Sunday, August 16, 2009

The 'axis of annoyance'

The town of Calabozo lies south of Caracas, on the hot, flat plains of Venezuela. Mud spattered pick-up trucks rattle along the streets. It is cattle country, a region dominated by farming.

Agriculture is just one sector where the two countries have partnerships

Inside the entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture compound, a brand new tractor is displayed.

This is a Veniran tractor.

It was created with Iranian know-how in a Venezuelan factory - a potent symbol of co-operation between a Muslim theocracy and a socialist republic.

Alberto farms rice and livestock. "My very first tractor was a Veniran model," he says.

"I bought it at a discount with a cheap government loan. Things have really changed around here because of the agreements with the Iranians."

"Before I was just a hired hand, I couldn't even aspire to being a farmer. Now I have all the machinery I need, thanks to the government of President Chavez."


Veniran tractor garage
Agreements between Venezuela and Iran cover a wide range of industries

In the past five years Iran and Venezuela have signed dozens of agreements in all kinds of sectors - banking, construction, food processing, engineering, transport, and, of course, oil.

Joint investments total around $20 billion (£12bn).

Iran is by no means Venezuela's principal economic ally, but there is an added political edge to this relationship.

Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad not only share a mutual respect and admiration, but also a pronounced distrust of the West - especially the US.

On his television programme, Alo Presidente, Hugo Chavez offered his Iranian counterpart unconditional support following the demonstrations in Iran after the June elections.

"Today I spoke with President Ahmadinejad of Iran. I assured him of our total solidarity as he's under attack from global capitalism.

"He told me, don't worry President, we'll come out on top. And I said I don't doubt it - inshallah. President Ahmadinejad thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people."


Iranian built housing in Calabozo
Iranian workers have moved to Venezuela

Calabozo is reaping some of the benefits of that fraternal hug.

On the edge of town, a huge housing complex rises from the rust-coloured earth.

An Iranian company is providing the expertise and engineering skill.

Andre Bandari, an Iranian, is the site manager at the new Veniran maize-processing plant. He says this is one of 10 planned across Venezuela.

The Iranians who have built the factory stay for anything from six months to a year.

"This is the first time that Iran has made such major arrangements with a non-Muslim country, so the workers have to improvise."

"They pray at home, and to get halal meat they either make friends with a local butcher, or prepare their own."

Maria Cristina Rodriguez, one of the workers from President Chavez's United Socialist Party, is proud of Calabozo's association with Iran.

"For the first time our young people are being trained properly," she says.

"The Iranians are teaching them how do things. They are bringing their knowledge here, and building up the industrial base of the region."

Even her elderly father has a Veniran tractor.

"Tractors, influence and angst" was a phrase coined by a Farsi news agency to sum up the Venezuela-Iran axis: tractors for poor Venezuelans like Maria Cristina's dad, influence for Presidents Chavez and Ahmedinejad, and angst for Washington DC.

The alliance between Iran and Venezuela has certainly generated a good deal of worry and suspicion internationally. One bright spark in Washington DC called it "the axis of annoyance".

Onofrio de Nino Garcia
The relationship's just got stronger, and we don't know where it's taking us
Onofrio de Nino Garcia

Iran's nuclear programme, and its connection to the Lebanese political and militant organisation Hezbollah have raised concerns about Venezuela's motives.

Michael Chertoff, who was the US Secretary of Homeland Security until January, has concerns.

"You have two countries that are bellicose and aggressive and they seem to have found soul mates in each other. I think that has to be worrisome for anybody concerned about global stability," he said.

In Calabozo there is also unease about the presence of the Iranians.

"When this love story between the Venezuelan and Iranian governments began, it was harshly criticised abroad because of worries about nuclear power," says Onofrio de Nino Garcia, who runs a transport company.

"But our President took no notice. The relationship's just got stronger, and we don't know where it's taking us."

Mexico favours Brazil trade pact

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has said he will propose a free trade agreement with Brazil.

"Trade enriches economies," said Mr Calderon during a meeting of business leaders in Sao Paulo.

The comments came as he embarked on a three day visit to Brazil, when he will meet President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and visit oil firm Petrobras.

Brazil and Mexico are Latin America's largest economies. Mexico already has trade deals with the US and Canada.

"I offer to put the idea [of a trade agreement] out there before different industries, and political and social groups," said Mr Calderon.

The two nations are responsible for around 70% of all economic activity in the region.

Mexico's economy has been hard hit by the recession and more recently by swine flu.

The US slowdown has meant less money is being sent home by migrant workers, and Mexican exports have fallen.

Mexico sends 80% of its exports to the US, so has been particularly exposed to the US fall in consumer spending.

