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Monday, 14 September 2015 11:06

Argentina: Opposition holds Córdoba City

Development: Ramón Mestre, aligned with Cambiemos, the national opposition coalition, was comfortably re-elected mayor of the Argentine city of Córdoba in polls held on 13 September.

Significance: Located in the centre of the country, Córdoba is Argentina’s second-largest city, and could play an important role in the national elections due next month. Mestre’s victory was good news for Mauricio Macri, the Cambiemos presidential candidate, and a disappointing result for Daniel Scioli, the presidential candidate for the ruling Frente Para la Victoria (FPV) faction of the Partido Justicialista (PJ, Peronists).  But the battle between the two main presidential contenders remains open.

  • At one level nothing had changed. According to opinion polls, at national level Scioli remains front-runner in the presidential race, with Macri in second place.  In the sequence of local elections running up to the 25 October national polls, the positions of the two contenders has fluctuated according to local conditions. The FPV has been weak in Córdoba for years, so its poor showing there was no surprise – its candidate for mayor was pushed down into a humiliating seventh place with 2.4% of the vote. This compared with the 32.3% secured by the victorious Mestre. In the provincial elections due on 20 September in Chaco, the FPV is expected to do much better, reflecting its strength in the north of the country.
  • But Córdoba was interesting because of the search for additional alliances in a possible second-round ballot in the presidential race. It is likely that Scioli will fail to win an outright victory on 25 October, and will therefore face a run-off ballot against Macri in November. With that in mind the FPV made overtures to two other political groupings. It sought an approximation with the dissident Peronists, and in particular with followers of outgoing Córdoba province governor, José Manuel de la Sota, who lost the battle for presidential nomination in the primaries to Sergio Massa. But it was unable to drive a wedge between De La Sota and Massa. The candidate representing their coalition came third in the mayoral vote with 17.3%.
  • Secondly, the FPV also flirted with former TV journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, Tomás Méndez, who came second with 23.2% of the vote. But that too did not prosper. In the final battle for the presidency, success may well go to whoever can pick up most votes from smaller groupings like these.

Looking Ahead: Macri took advantage of the Córdoba victory to announce what he said will be the three top policy priorities of his presidential campaign: achieving “zero poverty”, cracking down on drug trafficking, and seeking “to unite all Argentines”. These themes – likely to dominate his coalition’s propaganda blitz over the next 40 days – appear tailored to appeal to floating voters who many strategists say will be the ultimate arbiters of the national elections.

Published in Southern Cone

On 1 September, the Costa Rican government unveiled its proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The 2016 budget will see the smallest percentage increase in ten years: 0.5% more than the C$7.9tr (US$14.5bn) 2015 budget, the largest in the country’s history. The administration of President Luis Guillermo Solís proposes cutting spending by US$726m, with almost 99% of the cuts falling on the executive branch. But with the fiscal deficit expected to reach 6.9% of GDP during the next budget cycle – 0.5% higher than in 2015 – the government needs congress to support its earlier proposals for tax reform to start making any progress on Costa Rica’s debt, which is now close to 49% of GDP.

The budget

Ahead of the official ceremony to announce the budget, Solís assured the nation in his weekly television address that there would be no new cuts to public education, security or anti-poverty programmes. Instead, the executive will bear the burden of almost all the cuts, with a 36% drop in spending on publicity, a 30% decrease in spending on international travel and a 17% reduction in consulting expenses.

The finance minister, José Francisco Pacheco, said that the government’s hands were effectively tied when it came to tackling the fastest rising parts of the budget. Servicing the country’s debts accounts for 31% of the 2016 budget proposals, followed by 30% for education spending; pensions account for another 11% of the budget. Over the past few years, Costa Rica has been able to auction tranches of US$4bn in Eurobonds to close its budget gap but the last of that debt was issued in the first six months of 2015. To address the shortfall, Pacheco said the government “is going to have to look elsewhere”.

Tax reform

Both Pacheco and Solís used the occasion of the budget to reiterate their calls for congress to pass a series of tax reform proposals set out on 10 August, which they hope would raise government revenue by up to 2% of GDP. The tax bill proposes replacing the current 13% sales tax with a new value-added tax (VAT) of 14% in the first year, rising to 15% in the second year.

