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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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On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.

The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.

Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.

The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.

On the night of February 22nd, a bizarre incident took place in the Venezuela media-sphere. At around 4:00 pm Venezuela time, a number of the country’s private media outlets posted a release from a protest group identified only as the “student movement.” The rhetoric and tone of the statement matches the positions often expressed by extreme rightwing factions within Venezuela’s opposition over the last 14 years. Venezuela, it alleges, is in the grip of Cuban communists:

Foreign forces have laid a military siege on Venezuela. Their mercenaries attack us in a vile and savage manner. Their goal is to enslave us and be the masters of our existence, dishonoring the flags that we have held up in the street and that we will defend with our lives.

We want our Freedom. To protect it it's vital to defend the Sovereignty of the Nation, expelling the Cuban communists that are here usurping the government and the Armed Forces.

The release demands that “the usurper [Venezuelan president] Nicolas Maduro and all of his cabinet be deposed” and states that the protests will continue until this and other demands are met. The statement also calls for defensive action against state security:

The regime has declared war on any civilian who doesn't accept its marxist ideology. Our call is for defense: to not allow the invaders profane your street, your avenue, your property. Prevent their access so that they don't shoot up your neighborhood, don't destroy your properties, don't hurt your loved ones and, above all, so that they know that here there are battle-seasoned Venezuelans, who won't allow themselves to be enslaved through the use of force.

The rhetoric found in this release is reminiscent of the language used by the promoters of the “guarimba” protests in 2004 which – similarly to many of the protests that have been occurring in Venezuela over the last two weeks – involved protesters blocking major roads with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property. The explicit goal of the 2004 guarimba protests was to create enormous chaos in city streets thereby forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression. Or, in the words of Luis Alonso, the main promoter of the guarimba ten years ago:

en español

The New York Times begins its news report on Friday from Venezuela with “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote last week: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."

Before surrendering to authorities for arrest last Tuesday (February 18), opposition leader Leopoldo López said, “we no longer have any free media to express ourselves in Venezuela.”

Are these statements true or false? Similar statements are made repeatedly in the major international news outlets covering Venezuela, and are generally accepted as true. However this should be a factual question, independent of whether one is sympathetic to the opposition or the government, or to neither.

As it turns out, data published by the Carter Center for the media coverage during the campaign for the last presidential election, in April of last year, indicate that the two candidates were fairly evenly represented in television coverage.

We will return to the Carter Center report, but first a quick fact check based on recent events and coverage. We can look at the recent broadcasts of the largest television stations in the country. The biggest broadcast television station is Venevisión, owned by the billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros. According to the Carter Center, it has about 35 percent of the news-watching audience during “recent key newsworthy events.” If we look at their coverage of the events since the protests started on February 12, we can find plenty of programming where “voices critical of the government,” and in fact opposition leaders are “regularly broadcast.” For example, here is an interview on Venevisión news with Tomás Guanipa, leader of the opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party and a representative in the National Assembly. He defends the protests and accuses the government of having tortured students.

[3/12: This post is no longer being updated. For a updated list, please click here.]

The morning of February 22, Venezuela Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz stated that so far eight deaths and 137 injuries had occurred during the protests that have taken place over the last ten days. Díaz added that “the investigations [into the killings] are advanced.” Many press and NGOs have simply reported that “demonstrators” were killed.  For example the International Crisis Group states in its February 21 report: “confrontation in Venezuela has turned violent in the past few days with the killing of six demonstrators.” However, a closer look at the individuals identified as having been killed reveals that the political allegiances of the victims and their causes of death are varied.  

Since Díaz’s announcement more deaths related to the protests have been reported in the media. Here, first, are details regarding seven of the deaths that Díaz referred to in her statements:

-          Bassil Alejandro Da Costa, an opposition demonstrator was shot, reportedly in the head, and killed  in Caracas during the opposition protest that took place on February 12. The Attorney General announced Friday that an investigation into the killing is close to finished and will be made public in the coming days. An analysis of amateur video and images by the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias alleges that uniformed and plainclothes members of the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) were responsible.  The video images show what appear to be SEBIN agents in uniform as well as individuals in plain-clothes firing handguns toward the demonstration after demonstrators had charged at them while throwing rocks.  President Maduro later stated that SEBIN agents weren’t authorized to be present at the protest and replaced the  head of SEBIN.  At least one of the SEBIN officers seen discharging his weapon has reportedly been arrested and, according to Venezuelan media, authorities are engaged in a manhunt to apprehend the other individuals observed firing their handguns. [Update 2/25: According to Attorney General Díaz, three SEBIN officers have been arrested in relation to the killing of Da Costa and Montoya, see below for more.] [Update 3/4: On February 26, the Attorney General announced additional arrests in relation to the deaths of Da Costa and Montoya. In total, at least 8 individuals have been arrested.]

