Thursday, July 31, 2014

Blouin Beat: World - ‘Paradise Lost:’ Benicio del Toro plays Pablo Escobar

"'Paradise Lost:' Benicio del Toro plays Pablo Escobar"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: World
July 30, 2014
Originally published:

The renowned actor Benicio del Toro will become the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in the upcoming movie ‘Paradise Lost,’ written and directed by Andrea di Stefano. To what extent del Toro will play a convincing Escobar remains to be seen. At the very least, ‘Paradise Lost’ is yet another recent production portraying the Colombian drug trafficker. Over two decades after Escobar’s death, his life remains captivating to the masses.
Taping began in March 2013 and, after much waiting, a teaser trailer was released online in mid-July. The film will premiere in October in Spain and be released the following month in France.
The plot of di Stefano’s newest movie does not focus on Escobar himself, though he is obviously a prominent character. The film largely centers on a young American who travels to Colombia and falls in love with a young Colombian woman, whose uncle turns out to be Escobar. From the short teaser, del Toro seems to be portraying Escobar as a ruthless drug lord without much of a humane side.
As previously mentioned, this is not the first time that Escobar’s life has been adapted to either a movie or a TV series. In 2012, Caracol TV, a Colombian television station, produced a soap opera entitled ‘Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal’ (‘Pablo Escobar: The Drug Lord’).
Additionally, the drug lord’s son, Sebastian Marroquin (he changed his name after his father’s demise), is also profiting from his father’s legacy. Marroquin’s clothing line, Poder Poder, produces clothes that prominently display Escobar’s image, like t-shirts with Escobar’s birth certificate or his arrest warrant.
Other projects that discuss Escobar’s life include the 2009 documentary ‘Pecados de mi Padre’ (‘Sins of my Father’), which includes interviews with his son Sebastian, and Escobar’s widow Maria Isabel Santos. Escobar’s life and death was also reviewed in the 2001 book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, an in-depth analytical biography of the Colombian criminal by the renowned author Mark Bowden. In his book, Bowden discuses Escobar’s life, from his childhood to how he became the leader of the infamous Medellin Cartel in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Escobar finally met his end during a raid on one of his safe houses by the Colombian police in 1993. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there are theories that the U.S., which at the time provided Colombian security agencies with financial and technical aid to crack down on drug trafficking and stop Escobar, may have been behind the Colombian’s death. (Moreover, a new book by Diego Murillo, an imprisoned Colombian drug lord, claims that his brother shot Escobar)
In a 2012 report entitled “Violent Threads: From Routine Murder to High Fashion” for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs I discussed Poder Poder’s potential ramifications on how Escobar is remembered today. In the aforementioned report I point to how new generations of Colombians are presently growing up without having suffered through years of “Escobar-authored terrorism.” They have not had to read daily news reports about the assassinations of politicians, police officers and journalists that occurred as a result of his orders. With that said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the initiatives that the drug lord carried out in his native Antioquia (a northern department in Colombia) to help the local population, like building football fields and electric towers.
Producing a film or TV series about a real-life individual is always tricky, particularly a criminal as controversial as Pablo Escobar. We still have to wait a few months to see how Benicio del Toro portrays the deceased drug lord in ‘Paradise Lost.’ While some of the characters of this movie are fictional, Escobar was a very real individual and his legacy will continue to have a profound effect on Colombia for years to come.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

VOXXI: Latin American governments react to Israeli operations in Gaza

"Latin American governments react to Israeli operations in Gaza"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
July 29, 2014
Originally published:

