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Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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At the end of January, I blogged about a Congressional letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder asking, among other things, for a U.S. investigation into the May 2012 killing of four Honduran indigenous villagers in Ahuas, Honduras during a counternarcotics operation that involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  The letter, signed by 58 House representatives, argues that a credible U.S. investigation of the incident is necessary given the “deeply flawed” nature of the investigation carried out by Honduras’ Public Prosecutor and that, according to media reports, Honduran police agents stated that “they took their orders from the D.E.A.”

On February 12, the Washington Times reported that despite “pleas from liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the State and Justice departments have no intention of investigating purported human rights violations and misconduct by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Honduras.”  Times’ correspondent Guy Taylor spoke to an anonymous State Department official who indicated that the Department was satisfied with the Honduran official investigation and stated that “there will be no separate investigation.”  Furthermore,

In a statement last month, DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden told The Times that the investigation conducted by Honduran authorities “concluded that DEA agents did not fire a single round” and that “the conduct of DEA personnel was consistent with current DEA protocols, policies and procedures.”

The anonymous State Department official reaffirmed this position stating, “as we have confirmed previously, DEA agents were involved in a supporting role, and did not fire their weapons.”

The basis for this determination, as the DEA spokeswoman made clear in her previous comments to the Times, is the report summarizing the conclusions of the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s office.  Though cited by the DEA and State Department, this report has not been made public.  However, there is abundant evidence that the investigation that generated the prosecutor’s report was indeed “deeply flawed.”  Last year’s in-depth report on the May killings, co-authored by CEPR and Rights Action, explained how key forensics tests were performed long after the incident occurred and how the autopsies of the victims took place a month after the incident and, according to numerous eye witnesses, were carried out in a stunningly unprofessional manner.  Key participants in the counternarcotics operation – including at least ten DEA agents and several State Department contractors – were never questioned, nor were their weapons submitted to ballistics tests.

Most importantly, the report’s apparent findings – at least as they have been represented by the State Department and the DEA – are directly contradicted by another report produced by the Honduran National Human Rights Ombudsman.  This report, which we also discussed in a previous post, is largely based on the testimonies of the Honduran police agents of the “Tactical Response Team” (TRT) that participated in the counternarcotics operation.  Whereas, according to State and DEA, the prosecutor’s report confirms that the DEA merely played a “supportive role” during this operation, the Ombudsman’s report concludes that the DEA essentially led the entire operation:

All members of the TRT have stated that they only receive orders from American superiors and that they don't report anything, neither before nor afterwards, to their legal Honduran superiors, given that they ultimately don't deal with orders or logistics of any sort.

Furthermore, though State and DEA adamantly claim that the DEA agents “did not fire their weapons,” the Ombudsman’s report suggests that the DEA was directly responsible for the discharge of one of the helicopter’s high caliber automatic mounted guns against the boat carrying those who were killed in the incident.  The report states that:

According to the account of various TRT (Honduran Tactical Response Team) members, as the Barra Patuca pipante was approaching the pipante transporting the drugs, which in that moment was adrift down river, a burst of fire could be heard, supposedly coming from the boat coming from Barra Patuca causing the member from the FAST Team of the DEA to communicate by radio with the foreign pilot on helicopter number four, who proceeded to give the order to the artilleryman from Honduras who was on the same helicopter to support his teammates by opening fire on the boat with the victims that was coming from Barra Patuca.

In other words, according to the testimony of Honduran police agents, the helicopter pilot – identified as non-Honduran – gave instructions to the helicopter gunner to open fire on the “boat with the victims” after being contacted by one of the DEA agents involved in the operation.  Given this second “official” version of events, which appears to directly contradict the conclusions of the Public Prosecutor’s report and suggests that the DEA may bear much responsibility for the lethal outcome of the May incident, it is difficult to see how U.S. officials can continue to maintain that there is no need for a separate, U.S. investigation. 

En Español

Venezuela devalued its currency today, from 4.3 bolivares fuertes to 6.3 at the official exchange rate.   As with most economic news from Venezuela, it was not well reported.  A Reuters news article stated, as though it were a fact, that the move will “spur galloping inflation.”  But the biggest devaluation during the Chávez years, in January 2010, produced no increase in the core rate of inflation, and only a temporary increase in the headline rate; it then fell for more than two years, even as economic growth accelerated to more than 5 percent in 2012. Annual inflation was 19.5 percent in 2012.  At the time of the devaluation in January 2010, there were reports in the Washington Post predicting 60 percent inflation as a result of the devaluation.

Of course we would expect some temporary increase in inflation from a devaluation, as there was in 2010 – because the devaluation will increase the price of imports – but how much and how long it lasts depends on other government policies as well. 

