monetary policy committee, the Copom, will announce another cut in interest rates.

Fiscal and, consequently, monetary policy are key to Brazil’s prospects for growth, so should be featuring large in the race to the second-round run-off for the presidency on October 29. Both candidates talk of the need to control public spending - Mr Alckmin with a believer’s conviction, Mr Lula da Silva rather more grudgingly. But neither is building a platform on cuts in public payroll or pensions – what Brazil really needs to release money for investment in infrastructure and other drivers of growth. So the significance of the Copom meeting – which is likely to cut interest rates by 0.5 percentage points – is unlikely to make much impact on Tuesday’s debate.

If the first debate of the second round is any guide, Tuesday’s contest will be another slanging match over corruption with selective use by each side of the other’s record in government. True, in the first debate, Mr Alckmin did make the little-appreciated point that Brazil’s very high interest rates have more to do with the difficulty of rolling over government debt than with that of controlling inflation.

But for most voters this is too esoteric by far. Instead, expect this debate to be an extension of the first. Mr Alckmin will focus on corruption under the Lula government. Mr Lula da Silva will accuse the PSDB of the same, and try to associate Mr Alckmin with the unpopular PSDB administration of his predecessor in the Planalto Palace, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. What will matter most will be body language and televisual performance. On those criteria, Mr Alckmin was the surprise winner of the first debate. This time, Mr Lula da Silva should be ready to give as good as he gets.

Lavagna’s election ambitions

Roberto Lavagna, Argentina ‘s highly successful economy minister who was sacked last November, looks certain to confirm that he will run in presidential elections due in October 2007. The only question is when. With mounting pressure from potential allies such as former president Raúl Alfonsín after openly canvassing for support since June, he may do so very soon, now that the electoral year has in theory begun. On Wednesday Mr Lavagna will give a key speech laying out his vision of Argentina’s future – a future in which he obviously hopes to feature quite prominently.

But first Mr Lavagna will have to defeat a formidable opponent in President Néstor Kirchner – assuming that he runs for re-election, rather than giving way to his popular wife, Cristina Fernández, as some speculate he will. At the moment, the elections look like a foregone conclusion: Mr Kirchner is wallowing in sky-high approval ratings, and if elections were to be held tomorrow he would comfortably receive over 50 per cent of the vote.

But nothing is that simple in Argentine politics. Certainly, no one had been expecting Mr Kirchner to become president. His re-election will depend on the continued well-being of the economy, and for the opposition to remain weak and divided. The question is whether Lavagna’s candidacy will succeed in uniting that opposition or fragmenting it further.

Notes by Richard Lapper, Adam Thomson, Benedict Mander and Jonathan Wheatley

Send your comments to richard.lapper@ft.com

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