Income tax would become slightly more progressive, with the minimum taxable income threshold rising to salaries of over C$793,000 (US$1,468) a month; while two new tax bands will be created. Those earning between C$2.1m and C$4.2m a month will pay 20%; those earning over C$4.2m a month will pay 25%. Capital gains tax will also be increased from 8% to 15% and the government would also introduce a ‘green tax’ of C$10 on every 250ml non-recyclable plastic bottle. In total, the bills would increase government revenue by US$1.1bn.

Despite the absence of corporate tax hikes, the business community did not react positively to the government’s proposals. “This is not a good time to talk about taxes,” José Manuel Hernando, president of the Costa Rican Food Industry Chamber (CACIA), said. He noted that taxing goods and services that currently are exempt would be a blow to consumers. “The government’s proposal really alarms and concerns our sector, which was been severely affected by the country’s economic situation, a total stagnation that has lasted for several months,” he said. Business leaders also fear the proposed reform would have a negative effect on job creation.

The political challenge

Despite broad agreement across political parties of the need to reform Costa Rica’s tax take, which has been essentially flat at 14% of GDP since 2009, the government’s proposals also met broad resistance in congress. In order to secure passage of the tax reform, the ruling Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) will need to build alliances, as it only controls 13 of the 57 seats in the legislative assembly.

Shortly after the government put forward its plans, Juan Jiménez Succar, the leader of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN) – the opposition party with the highest number of seats in congress (18) – said that his party would not approve any new taxes until the government cut spending. The opposition expressed reservations about the government’s budget, in particular contesting the official claim that it represented a “low increase” on 2015, given that the previous budget marked a record high. “I regret that the government feels the need to act like a shopkeeper who doubles his prices and then announces a 50% off sale to great fanfare,” Otto Guevara, the leader of the opposition Movimento Libertario, said.

Despite similar opposition to the Solís administration’s budget last year, opposition lawmakers failed to unite in their disagreement with the government, meaning it was passed as proposed, despite the PAC’s relative weakness in congress. According to Costa Rican law, the legislature now has until 30 November to approve the budget; the president would be extremely lucky to get the same result twice.

  • ‘El Chapo’ in Costa Rica?

On 31 August Alfredo Guzmán, son of the escaped Mexican drug lord, Joaquim "El Chapo" Guzmán, tweeted a picture of himself flanked by two men with their faces obscured. "Pleased to be here," he wrote alongside the image. "You already know with whom." The tweet is geotagged to a location in Costa Rica, initially prompting a flurry of excitement that Guzmán had given away his location. However, many security analysts subsequently pointed out that Guzmán was likely to be using a proxy IP address to avoid disclosing his whereabouts.

Published in Central America

Development: On 8 September Brazil’s defence minister, Jaques Wagner, contradicted the words of a presidential decree with a statement confirming that it would remain the military’s prerogative to manage its own personnel without government interference.

Significance: President Dilma Rousseff last week signed a decree transferring from the armed forces command to the defence minister the prerogative to promote officers and control the curricula of military academies. The president apparently did so without consulting congress or the military beforehand. Wagner’s statement may raise some doubts as to the capacity of President Rousseff to communicate not only with Brazilian institutions but also with her own subordinates at a time when Brazil faces a serious economic and political crisis.

  • According to reports in the local press, even Jaques was caught by surprise, with reports that the decree was spearheaded by the defence ministry’s secretary general, Eva Maria Chiavon, a member of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Admiral Eduardo Bacellar Leal Ferreira – who was serving as interim defence minister last week in Wagner’s absence and whose name was published along with the presidential decree as one of its supporters – was quoted by the newsweekly Veja as saying that in fact he had never been consulted and had no previous knowledge of the decree until after it had been published and sent to congress.
  • Several congressmen accused the Rousseff government of using the decree to force the PT’s leftist ideology on the military. “The curriculum [of military academies] will be dictated by them [the PT]. Does the government want to infiltrate the military apparatus? What is their motivation?,” demanded Captain Augusto Rosa, a deputy representing the right-wing Partido da República. “We are running the risk of having the armed forces become subject to party influence,” declared Major Olimpio Gomes, a deputy for the leftist Partido Democrático Trabalhista
  • The controversy forced Jaques to issue an official statement saying that the government would publish an edit to the decree that would specifically guarantee the armed forces independence in the management of military personnel.