The devaluation will increase the cost of capital flight, and by making imports more expensive, provide a boost to import-competing industries. For this reason, and because it reduces the black market premium and reduces capital flight, the move will overall be good for the economy.

 It is widely reported, as in the Reuters article, that the devaluation will help with government finances because each dollar in oil export earnings will now exchange for more domestic currency; in fact this is often stated as the reason for the devaluation. But government spending in domestic currency is not dependent on the exchange rate.   

A front-page article in the print edition of today’s Washington Post details how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez twice approached federal health-care officials about Dr. Solomon Melgen’s outstanding $8.9 million debt to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which the doctor claims was the result of being overbilled. Melgen, personally and through his ophthalmology company, has made major contributions to Menendez’s political campaigns.

This is the latest news to follow reports that on Wednesday, January 30, the FBI raided Melgen’s offices, soon after which the senator’s office described the doctor as “a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years.” Two days later, following John Kerry’s resignation from his seat as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become Secretary of State, Menendez took over the position, one of the most powerful and prestigious in Congress.

Menendez, who is Cuban American, has taken a hard line against easing travel restrictions to Cuba and has been described as “fiercely pro-embargo.” The New Jersey Democrat has also worked closely with lawmakers across the aisle on policy towards Iran, including his co-authorship of sanctions legislation with Republican Senator Mark Kirk last year.

Early reports of the FBI’s search focused on allegations that in 2010 Senator Menendez accepted free flights to the Dominican Republic from Dr. Solomon Melgen and had sex with prostitutes during these trips, a claim he has vehemently denied. It was also noted that Menendez is not married, and that prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the senator, who in January of this year wrote a $58,000 personal check to reimburse Melgen for two trips.

It started in Colombia in 2000, moved on to Mexico in 2008 and now rages in Central America.  Since the beginning of the century, the U.S.-backed “war on drugs” has progressively spread throughout the northern part of Latin America, leaving tens of thousands of lost lives in its wake. An in-depth investigative piece published by the Associated Press over the weekend explains how this so-called “war” – which relies on U.S. funding, training, equipment and troops – has grown in recent years to become “the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War.”

The article, authored by Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Martha Mendoza, describes how the U.S. has “spent more than $20 billion in the past decade” and deployed U.S. army, marine and navy troops to support a heavily militarized campaign to fight drug trafficking throughout the region.  The fact that the efforts have been accompanied by soaring violence – with, for example, 70,000 Mexican lives lost in the last six years – doesn’t seem to trouble the U.S. officials in charge of implementing U.S. drug policy internationally.  In fact, they seem to consider spikes in violence to be a sign that the “strategy is working.” 

William Brownfield who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Mendoza that “the bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations… come under some degree of pressure.”

For others in Washington, the shocking number of lives lost suggests that the strategy is in fact not working.  New York Congressman Elliot Engel, a moderate Democrat who is now the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the AP that he supports a congressional review of counternarcotics programs in the Western Hemisphere.

On January 30th, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder received a letter from fifty-eight members of Congress asking for a U.S. investigation into a DEA-led counter-narcotics operation in Ahuas, Honduras that went badly wrong.  Four indigenous Mosquitia villagers, including at least one pregnant woman and a 14 year-old boy, were shot and killed in a small boat in the Patuka River during the May 11, 2012 operation.  Three other passengers were critically injured.  CEPR visited the site of the killings last Summer and, together with Rights Action, published a detailed report describing the central role that the DEA played during that operation and the flawed nature of the Honduran official investigation of the incident.  The Honduran human rights group COFADEH and the Honduran government’s Human Rights Ombudsman have asked the U.S. to carry out its own investigation, but so far U.S. officials have rejected the idea.

This letter, initiated by Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson, marks the first time that members of Congress have publicly called for a U.S. investigation of the shooting and shows that, despite the U.S. Administration’s attempt to brush the incident under the rug, the issue continues to fester.  The surviving victims and the victims’ families have received no form of compensation and have great difficulty obtaining vital medical care (one of the wounded victims’ hands would probably have been amputated had COFADEH not helped pay for surgery).  As our August report described, the killings generated outrage and a strong sentiment of injustice among members of the communities near Ahuas, and as a result, resentment toward U.S.-led counternarcotics operations has grown stronger in the Mosquitia region.