As the violence in Gaza continues, the Israeli government continues to receive criticism from the international community for targeting civilians as well as Hamas militants. On the other hand, Tel Aviv argues that these military operations are aimed at protecting its population.
It is difficult to remain neutral in this ongoing conflict as several Latin American governments are disparaging Israeli military tactics, prompting counter Israeli criticisms.
Latin American Critics
The most prominent example of disapproval against Tel Aviv was carried out by Brazil as it recently ordered the recall of its ambassador to Israel, Henrique Sardinah.
The decision was made last Wednesday, July 23, via a statement which stressed the hundreds of Palestine civilians that have died and also “condemn[ed] the disproportional reaction of Israel.”
However, Brasilia is not alone in denouncing Israel, as other regional nations have made similar strong statements.
For example, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales has called for sanctions against Tel Aviv. The Andean head of state took accusations to a new level by stating that Israel is carrying out a “genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, Ecuador recalled its ambassador to Israel in mid-July, preceding the accordant decision of Brazil.
Similarly, Argentina, which has a complicated relationship with Israel, has publicly reprimanded bothHamas and Tel Aviv. Namely, the Argentine government has declared that Israel is exacerbating the situation via its land military operations in Gaza.
To be fair, not all of Latin America has attacked Israeli military operations – other nations have condemned Hamas as well.
Colombia, for example, is opposed to any type of violence. Nevertheless, Bogota has been more negative towards Hamas, stating that their missiles flying into Israeli territory “aggravate the conflict and are a step backwards from peace efforts.”
Similarly, the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs has issued two press communiqués regarding the ongoing violence, on July 10 and July 14. The first press release expressed that Mexico finds fault with rocket attacks and aerial bombardments, but does not specifically single out the suffering of a particular nation.
Finally, the Peruvian government has similarly criticized the ongoing violence. A Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs communiqué highlights that Hamas and Israel should return to negotiations, and take into account the “Roadmap to Peace” as well as resolutions by the United Nations.
A United Latin America?
There have been attempts by regional blocs to form a consensus on appropriate reaction to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.
Most notably, on Wednesday July 23, representatives of several Latin America governments discussed their own positions during a meeting of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza called for an immediate cease-fire, declaring: “Gaza has no viability, no possibility of life in current conditions.”
While the OAS has attempted to be neutral (generally speaking), the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) has taken a stronger stance. In a July 11 press release, ALBA strongly condemns Israel’s attack against the Palestinians.
Finally, the members of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR) will meet today Tuesday, July 29, in Venezuela. The Latin American media has reported that Brazil is expected to bring up the situation in Gaza and may push for a bloc-wide resolution.
Israel Responds
As for Israel, Tel Aviv has responded to some of the aforementioned actions. Most notably, when Brazil recalled its ambassador, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declared, “this is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”
The Israeli government has also addressed Argentina’s disapproval of the Israeli land operations in Gaza. Tel Aviv explained that the “only reason” for these land military operations is to destroy the missiles used to attack the Israeli population.
A Game of Geopolitics
Certainly, Latin American policymakers should deplore the ongoing violence that has cost hundreds of lives, both Palestinian and Israeli. However, we would be remiss to disregard the role of geopolitics.
For example, Tel Aviv is a close Washington ally, serving as a major antagonist of President Morales throughout his presidency. Thus, Bolivia’s criticism of Israel is not particularly surprising. Meanwhile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru all have close political, military and economic relations with Washington. Hence, there is a limit to these nations’ willingness to denounce a major U.S. ally.
Moreover, Latin America in general has been increasing ties with Palestine and the Arab world for years. A major development occurred in 2010, when, to Washington and Tel Aviv’s disdain, various Latin American nations recognized Palestine as an independent state.
This was an understandable move, as Latin American trade and diplomatic initiatives with the Arab world have increased over the past years (i.e. summits between Arab and South American leaders). Therefore, the acknowledgment of Palestine was an important geopolitical move by Latin American governments as way to strengthen ties with investment-prone Arab nations.
Nations within Latin America have differing positions on the ongoing violence in Gaza. Latin American initiatives have progressed from recalling ambassadors to demanding sanctions, to neutral declarations for peace. However, everyone agrees that an immediate cease-fire is necessary. The Gaza incident’s effect on Israeli-Latin American relations in the near future remains to be seen.