Looking Ahead: Even with additional guarantees of military independence in day-to-day affairs, the decree is unlikely to win enough support in congress to become law. This latest measure may prove a futile distraction for Rousseff, since even though the armed forces are subordinate to the President, any change to the organisation of the Brazilian military can only be done via constitutional amendment, according to legal experts.

Published in Brazil
Tuesday, 08 September 2015 10:28

Opposition wins in Trinidad & Tobago

Development: Preliminary results indicate that the main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Keith Rowley won the 7 September general election in Trinidad & Tobago, defeating the coalition People’s Partnership (PP) of Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, in office since 2010.

Significance: While final pre-electoral surveys had suggested an increasingly tight race, potentially to be determined by a single seat in the 41-seat House of Representatives, preliminary figures suggest that the PNM has won 22 or 23 seats, with the remainder going to the PP (comprising the United National Congress [UNC], the Congress of the People [COP], the Tobago Organization of the People [TOP], and the National Joint Action Committee [NJAC]). The PP took office with 29 seats in 2010. While Persad Bissessar herself has remained popular, the PP failed to fend off corruption allegations, citizen concerns about crime and the impact of the recent economic slowdown.

  • While Persad Bissessar easily won her Siparia seat, according to local media reports government ministers including Roger Samuels (National Diversity and Social Integration), the attorney general, Garvin Nicholas, and the former president of the senate, Raziah Ahmed, were not so lucky.
  • Another notable loser was the leader of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP), Jack Warner, a former PP government minister but now a bitter opponent of the Persad Bissessar administration, who faces extradition to the US on multiple charges of corruption relating to his former roles as FIFA vice president and head of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). Warner’s ILP lost its bid in all the seats it contested.
  • Aside from various public corruption scandals – which in early 2015 cost the jobs of the previous attorney general, Anand Ramlogan, and the national security minister, Gary Griffith – the PP government was also punished by voters for its failure to address crime in the country. According to the PNM manifesto, “the murder total has exceeded 400 for the last two years and there has been no reduction in the murder rate for this year, with over 250 murders in the first 7 months of 2015.” The PNM is promising to “move swiftly to rebuild our Coast Guard, restore confidence in the armed forces and protective services, and reconstruct our anti-gang, forensic, and criminal surveillance systems.”
  • Another problem for the current government has been the economy, which remains heavily reliant on the oil and gas-sector. Real annual GDP growth was just 0.9% in 2014, down from 1.7% in 2013 and 1.4% in 2012, according to latest data from the United Nations’ Economic Commission on Latin America & the Caribbean (Eclac). The West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil barrel, on which Trinidad & Tobago bases its budget calculations, was trading at just over US$45 a barrel yesterday. The original 2015 budget projections were based on a WTI average of US$80/b.
  • In late April, ratings agency Moody’s downgraded the government’s bond and issuer ratings to Baa2 from Baa1 and changed the outlook to negative from stable. It cited “persistent fiscal deficits and challenging prospects for fiscal reforms”, noting “recurring deficits of the order of 2-3% of GDP since 2009, after consecutive surpluses were observed over the previous eight years”, “limited economic diversification” in the context of falling oil prices and a “weak macroeconomic policy framework.”
  • Rowley and the PNM say it will be a priority to reverse this downgrade, pledging to “proactively addressing all of these areas of economic weakness, which have been left unattended by the present Government”. While committing to continue with the “general lowering and harmonization of income tax rates that occurred during the PNM years…[which]…has proven to be effective in increasing revenues”, the PNM manifesto proposes to set up new institutions like a ‘Trinidad & Tobago Revenue Authority’, which would “institute more effective tax administration, by coordinating databases across Customs and Excise, VAT and Corporate and Individual Taxes”. It is also proposing to set up an ‘Economic Development Board’, tasked with steering dialogue with the government, the private sector and the labour movement “on the articulation of long term economic and social goals for the country”.

Looking Ahead: A political old-timer with various cabinet positions to his name (including the planning, housing and trade ministries), Rowley, who took over the PNM leadership in 2010, will make history as the second Tobago-born prime minister. Indicative of the need to address “officially sanctioned corruption”, as he describes it, Rowley is proposing as “an urgent priority” anti-corruption measures to end “the pernicious scourge of ‘political investors’”. Among these measures would be “appropriate campaign finance legislation”.