The signers of the letter include Representative John Conyers who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Meeks who is a high-ranking Democrat on House Foreign Affairs and Rep. Van Hollen who is the ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee.  As State Department titled helicopters and contractors were a key part of the operation along with at least ten DEA agents, the letter is addressed to the top officials of both State and the Department of Justice.  Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has proven to be a staunch supporter of the current course of the so-called “war on drugs”.  John Kerry, however, has been critical of human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by Honduran security forces, and recently backed the limiting of U.S. police assistance to Honduras. His quick and disconcerting mention of Honduras during his confirmation hearing last week provides little indication of whether he intends to review any aspect of policy toward that nation as chief diplomat of the U.S.

el pais fake alien as chavez

Image: This satire of El País' publication of a fake photo of President Hugo Chávez on its front page last week captures the quality of much media reporting on Venezuela.  El País is the most influential paper in Spain and has much influence also in Latin America.

 

In writing about the media’s ongoing hate-fest for Hugo Chávez, I pointed out that the major media’s reporting had been effective, in that it has convinced most consumers of the Western media – especially in the Western Hemisphere and Europe – that Venezuela suffers from a dictatorship that has ruined the country.

But there is an important sense in which it has failed.  Of course it has failed to convince Venezuelans that they would be better off under a neoliberal regime, and that is one reason why Chávez and his party have won 13 of 14 elections and referenda since he was first elected in 1998.  Perhaps of equal importance, it has also failed to persuade other governments that President Chávez is motivated by some kind of irrational hatred of the U.S. – as the media generally reports it.  Most foreign ministries have some research capacity, and although they are influenced by major media, at the higher levels they have better information and make their own evaluations.

That is why Chávez has been able to play a significant role in the growing independence and regional integration of Latin America, despite his vilification in the media, and years of effort by the U.S. government to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors.  For example, the governments that decided to form the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – a new hemispheric organization including all countries other than the U.S. and Canada – don’t care whether the media dismisses it as “Chavez’s project.” When Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay decided to admit Venezuela as a full member of the trading bloc Mercosur, they didn’t care what the media in any of their respective countries would say about it.

The World Bank has joined the “doom and gloom” chorus on Venezuela’s economy. And in Haiti, the Washington-based institution again appears overly optimistic.

On Tuesday, January 15, the World Bank released its latest global economic forecast, which projects 2013 global GDP growth at 3.4%, up 0.4% from its preliminary estimate for 2012 and down a half a percentage point from its previous forecast in June. The Bank emphasized that the low rates were largely a result of sluggish growth in the U.S. and Europe. As for Latin America and the Caribbean, the regional predicted growth for 2013 is listed at 3.6%, up more than half a point from the estimated figure for 2012.

As with many media commentators over the past few years, the World Bank predicts that Venezuela’s economic recovery from the global recession cannot hold up. The Bank forecasts 1.8% growth in 2013, a sharp drop from an estimated 5.2% last year. Since the Venezuelan economy is not slowing, there is no obvious reason to predict a collapse in economic growth.

Furthermore, we can see that the projection numbers follow a trend. Both the World Bank and the IMF have been consistently underestimating growth projections in Venezuela.

vz gdp projection2011 vz gdp projection2012 1

Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, spoke for close to four hours at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.  He discussed U.S. policy in the Middle East and Asia at length, mentioning Afghanistan thirty-five times, China thirty-three times, Iran twenty-four times and Vietnam twenty-one times, according to the Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of Mexico – which came up a total of twelve times – hardly any of the hearing touched on the Western Hemisphere, which was mentioned only four times.  Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban-American descent, was the only one to ask a question about Kerry’s vision for relations with Latin America.

Menendez started off his question by saying “2013 will be a year of great change in the Western Hemisphere,” then mentioned “the impending change of leadership in Venezuela,” the new PRI administration in Mexico, and the recently-launched peace talks in Colombia.  “So,” he asked Kerry, “can you briefly talk to me about your views and vision as it relates to what I think is a new and momentous opportunity in the hemisphere?”

Kerry’s response [PDF] was indeed brief and elicited no reaction from his Senate colleagues. His statements suggested that, with Kerry as chief diplomat, U.S. policy toward the region will remain on automatic pilot, cruising along on more or less the same course that the State Department has followed since the Bush administration.  His response also showed a startling disregard for the perspectives and policy priorities of the governments and peoples of Latin America. Here’s what Kerry replied to Menendez:  

Well I agree with you, Mr. Chairman. It is an opportunity that's staring at us, and I hope that we can build on what Secretary Clinton has done and the Obama administration has already done in order to augment our efforts in that region.