-          Juan Montoya, a pro-government community activist, was reportedly shot in both the head and chest and died. Montoya’s body was found a short distance from the body of Da Costa. It remains unclear how he was killed but Maduro stated that the same gun killed both Montoya and Da Costa.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been thrust onto the international stage during the past week of protests in Venezuela and his arrest on February 21. López is mentioned at least 77 times in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Many of the cables focus on internal disputes within the opposition, with Lopez often in conflict with others both within his party and others in the opposition. Given this history, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the current protests that he has been leading, calling for “la salida” – the exit – of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro have also caused internal divisions within the opposition. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America wrote last week:

While Capriles shook hands with Maduro in January, signifying not only a more conciliatory stance but tacitly recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado have both taken a harder line and are working outside of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD).

…..

Without a doubt, in immediate political terms the biggest beneficiary of yesterday’s [Feb.12] violence was López.

This week, Smilde added in a quote to USA Today, "Before this happened, Lopez was playing second fiddle to Capriles… I think his goal is to try and leapfrog over Capriles. The student protests have put him in the spotlight."

The Wikileaks Cables show an interesting history of Lopez’s rise to leadership and also show some of the divisions within the opposition. Below, one party leader is quoted as saying that “for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez, joking that ‘the only difference between the two is that Lopez is a lot better looking.’” And also, “During a party event December 6, Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary-General Tomas Guanipa called on Lopez to respect the unity table and its agreements and consensus. Guanipa urged Lopez to ‘not continue dividing us, we should not go through life like crashing cars, fighting with the whole world.’”

The U.S. government has been funding the Venezuelan opposition for at least 12 years, including, as the State Department has acknowledged, some of the people and organizations involved in the 2002 military coup. Their goal has always been to get rid of the Chávez government and replace it with something more to their liking. However, their funding is probably not their most important contribution in Venezuela, since the Venezuelan opposition has most of the wealth and income of the country. A more important role is the outside pressure for unity, which, as these cables and the history of the past 15 years show, has been a serious problem for the Venezuelan opposition. The cables also show that this is a serious concern for the U.S. government.

Below are relevant cables, in chronological order:

Carl Meacham, the former Republican senior advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared last night on PBS’ Newshour. When asked by host Gwen Ifill what “is really behind all of this right now?” Meacham responded by questioning the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Venezuela:

Let’s remember this has been probably — it’s been a year since Mr. Maduro — roughly a year since Mr. Maduro was elected — some people say that he won, some people say that he didn’t win — to office.

A statistical analysis shows just how unlikely it was that, as Meachem says “he didn’t win.” In Venezuela’s elections, the electoral authority conducts a rapid recount of 53 percent of the voting machines, selected at random. The probability of getting the audit result, if in fact the opposition candidate had received the majority of the votes, was found to be less than 1 in 25 thousand trillion.

While Meacham is correct in stating that “some people say that he didn’t win”, it is also true that “some people,” – in fact many people – say that President Obama is a Muslim who is holding office illegally because he was not born in the United States. The statement from Meacham is revealing because it is indicative of his close ties to prominent right-wing Venezuelan politicians.

It is unfortunate that PBS did not offer its listeners anything other than a far-right point of view in this broadcast.

Greg Weeks, a professor who specializes in Latin America at UNC Charlotte, did not seem to understand my column yesterday in the Guardian.  He dismissed the recent statements from the U.S. government about Venezuela as meaningless.  Since he is Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, perhaps there were others who did not understand these statements as well.  So I wrote some further explanation for him and posted it on his blog.  Today, of course, U.S. statements got even more hostile, after Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats. But as explained below, these are not just unfriendly comments by administration officials, but words chosen carefully and deliberately to encourage certain actions by Venezuela’s opposition.   Below is what I wrote yesterday:

Greg, maybe this will help your readers to understand what these statements mean. I wanted to include the White House statement on the Honduran coup for comparison but didn't have room.

You can find it here:

http://www.cepr.net/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/top-ten-ways

The White House statement on the day of the coup did not condemn it, merely calling on “all political and social actors in Honduras” to respect democracy.

This diplomatic language is very important. As any diplomat in this town will testify, this is one way in which governments communicate their positions and alliances. Everybody I know realized immediately from the White House statement after the Honduran coup that Washington supported the coup, and there were no surprises for us in what the Obama administration did in the months and years that followed.

