Latin America and Y2K
(Source: AP, 4/17/1999)

Latin American governments, with a few exceptions such as Mexico and Chile, are coming realize they lack the time, money and programmers to forestall potentially crippling public sector failures when the Year 2000 arrives. Last year, at precisely the moment when Latin governments should have been investing heavily in Y2K fixes, the Asian financial crisis hit their economies hard. Now there is an almost universal shortness of cash. World Bank experts and independent analysts say Latin and Caribbean governments are left with no alternative other than focus on preventing outright disasters.

Colombia: Mired in perhaps worst recession since 1930's, this country of 40 million is seriously short of funds to address Y2K bug, and the government's Year 2000 Office only just kicked into gear in December. Managers of the state-run health care system are struggling to determine how to keep Y2K failures from scrambling the records of its more than eight million patients. Public hospitals are just beginning to inventory medical devices for bug-related defects. Federal bookkeepers are preparing to switch to paper ledgers until their computers are fixed. Colombian civil aviation officials say their radar systems will fail without repairs worth more than $11 million, money the federal government says it cannot provide. Air traffic controllers are being trained in guiding planes the old-fashioned way -- with radioed position reports and paper charts.

Venezuela: With its oil-based economy suffering from decline in petroleum prices, this country of 23 million expects serious Y2K-related failures. Government planners have given up on trying to fix many computer systems and intend to have 15,000 engineers at the ready on Jan. 1, 2000 -- along with the National Guard and army -- to resolve problems as they arise and keep order, says Alejandro Bermudez, deputy national Y2K coordinator. Most private companies are also way behind schedule, having completed about only 10-20 percent of work on Year 2000 problems. "We're going to have a food-supply shortage," predicts Bermudez. He estimates 40 percent of Venezuela's food-processing plants will be paralyzed when unfixed computer chips in automated factories shut down production lines. Only about 10 percent of Venezuela's electricity distribution system has so far undergone computer fixes, and the government says the country desperately needs $1.5 billion for Y2K fixes, adding that even with that money, repairs will take two to four years.

Guatemala: Scott Robberson, Executive Director of the AMERICAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE said his electric company hasn't even started Y2K work, only two of Guatemala's 30 banks are ready, and few buildings in Guatemala City are fixing elevators and time-sensitive computerized building security locks that are vulnerable to failure.

Brazil: Latin America's most populous nation, with 166 million people, is among world's 10 most computerized countries, yet the government expects to spend just $300 million on Y2K projects, one-third of that this year. Marcos Osorio, the national Y2K coordinator, says fixes on the pension and health system are lagging, as are repairs on his country's energy and telecommunications sectors. Brazil's electrical utilities are already "taxed to the limit" and highly susceptible to brownouts. Brazil's chief public data-processing agency, SERPRO, which handles 60 percent of the Brazilian government's data processing, has worked diligently on Y2K but is still short $35 million to finish fixes. SERPRO is struggling to meet the conditions for a $41.5 billion bailout package from the INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND.

Information technology analysts at GARTNER GROUP predict half of all Latin American companies and state agencies in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela will see at least one critical failure -- from power outages to air transport interruptions. Even worse off are Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador and Uruguay. Social unrest and paralyzed commerce are tangible fears. In this part of the world, "the public doesn't protest with phone calls and letters -- it riots and destabilizes the government," said Ian Hugo, Deputy Director of Britain's TASK FORCE 2000.

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