Once again it seems that Jamaica and the IMF are on the verge of a new lending agreement. And once again, it sounds like more of the same failed policies as before. Last week, after a three-day retreat with Cabinet members, the AP noted that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller “said the Cabinet recently signed off on all fiscal consolidation matters to forge a new IMF deal.” Reason to celebrate? Not so fast. As Jamaican analyst Dennis Chung was quick to point out, “further expenditure cuts and tax increases will only pave the way for further economic contraction.” The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is predicting even more job cuts in 2013 precisely because of the impending IMF agreement. Unemployment is already nearly 13 percent.

As Chung notes, also relevant to the discussion is the recent research by the IMF showing that austerity policies have much larger negative effects than previously thought (at least by the IMF). But one need not look outside Jamaica or do a regression analysis to see the deleterious effects of austerity. Faced with extremely high debt payments, and having spent the last few years trying to court the IMF by cutting spending (following a previous IMF agreement which mandated such austerity), Jamaica has been a prime example of the pitfalls of this failed economic policy making. Debt levels haven’t come down, economic growth hasn’t returned, and the downward spiral has continued apace. Even a few dissident IMF directors have expressed concern.

Jamaica was the only country in the Latin American and Caribbean region to see three consecutive years of negative growth from 2008-2010 according to ECLAC, and it hasn’t exactly rebounded nicely since. GDP actually shrank in the first half of 2012 compared to 2011 and ECLAC predicts a paltry 0.1 percent growth rate for 2013, “assuming that an agreement is signed with IMF,” as the Jamaica Gleaner reported.

Unfortunately, while Jamaica needs serious debt relief in order to free up resources for the type of investment that will get the economy moving again, that seems to have already been taken off the table. Last week Finance Minister Peter Phillips stated, “[l]et me make it clear, since there are lot of rumours around, no haircut is contemplated.” The rumors concerned the possibility of a second debt exchange, but the main problem with the first one was that it never went far enough and there was no haircut. Just like with the continued austerity policies, the IMF in Jamaica is providing a great example of how not to learn from past mistakes. 

The Associated Press recently reported that General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who led the military-backed coup against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, would himself run for president in this year’s election. The move has been anticipated since late 2011, when Vásquez, along with a number of ex-military officers, formed the new Honduran Patriotic Alliance party.

Putting aside the irony of Vásquez’ candidacy, his announcement serves as a reminder of the political violence and institutional breakdown that has plagued the Central American country for the three-and-a-half years since he executed the coup. In November 2009, 5 months after Zelaya was dispatched, the illegitimate government proceeded with national elections, hoping these would in effect white-wash the coup. The Obama administration did all it could to ensure that this effort was successful, and current president Lobo was elected under a cloud of repression and impunity.

Today, violence against dissidents, journalists, women, union leaders, activists, the LGBT community and others continues unabated. And while the State Department has withheld some aid to the Honduran military and police, it continues to work closely with the government on counternarcotics efforts with little accountability. The U.S. government has still not conducted an investigation into an incident on May 11, 2012, in which the DEA was involved and in which State Department helicopters were used, that left four innocent people dead.

Though political repression still runs rampant, the opposition LIBRE party, led by the former president and his wife Xiomara Castro, continues to organize in advance of upcoming elections. Party leaders have announced that they will escalate their presence through a series of public demonstrations, the first of which is slated for today, January 24. Yet as long as the U.S. government keeps supporting the Honduran armed forces and working directly and without oversight in drug interdiction efforts, those in power in Tegucigalpa may have little incentive to address the dire human rights situation.

On January 14th, a day marking the one-year anniversary of his administration, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina presented his first annual report on the state of the country. In his speech, Pérez Molina, a former general, graduate of the School of the Americas and accused of being  a war criminal implicated in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide, hailed a “historic 10 percent reduction in violent crime” and “an almost five point drop in the homicide rate per every 100,000 inhabitants” from the previous year. Guatemala currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world (41 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants); it had a total of 5,122 murders in 2012. Ironically, while President Pérez Molina was reporting back to the nation on crime statistics and murder rates that morning, the mayor of the town of Jutiapa had just been shot down, dying almost immediately of sixteen bullet wounds. 

In the 1980s, the “scorched-earth” campaign of the Guatemalan military tortured, slaughtered and massacred entire villages, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 people. Under the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt from 1982-83 state violence in Guatemala has been said to have been the most brutal. A year ago, after years of attempts by human rights defenders to put him on trial, Ríos Montt was charged with genocide in Guatemalan courts. He has since filed two petitions to acquire amnesty from the law, the second of which is still awaiting a ruling. Last month Pérez Molina, who himself served under General Ríos Montt during the 1980s, issued and then suspended a decree stating that it would stop adhering to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987,  which human rights defenders say could be an attempt to prevent legal challenges from taking place.