So you see, these statements from Kerry and the State Department are not just random “vanilla” comments on the state of democracy or the economy in Venezuela or concern about arrests. (Maybe you didn’t read the piece very carefully, but my point on the arrests was that in other countries, if protesters are arrested for violent acts, the U.S. does not call for their immediate release.) These are carefully worded statements, like the White House statement on the coup in Honduras, that communicate their position without putting the U.S. government in the position of saying that they support a military coup in Honduras or a strategy of “regime change” in Venezuela, but making it clear to their allies and adversaries that they actually do. They have enormous impact, as you can understand. When Kerry changed his position on the April elections, he didn’t have to say “these elections were free and fair and the opposition should give up its attempt to pretend that they were stolen.” He just implicitly recognized the result and that was the end of the opposition’s campaign, since U.S. allies Spain and José Miguel Insulza at the OAS had already given up, so the Obama administration was the last ally that the Venezuelan opposition had holding out for non-recognition of the election results.

I hope this makes it clearer for you and your readers.

Mark Weisbrot

 

Venezuela’s latest round of violent protests appears to fit a pattern, and represents the tug-and-pull nature of the country’s divided opposition. Several times over the past 15 years since the late, former president Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the political opposition has launched violent protests aimed at forcing the current president out of office. Most notably, such protests were a part of the April 2002 coup that temporarily deposed Chávez, and then accompanied the 2002/2003 oil strike. In February of 2004, a particularly radical sector of the opposition unleashed the “Guarimba”: violent riots by small groups who paralyzed much of the east of Caracas for several days with the declared goal of creating a state of chaos.  As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has explained, then – as now – the strategy is clear: a sector of the opposition seeks to overturn the results of democratic elections. An important difference this time of course is that Venezuela has its first post-Chávez president, and a key part of the opposition’s strategy overall has been to depict Nicolás Maduro as a pale imitation of his predecessor and a president ill-equipped to deal with the country’s problems (many of which are exaggerated in the Venezuelan private media, which is still largely opposition-owned, as well as the international media).

Following Maduro’s electoral victory in April last year (with much of the opposition crying “fraud” despite there being no reasonable doubts about the validity of the results), the opposition looked to the December municipal elections as a referendum on Maduro’s government, vowing to defeat governing party PSUV and allied candidates. The outcome, which left the pro-Maduro parties with a 10 point margin of victory, was a stunning defeat for the opposition, and this time they did not even bother claiming the elections were rigged. According to the opposition’s own pre-election analysis, support for Maduro had apparently grown over the months preceding the election. As we have pointed out, this may be due in part to the large reduction in poverty in 2012 and other economic and social gains that preceded the more recent economic problems.

Defeated at the polls, the anti-democratic faction of the opposition prepared for a new attempt at destabilizing the elected government, and promoted relatively small, but often violent student protests in early February.  They then called for a massive protest on February 12, Venezuela’s Youth Day in the center of Caracas.  The demonstrations have been accompanied by a social media campaign that has spread misinformation in an attempt to depict the Maduro administration as a violent dictatorship instead of a popular elected government. Images of police violence from other countries and past protests – some several years old – have been presented on social media as having occurred in recent days in Venezuela. A YouTube video that has been watched by almost 2 million viewers presents a one-sided portrayal of the situation and falsely states that the Venezuelan government controls all radio and television in the country, among other distortions. Similar disinformation occurred in April 2002 and in other past incidents in Venezuela, most notably when manipulated video footage was used to provide political justification for the coup d’etat.

The Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released its “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” [PDF] for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today. The assessment takes what is probably a much more realistic and beneficial stance (for both the people of the U.S. and of Latin America) on Latin America than previously. In contrast to last year’s assessment, which fretted over perceived political instability in Venezuela, the only South American threat noted this year – and mentioned only in passing – is “cocaine from source countries in South America.” (This is in the context of “[d]omestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups” operating in Central America.)

On Honduras, the assessment states:

Central America’s northern tier countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—will likely struggle to overcome the economic and security problems that plague the region.  All three countries are facing debt crises and falling government revenues because of slow economic growth, widespread tax evasion, and large informal economies.  Entrenched political, economic, and public-sector interests resist reforms.   Domestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups, as well as Central America’s status as a major transit area for cocaine from source countries in South America, are fueling record levels of violence in the region.  Regional governments have worked to improve citizen security but with little-to-moderate success.  

The homicide rate in Honduras remains the highest in the world.  New Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez will likely prioritize security policy and seek to build a coalition within the divided legislature to push his economic reform agenda.  However, weak governance, widespread corruption, and debt problems will limit prospects for a turnaround.