Published in Main Briefing

Development: The government’s account of the abduction and presumed murder of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014 is inconsistent and misleading, a group of international experts said on 6 September.

Significance: The findings of the group of experts – a team put together by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – could not be more damning of the official investigation into one of the worst massacres in Mexico in recent years. The report is a deep political embarrassment for the government led by President Enrique Peña Nieto, which says it is re-opening the investigation.

  • Up to now, the official version has been that the 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa were seized by corrupt municipal police and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel; they were then murdered and the bodies incinerated at a rubbish dump in Cocula. The motive was said to be that they had been mistaken for members of a rival cartel, known as Los Rojos. This, the-then attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam had pronounced, was the “historic truth” of the matter. But the experts say it was “scientifically impossible” for the bodies to have been burnt at Cocula leaving no forensic trace; that would have required a fire of such great proportions that it would have been noticed; it would also have been too hot for the criminals to get close – to throw more tyres and petrol onto the pyre – as some of the suspects have claimed they did.
  • The experts suggest some alternative lines of investigation. As part of their protest at the time, the students had commandeered buses. The experts note that four out of five buses are accounted for but the fifth seems to have disappeared; the students may have inadvertently seized a vehicle that was being used for drug smuggling. Whatever the final conclusion, the experts make clear that the investigation to date has been deeply flawed. Human rights group Americas Watch said the report was “an utterly damning indictment” of the Mexican investigation. Amnesty International said the experts had uncovered “the authorities’ utter incompetence and lack of will to find the students and bring those responsible to justice”.

Looking Ahead: The government has had to accept the experts’ report. Attorney General Arely Gómez (who took over from Murillo Karam) has said that a new forensic team will return to the area and re-open the investigation. This turn of events is a vindication for the families of the victims, who have consistently refused to accept the official version. “We’re poor, but we’re not stupid” said Mario González, the father of one of the 43. Politically, the findings will increase the pressure on the government, which is likely to face new demonstrations at the end of this month – the first anniversary of the abductions.

Published in Mexico

The constitutional chamber of the supreme court has issued a ruling which could be a game changer in El Salvador. As the government led by President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has taken the fight to the country’s mara street gangs, leading to violence spiralling out of control, the court ruled that mara members can be described as terrorists and that belonging to one of the gangs is a crime. While President Sánchez Cerén celebrated the court’s interpretation of the country’s anti-terrorism law, the ombudsman, David Morales, warned against the risk of it being used to justify “abuses of authority”.

Until this ruling, relations between the Sánchez Cerén administration and the constitutional chamber could best be described as fractious. But Sánchez Cerén hailed this particular ruling, which came in response to four legal challenges to the country’s anti-terrorism law on constitutional grounds, as did El Salvador’s entire political class. Sánchez Cerén said that judges would now have “no alternative” but to apply the anti-terrorism law to mara members “and those who collaborate with them”.

Morales, meanwhile, suggested that while the ruling might assist judges to apply the anti-terrorism law, it would not solve the problem of violence. There were more than 800 murders in El Salvador in August, according to Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, the director general of the national police (PNC); this figure smashed the previous most violent month (last June with 677 homicides) since the civil war (1980-1992). There are more than 60,000 members of mara street gangs in El Salvador. Morales said that it was essential to persevere with “an integral strategy against violence” (providing opportunities for misled youths, for instance) and that designating maras as terrorists might give a completely free rein to the police and military, potentially leading to more abuses and more violence.

Thursday, 03 September 2015 11:17

Guatemala’s Pérez Molina resigns

Development: On 3 September Guatemala’s presidential spokesperson, Jorge Ortega, announced that President Otto Pérez Molina had resigned.

Significance: The announcement, which was breaking news at the time of writing, came after a local judge issued an arrest warrant for Pérez Molina following the 1 August unanimous decision by the 158-member unicameral legislature to strip him of his immunity so that he could be investigated for alleged corruption. The congressional decision was in line with a request submitted by the United Nations (UN)-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig) and the local attorney general’s office (AG), which on 21 August accused the President (along with the former vice-president, Roxana Baldetti) of heading up a criminal ring in the country’s tax agency (SAT) known as ‘La Línea’. Pérez Molina’s resignation under the weight of these corruption allegations is an unprecedented development in Guatemala and is a remarkable achievement for both the AG and the Cicig, whose mandate to investigate the infiltration of State institutions by criminal organisations was renewed for another two years in April. The resignation comes just days before the 6 September general election. While the ruling Partido Patriota (PP) already has effectively collapsed because of the corruption crisis in the government, key contenders from the main opposition parties, Libertad Democrática Renovada (Líder), and Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), are also battling separate corruption allegations, creating a lot of uncertainty for voters.