In 2011, when presidential elections were held, Guatemalan and international human rights organizations warned of the danger in electing a former general implicated in “scorched earth” campaigns and extrajudicial executions, pointing out that militarization and repression would likely escalate if Pérez Molina were to win. 

Earlier this month my colleague Dan Beeton noted that the major media, after incorrectly predicting a close race in Venezuela’s presidential elections, had quickly reverted to the familiar “gloom and doom” predictions for Venezuela’s economic future.  Additionally, many recent opinion and news pieces have echoed the Venezuelan opposition’s view that the decision to postpone Chávez’s inauguration was legally questionable.  On January 8th, a Chicago Tribune editorial neatly summarized the prevailing wisdom: “Venezuela after Chavez will likely be plagued by political turmoil and economic struggle.”

Just as it appeared that the current conventional wisdom on Venezuela had spread and hardened irreversibly throughout the major media, on Monday the UK daily The Guardian published an editorial entitled “Venezuela, defying predictions – again.”  The piece deftly takes on a few commonly held views found in much of the media coverage of Venezuela.

The postponement of Chávez’s inauguration “is not a coup,” the Guardian states. In fact, “the constitution allows for a president-elect to be sworn in by the supreme court, and the postponement has now been endorsed by the court itself.”  It’s worth noting that head of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza, the government of Brazil and a number of other regional governments have also publicly agreed with this assessment, which we explored in detail last week.  Few U.S. media reported on the international acceptance of the decision to postpone Chávez’s swearing-in, instead preferring to focus on the views of members of the Venezuelan opposition, some of which lack consistency.  For instance, opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the postponement, only to later reject the Court’s determination that the move was constitutional.

The Guardian editorial also points out that the frequent predictions that rivals within the pro-government coalition “would begin falling out have not materialized” and that:

dire warnings about a mismanaged economy, with soaring inflation, crumbling infrastructure and currency control problems, also need examining with care.  After all, the Venezuelan economy has grown for nine successive quarters, has a relatively low debt burden, and the fall in inflation indicates a government with the ability to control inflation while maintaining growth. Oh, and Venezuela is sitting on the world's largest oil reserve.

Honduran newspaper El Heraldo reports that a plan for the creation of “model cities” was reintroduced in the Honduran congress yesterday, months after the Supreme Court declared earlier such plans to be unconstitutional. Congress President Juan Orlando Hernández said that he did not expect the plan to run into the same legal problems as last year because he had taken into account the Supreme Court’s arguments for its decision.

According to El Heraldo, the bill proposes the creation of the 12 special regimes of various kinds which “shall enjoy operational and administrative autonomy.” Among these are “ciudades autónomas.”

Earlier this month, NPR’s This American Life profiled the “model cities” or “charter cities” concept for Honduras in a report that only presented one side of the debate. The report follows reporters Chana Joffe-Walt and Jacob Goldstein’s previous account of the Honduran “model cities” concept for NPR’s Planet Money, and an early examination of the plans in The New York Times Magazine by Planet Money co-creator Adam Davidson.

There is much important context that the This American Life “model cities” profile left out. First, the proposed “model cities” could impact the land rights of Garifuna (Afro-indigenous) communities in the area.  There was little mention of opposition to the “charter cities” idea inside Honduras, outside of lawyers and the Supreme Court decision. And crucially, Honduras has been in a state of relative chaos since the coup, with a breakdown of institutions and the rule of law leading to, among other things, Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world (now at 91 per 100,000 people, according to the UN) (a fact that the This American Life report does note).

As The Americas Blog readers know well, there is a strong political dimension to this violence. As human rights organizations from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International to the International Federation for Human Rights have described, there has been political repression since the coup, targeting opponents of the coup and of the current Lobo government with assassination, forced disappearance, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other abuses. Journalists, lawyers, opposition party candidates, the LGBT community, and women have also been targets, with attacks against each of these groups spiking since the coup. The Garifuna communities are another targeted group, with, e.g., land barons in the Zacate Grande region attacking community groups and radio stations. Honduras is now widely recognized as one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, with some 23 journalists murdered since President Lobo took office in January 2010 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Venezuelan government announced Tuesday that President Hugo Chávez will miss his swearing in on Thursday, January 10, when his new term is set to begin. The Supreme Court ruled today that his swearing in tomorrow would not be necessary for “continuity” of his administration, and that he could be sworn in before the Court at a later date.

Returning from a meeting with Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, Brazilian Foreign Minister Marco Aurelio Garcia said Tuesday that Brazil regards as constitutional the extension of time needed to swear in Chávez as president for his new term, saying the current debate can be solved through "constitutional means,” as Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper reported. Several heads of state or other high level officials from Latin American governments will be present at events at the presidential palace in Caracas tomorrow.

