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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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Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a major address at the Organization of American States on U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he continued to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America as a partnership between “equal partners.” Kerry did not reveal any new policy changes, and his talk contained few specifics, but we can still take time to appreciate some of the contradictions in his statements.

First of all, it seems abundantly clear that the U.S. does not treat any country as its equal, especially not any Latin American country. This has been proven recently by the Obama administration’s disregard for “collateral damage” in the war on drugs and its support for the Cuba embargo despite opposition from all of the countries in Latin America, indeed all the world’s countries except Israel recently voted against the embargo at the U.N. Other examples are not hard to find.

Second, Kerry continued the U.S.’s half-acknowledgement of espionage targeting foreign citizens, leaders and companies. He incorrectly placed Latin American countries on the same side as the U.S. when he referred to “understandable concerns around the surveillance disclosures.” Actually, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have received praise for their work around U.S. government transparency – their disclosures are credited with having brought to light an issue of vital importance for international trade, sovereignty and human rights. The “understandable concerns” are about the surveillance itself. The postponement of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit was only the culmination of a long series of failures on the part of the U.S. government to offer an acceptable explanation or apology.

With Honduras’ presidential and legislative elections just around the corner (November 24), members of the U.S. Congress continue to weigh in, expressing concern over whether the process will be “free and fair,” and also decrying ongoing human rights violations. A letter from Senator Tim Kaine’s (D – VA) office, also signed by another 12 senators, warns that

Fragile institutions and a besieged judiciary have done little to punish the perpetrators of the violence, encouraging a climate of impunity and undermining citizens’ confidence that their political, civil and human rights will be protected.  Moreover, Honduran journalists are regularly the targets of violence and threats, and political candidates have been killed as a result of running for office. These challenges raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections. The United States must press the Government of Honduras to ensure the right of all its citizens to peacefully assemble, campaign and vote.

In a press release announcing the letter, Senator Kaine was quoted as saying:

“I’m very concerned by the ongoing violence in Honduras and the impact on the November 24 elections,“ said Kaine, who served as a missionary in Honduras in 1980. “We are receiving reports of threats against journalists and even assassinations of candidates.”

Emphasizing that the United States has no preferred outcome other than clean elections that win the confidence of the Honduran people, Kaine said, “only a legitimate Honduran government can work to stem the systemic violence, end criminal impunity, and create opportunities for Honduran youth.”

As we have previously noted, some 18 members of the LIBRE opposition party of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya – including candidates – have been murdered since May last year, at least as many as from all the other major political parties combined, according to a recent Rights Action report [PDF] that mostly cites Honduran media sources and human rights organizations.

A new CEPR report examines Honduras’ economy and finds that much of the economic and social progress experienced from 2006 – 2009 has been reversed in the years since. The paper shows that economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically since 2010, while poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply, with many more workers receiving less than the minimum wage. While some of the decline was initially due to the global recession that began in 2008, much of it is a result of policy choices, including a decrease in social spending.

honduras-inequality-one-pager

Click for a larger image or check out the report, "Honduras Since the Coup: Economic and Social Indicators."

The deployment of a new military police force, an initiative first proposed by National Party candidate, and president of the National Congress Juan Orlando Hernández, has emerged as an important contextual issue in U.S. media and analysis of Honduras’ fast-approaching presidential elections. Catherine Cheney, for example, wrote recently for World Politics Review:

Last week, in the midst of a political campaign that has focused heavily on public security, authorities in Honduras deployed 1,000 military police as part of an effort to address drug violence and organized crime in this Central American country, home to the highest homicide rate in the world.

The new police force is a demonstration of a central Hernández political campaign position in response to one of the biggest issues in the elections: soaring crime rates, and Honduras’ now infamous status as the “murder capital of the world.” As Henry Tricks wrote for The Economist:

…Mr Hernández has made security the central issue, even though polls show that the economy is just as much of a concern for most citizens. In relentless publicity slots, he accuses [LIBRE presidential candidate Xiomara] Castro of wanting to demilitarise the fight against crime (she denies this, saying she wants to use the military to secure the borders against drug traffickers). In contrast, he has put his weight behind the creation of a 5,000-strong military-police force, 1,000 of which have been deployed on city streets during the campaign.

Cheney cites experts who see the militarized police force as both poorly-trained and having a misplaced focus:

[Mark Ungar, a Latin America expert and professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center] said militarizing the police is harmful to both security and human rights, and diverts attention from reforming the police. “They’re not trained for security. They don’t know how to do criminal investigation or community policing. They’re trained to shoot,” Ungar said of the military police.

On Monday, October 21, the AULA blog published by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University had a post describing “[t]he dire state of the economy” in Venezuela that contained several errors:

  1. The authors state that “The opposition estimates an annual inflation rate of 49.4 percent.”  This is actually the official inflation rate for September 2012-September 2013, from the Venezuelan Central Bank – not an opposition estimate.  It’s also a sign that the authors are not familiar with the basic economic statistics of the country that they are writing about – in this case, one that was reported in all of the major news outlets in the Western Hemisphere a couple of weeks ago.
  2. Much worse, they assert that Venezuela had “a 29.9 percent increase in the poverty rate last year.”  In fact, Venezuela’s household poverty rate declined by 20 percent last year, almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas.  (The authors cite the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, but ECLAC does not have figures for last year, and ECLAC uses the same household survey data as the Venezuelan government, so it will show the same result in poverty when it analyzes this data. The World Bank has already posted the 2012 poverty data for Venezuela, showing the sharp decline in poverty for the year.)

