Since 1996, more than 23,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia. The country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fuels its coffers with ransom money and is responsible for nearly 30 per cent of these kidnappings.
In January it made international headlines when it released two female captives after intervention from Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez. But criminal gangs are increasingly grabbing a share of the profits, targeting the country’s wealthier citizens. With captors demanding ransoms of up to €175,000 per hostage, kidnapping can be a lucrative business.
While the number of people taken hostage has fallen from a record high of 3,572 people in 2000 to 393 last year, kidnapping remains an urgent problem. Policeman John Frank Pinchao, 34, was one of FARC’s prized possessions, and believes a humanitarian deal must be made with the rebels. His story shows just how terrifying it is to be in captivity. Seized during a guerrilla ambush on a police base in 1998, he was held prisoner by AK-47-wielding rebels, some as young as 14, for nearly nine years.“At the beginning,” says Pinchao, “we counted the days, then the weeks and then the months.
Then we ended up counting years and we almost had to count decades.” His daily thoughts, he says, were consumed with planning his eventual escape. Pinchao’s opportunity finally came during a night last May. After walking 17 days in the wilderness, he stumbled across a police patrol.
He hopes a humanitarian agreement can be reached with the rebels to free other hostages. But, despite the January release of two female hostages held by FARC, deadlock remains between the government and guerrillas.
Colombian kidnapping in numbers
1,268 people have died in captivity since 1996
369 have escaped their captors since 1996
443 housewives have been captured since 1996
314 foreigners have been captured since 1996
3,000 hostages currently held in Colombia
In the 61 years that the Colorado Party has ruled impoverished Paraguay, its citizens have found little reason for hope, until Fernando Lugo, known as “the bishop of the poor”, renounced his priesthood to run for president. An honest reformer to his supporters and an ideologue to his detractors, many believe he could snatch victory in April’s polls.
Why did you decide to leave the church and run for president?
I was a bishop in the poorest part of Paraguay, and while our work was important, it was insufficient. So more than 100,000 people signed a petition for me to enter politics – a dignified activity and not one opposed to pastoral work.
Where is South America heading politically?
There are progressive winds in Latin America, and Paraguay wants to insert itself into this trend. [Equally] the models of Brazil or Venezuela won’t work here. [The challenge is] to integrate as a continent while lowering social inequality.
What are the most pressing issues facing the region today?
The two major issues are energy and the environment. We need an integrated energy policy and we need to unite regionally. We also have to safeguard the environment; we can’t continue to destroy it simply for the growth of multinationals.
As Burma continues the brutal repression of its people, many are heading for sanctuary in New Jersey. The number of Burmese refugees heading to the US has soared from 1,612 in 2006 to 13,896 in 2007. While some are living in San Francisco and New York, many are settling in the small towns of Fort Wayne, Indiana and Elizabeth in New Jersey.
A large number of ethnic Karens, fleeing conflict in Burma, had been denied refugee status in the US because of their association with the Karen National Union, which the US considers to be a terrorist group. But about 9,300 became eligible for resettlement in May 2006 when secretary of state Condoleezza Rice exercised waiver authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Style leaders: no. 9
The Republicans are not known for making bold fashion statements. In recent years, the only new accessory to have crept into the GOP’s (Grand Old Party’s) collective dress is the Stars and Stripes lapel badge, but even this is worn in an attempt to project patriotism and to score political points rather than as a daring statement of style.
In a telling shift, however, the Republican candidates for president have been paying attention to how they look, perhaps as a way to challenge the vibrant Democratic contender, Barack Obama, who is exciting younger voters and drawing comparisons to Robert F Kennedy. The Republicans are not an incredibly charismatic bunch. But they have been making efforts to improve their likeability: John McCain has eschewed dark staid suits in favour of brightly coloured sweaters. Perhaps a similar move could have boosted the chances of Rudolph Giuliani who before he bowed out following his disastrous showing in Florida seemed to be running a one-man campaign to bring back the box jacket (perhaps in the mistaken belief that they hide the on-set of a well-fed paunch).