Despite some confusion and deliberate distortions in the media and among Venezuela observers, the Venezuelan constitution (English PDF version here; Spanish version here) is clear on procedure regarding what is allowed if the president-elect is unable to be sworn in in Caracas.

For example, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL), who has infamously called for Fidel Castro’s assassination in the past, issued a hyperbolic statement accusing Chávez of attempting to subvert the constitution:

The delay of his swearing-in is yet another example of the trampling of the constitution by this despot. The Venezuelan constitution states that the leader of Venezuela needs to take the oath of office on January 10 in front of the National Assembly or the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

But Article 231 states, in part, “If for any supervening reason, the person elected President of the Republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.” No deadline is mentioned, contrary to what Ros-Lehtinen claims. Ros-Lehtinen also stated:

William K. Black, former deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement and now Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City takes on Alvaro Vargas Llosa and other “neoliberal” pundits in a long post today at Huffington Post. Noting how Vargas Llosa, P.J. O’Rourke and others have condemned the left-leaning heads of Latin American states as “idiots” and “stupid,” Black examines the track record of the neoliberal economic model versus the alternatives being pursued by countries such as Ecuador:

We have run what economists refer to as a "natural experiment." At the same time that Latin Americans were overwhelmingly rejecting key neo-liberal aspects of the Washington Consensus the Eurozone and the United States moved rapidly in the opposite direction by adopting ever more extreme neo-liberal dogmas. These dogmas created what criminologists refer to as a criminogenic environment -- an environment where the incentives are so perverse that they can produce epidemics of "control fraud." These fraud epidemics directly drove the financial crises in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Iceland and indirectly triggered crises by causing global systemic shocks. AVL does not wish to discuss the predation by the world's most elite bankers.

The loss of the young (through emigration), employment, output, income, and wealth and the growth of poverty and inequality that resulted from the most extreme neo-liberal policies are staggering. In the U.S., over 10 million Americans lost their jobs or could not obtain jobs that would have been produced by a healthy economy. Spanish unemployment is nearly 5 million. The crisis is so great that it is now common for Irish and Italian citizens to emigrate as soon as they earn their university degrees. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission reported that the loss of U.S. wealth in the household sector alone was estimated at over $12 trillion -- a trillion is a thousand billion.

And concluding:

As we have previously noted, many pundits and much of the international media predicted a close presidential election in Venezuela in October, if not an actual victory by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. But in the end, the vote was not close, as we had predicted it would not be in a paper we released on October 4. Chávez won by 11 percentage points – just a little over the 10.7 point victory that poll averages had suggested. As we have also noted, the conventional wisdom on Venezuela in the U.S. media and the economics profession (including the IMF) has repeatedly predicted sharply more negative outcomes for the Venezuelan economy than have materialized.

Now, as speculation runs rampant over the state of Hugo Chávez’s health, many of the same voices that predicted a close election in October are again predicting doom and gloom for Venezuela.

For example, in an op-ed just before the October election, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter wrote that “the election appears to be very tight.” In the New York Times’ Room for Debate today, Shifter details a list of problems that he says Chávez’s successor will need to tackle, “gradually” and tactfully in order to avoid some kind of catastrophe:

By now, it is easy to recite the litany of problems facing Venezuela.

At the top of the list are a huge fiscal deficit (around 20 percent) and high inflation (just under 18 percent), decaying infrastructure, mismanaged petroleum sector, shortages of basic goods, periodic blackouts and widespread crime and insecurity. All of these derive in some measure from severe institutional weaknesses, a product of Hugo Chávez’s one-man, 14-year rule. Whether his successor comes from his camp or from the opposition, reform and improved governance will be essential.

In a quickly-dated October 5 op-ed titled “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant,” blogger Francisco Toro wrote, “Mr. Chávez is facing a tight re-election race against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 40-year-old progressive state governor who extols the virtues of the Brazilian model,” and a little over a week before that wrote “Two weeks out, though, two of Venezuela's three best-regarded pollsters show him in a statistical dead-heat with the president. By crafting a message to appeal to a truly nationwide audience, he's given himself a real fighting chance to pull off a stunning upset on Oct. 7th.”

En Español

While Congress struggled to approve legislation to avert the much-hyped “fiscal cliff”, a bill addressing “Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere” quietly and smoothly swept through both houses before the end of the legislative session.  The bill, which requires the State Department to develop a strategy to address the Iranian regional “threat”, was signed into law by President Obama on December 28th.