In this case the assessment seems to be overstating the extent of Honduras’ “debt crisis.” As we noted ahead of the November elections last year, “the country's debt burden is still relatively low, with interest payments on the debt totaling less than 1.7 percent, and much of the debt is internal and denominated in domestic currency.” This means that the new government “will have ample room to pursue expansionary fiscal policies, increase employment, and invest in infrastructure, education and development” if it chooses to do so. But economics does not seem to be the DNI’s strong suit. Last year’s assessment described an “increasingly deteriorating business environment and growing macroeconomic imbalances” in Venezuela and warned that “[d]ebt obligations will consume a growing share of Venezuela’s oil revenues, even if oil prices remain high.” But as CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a November column for The Guardian:

On Thursday, the Brookings Institution issued a memo to President Obama titled “Venezuela Breaks Down in Violence.” As might be expected from the title, the memo (and an accompanying video) depicts an alarming situation where

Venezuela is experiencing declining export revenues, accelerating inflation and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods. At the same time, the Maduro administration has foreclosed peaceful options for Venezuelans to bring about a change in its current policies.

But, contrary to the alarmist title, the violence is only a possibility in the future: “Economic mismanagement in Venezuela has reached such a level that it risks inciting a violent popular reaction,” and further on the reader learns that actually “[t]he risk of a violent outcome may still be low…”

The possibility of such chaos is troubling to the author, Harold Trinkunas since “it is in the U.S. interest that Venezuela remain a reliable source of oil,” while “[p]opular unrest in a country with multiple armed actors, including the military, the militia, organized crime and pro-government gangs, is a recipe for unwelcome chaos and risks an interruption of oil production.”

Trinkunas, who “previously served as an associate professor and chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California” urges the Obama administration to take action. At the top of his recommendations is for the U.S. to enlist Brazil – “whose interests are also at risk” - in an attempt “to convince the Maduro administration to shift course.”

Trinkunas makes clear what course he wants the U.S. government to take should a crisis result in Maduro being removed from power. While one might think that such a hypothetical scenario would indeed be one when the Inter-American Democratic Charter should be invoked (Trinkunas suggests that it be used against Maduro now), that would be naïve. Instead:

…we should also begin quiet conversations with others in the hemisphere on what steps to take should Venezuela experience a violent breakdown of political order. Such an event could potentially fracture the regional consensus on democracy on a scale much greater than that of the Honduran coup in 2009. Maduro’s allies in the region would most likely push for his immediate restoration, but in the absence of functioning democratic institutions, this would only compound Venezuela’s internal crisis. The United States would need to work with key states in the region—Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia—on a regional consensus in favor of rebuilding democracy in Venezuela.

The new budget appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, and set to be taken up by the Senate in the coming days, includes several passages that are relevant for Honduras, including stronger restrictions on U.S. assistance for the police and military. It also includes language opposing involvement by international financial institutions like the World Bank and IADB in the financing of large dam projects, such as those planned in Rio Blanco, and other language that could help victims of the May 2012 DEA operation in Ahuas -- that resulted in four villagers killed and several others injured -- finally receive compensation.

Under the "Honduras" section, the bill [PDF] reads:

  1. Of the funds appropriated by this Act under the headings ‘‘International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement’’ and ‘‘Foreign Military Financing Program’’, 35 percent may not be made available for assistance for the Honduran military and police except in accordance with the procedures and requirements specified under section 7045 in the explanatory statement described in section 4 (in the matter preceding division A of this consolidated Act).

  2. The restriction in paragraph (1) shall not apply to assistance to promote transparency, anti-corruption, border security, and the rule of law within the military and police.

This 35 percent is a significant increase from the 20 percent previously withheld over concerns about human rights violations by Honduran security forces.

The “procedures and requirements” appear under the section (Division J) titled “Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014”:

Honduras. - The agreement modifies language in the Senate bill regarding Honduras in subsection (e). There is concern with the security challenges facing Honduras, which has become a transit hub for illicit drugs from South America. The assistance provided by this Act is intended to help stem the trafficking and address related violence, corruption, and impunity. The agreement recognizes the need for fundamental reform of Honduran law enforcement and judicial systems. In accordance with section 7045(e) of this Act, 35 percent of funds that are available for assistance for the Honduran military and police may be obligated only if the Secretary of State certifies that-

On the night of January 7 another series of forced evictions took place in the Metrô-Manguiera favela slum in Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 500 meters from Maracaná stadium, site of the 2014 World Cup final match, 40 families were brutally kicked out of their homes by the military police who used pepper spray and tear gas grenades.