Prosperity promise of Bolivia's salt flats

As international carmakers scramble to find a suitable alternative to petrol vehicles, Bolivia hopes its lithium reserves could be harnessed to provide an energy source - and hold the key to new-found wealth and political influence. Peter Day has been to the Uyuni salt flats.

The sky is an infinite blue. The land is perfectly flat, and dazzlingly white, stretching to a line of distant volcanoes.

And here is the boss of a potentially huge project that Bolivia is pinning great hopes on, showing me his highly decorative chickens.

Twelve thousand feet (3,700m) up here in the high Andean plains of south western Bolivia, the subzero nights are bitingly cold, but the days are hot even in the middle of winter.

The unclouded sun is reflected upwards by the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni.

They are drawn to the salt flats by what lies metres below the ice-like crust of salt and mud

It is a spectacular desert. For decades now it has drawn young and hardy international backpackers to endure the dusty hours of jolting journeying by bus and train and 4x4 vehicles into a vast nowhere.

But now this arduous journey is being made by other people - engineers and businessmen from some of the world's largest mining and chemical companies.

They are here every week. They are drawn to the salt flats by what lies metres below the ice-like crust of salt and mud.

Down there is a great reserve of brine, and contained in the salty liquid, the largest deposits in the world of the lightest metal, lithium.
Hole cut in salt flats to obtain brine
As is the case with fossil fuels, lithium is a limited resource

For years lithium has been used for specialist purposes such as ceramics, and pills for depression.

But suddenly there is a huge new potential demand.

Great expectations

Over the past few years I have driven or been driven in several rechargeable electric cars.

Vehicle manufacturers old and new are rushing to build substitutes for the internal combustion engine.

Great hopes are being placed on batteries with this very light lithium at their core, much quicker to charge and discharge power (so they say) than heavy conventional batteries.

So if plug-in cars catch on, lithium may be one of the vital raw materials for the auto revolution.

And here in the Salar de Uyuni the experts think that the difficult and poverty-stricken country of Bolivia holds 50% of the world's total supplies of lithium, contained in these vast hidden lakes of brine.

That is why Marcelo Castro, the man with the chickens (and rabbits too, he wants to be self-sufficient in this desolate place) is building a pilot plant to learn how to get the lithium out of these salt flats, and then how to evaporate the brine and separate the precious metal from the salt.

All this is raising great expectations in landlocked Bolivia.

To outsiders it is a very curious country, the second poorest state in South America after Guyana, a society riven by fault lines - great gaps between rich and poor, big geographical differences between the lush east and the towering Andes in the west, and sharp racial differences between successful former Europeans and a majority of indigenous peoples.

These last are the ones who voted the first indigenous president into office in 2006. Evo Morales has moved quickly to shift power in favour of the peoples he comes from.

He has nationalised the commanding heights of the economy including oil and natural gas. And he has moved to break up big land estates.

The president (with a kind of Beatles hairstyle) has also pronounced that the new windfall, raw material lithium, should not be exploited by predator overseas capitalist multinationals, but developed by the state for the benefit of Bolivia.

This brings great pride to a local campaigner I heard from in the town nearest the deposits.

Wearing her characteristic native hat, based on the British bowler imported more than 100 years ago, Domitila Machaca told me how the local people had marched hundreds of miles to the capital La Paz in the 1990s to block the foreign exploitation of the salt flats; and she grinned toothily when she praised the Morales tactics of homemade development of these riches.

Later, still slowed down by the altitude, I wheezed slightly breathlessly in La Paz as I put it to the mining minister Luis Echazu that Bolivia was taking a big risk if it really wants to be (as some have said) "the Saudi Arabia of lithium".

"Oh no," he replied, "we want to go further than that - we don't want merely to process the metal, we want to make the batteries from it as well."

But that will take money and expertise, which Bolivia will have to import, and multinational companies are wary of socialist countries with big state ambitions.

Meanwhile, back at the salt flats, the plant construction manager Marcelo Castro gave me lunch - a vast egg sandwich made from one of the eggs from his chickens - delicious.

Despite the hardships, he was very proud, he said, to be taking part in this great Bolivian project.

If the world takes to the electric car, and if lithium really is the metal that will power it, and if the Bolivians can deliver, we may soon be hearing quite a lot more about the great Uyuni salt flats.

To say nothing of those fancy chickens.

Healthcare costs around the world !!!!

United States - Private system

Private sector funded, with more than half from private sources. Private health insurance available through employer, government or private schemes.
Volunteers offer free medical services in sponsored event in Los Angeles
Millions of people in the US are not covered by health insurance

15.3% of population (45.7 million people) do not have health insurance.

Federal government is largest health care insurer - involved in two main schemes, Medicaid and Medicare, each covering about 13% of population.

Medicaid - joint funded federal-state programme for certain low income and needy groups - eg children, disabled.