If you haven’t heard of the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” (H.R. 3783), that may be because you aren’t a faithful reader of the neoconservative Commentary Magazine, which urged President Obama to sign the bill; or of the web page of the Heritage Foundation.  Nor did you receive the press release of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that applauded the bill’s passage and noted that it would help “turn back Iranian attempts to establish bases, subvert the economic relationships between the US and Latin America, and the establishment of covert abilities to promote terrorism in countries close to our own US borders.”  The ZOA is an organization with links to Israel’s far right and counts among its members rightwing billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz, best known for their hardline pro-settlement and anti-Iran positions and their generous donations to Republican super Pacs during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Indeed, though the bill was approved nearly unanimously in both chambers, only far right organizations appear to have openly supported it. 

There is little doubt that Iran has sought to increase its diplomatic and economic presence in Latin America in recent years, as have China and Russia.  The Iranian government has opened up new embassies in the region and President Ahmadinejad has gone on several trips to Latin America.  But H.R. 3783, in its “findings”, alleges that Iran is involved in far more nefarious activities in the region. 

There is an epic battle going on, mostly in the shadows, over President Obama’s reported intention to appoint former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  Robert Naiman describes some of the stakes here:  

“On Afghanistan, the AP notes- ("Pentagon front-runner Hagel has strong Obama ties, likely favors rapid Afghanistan withdrawal "):

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is a contrarian Republican moderate and decorated Vietnam combat veteran who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. [...] Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that "the American people want out" of the war. …

"On Iran, the AP noted that ‘Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.’”

"On the Pentagon budget, a Washington Post editorial noted that in September 2011 Hagel called for cuts to the Pentagon budget. .."

And on the battle within the Beltway:

“The outcome of this battle is likely to be determined soon. If Obama nominates Hagel, easy Senate confirmation is expected. But it's possible that in the absence of a sufficiently broad and vigorous response, the neocon Swift Boaters could kick up enough dust to convince some of the Obama political people that, even though they could win the fight easily, it's not worth the fight, and life would be much easier politically if they would just appease the right and appoint someone the right won't object to, and move on to other things."

"That outcome would be a shame, because far more than any other likely Obama nominee, Hagel represents the foreign policy that the majority of Americans voted for in 2008 and 2012: less war, more diplomacy.”

And now New York Congressman Elliot Engel, former Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and the new ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly confronted his party’s President to oppose a Hagel nomination. 

What about Latin America?  It seems that there are objections from the right here too:

On Thursday that chorus was joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is reportedly concerned about Hagel’s past support for ending the US boycott on Cuba’s communist regime. Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant told the Washington Free Beacon that ‘promoting democracy in Latin America is a priority for Senator Rubio, and he’s put holds on other administration nominees over the issue. If President Obama were to nominate Senator Hagel, for a cabinet position, I’m sure we would have questions about Cuba positions.

So, it looks like people who care about the Western Hemisphere have a stake in this fight, too.  President Obama didn’t change policy in this hemisphere from that of the Bush Administration. But he paid a political price for that, as his administration was isolated from almost all of Latin America, e.g., for helping the coup government in Honduras legitimize itself.  In addition to the Cuba embargo, there is the  so-called “drug war” and other issues where the Obama administration may feel pressure to take some steps in a positive direction, and it would be good to have a Secretary of Defense who is at least more open-minded than a lot of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.  And of course, it would send a terrible message to the country and the world to see President Obama cave once again to the neocon right, as if elections here don’t really matter. 

The Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson conducted a rare interview with Miguel Facussé Barjum, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Honduras, and also believed to be behind the killings of dozens of campesinos in the Aguan Valley, where Facussé has extensive land holdings. He has been the subject of much recent scrutiny, as Wilkinson notes, especially following the assassination of attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf campesino organizations in the Aguan. Wilkinson describes some of the allegations and criticism leveled at Facussé from members of the U.S. Congress and human rights organizations:

In October, shortly before he lost reelection, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) took the unusual step of singling out Facusse in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Berman demanded a major overhaul of U.S. policy toward Honduras, including suspension of aid to human rights abusers. He repeated Trejo's accusation, calling for an investigation of Facussé.

"It is breathtaking that Facusse has been so untouchable," said a House of Representatives staffer with knowledge of the issue, who spoke anonymously in keeping with Washington protocol.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, in filings with the International Criminal Court, alleges that Facusse may have committed "crimes against humanity" in the killings of Trejo and several peasant farmers.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the FoodFirst Information and Action Network, the International Federation for Human Rights and other groups details a number of killings, kidnappings, torture, forced evictions, assaults, death threats and other human rights violations that victims, witnesses and others attribute to Facussé’s guards. In May this year, Reporters Without Borders declared Facussé to be a “predator” of press freedom. Facussé’s response has sometimes been to threaten to sue for defamation. As he explains in the LA Times article, “He said he considered suing Berman but was advised by friends that legal action would be a waste of time.”