Unfortunately, this did not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following preparations for Olympics and World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of people have already been evicted due to event-related construction projects and real estate speculation activities. They have received compensation settlements well below market rates or have been relocated to the far outskirts of the city,  in violation of the City’s Organic Law which stipulates that victims of forced evictions have to be relocated close their previous residences. How can these types of activities still happen 12 years after the national Statute of the City was passed?

The Statute of the City of 2001 mandates that all cities of over 20,000 implement a Master Plan that follows a series of norms to guarantee effective public participation in all city government spending and project implementation.  When the Statute was passed, cities were given a grace period of 5 years to either facilitate new Master Plans or revise their current plans to abide by the new directives.  At the time, Rio de Janeiro’s 1992, 10- year plan was still in effect.  With the 5 year grace period granted by the Statute of the City, it remained legally binding until 2006.  The City Council passed a further, 2 year extension, however the new Master Plan was only ratified in February,  2011.

During the legislative vacuum between the expiration of the old Plan and the ratification of the new one, the City Council passed a series of laws to facilitate real estate speculation related to the World Cup and the Olympics. Furthermore, Mayor Eduardo Paes issued Decree N. 32080 on April 7, 2010, which authorizes forced evictions in all areas that the City Government decides are at risk for natural disasters.  This decree is being used as a political tool to clear out areas of interest for the real estate industry in places like Providencia Favela, located in the newly gentrifying port area, where the City is building a cable car system for tourists and over 800 families are targeted for eviction. Since there was no Master Plan in effect during this period, are these new laws and decrees legal?

CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot examines how the Mexican economy has fared under 20 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in a new column in The Guardian. The answer is summed up well in Mark’s original title, “Twenty Years Since NAFTA: Mexico Could Have Done Worse, But It’s Not Clear How.”

Mark writes:

Well if we look at the past 20 years, it’s not a pretty picture. The most basic measure of economic progress, especially for a developing country like Mexico, is the growth of income (or GDP) per person. Out of 20 Latin American countries (South and Central America plus Mexico), Mexico ranks 18, with growth of less than 1 percent annually since 1994. It is of course possible to argue that Mexico would have done even worse without NAFTA, but then the question would be, why?

From 1960-1980 Mexico’s GDP per capita nearly doubled. This amounted to huge increases in living standards for the vast majority of Mexicans. If the country had continued to grow at this rate, it would have European living standards today. And there was no natural barrier to this kind of growth: this is what happened in South Korea, for example. But Mexico, like the rest of the region, began a long period of neoliberal policy changes that …put an end to the prior period of growth and development. The region as a whole grew just 6 percent per capita from 1980-2000; and Mexico grew by 16 percent – a far cry from the 99 percent of the previous 20 years.

He also notes that – unsurprisingly considering how little growth there has been, that “Mexico’s national poverty rate was 52.3 percent in 2012, basically the same as it was in 1994 (52.4 percent).”

“The territory of a State is inviolable; it may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another State, directly or indirectly, on any grounds whatever.”

- Article 21, Charter of the Organization of American States

In the pre-dawn hours of March 1, 2008, the Colombian military launched a carefully planned air and ground attack against a small FARC guerilla camp located in the thick tropical forest surrounding the Putumayo River.  The attack – which killed top rebel leader Raúl Reyes and at least 21 other camp inhabitants – might have been just another bloody chapter in Colombia’s 50-year-old civil conflict had it not been for one important detail: the camp was located in Ecuador, over a mile from the Colombian border.  Colombia had not asked for Ecuador’s permission to carry out the incursion, nor provided its neighbor with any warning that it would take place.  As a result, a major diplomatic crisis ensued with three countries suspending relations with Colombia and most of the region strongly condemning the illegal violation of Ecuador’s territory.  Only one government – that of the United States – openly supported Colombia’s need to “respond to threats posed by [the FARC] terrorist organization.”

The Washington Post has now revealed, in an in-depth article on CIA covert action in Colombia, that U.S. support for Colombia’s March 1 operation wasn’t just rhetorical.  The CIA – which maintained control over the “smart” GPS-guided bombs that were used in the operation – had given Colombia “tacit approval” to carry out the bombing.  Prior to the operation, U.S. officials had unlocked the bombs’ GPS system using a special “encryption key” they had designed to ensure that “the Colombians would not misuse the bomb.” According to the Post’s sources, which include current U.S. and Colombian officials, the discovery that Reyes, their main target, was located in Ecuadorean territory was “awkward” since: 

to conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.