  • According to the latest reports in the local and international press, Ortega has said that Pérez Molina had sent his letter of resignation to congress, which must now formally accept or reject it. Aside from the arrest warrant issued yesterday for charges of illicit association, taking bribes and customs fraud, Pérez Molina’s decision also comes after the five-member constitutional court (CC) unanimously rejected appeals he had submitted against the move to strip him of his immunity two days earlier.
  • If congress accepts the presidential resignation, Vice-President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre will see out the rest of Pérez Molina’s four-year term, ending in January 2016. A veteran politician, diplomat and a former president of the constitutional court (CC), Maldonado was appointed in May, after Baldetti was forced to step down.
  • Having lost close allies including Baldetti and the former interior minister, Mauricio López Bonilla, as well as half a dozen members of the cabinet since the release of the Cicig/AG report containing the accusations against him, Pérez Molina’s isolation was compounded by international support for the work of Cicig and the AG. In 2 September presentation, representatives from Spain’s chamber of commerce hailed the work of the two bodies. Meanwhile, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric also told reporters that the “UN Secretary General is aware of the recent accusations of corruption implicating the president of Guatemala Otto Pérez Molina and former vice president Roxana Baldetti…the Secretary General trusts that the Guatemalan institutions will act with transparency and responsibility…to offer procedural guarantees to all parties involved in these allegations”.
  • On 1 September, the US ambassador to Guatemala, Todd Robinson, tweeted that “the US embassy supports protesters against corruption and impunity and in favour of transparency” – a reference to the anti-government protests which have been taking place on a weekly basis since April – when the SAT scandal first broke.

Looking Ahead: Pérez Molina looks set to become the third Guatemalan leader to be brought before the courts in recent years. In 2011, Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), of the now defunct Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, was acquitted of embezzlement by a local court; he was subsequently extradited to the US, where he was convicted of money laundering charges in 2014. In May 2013, Guatemala’s former dictator, Efrain Ríos Montt (1982-1983), was convicted in Guatemala of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the State during the 1960-1996 civil war, but that ruling was overturned days later.

Published in Main Briefing
Wednesday, 02 September 2015 11:01

Brazil: Amazon rainforest deforestation rises

Development: Satellite data released on 1 September suggests a 68.7% year-on-year increase in deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

Significance: The new deforestation figure is the highest recorded in six years, according to the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe) and signals an end to the recent downward trend.

  • According to real time monitoring figures by Inpe, 5,121.92 square kilometres (km2) of rainforest were lost in the Brazilian Amazon between August 2014 and July 2015, compared to 3,035.93km2 in the previous twelve-month period. The new deforested area is equivalent to almost 60 times the size of Manhattan.
  • The figure, however, is bound to be higher as the methodology used by Inpe to monitor the Amazon in real time, the so-called ‘Deter’, does not include small areas of deforestation. The Impe has a more precise monitoring method, the Prodes, which the Brazilian government uses to issue its official deforestation figures, usually in November. Deter and Prodes figures have moved in different directions only twice, one of them last year, when the environment ministry used Prodes data to announce the second lowest annual level of deforestation since records began in 2004. This followed an increase on the 2012-2013 period which broke a nine-year spell of consecutive falls. However, Deter figures showed an increase between 2013 and 2014.
  • But the latest Deter figures matches the findings by NGO Imazon, which uses a lower revolution satellite for its independent monitoring of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. According to data released by the organisation last week, the rate of deforestation was up 63% year-on-year between August 2014 and July 2015, to 3,322km2.
  • The discrepancy in the figures between Imazon and Inpe stems from the fact that Imazon’s satellite has a resolution of 250m, compared to Prodes’s 20-30m. Historically, the discrepancy between the two systems has been of 3,000 km2. This suggests that the official deforestation rate could raise to over 6,000km2 between 2014 and 2015, up 1,000km2 from the previous annual period and higher than the peak of 5,891km2 registered in 2012-2013.