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, is a man who looks like he needs a date with an image consultant (and he’s going to have plenty of time on his hands to see one). After he emerged as a candidate late last year, bloggers posted an embarrassing old photo of an overweight Huckabee and his hefty sons wearing dreadful matching blue-and-white striped shirts with blue elbow patches.
Early on in his campaign, Huckabee was often praised for his common-man message and off-the-cuff style, but his lack of refinement led him to issue “an apology” – rather than his sympathies – following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
By contrast, Romney’s look is modelled on GOP icon Ronald Reagan: tall and thin, gleaming white smile, tailored suits and salt-and-pepper hair combed neatly into place. But Romney’s impeccable levels of grooming raise trust issues. He has not helped matters by abruptly switching his position on abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research since announcing his candidacy. In short, he looks every bit the Mormon CEO.
In the 2000 primary campaign, George W Bush insinuated that McCain was too temperamental to be president – a perception that has stuck in the public’s mind. The senator revels in being a maverick, but he’s aware he has an image problem. In this campaign he’s taken to wearing cardigans and crew-neck sweaters, which make him look more grandfatherly than presidential, and fleeces, which suggest he would rather be camping or chopping wood. Sadly, for a politician who has stood so steadfast in his beliefs over the years, McCain now seems confused as to who he’s supposed to be – a war veteran or a model for the LL Bean catalogue.
McCain’s zip-up fleece is supposed to soften his war veteran image for an electorate tired of conflict. It could also be that he’s trying to effect Camp David style before he’s cut the keys.
Romney’s black hair has been the subject of much conjecture; the 60-year-old denies dyeing it.
McCain’s tacky black shoes with gold buckles undo any attempt he has made to appear more vigorous.
Romney stays trim by eating the same healthy food every day, mostly chicken, fish and pasta. He likes to show off his fitness to exude strength and confidence.
Well-tailored yet boring, Romney’s suits reflect his corporate background and conservative politics. He rarely ventures away from this look, signalling possible discomfort with new ideas. Mormon uniform habits die hard.
A sign of his humble roots, Huckabee has had his hair cut at the same barber shop in Arkansas since he was a child.
Huckabee plays bass guitar in a band called Capitol Offense. His stuffy sweater and suit jacket ensemble appears more high school principal than Gene Simmons, though.
Huckabee’s brown leather boots are his most appealing fashion choice. They’re slightly scuffed, giving the impression of a hard-working everyman.
When Barack Obama used out-of-context newspaper quotes to praise his health plan, Mitt Romney became confused about his father marching with Martin Luther King and Rudolph Giuliani exaggerated his record, websites such as FactCheck.org and Politifact.com were quick to reveal who had been creative with the truth. Fudging facts isn’t new in politics but the rise of these accuracy monitoring websites is. As election fever hots up, these sites could pressure the remaining candidates into doing some straight talking.
President Chávez has developed a global bartering network where he swaps oil for everything from nutmeg to doctors. He enjoys the influence this brings – and embarrassing his western critics. “We can’t be too naïve,” says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, “He’s got a clear agenda.” His latest deal is with Belarus – although getting oil to a landlocked country may prove tricky. — AG
Five Chávez deals
01 UK – A 2007 deal between London Mayor Ken Livingstone and El Presidente has Venezuela subsidising travel for 250,000 people on benefits with the sale of its diesel. In return, London advises on infrastructure.
02 US – In 2007, Chávez delivered over €68m in heating oil to low-income families in 23 states including New York and Boston. Shifter says, “He loves to embarrass Bush.”
03 Argentina – Chávez has invested €3bn in Argentine bonds and the country has received €270m for a gas plant and Chávez has bailed out a bankrupt dairy cooperative.
04 Cuba – In return for 34m barrels of petroleum and $2bn a year in subsidies, Cuba supplies doctors and teachers.
05 Iran – The Venezuelan-Iranian Oil and Gas Company will be registered this year.