This week we shine the spotlight on Chile:
PACT OF SILENCE
Testimony provided by a former army conscript has turned national attention to a nearly three-decade-old human rights case and prompted Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to demand an end to the shroud of secrecy that has covered this and other crimes committed during the 17-year Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). â€œEnough with the silence,â€ the center-left President said during an event earlier this week.
The events of the so-called â€œcaso quemadosâ€ (case of the burned people) took place on July 2, 1986 during a pro-democracy protest in Santiago, where soldiers seized two young participants â€" Carmen Gloria Quintana, a university student, and Rodrigo Rojas, a photographer â€" allegedly doused them in gasoline and lit them on fire. The soldiers then loaded the victims into a truck, drove them out of the city, and dumped them in an abandoned lot. Passersby discovered the pair and helped get them to a hospital. Quintana somehow survived, despite extensive second and third-degree burns. Rojas died.
Military officials have long claimed that the burning happened accidentally. But in testimony given late last year â€" and made public earlier this month â€" ex-conscript Fernando Guzmán said Quintana and Rojas were intentionally torched. Guzmánâ€™s testimony prompted the judge overseeing the case to order the arrests of a dozen former soldiers, including the commander of the patrol, Pedro Fernández Dittus, who was charged Thursday with both aggravated and attempted homicide.
Spectators in Chile will have an opportunity Sunday to take a first peek at Hollywoodâ€™s big-budget rendition of the 2010 horrifying ordeal and miraculous rescue of 33 Chilean miners who spent more than two months trapped deep underground. The 33 (Los 33 in Spanish), starring Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche and Lou Diamond Phillips, doesnâ€™t hit theaters in the United States until Nov. 13. A first trailer for the film was released this past week.
The movie premiere coincides with the fifth anniversary (Aug. 5) of the mining accident, which drew media attention from across the globe as millions worldwide watched the events unfold live on television.
Recalling what was arguably his finest hour as president, Chileâ€™s then leader, billionaire Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), said in a recent interview that â€œit occurred to me,â€ at one point, to go down personally in one of the Fénix capsules, the specially fashioned devices used to rescue the miners. â€œAt any rate, my wife, who knows me well â€¦ said, â€˜Donâ€™t even think about it,â€™â€ he was quoted as saying by the daily El Mercurio. Piñera, a possible 2017 presidential candidate, also took the opportunity last week to publish a special Los 33 video address.
Farmed salmon is big business in Chile, which competes with Norway as the worldâ€™s top producer. Exports in the first half of this year topped $1.5 billion, three times the figure Argentina earned in the same period for beef exports, the Argentine website valorsoja.com reported.
But the industry is also highly controversial. Environmental groups have long taken salmon producers to task, saying that fish farms pollute the water and are unsustainable given that the salmon they grow require more protein (in the form of pellets, made primarily from wild fish) than they produce.
Health experts also warn about the overabundant use in Chile of antibiotics, which are applied, among other things, to treat a prevalent bacteria called SRS, or Piscirickettsiosis. Last year, the industry used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics (to produce 895,000 tons of salmon), 25% more than in 2013, Reuters recently reported. The situation is causing at least one major retailer, the Costco Wholesale Corp, to start favoring salmon from Norway, where antibiotics use is far more moderate.
Chileâ€™s vibrant capital, with its mountain backdrop and mix of historic and modern architecture, definitely has its selling points. But it also has a serious smog problem, especially in the winter months (June-September).
Cold air, combined with Santiagoâ€™s setting â€" in a valley between the Andes, on one side, and a range of coastal mountains on the other â€" create whatâ€™s known as an inversion effect, trapping air pollution close to the ground and blanketing the city in a toxic cloud. On particularly bad days, when particle counts top 300 micrograms per cubic meter of air, authorities declare an â€œenvironmental pre-emergency,â€ which involves traffic and industry restrictions. Residents are also warned, in such cases, not to engage in outdoor physical activities.
So far this winter, the city has declared 16 such pre-emergencies, most recently on July 26. Santiago was also under a pre-emergency alert on July 4, when it hosted (and won) the final of the Copa América soccer tournament.
Chileâ€™s victory in the Copa América was its first ever in a major international soccer tournament. Fans were understandably euphoric about the result, which was especially sweet given that it came against neighboring powerhouse Argentina â€" and its superstar striker, Lionel Messi.
The win is also paying big dividends for some of Chileâ€™s starting players. Mohawked midfielder Arturo Vidal has just been transferred from Italyâ€™s Juventus, with which he reached this yearâ€™s Champions League final, to German juggernaut Bayern Munich, where he will reportedly earn 10 million euros per season.
Arturo Vidal â€" Photo: Ð"Ð°Ð»ÐµÑ€Ð¸Ð¹ Ð"ÑƒÐ´ÑƒÑˆ
Vidal was Chileâ€™s leading scorer in the Copa América with three goals. But he also caused a major scandal, right in the middle of the tournament, when he crashed his car under the influence of alcohol. The star playerâ€™s father also had a recent run-in with the law. Erasmo Vidal was stopped in Santiago on July 28 â€" the same day his son was officially presented by Bayern Munich â€" and found to be carrying pasta base (a cocaine derivative) and illicit kitchen knives.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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