The Air Force colonel had a succinct message for the Colombian air operations commander in charge of the mission. “I said, ‘Look man, we all know where this guy is. Just don’t f— it up.’”

U.S. national security lawyers viewed the operation as an act of self-defense. In the wake of 9/11, they had come up with a new interpretation of the permissible use of force against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the FARC. It went like this: If a terrorist group operated from a country that was unable or unwilling to stop it, then the country under attack — in this case, Colombia — had the right to defend itself with force, even if that meant crossing into another sovereign country.

Last week, Colonel German Alfaro, the commander of Operation Xatruch III in Honduras’ Aguan Valley, personally denounced Annie Bird, co-director of the U.S. and Canada-based human rights NGO Rights Action, on TV and radio, alleging among other things that she is engaging in “destabilization work” in the Aguan. The accusations, which were also covered in La Tribuna and Tiempo newspapers, came just after Bird accompanied campesinos in the Aguan to the Attorney General’s office to file human rights complaints, including some against Honduran soldiers. Alfaro also said he was opening an investigation into Bird’s activities.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement yesterday condemning Alfaro's accusations. This was followed by a statement today signed by representatives of 33 human rights, labor, faith-based and other organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Sisters of Mercy, and the Washington Office on Latin America calling on the State Department to denounce Alfaro's comments.

HRW's Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco also urged the U.S. government to condemn Alfaro's accusations:

Given its ongoing cooperation with Honduran security forces, the US government should use all the tools at its disposal to call a halt to verbal attacks on activists by senior Honduran military officials[.] Whether directed at human rights defenders or campesino leaders, such accusations only add to a climate of fear and intimidation.

Alfaro’s statements fit into an ongoing pattern of violence, intimidation and threats against human rights defenders in Honduras, both foreign and domestic, that has including the kidnapping by armed men of two European human rights defenders in July; threats and public accusations against American and Canadian human rights defenders and electoral observers ahead of and during the elections; and threats and public denunciations of Honduran human rights defenders like Bertha Oliva and Victor Fernandez.

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s “Open Letter to the People of Brazil” made headlines this week, with many U.S. and international media outlets characterizing it as a quid-pro-quo offer of help investigating NSA surveillance in Brazil in return for asylum. In an article about the letter, Folha de Sao Paulo – which also first published the letter -- stated, “US espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden has promised to cooperate with investigations into the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil. In order to do so, he wants political asylum from Dilma Rousseff's government in return.”

“Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum,” read a USA Today headline for a story about the letter (even though the article stated midway-through that “It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil”). The Financial Times ran a similar headline: “Edward Snowden offers Brazil help on spying in return for asylum.” CNN reported that Snowden was offering “a deal”: “Help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum.”

But in his letter, Snowden does not make his offer of assistance contingent on the asylum. He points out that the U.S. government has constrained his ability to travel, and will do so “[u]ntil a country grants permanent political asylum.”

It is also clear that Snowden is responding, in part, to requests from Brazilian senators for help in investigating U.S. spying in Brazil, which he says he is unable to do while in Russia. As Folha reported:

"Many Brazilian senators have asked my help with their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I expressed my willingness to assist, where it is appropriate and legal, but unfortunately the US government has been working very hard to limit my ability to do so," said the letter.

Snowden was referring to an open [Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry] in the Senate to investigate the activities of the NSA in Brazil, which included monitoring the phone calls and emails of both Dilma and Petrobras.

President Obama traveled to Soweto, South Africa this week for the memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela. Over 60 heads of state also attended the services, but only five were invited to speak - among them Cuban president Raúl Castro, with whom Obama shook hands – the first such greeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba since President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in 2000. Obama’s handshake with Castro was condemned by a number of Republican members of Congress. Senator John McCain likened it to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler, while perennial Cuba-hater Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – who in the past has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination – called it “a propaganda coup for the tyrant [Castro].” Cruz made headlines for himself by walking out on Castro’s speech at the ceremony, with a spokesperson saying that “Sen. Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela.”

But while Republicans have received attention for their criticism of the handshake – just as they did when Obama similarly greeted democratically-elected then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez in 2009 – Obama’s speech at the event has been described by some as a rebuke of some foreign governments, including Cuba’s. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said without apparent irony, while in Singapore a U.S. delegation was concluding (unsuccessfully) the latest round of efforts to get other countries to agree to a variety of controversial and potentially harmful measures in a proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. As we have described in a research paper, most U.S. workers would lose out from the planned TPP in the form of reduced wages.