Medicare - for people 65 years old and above and some younger disabled people and those with permanent kidney failure undergoing dialysis or transplant.

Most doctors are in private practice and paid through combination of charges, discounted fees paid by private health plans, public programmes, and direct patient fees.

In-patient care is provided in public and private hospitals. Hospitals are paid through a combination of charges, per admission, and capitation.

United Kingdom - Universal, tax-funded system

Public sector funded by taxation and some national insurance contributions.
Emergency ambulances are part of free NHS service

About 11% have private health insurance. Private GP services very small.

Health care free at point of delivery but charges for prescription drugs, ophthalmic services and dental services unless exempt.

Exemptions include children, elderly, and unemployed. About 85% of prescriptions are exempt.

Most walk-in care provided by GP practices but also some walk-in clinics and 24-hour NHS telephone helpline. Free ambulance service and access to accident and emergency. In patient care through GP referral and followcontractual arrangements between health authorities, Primary Care Trusts and the hospital.

Hospitals are semi-autonomous self-governing public trusts.

France - Social insurance system

All legal residents covered by public health insurance funded by compulsory social health insurance contributions from employers and employees with no option to opt out.

Most people have extra private insurance to cover areas that are not eligible for reimbursement by the public health insurance system and many make out of pocket payments to see a doctor.

Patients pay doctor's bills and are reimbursed by sickness insurance funds.

Government regulates contribution rates paid to sickness funds, sets global budgets and salaries for public hospitals.

In-patient care is provided in public and private hospitals (not-for-profit and for-profit). Doctors in public hospitals are salaried whilst those in private hospitals are paid on a fee-for-service basis. Some public hospital doctors are allowed to treat private patients in the hospital. A percentage of the private fee is payable to the hospital.

Most out-patient care is delivered by doctors, dentists and medical auxiliaries working in their own practices.

Singapore - Dual system

Dual system funded by private and public sectors. Public sector provides 80% of hospital care 20% primary care.

Financed by combination of taxes, employee medical benefits, compulsory savings in the form of Medisave, insurance and out-of-pocket payments.

Patients expected to pay part of their medical expenses and to pay more for higher level of service. Government subsidises basic healthcare.

Public sector health services cater for lower income groups who cannot afford private sector charges. In private hospitals and outpatient clinics, patients pay the amount charged by the hospitals and doctors on a fee-for-service basis.

Raramuris (Tarahumaras) and ultramarathons!

The Tarahumaras' word for themselves, Raramuri, means "runners on foot" in their native tongue according to some early ethnographers like Norwegian Carl Lumholtz, though this interpretation has not been fully agreed upon. With widely dispersed settlements, these people developed a tradition of long-distance running for intervillage communication and transportation. The long-distance running tradition also has ceremonial and competitive aspects. Often, male runners kick wooden balls as they run in "foot throwing" competitions, and females use a stick and hoop. The foot throwing races are relays where the balls are kicked by the runners and relayed to the next runner while teammates run ahead to the next relay point. These races can last anywhere from a few hours for a short race to a couple of days without a break. The Tarahumara also practice persistence hunting, using their ability to run extremely long distances (sometimes as far as 160km) to catch animals such as deer; the animals eventually tire and slow down, and the Tarahumara get close enough to the animal to kill it.

The Raramuri (also known as the Tarahumara) scratch a living out of rocky, steep soil in the Copper Canyons of the Sierra Madre Mountains in northwestern Mexico. They are subsistence farmers who grow corn and beans and who live in caves or tiny huts scattered throughout four monstrous chasms—each deeper than the Grand Canyon.

The Raramuri make their own clothes—including their sandals, which are just used tire tread wrapped to their feet with leather straps. Through deep snow and blistering heat, rocky canyon trails and thorny sagebrush, the Rarmauri travel virtually barefoot, the soles of their feet thick with calluses.

The Raramuri are great runners because running is part of their everyday life. They don’t run for glory or competition—although they have entered a few races and defeated some of the world’s greatest athletes. They run to get somewhere—to visit family, to sell produce in town, to gather food, or even to hunt deer. With only primitive weapons, the Raramuri have hunted deer by literally running them to exhaustion.

A few gringos have lured Raramuri to top endurance races, including the Leadville 100 Miler back in 1993 and 1994. Raramuri runners won the event both years and set a course record—wearing their hand-made tire tread sandals. But the Raramuri shy away from the glitz of American competitions. They prefer to run in their canyon homelands, often in traditional running ceremonies that involve hundreds of miles and last for days.

The Raramuri run ultramarathons every day, and they do it with a pure spirit and a joyful heart—even as more logging roads rip apart their ancestral canyons and druglords murder their leaders. They are the ultimate endurance athletes.