Friday, July 25, 2014

VOXXI: ‘Meñique’ is Cuba’s first 3D animated film

"‘Meñique’ is Cuba’s first 3D animated film"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
July 25, 2014
Originally published:

“Meñique” , Cuba’s first 3D animated film, was released in Cuban cinemas this month; the Cuban media has hyped the film, which is expected to be a hit with the Cuban population, particularly younger viewers.
Leaving aside potential earnings both domestically and abroad of “Meñique”, the fact that embargo-crippled Cuba is now producing 3D animated films is a milestone achievement.
A 3D movie
“Meñique”(“Pinkie”) is inspired by Edouard de Labouyale’s famous work “Tom Thumb,” which was also adapted by the famous Cuban writer José Martí for his children’s magazine La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). The plot of this children’s movie is fairly simple: A young peasant wants to help his family emerge from poverty, and while attempting to do so, he falls in love with the king’s daughter.
The film debuted on July 20, Children’s Day in Cuba, in cinemas across the island.
“Meñique” was directed and written by the Cuban Ernesto Padrón (brother of Juan Padrón, who directed the Cuban animated film “Vampires in Havana” in 1985). The soundtrack was composed by the Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, who also wrote four original songs for the film.
Meñique is a co-production between the Cuban arts institute Estudios de Animación del Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos and the Galician company Ficción Producciones. The film reportedly required six years to complete, and over 200 artists and designers (including 34 from Spain) took part in the project. Other organizations involved in the film included the Cuban Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas and the Venezuelan Fundación Villa del Cine. The budget of “Meñique” was roughly four million dollars USD. As a point of comparison, the 2013 hit “Frozen” had a budget of $150 million USD.
Cuban Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel attended “the premiere of “Meñique” in Havana, declaring, “I am very proud that we have made this film.”
While this is a predictable compliment, it’s important to keep in mind that Díaz-Canel is viewed as the next president of Cuba, as Raul Castro has tipped him as his successor. If he does indeed come to power, the current vice-president may choose to further support Cuban cinema initiatives.
Meñique” has already been showcased in international events, most notably at Animazine, a film festival in Malaga, Spain. It has also been commercialized in Spain, France, Germany and South Korea.
Latin America’s film industry
Plenty of lists are available online regarding the most famous Latin American films, so we will not delve into them (for examples, check out Forbes15 Highest-Grossing Mexican films or a Top 25 list of Latin American movies).
Suffice to say, the region has had several internationally successful films over the decades. Among these are Brazil’s “City of God,” Mexico’s “Amores Perros,” Mexico’s “Y Tu Mamá También” and Brazil’s “Pixote”. In 2009, the Argentine film “El Secreto de Tus Ojos” won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, while the Peruvian film “The Sorrow Teat” was also nominated. Cuba also produced the 2011 hit film “Juan of the Dead,” a zombie terror-comedy.
While Latin American films can be successful, they have also received harsh reviews. Namely, some movies have been critiqued for having been made for mainstream mass audiences.
Case in point is the 2014 Peruvian comedy “A Los 40,” which has become the second highest grossing Peruvian film ever. After only eight days, it attracted around 750,000 viewers. Nevertheless, Ivan Thays (a Peruvian writer and TV host) argued that the film’s producer, Miguel Valladares, cannot say that “A Los 40” is a “patriotic film” simply because it was made in Peru and has been successful, as the final product was of low quality. Thays also stated that the film’s success was due to marketing and the casting of popular actors instead of the quality of the movie itself.
As for the recognition of Latin American films in the near future, sadly only one film, “Wild Tales,” will be showcased at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival 2014. The film is an Argentine-Spanish co-production, produced by the famous director Pedro Almodóvar. However, Latin Post highlights that the showcasing of “Wild Tales” in Toronto “is not a world premiere, as the film already screened at the Cannes Film Festival where it received rave reviews.” In other words, no other Latin American film will enjoy a Toronto “bump” to increase its popularity.
It is positive that Latin America’s film industry continues to produce hits that do well not only domestically but also internationally. The Cuban 3D animated film “Meñique” will hopefully be another example of this ongoing momentum.
Latin American films cannot compete with their American counterparts in terms of budget and special effects, but strong and appealing plots, good acting, captivating soundtracks and overall pleasing aesthetics often make these films memorable and financially successful.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