Looking Ahead: Both Imazon and Deter data suggest that the government will have to work harder to convince environmentalists that it remains committed to lowering deforestation levels. In early August the government released preliminary data claiming deforestation had fallen by 15% in 2015, but critics doubted the veracity of the figure, particularly given recent accusations that the government has been embellishing its financial accounts, turning deficits into surpluses.

Published in Brazil

Development: On 31 August Bolivia’s rural development & land minister, Nemesia Achocollo, and Bolivia’s ambassador to Paraguay, Rosendo Alpiri, announced their resignations.

Significance:  The two stepped down over the corruption allegations involving the government’s indigenous development fund (Fondioc) after Lariza Fuentes- a lawyer appointed to intervene in the agency, which sits under the rural development & land ministry - announced on 25 August the results of its probe into Fondioc. Fuentes found 30 phantom projects worth B$14.51m (US$2.1m). This brought the total economic damage to the State caused by corruption at Fondioc to B$102m (US$14.8m), B$30m more than was first reported in February when the scandal first broke. In the post for five and a half years and previously considered one of President Evo Morales’s “untouchables”, Achocollo maintains her innocence. However, her departure is widely considered as an attempt by the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to close the chapter on what has been a highly embarrassing episode for the government, ahead of a push to change the 2009 constitution to allow President Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2020.

  • Yesterday President Morales named as Achocollo’s replacement, former La Paz governor, César Cocarico, (MAS, 2010-2015). Morales has yet to name a replacement for Alpiri, who had been in the post since October 2014 and was linked to one of the phantom projects.
  • The Fondioc scandal proved highly damaging for Morales and the MAS in the March gubernatorial and local elections, particularly in La Paz department, where the (defeated) MAS candidate, Felipa Huanca, a leader of the indigenous organisation Federación de Mujeres Campesinas Bartolina Sisa (Bartolina Sisa), was directly implicated.

Looking Ahead: The local press has been quick to link Achocollo’s departure to the MAS’s efforts to change the constitution to allow President Morales to stand for election again. The 2009 constitution allows for two consecutive presidential terms and Morales, first elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, was permitted to run again in 2014 on the grounds that he had only served one term under the new constitution. The MAS, which has the necessary two-thirds majority in the national bicameral legislature to approve a constitutional amendment- with 89 of 120 seats in the chamber of deputies and 25 of 36 in the senate – is due to discuss the issue of re-election during a party congress scheduled for November.

Published in Andean
Friday, 28 August 2015 09:20

Corporate Radar

Big Cola makes African move: Big Cola, the soft-drink brand controlled by Peru’s Aje Group, is initiating operations in Africa, where it has opened two bottling plants, one in Nigeria and the other in Egypt. Although less than 30 years old (the company was set-up in Ayacucho in 1988), Big Cola is now a significant player in the global market. According to the UK-based Euromonitor, it is ranked number 10 by revenue among global soft drinks producers, with a 1% market share (Coca-Cola is number 1, with a 20% global market share, while Pepsi takes 9.7%). Annual sales are reported at US$1.2bn, and Big Cola is present in 20 countries around the world, particularly in Asia: this year it became the top soft drink by sales volume in Indonesia. The company originally started as a family business run by Eduardo Añaños and Mirtha Jerí, a couple with five children, who at the height of the violence and scarcities sparked by the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement realised that there was a gap in the market – the big bottling companies had stopped supplying the region. As a result of some experimentation they created a new carbonated soft drink with citric overtones that was initially marketed as Kola Real. Sales grew strongly in Peru, prompting international expansion starting in Venezuela in 1999 (when the name was changed to Big Cola), Ecuador in 2000 and the fiercely competitive Mexican market in 2002.

Juan Lizariturry, a Madrid-based executive of Aje Group, told Spain’s El País that its strategy is not to seek a head-on confrontation with dominant players like Coca Cola that have spent massively on marketing but instead to focus on the price-sensitive lower middle classes in emerging markets. “People have got used to Coca Cola. No one has enough money to break the link between a customer and a brand that has been in the market for years. Our target market is the consumer who hasn’t been drinking Coca-Cola for long and doesn’t have their head full of advertising” he said. Another executive, chief marketing officer Jorge López-Dóriga, told Beverages Daily, “This is a new world. You can be global without having to be in Europe or the USA – actually, around 90% of the world population is outside USA and Europe”.