As many analysts, historians and observers have pointed out, the condemnation of the Obama-Castro handshake is also ironic considering Mandela’s long appreciation for the Cuban government and its unwavering opposition to apartheid and similar racist regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa. Most notably, Cuba provided 36,000 troops to beat back the efforts of the South African military to crush independence in Angola.

As the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas points out, while Cuba provided Mandela, the African National Congress and South Africa with inspiration, guidance, resources, training and doctors, “The U.S. government, on the other hand, reportedly played a role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and subsequently branded him a terrorist -- a designation they only rescinded in 2008. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.” Then there’s the small matter of U.S. and South African support for the counter-revolutionaries in Angola. As Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books including Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 said yesterday in an interview with "Democracy Now”: “…the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation."

Bali, Indonesia - Early the morning of December 7th, in the talks of the 9th Ministerial meeting of the WTO, a paragraph was removed from draft text – obviously at the demand of the United States – relating to the embargo/blockade against Cuba. Members are here negotiating a deal on “trade facilitation,” which would simplify customs and border procedures, but which also puts binding conditions on developing countries to ensure fast and efficient transit procedures (meaning that other members could file cases against them in the WTO for failure to comply).

Civil society organizations working here have sharply criticized the texts for putting binding rules on developing countries for further pro-corporate liberalization commitments that are not to their advantage, while not offering enough changes to existing WTO rules which limit developing – but not developed – countries from investing in farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

Given the topic of the negotiations, facilitating trade, it must have appeared reasonable to Cuba to insert a paragraph setting down a binding rule against discriminatory measures on goods in transit. However, when negotiators convened on the last night of the conference at 9 p.m., after a long week of negotiations focused on other issues, and the Chair of the Ministerial distributed the draft text for final approval, Cuba noticed that its paragraph[1] had been removed. After repeated efforts to gain the floor, the Cuban Ambassador, Nancy Madrigal, appears to have been treated rather brusquely by the chair, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan of Indonesia, who did not even let her speak.

Upon reconvening the meeting, Ambassador Madrigal sought clarification of how the negotiations on the pending issues would continue, given that Cuba’s text had been removed without even the slightest consultations. The chair, however, did not offer a path to further negotiations, and instead was clearly expecting everyone to simply affirm their agreement. At that point Ambassador Madrigal read a statement on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) countries of Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela, rejecting the entire text.

What we have before us remain unbalanced and we will do everything within our reach and power so that the WTO does not continue to be used for neoliberal globalization. What we see is a perpetuation of subsidies and support policies used by developed countries that remain untouchable. It is inconceivable that an organization that [is accepting a deal on trade facilitation] is incapable of adopting one paragraph against discrimination on goods in transit. [paraphrased excerpt]

In El Paraíso, a city of 14,000 that sits right near Honduras’ border with Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party secured an impressive 81.4 percent of the vote. In second place, with 7.2 percent of the vote, was “invalid.”

Last week the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), declared that Hernandez had been elected president of Honduras with 35 percent of the vote, compared to 27.4 percent for Xiomara Castro, of the newly formed LIBRE party. Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 military coup. Alleging fraud, LIBRE has yet to recognize the results and is reportedly in discussions with the TSE to begin a recount process.

But no matter the outcome of the recount, if it ever occurs, there were numerous other irregularities on election day, including a number of reports of voter intimidation as well as other, perhaps more nefarious, means of voter manipulation. Although it is generally difficult to directly link election results to acts of voter intimidation, the case of El Paraíso provides an interesting example.

El Paraíso, in the Copan department[i] of Honduras, is located directly on what is known as the “road of death.” The road is a well-known drug trafficking route which travels through Honduras and on to Guatemala. The presence, and influence, of Mexican drug cartels has steadily been rising in the area. 

The mayor of El Paraíso, Alexander Ardón, who has referred to himself as “the king of the people”, is a member of the ruling National Party. A 2011 report from the Wilson Center states that, “Ardón works with the Sinaloa Cartel,” according to “Honduran police intelligence.” The report continues:

Ardón has built a town hall that resembles the White House, complete with a heliport on the roof, and travels with 40 heavily armed bodyguards. Cameras monitor the roads leading in and out of the town, intelligence services say. And there are reports that the mayor often closes the city to outsiders for big parties that include norteña music groups flown in from Mexico.

The 2013 Elections

In the weeks prior to the election on Sunday, November 24, rights groups in Honduras began to hear about possible fraud in El Paraíso. Prior to election day, with few local observers willing to go to polling places, a number of monitors were bussed in from other cities. The human rights group COFADEH released a statement on election day (see here for testimony from an electoral observer there), reporting that:

Also this day in the town of El Paraíso in the department of Copan, about 50 people who have been designated to monitor the election tables were locked in a hotel by over 100 armed men who threatened to burn them if they left the hotel to go to the voting centers.