VOXXI: Guatemala’s president to visit Washington; discuss immigration

"Guatemala’s president to visit Washington; discuss immigration"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
July 24, 2014
Originally published:

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina will carry out a two-day trip to Washington this month, in which he is expected to discuss with President Barack Obama the migration of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors to the United States, an issue that has been making headlines for weeks.
Immigration may be a political “third rail” that U.S. policymakers want to avoid touching (particularly in election season), but that does not mean that Washington-Guatemala relations cannot improve in other areas during the meeting that will take place July 24th and July 25th.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room
President Perez Molina is not the sole Central American head of state traveling to Washington. Also visiting are El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández. These leaders are also expected to meet with U.S. policymakers to discuss immigration. The three countries are regarded as Central America’s “northern triangle”, serving as points of origin for thousands of undocumented individuals who are attempting to migrate to the U.S.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Central American leaders will be effective in influencing President Obama to carry out a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. With the U.S. mid-term elections coming up in November, Congress will not dare to address such a sensitive and divisive political issue.
Nevertheless, President Pérez Molina is certain to have a couple of busy days in Washington. Aside from meeting with President Obama, the Guatemalan media reports that he will meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States Jose Miguel Insulza, and the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno.
Additionally, Guatemala’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, will also be in town. He and his counterparts from El Salvador and Honduras will discuss immigration issues at an event hosted by the aforementioned Wilson Center.
Areas of cooperation and tension with Guatemala
Guatemala-U.S. relations have been historically positive–the 1954 overthrow of President Arbenz notwithstanding–and so far this past year, diplomatic visits have strengthened bilateral relations. This past February, the Guatemalan leader visited Washington for a three day “private visit.” In turn, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Guatemala in April, the first visit by a SecDef to the Central American nation since 2005.
More recently, Vice President Biden traveled to Guatemala in June to discuss with the Guatemalan leadership the “root causes” of the immigration crisis.
In addition to strong diplomatic relations, Guatemala’s internal security policies go hand in hand with Washington’s objectives: strengthening security agencies to crack down on drug trafficking.
Just this past June, Guatemala created a new security unit called the FIAAT (a joint initiative of the Ministries of Governance and Security), to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. The cornerstone of this new agency are six UH-1H helicopters donated by the U.S. in 2013. Guatemala has also increased security relations with Washington’s two major Latin American allies, Colombia and Mexico.
At this point, it is necessary to add that there is one outstanding security-related issue that the Guatemalan leader may discuss with President Obama. In January, United States Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, which passed particularly severe resolutions for Guatemala. In short, Congress limited U.S. aid to Guatemala dependent on the success of inquiries into human rights violations carried out by that country’s armed forces in the late 1970s/early 1980s—specifically, the massacres over the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam.
President Pérez Molina, a retired army general, has critiqued Washington’s decision.
One final issue to be discussed by Pérez Molina is that of trade. Guatemala is a member of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Central America-Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR), which was hailed as a major achievement when it was passed in 2006. Nevertheless, CAFTA has not been beneficial for the Central American state.
A June 2014 report by the Guatemalan Ministry of Economy highlights how Guatemala suffered a deficit in its trade with the U.S. between 2006 – 2013. The report explains that, in 2013, 29% of Guatemalan exports were clothing accessories, 14% were bananas and 12% were precious metals. (Coffee exports were only 8%, probably due to coffee rust). On the other hand, Guatemala’s major U.S. import is petroleum products. The report concludes that, while the U.S. was Guatemala’s leading commercial partner in 2013, Guatemala ranked as number 41 for exports and 52 for imports in the same year.
Without a doubt, the dangerous voyage made by thousands of Central American adults and minors to the U.S. via Mexico, aboard “La Bestia,” is a problematic situation that must be dealt with appropriately. However, this is not the only issue affecting U.S.-Guatemala relations. Also important are security relations, aid restrictions over human rights abuses, and ongoing trade ties that do not favor Guatemala.
Hopefully, President Pérez Molina’s visit will conclude with meaningful compromises, as there is a plethora of issues affecting bilateral relations which should not continue to be overlooked.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Peru This Week: Peru uses drones for archaeological projects