 

Cemex sells European assets: Mexico-based Cemex – one of the world’s largest cement and construction materials producers – announced the sale of a number of European assets, principally in Austria, Hungary and Croatia, for EUR391m (US$445.3m), with the funds to be used to reduce debt and for general corporate purposes. Operations in Austria and Hungary – a number of aggregate quarries and ready-mix plants – were sold to the Rohrdorfer Group for EUR160.1m (US$179m), while in Croatia operations were sold to Duna-Dráva Cement, and included holdings in Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia. Cemex has been seeking a general repositioning of its business strategy to reduce debt and restore profitability. In the first half of this year the company reported a net US$32m loss, a reduction of 86% on the US$220m loss registered in the year-earlier period.

 

SolarReserve gets Atacama go-ahead: Chilean authorities in August approved the environmental impact study for the US$2bn Copiapó Solar project, considered one of the largest solar energy and storage projects in the world. The project, to be executed by US-based SolarReserve, is designed to add 260MW of new capacity to the country’s electricity grid. It will use concentrating solar power (CSP) tower technology and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels combined with molten salt thermal energy storage. It is envisaged that the project will supply mining companies and other industrial consumers with some 1,800-gigwatt hours (GWh) every year. In a statement SolarReserve noted: “No other proven renewable energy technology can provide this cost competitive energy solution to meet the needs of Chile’s largest and most important industries.” According to Tom Georgis, the senior vice president of development, “This technology realistically has the potential to power the entire country of Chile using two phenomenal Chilean resources, salt and sun”.

 

Trouble in the air: Share prices in the main Latin American airlines fell in mid-August, as investors became nervous over lower levels of demand and the effects of currency depreciation in a number of countries around the region. Latam Airlines Group SA (the carrier formed in 2012 from the merger of Chile’s LAN and Brazil’s TAM) saw its share price fall 10% to a nine-year low in the week to 14 August; Colombia-based Avianca saw a 15% fall, Copa Holdings of Panama lost 19%, and Brazil’s budget airline Gol Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes lost 3.9% on that date. Analysts said the effects of lower fuel prices – a positive for the airlines – were being more than offset by slower economic growth across Latin America.

Earlier, Latam Airlines had reported an unexpected US$49.7m Q215 loss, on a 22.2% year-on-year drop in revenue to US$2.3bn. It also modified its guidance for operating margins, down to 3.5%-5.0% from 6.0-8.0% previously, a change it attributed to “a weaker macroeconomic context in Brazil, caused by higher inflation and a steep depreciation of the Brazilian Real”. The company also said it was looking into delaying the delivery dates for new long-haul passenger aircraft. Separately, Copa said that its sales fell 20% year-on-year to US$538.4m in Q215, while its profits dropped by 44% on the same basis to US$64.1m. The airline attributed this to a “weak economic environment in South America”.

According to Daniel Guardiola of Larrain Vial, “massive depreciation of currencies and economic slowdown in the region is affecting demand” across the region.

 

Profits up at Itaú: Itaú Unibanco Holding – Brazil’s largest private sector bank by loan portfolio – reported record profits of BRL6.13bn (US$1.78bn) before extraordinary items in the second quarter. The results were significantly ahead of market expectations (in a survey of analysts by Reuters, the consensus was for profits of BRL5.74bn). The bank benefited from rising interest payments on loans and extra earnings from commissions, which more than compensated for the negative effects of a rise in non-performing loans (NPLs) and lower demand for credit. Tighter cost control and risk management procedures introduced by Chief Executive Roberto Setubal were also credited for the good performance.

Analysts wondering whether the Brazilian recession is eventually going to dent the sector’s strong profits have watched bank performance closely. Overall bank profits reached a four-year high in 2014. Some argue that the recession is now making its first real appearance in bank balances through the rise in NPLs. In fact, Itaú’s 90-day NPL ratio rose for the first time in 11 quarters to 3.3%. Philip Finch of UBS securities said the markets should receive Itau’s results positively, but that perceptions might be clouded by worries over asset quality and the need for bigger gross provisions.

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