Another group heading to 10 voting centers succeeded in making it through the obstacles at first, but on the way there the road was blocked by two Prado SUVs with heavily armed men who proceeded to stab their vehicles' tires with knives and threatened to kill anyone who continued toward their destination.

The intimidation seems to have its desired effect. In the two elections (2001 and 2005) prior to the 2009 military coup, El Paraíso had a voter turnout of 63 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In 2013, turnout was reported to be 85 percent. According to the official results from the TSE, the National Party took 81.4 percent of the vote. Looking deeper, the results are even stranger. There were 16,135 voting tables in Honduras; the ten which showed the highest number of votes for Hernandez were all located in El Paraíso. The 81.4 percent that went to the National Party was over 11 percentage points higher than in any other city in the entire country.

Overall, in Copan, the National Party took over 47 percent of the vote, one of their highest rates in the country.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has highlighted a slowing of progress in poverty reduction in Latin America, citing “rising food costs and weaker economic growth” as contributing factors:

Poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean is now easing at a slower pace, the UN's regional economic body said on Thursday, calling on governments to make policy changes that encourage growth while reducing the huge gap between the rich and poor.

UN economists based in Santiago said about 164 million people, or 28 percent of the region's population, are still considered poor. That is nearly unchanged from last year. Out of those, 68 million of them are in extreme poverty.

But there are bright spots. ECLAC’s new “Social Panorama of Latin America” report [PDF] notes that Venezuela and Ecuador led the region in decreasing poverty in 2012:

Six of the 11 countries with information available in 2012 recorded falling poverty levels (see table 1). The largest drop was in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where poverty fell by 5.6 percentage points (from 29.5% to 23.9%) and extreme poverty by 2.0 percentage points (from 11.7% to 9.7%). In Ecuador, poverty was down by 3.1 percentage points (from 35.3% to 32.2%) and indigence by 0.9 percentage points (from 13.8% to 12.9%).

This 5.6 percentage point decrease in Venezuela translates into a 19 percent decline in poverty overall last year, which CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot noted last month “is almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas for 2012, and one of the largest – if not the largest – in the world.” 

This dramatic decrease in poverty is likely due to the impact of two new misiones (social programmes), the Gran Misión En Amor Mayor Venezuela and the Gran Misión Hijos de Venezuela, which were, by January 2013, benefitting more than 1,400,000 people.

Monday November 25

8:30 P.M. EST: The National Lawyers Guild International Committee has released the following statement:

The National Lawyers Guild, with a delegation of 17 members who observed Sunday's elections in Honduras, will be issuing a press statement tomorrow.   In advance of that statement, the NLG International Committee wants to alert our members and other interested parties that US media and government reports of a free, fair and transparent election in Honduras are premature and inappropriate.  Such unsupported claims will only exacerbate tensions in a country that recently suffered a coup, followed by massive attacks on human rights defenders, opposition party candidates and activists that continue to this moment.  

Honduras has a flawed electoral system with many deficiencies including control of the process by political parties, unregulated and undisclosed campaign financing, and inadequate resources, training and voting facilities that disadvantage poor communities.  In addition Honduran electoral law provides for no run-off election. Without a runoff election in which a majority of voters choose leadership, the electoral aspirations of two-thirds of Honduran voters who voted for change, are frustrated, and the winner of a mere plurality is denied a real mandate.

The NLG will issue a press statement tomorrow to be followed by the delegation’s comprehensive report.

 

6:56 P.M. EST: Although the TSE has yet to announce the final results of the election, current Honduran president Porfirio Lobo has congratulated Juan Orlando Hernández on his election, reports La Prensa.

6:30 P.M. EST: The TSE continues to update their website with partial results, however a few discrepancies have emerged. The main page of the TSE website shows 61.77 percent of voting tables as having been counted, however on the results by department page, the TSE reports 57.99 percent of voting tables as having been counted. On the main page, the TSE reports a total of 15,147 voting tables while on the results by department page, the TSE reports a total of 16,135 voting tables.

The results by department page, which includes both null and blank votes, shows a total of 2,009,101 votes as having been processed. However if one adds up all the votes for each candidate as well as null and blank votes, the total is 1,928,450, a discrepancy of over 80,000 votes.

The TSE has yet to make any formal announcement today with updated results, but check the TSE website periodically for updates.


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