Perhaps seeing the limits to suing for defamation when the allegations are supported by evidence, Facussé, it appears, wanted to sit down with Wilkinson in order to set the record straight. He explains that, while yes, his airplane was "was used to illegally carry the foreign minister out of the country against her will" during the 2009 coup d’etat; and yes, drug planes have used his property to traffic cocaine; and yes, he normally keeps a pistol on his desk; and yes, he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and yes, he was aware of the plans for the 2009 coup in advance – he’s misunderstood. One has to appreciate the tremendous pathos as Facussé laments, "My name is mud all over the world," he said. "I'm the bad guy in the world."

And

As for the allegations of involvement in the lawyer's killing?

"I probably had reasons to kill him," he said, "but I'm not a killer."

The overwhelming victory of Chávez’s party, the PSUV, in yesterday’s elections for state governors is another indication that the widespread prognostications of gloom and doom ahead for both chavismo and for Venezuela may once again be off the mark.  The PSUV won 20 of 23 states, increasing their total from 15 to 20 governorships.  They were able to do this without Chávez being able to campaign, which is interesting not only because he is an important political figure and campaigner, but also because by a law which predated Chávez, most TV stations are required to carry the president’s speeches (these broadcasts are called cadenas).  Since the government TV stations have only about 6 percent of the television audience, this was an important factor that helped in the October 7 presidential elections – without the cadenas the media would have been stacked against him, since most print media and radio are also privately owned and to varying degrees against the government.  This election, like the October 7 presidential election, also showed the superior organization of the president’s party, which in most of the 20 states that they won, they won by large margins.

It thus appears that if Chávez is unable to complete his term, the most likely scenario would be that his endorsed candidate, Nicolás Maduro, would win the presidency in the special election that is required to take place 30 days after a presidential resignation.  Polls taken before the last election showed Maduro trailing by 6 points behind the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski; but that is before the recent endorsement from Chávez, and of course the boost that Chávez would give him with any further appeals to the electorate.  Capriles avoided disaster by winning the governor’s race in Miranda, but it was not by a huge margin (50 - 46), especially considering the massive media exposure he had during his presidential campaign. 

Of course, many things are possible, but the wishful scenarios that one sees in much of the media, “that a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future,” is looking increasingly unlikely.  For a relevant comparison, Lula da Silva finished his second term in 2010, and had relatively little trouble getting his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff – who had never before held elective office – elected president.  The major media, and the anti-Chávez commentators that have a near monopoly on discussion of Venezuela, tend to exaggerate the role of Chávez’s personal charisma in Venezuelan politics, and tend to underestimate the importance of the unprecedented improvement in living standards – real (inflation-adjusted) income, employment, poverty reduction, and increased access to health care, public pensions, and education.  These gains have been at least as big in Venezuela under Chávez as they were under Lula in Brazil, and will likely determine the outcome of any special election – if there is one -- as they did the election of October 7. 

Yesterday the Senate passed a slightly amended version of a House bill designed to limit Iran’s dealings and interests in the Western Hemisphere. The bill, H.R.3783, the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” calls for a plan that would, among other things, “address any efforts by foreign persons, entities, and governments in the region to assist Iran in evading United States and international sanctions” and

support United States efforts to designate persons and entities in the Western Hemisphere for proliferation activities and terrorist activities relating to Iran, including affiliates of the IRGC, its Qods Force, and Hezbollah, under applicable law including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; and

 (D) to address the vital national security interests of the United States in ensuring energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere that are free from the influence of any foreign government that would attempt to manipulate or disrupt global energy markets.

The historic trajectory out of which the legislation emerges is clear in the first two sections under the “Findings” (background):

Congress finds the following:

(1) The United States has vital political, economic, and security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

(2) Iran is pursuing cooperation with Latin American countries by signing economic and security agreements in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships to lessen the blow of international sanctions and oppose Western attempts to constrict its ambitions.

In other words, the members of Congress who have passed this legislation want Iran to stay out of “our little region over here” as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson referred to the Western Hemisphere in 1945. Such policies go back to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Western Hemisphere to be exclusively the United States’ sphere of influence. Apparently the U.S. Congress did not get the memo that even the Council on Foreign Relations considers the Monroe Doctrine to be dead- an anachronistic framework for an age in which Latin America has found a new independence from the United States and increasingly seeks out business and political arrangements with countries such as China and India.


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