Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Summary

Today’s entry is a series of short items, mostly on Chile, but with reference to Argentina in some cases.

Chilean Gasoline Prices

As elsewhere in the world, Chilean gasoline prices are rising rapidly in the wake of the Libyan crisis - Chile has almost no fossil fuel resources, and must import virtually all of its oil. In Puerto Varas, where I am presently, the price last week rose by 32 pesos (nearly 7 US cents) per liter, and the price for mid-grade premium now stands at 796 pesos (US$1.66) per liter (US$6.30 per US gallon). TV news has interviewed irritated drivers at the pump, but most Chileans seem to take it in stride - except for taxi drivers, whose livelihood depends directly on gas prices. Those prices are set to rise another 20 pesos next Thursday, raising the cost to about US$1.70 per liter (US$6.46 per US gallon) at current exchange rates.

Tsunami Warnings and the Nuclear Option
In the aftermath of Japan’s massive Friday earthquake, the Chilean government has relaxed its tsunami alerts for the coast, but a couple here in Puerto Varas told me the warning cost them a visit to the Puñihuil penguin colonies on the Isla Grande de Chiloé - local operators, rightly, would not take tourists out in small boats in rocky headlands.

Since its own colossal quake and subsequent tsunamis in February of last year, Chile has posted evacuation route signs in exposed coastal areas. It will be interesting to watch, though, the Japanese quake’s impact on Chile’s energy policy - President Sebastián Piñera’s government has discussed nuclear power but, given the near meltdown in Japan and Chile’s own seismic vulnerability, they may well reconsider.

That could have repercussions elsewhere, though. It could give impetus to advocates of the massive hydroelectric dams proposed in the Aisén region, at the expense of its wild and scenic rivers. Such a project would also require major deforestation for transmission lines; either way, the environment could be the loser.

Hora de Verano
In the United States, daylight savings time took effect early this morning and, at present, the time difference with Chile is one hour with New York, two hours with Chicago, three hours with Denver, and four hours with California. Time was, so to speak, that Chile ended its own daylight savings time (“hora de verano”) in mid-March, but it now extends until midnight on the first Saturday of April. Here, in Puerto Varas, that means daybreak does not come until almost 8 a.m.

Presumably, daylight savings time is an energy saving measure, but my guess is that it’s nearly a wash here, as early risers need the power to turn on the lights that they otherwise would have used last night. Of course, in a country with Chile’s latitudinal extent in a single time zone, sunrise and sunset times can vary dramatically from the subtropical north to the sub-Antarctic south.

The Tobacco Wars - Tobacco Losing Again
On my recent drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Varas, I sped through Argentina as quickly as possible, but I did notice that the Santa Cruz province cities of Puerto San Julián and Río Gallegos have finally enacted tobacco-control laws, so that smoke-free dining there is the rule rather than the exception. Though El Calafate gets hordes of foreign tourists it, surprisingly, does not have such a law, but most of the restaurants in town act as if there were one. Even those that do allow smoking, such as the highly regarded grill restaurant La Tablita, have a well-segregated smoking area, in this case upstairs.

Because Argentina is a federal state, the laws are a patchwork there, varying from province to province. In Chile, they are uniform but much weaker - restaurants do not even have to set aside smoke-free areas, though no one younger than 18 may enter a designated smoking restaurant. With few exceptions, bars and pubs are total free-fire zones.

Nevertheless, that may change soon. According to a survey cited in the online Santiago Times, 78 percent of Chileans support banning tobacco in all restaurants, and Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has announced a measure that should eliminate smoking in enclosed public spaces. Chile is the region’s most egregious tobacco consumer, and the measure is long overdue.

Obama to Visit Chile
Visitors to Santiago should be prepared for heavy security on March 21, as US President Barack Obama pays an official 24-hour visit with his family. Between the 19th and the 23rd, Obama will also visit El Salvador and Brazil, but not Argentina.

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