"Peru uses drones for archeological projects"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Peru This Week
July 21, 2014
Originally published:

At a time when the usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for military purposes continues to be controversial around the world, Peru is successfully utilizing its drones for civilian projects. Specifically, Peruvian archaeologists are using drones to study pre-Inca ruins in the country’s Andes and Amazon.
The UAVs’ video and photography cameras are certainly helpful as they provide archeologists an “eye in the sky” for research, including locating ruins which are not easily spotted from the ground. Additionally, drones can help create 3D models of archeological sites.
The era of archeological drones in Peru has started thanks to the 2013 discovery of tombs that belonged to a pre-Inca culture called Chachapoyas. The tombs were located in El Tigre mountain, in the Amazonas region. A drone flew 300 meters and photographed 23 sarcophagi which, according to the Peruvian media, are part of a cemetery for the children of important families of the Chachapoya people. The drone that was used for this important discovery was a Phantom I, which is produced by the Chinese company DJI.
This successful usage of drones will likely entice the Peruvian government to acquire more of them. Already, there are reports that the Peruvian Ministry of Culture plans to purchase more drones for archaeological projects in the Lambayeque and La Libertad regions, where there is evidence of the presence of two other pre-Inca cultures: Lambayeque and Chimu. Besides the Chachapoyas finding, drones are already being used elsewhere in Peru. For example, the renowned Peruvian archeologist Luis Jaime Castillo, has flown drones to explore the San Jose de Moro site, an ancient burial ground that belonged to the Moche culture and which encompasses 150 hectares.
But as much as drones can aid Peruvian archaeologists, this new technology has a few drawbacks. An August 2013 report by Reuters explains, “[drone] batteries are big and short-lived, it can take time to learn to work with the sophisticated software and most drones struggle to fly in higher altitudes.” The last point is important as the Peruvian Andes are filled with ruins dating back to the Inca empire (i.e. the Machu Picchu citadel) and pre-Inca cultures. The fact that some drones cannot perform well at high altitudes is a problem that will hopefully be solved as new models are produced that can adapt to different environments. 
As for learning how to fly drones, the Peruvian government is carrying out proactive initiatives. For example, this past March the Ministry of Culture organized a workshop on drone usage in Lima and also in the Tumbas Reales de Sipan Museum in the Lambayeque region. These workshops brought together over a hundred specialists that focus on different aspects of discovering and protecting Peru’s historical heritage; they learned how to utilize drones for aerial photography, 3D modeling and digital topography.
The aforementioned Castillo is now Peru’s deputy minister for culture and a supporter of using drone technology for archaeological purposes in the Andean nation. In a February interview, he highlighted how “now, for a few hundred dollars, you can buy a decent quadricopter with a camera. You’re going from nothing to everything.” Castillo was referring to how previously Peruvian archaeologists had to resort to sketchpads to draw the peculiarities and aspects of a site, but now a drone greatly facilitates this work.
Without a doubt, UAVs can have various positive effects on the future of Peruvian archeology. As the Andean country continues to enjoy a decade of economic growth, hopefully sufficient funds will be given to Peruvian cultural agencies in order to not only protect Peru’s rich history, but also strengthen future archeological projects.