If the walls of El Borda could talk, they would have volumes to say. Argentina's largest municipal psychiatric institution is almost a century and a half old, and has seen countless patients in its rooms and corridors, some there for a couple weeks, others there for the rest of their lives.
Though arguably trying to reach modern standards of therapy for the roughly thousand men who live there long-term, the Municipal Hospital of José Tiburcio Borda has yet to shake off the institutionalization that is left over from its 19th century beginnings as a lunatic asylum, and that has become in many senses a human rights issue.
With a name that implies an intention to change inmates for the better, Costa Rica's La Reforma maximum security prison may actually be doing the opposite. Poor security, the result of inadequate personnel, lack of surveillance and crowded conditions make the prison a hotbed for crime and violence. Lack of segregation and rehabilitation fail to make many bad criminals see the error of their ways and can in fact turn the less violent inmates into murderers as they seek to defend themselves from the more violent offenders.
The prison holds the perpetrators of some of the more violent and high-profile crimes in the country, from the two former presidents convicted for corruption to the man found guilty of killing an investigative journalist on behalf of a Catholic priest who was thought to be guilty of several crimes.
But while the high-profile criminals are locked away, the rapidly crowding conditions have thrown together a volatile mix of inmates which has outpaced the prison's ability to keep them under control. Violent incidents, from fights to jailbreak attempts, have cost the lives of both prisoners and guards. Sweeps reveal an astonishing array of weapons, both makeshift and smuggled in. Inmates using smuggled cell phones can still control their associates and their business on the outside.
For the fortune hunters and colonizers, Potosi was and continues to be a fountain of wealth. The indigenous Bolivians who lived on that land and continue to dig out its minerals, the place has become the pit into which they must eventually go. Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain” is the reason for Potosi's existence. The mining town, which eventually became the Spanish colonial mint, came into being as 16th century Spanish explorers, infatuated by stories of fabulous riches, conquered the mountain. Much of the work was done through forced labor, either through the mita system or with slaves. Many others were contract workers. All of them had to endure the backbreaking work of digging the silver out of the rock.
The mountain now belongs to Bolivia but it still consumes its share of the indigenous who live and work there. Dangerous and unhealthy conditions are responsible for the countless deaths from lung disease, and the constant extraction of silver, tin and zinc is causing the rich mountain to collapse. Children, many of whom are orphans of miners, go to work in the mines...perpetuating the
centuries-old cycle of poverty, hard labor and death.
Machu Picchu, one of the most-visited destinations in Latin America, has been thought to be a sacred site, with its elevation and location. Other theories hold that it was a strategic structure built to aid people fleeing from invaders and to monitor and control the activities of the region. Whatever it is, it has been hailed as an accomplishment of architecture and culture of the Incan empire.
However, these days the site is accessible mostly to tourists only, who have the money to take the trips and tours to Machu Picchu, while the descendants of the Incas who built the citadel are relegated to making sure the rails are in adequate condition for the visitors of the tourist train system.
In the city, life is not much better. Though improving from what was once a rate of almost 50 percent of the population below the poverty line, a third of the population is still very poor, with a wide gulf between the haves and have-nots. The unequal distribution of wealth provides limited opportunities for the poor to change their situation, contributing to frustration at the street level, as people wait for the economy to improve.
Haiti's history is one marked by violence and upheaval. Spain first conquered the island they called Hispaniola for its gold. The island's Caribbean location also made it a haven for pirates. European settlers brought with them smallpox, which virtually annihilated the native Taino, and slaves from Africa, which eventually led to revolts.
These days the names may have changed, but violence is still a part of day-to-day life, as poor Haitians fight for their share of meager resources. There is a love-hate relationship with non-governmental organizations who support the population when the government cannot, but also make a major living off the plight of the impoverished locals, many of whom were displaced during the January 2010 earthquake. Poor management and depletion of natural resources make for high levels of pollution and unsanitary conditions for the poorest of the poor. These days the slavery is economic, and the ravaging diseases are AIDS and cholera. All of this against a backdrop of corruption within the government and blamed on the NGOs as well.
Life in the Caribbean island nation looked like it might change when Raul Castro took over for his brother Fidel, the longtime leader of the Communist nation, in 2008. For some there were hopes that the younger Castro would loosen economic restrictions on private enterprise and foreign investment, and perhaps even encourage talks with the United States over its decades-long partial trade embargo.
It's been a year since Raul Castro made his reforms, which, among other things, allow Cubans to sell their homes instead of trade them. But major change, though on the horizon, remains to be seen. Private enterprise is now legal and Cubans can start their own businesses and hire workers, but the limited market and the imposition of fees could limit private profit. The reduction of the state bureaucracy and increasing its efficiency will be tempered by the layoff of 1.8 million state workers by 2014. Native Cubans are allowed to go to places previously segregated for tourists only, but are subjected to prices that are too high for the typical Cuban.