Y2K may be the end of the world as we know it, but Latin America has seen it all before.
RESIDENTS OF SANTIAGO HAVE NO water. Huge swaths of Buenos Aires go dark as electrical distribution fails. In Sao Paulo and Quito, customers form desperate lines outside locked banks; riots ensue. Lima housewives sweat through power outages daily, find their currency worthless and food scarce. Mexican families are cast into limbo as the financial system goes bust, while Panamanians can no longer import goods and the U.S. dollar supply disappears.
Is this the dark dawn of the new millennium, the prophesied havoc of the Year 2000 bug? Are computer systems that control basic services around the world locking up because software designed for the 20th century fails to note that the date 01/01/00 means the year 2000 and not 1900?
Nothing so dramatic. This is everyday news out of Latin America during the last decade, much of it occurring just this year.
What Y2K will bring, nobody knows. Many doomsday scenarios are floating about-massive power outages, government defaults, canceled flights, bank closings-and most of those scenarios are commonplace in Latin America's own brand of economic chaos.
Thus, as the fateful date speeds toward us, the region is oddly prepared to handle whatever crises may arise. Not because computer systems have been vetted and fixed-in most countries, they have not-but because Latin Americans have survived so many system breakdowns. In fact, they know all too well what can happen. "If we say [Venezuelans] need to stockpile some food, or they need some cash, we are sure many banks will have runs, or food will disappear from the shelves:' says Hugo Castellanos, Venezuela's government Y2K coordinator. To broach the subject without provoking panic, he says, "we are talking to psychologists and psychiatrists to know how to reach the people."
No need to rush into anything. In Mexico, the Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the state-run power company, has generated its very own time warp. The CFE tested a plan to reset its mainframe's clock to December 1993. "It worked:' says Carlos Jarque, Mexico's Year 2000 guru. "This will give us another seven years.
A Mexican time warp. The Mexican government estimates that only one in 20 Mexicans even knows that there might be a problem, let alone what it is. That compares with 85% of their neighbors to the north. Executives have also been slow on the uptake, and slower yet to commit resources to...