No change, please

Bolivia and Brazil have voted their incumbent presidents back in; Uruguay will have a new leader, probably from the same party as the outgoing José Mújica, by the end of next month

For the third successive time, Bolivia chose to put Evo Morales in the hot-seat. The popular president took his established brand of ‘indigenous socialism’ to the electorate again and they faithfully returned him to power. There was no need for a second round: the incumbent won 60% of first-time votes. Under Morales, Bolivia has been a staunch member of the ALBA coalition of countries and the president praised two of his leftist colleagues – one aged and ailing, one deceased – in his celebratory speech after claiming victory:

“this triumph is dedicated to Fidel Castro, to Hugo Chávez – may he rest in peace – and to all anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist presidents and governments”

Morales has stabilised the Andean country and overseen growth driven by a commodities boom. But he has had to manage contradictions in office. He supported new roads and building projects in previously untouched indigenous lands, while at the same time standing up for his roots in the coca-growing low-income community. But these cracks have not been big enough for the opposition to expose, such is the overall, nationwide strength of Morales and his Movement to Socialism party. His nearest opponent, conservative Samuel Doria Medina, eventually came in well behind Mr Morales with 24%.

In Brazil, the electorate also plumped for the incumbent, which gave them four more years of Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate. After eight years of government under her predecessor and political father figure, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, it was widely thought that Rousseff could also cruise into a second term herself.

But some significant factors made this the closest run election Brazil has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Firstly, the entrance of Marina Silva into the race after her running mate, presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash, ignited the campaign. There was now the possibility that Brazil could have its first black leader in Silva, the daughter of poor rubber tappers from the Amazon. But when one poll showed her winning a possible run-off against Ms Rousseff, the attack cogs of both the president’s party, the PT, and Aécio Neves’ PDSB, grinded into action, and Silva’s campaign was dismantled. She came a distant third in the first round.

Secondly, the Petrobras corruption scandal hurt Dilma Rousseff and her staff. A long list of kickbacks allegations, where ministers received cash siphoned off the state oil giant’s coffers, is being investigated. She firmly rejects any involvement and has hinted she will sue the right-wing magazine that has been printing splashes about the scandal. The kickbacks allegedly took place when she headed the Petrobras board but, in the end, her rival Aécio Neves was just as tainted by claims he would be a ‘rich president for the rich, upper classes’ as she was by the oil corruption story. Ms Rousseff has slashed poverty and increased welfare support, especially in the poor north-eastern states, but this has come at a cost to the economy, which is drifting away from the export-power growth witnessed during the eight years of the previous PT leader, Lula da Silva.

That was something that Aécio Neves’ team hoped to capitalise on, in particular Arminio Fraga, a respected economist and would-be finance minister. Coupled with the stumbling weakness of its rivals in the Rousseff administration, it made the Neves PDSB machine a viable replacement for the government. The markets certainly favoured Neves, and they rose whenever he had a surge and, tellingly, collapsed six per cent when the Rousseff victory was finally confirmed.

It ended up as a battle of the poorer north-east versus the richer south-east and one that ran to a nail-biting conclusion, the incumbent seeing off her challenger 51% to 49%. Brazilians seemed to be aware that the economy needs bolstering, and the finances need more structuring and less ministerial meddling, but the successes of the Rousseff administration in combating poverty still rung loudly. But this was a negative campaign fought on the back of sleaze allegations, mass protests last year against failing public infrastructure, a weak economy and a controversial World Cup that the country limped out of embarrassingly, losing their last two matches, the semi-final and third place play-off, 7-1 and 3-0 respectively. Dilma has a tough job on her hands for the next four years and has already said she hopes to be “a better president” this time around.

Just to the south of the biggest country in Latin America is one of the smallest. Uruguay has also been in electoral mood recently, with the first-round of its vote to replace the inimitable José Mújica. The humble leader, well-known for eschewing the trappings of the presidency by giving away 90% of his salary to charity, living in a farmstead and driving himself around in an old VW Beetle, cannot run for immediate re-election and was elected to the Senate. Mújica’s presidency was defined by a series of liberal reforms, including the legalisation of gay marriage and the production, sale and consumption of marijuana but there are signs that some of the policies could be amended by the incoming leader. That will either be Tabaré Vázquez, from Mújica’s leftist Broad Front or the conservative National Party’s Luis Lacalle Pou. Vázquez looks the more likely of the two to win at the moment. The two men meet one month today in a run-off.

Petróleo problems

Ecuador, Brazil and Chevron take legal action against each other

Although Chevron maintains that it acted in “diligent and appropriate way”, the Agencia Nacional do Petroleo, Brazil’s oil industry watchdog, has indicted the company three times over an oil leak in November. Across the other side of the continent, Ecuadorean judges have upheld damage claims against Chevron totalling $18bn over alleged pollution in the Amazon jungle.

In Ecuador, the oil firm has been accused of spilling toxic waste in precious areas of the rainforest and having a detrimental effect on the health of the local population due to its operations. It has admitted that its subsidiary Texaco “fully remediated its share of environmental impacts arising from oil production operations prior to 1992”. In this instance the ‘remediation’ that took place was to set alight any mess they had created.

The case has been from court to court but Chevron maintains its innocence from the very expensive legal wrangling building up against it:

“Chevron is defending itself against false allegations that it is responsible for alleged environmental and social harms in the Amazon region of Ecuador”

The company has accused the Ecuadorean legal teams of exercising undue pressure on the justice system in order to achieve the favourable judgment. But the Pacific nation’s government is also in the dock as the US company has brought a claim against Quito of international law violations relating to the pollution case. And a tribunal in The Hague has ordered Ecuador to suspend enforcement of any judgment against Chevron until it resolves the claims the company has made.

In Brazil, Chevron has taken full responsibility for an oil leak in November in the Frade field. The company blamed the spill on higher pressure than expected in the oil reservoir. However, it was at pains to highlight that further damage was avoided due to a seabed valve encapsulating some reserves.

But owning up to the spill has not exonerated Chevron. The Agencia Nacional do Petroleo said it would fine the company (as yet an unspecified amount) because they did not take sufficient protective and preventive measures during the drilling. In addition, federal police have brought a criminal case against Chevron for alleged environmental crimes.

So both Quito and Brasilia, whilst opening up their natural resources to foreign paws, have come down hard after apparent crimes against Nature. The biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty that both countries enjoy must be celebrated and protected. Nevertheless, the two governments realise that outside investment in their black gold is a policy that must be continued.

But, as we saw with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the fervour for oil and the subsequent accidents seem to know no bounds. The oil companies must work more carefully. But no matter how hard Chevron is battered legally by Quito and Brasilia, the welcoming governments must play more of a role from the start with the drillers and not just intervene with the lawyers’ fees when there is an unfortunate spill at the end.