Since the main analysis at the beginning of the article, about an alleged struggle between “pragmatists” and “ideologues” within the government, contains no links, references, or sources, the reader is left to wonder if this narrative is also fictional.  The piece ends with speculation about a possible military coup.

It’s true that most major media outlets have reached the point where there are practically no standards for reporting on Venezuela.  But this is a blog published by a university department, so we would expect higher standards than those of, e.g. Fox News.  There are plenty of haters around; in fact the vast majority of people who write about Venezuela hate the government.  It is surprising that this blog cannot find people who are better informed to express these views, or at least hire a student as fact-checker.

Members of the U.S. Congress are keeping a close watch on Honduras’ upcoming general elections.  In June of this year, 24 U.S Senators signed a letter expressing concern about the human rights situation in Honduras and requesting that Secretary of State John Kerry “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ upcoming November 2013 elections are free, fair and peaceful.”  On October 15th three members of the House of Representatives chimed in with their own letter to Kerry stating that:

the freedom and fairness of [the November 24] election is very much at risk, as human rights abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties, opposition candidates do not enjoy a level playing field, and state security forces are taking on an increasingly central, and ominous role in context of the election.

The House letter, signed by Representatives Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Mike Honda (D-CA), noted that the U.S. Embassy in Honduras “had not spoken forcefully about the militarization of the police under the impetus of one of the candidates [or] expressed concern with the National Party’s concentration of institutional power through illegal means.”  The letter focused in particular on “the acts of violence and intimidation against leaders of opposition parties, especially members of LIBRE”, a new left-leaning political party that sprung from the movement of resistance against Honduras’ 2009 coup.  Grijalva and his three colleagues requested that the Department of State “speak forcefully” against these attacks and noted that:

According to COFADEH, Honduras' leading human rights group, at least sixteen activists and candidates from LIBRE have been assassinated since June of 2012. Furthermore, it has been brought to our attention that the Honduras government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.

A few days later Agence France Presse (AFP) published an article that included an initial, albeit anonymous, U.S. government reaction to the Grijalva letter.  Unnamed State Department officials told AFP that they were also concerned about the police militarization taking place in Honduras, in the form of the new Military Police, launched with great fanfare by National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández, in his capacity as president of the Honduran Congress.  The Military Police actually appears as one of Hernández’s five key electoral proposals on his campaign web page.  “In our view”, said one of the anonymous officials, “the creation of a military police distracts attention from civilian police reform efforts and strains limited resources.”  The State Department stated that it was not providing assistance of any kind to the new force.

The imminent Honduran presidential elections have been met with polls published by a surfeit of different polling firms. Unfortunately, however, these are notably inconsistent and show significant differences in their results. While the majority project Xiomara Castro, wife of the deposed President Zelaya, as the winner, there is a notable divergence in the size of the lead. In the scant coverage that they have given, the international press has paid almost exclusive attention to the polls conducted by the noted U.S. polling company, CID-Gallup.

Gallup has a lofty reputation in the U.S. as the first modern pollster. It accurately predicted the result of the 1936 presidential election by using modern sampling methods, and in the process destroyed the reputation of the Literary Digest poll, which had previously been considered the most accurate because of its much larger sample. This demonstrated the importance of representative sampling in order to reliably predict voting intentions. However, in Honduras, Gallup’s polling data has been divergent from actual electoral results, suggesting a bias towards the (right-wing) National Party.

This is important as Gallup is the most prolific, widely quoted and one of the longest standing pollsters in Honduras. In 2005, the last relatively free election in Honduras,1 Gallup in two separate polls predicted poll leads of 8 percent and 16 percent respectively in favor of the National Party candidate, Porfirio Lobo. These polls, coming just weeks before2 the actual election, were remarkably divergent from the actual result that Manuel Zelaya won with 45.6 percent of the vote to Lobo’s 42.2. This raises questions about the reliability of the recent poll by Gallup, paid for by the National Party controlled Congress, ahead of the coming election showing Xiomara Castro de Zelaya with a lead —within the margin of error— of just 2 percent.

On August 15, Horacio Cartes, a millionaire, businessman, and alleged drug-trafficker assumed the presidency in Paraguay, leading the Colorado Party back into power after a four-year interruption from its 61-year rule by Fernando Lugo, who was deposed last year in a “parliamentary coup.” Cartes has been investigated by the U.S. government for money laundering and drug trafficking, according to this 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

Since Cartes started his term eight weeks ago, several announcements have been made regarding Paraguay’s social and economic policy that are worth noting.

Militarization

Only a week after having taken office, Paraguay’s Congress –in which the Colorado Party has a majority in both houses– granted the president the power to deploy the military within the country to carry out policing activities. Despite opposition from human rights organizations who fear a return to dictatorship-era military operations, three days later Cartes ordered 400 military personnel to areas in which disputes over land tenure are ongoing. On August 28th the military entered an elementary school with demands to interview children on the whereabouts of suspected rebels and arrested several land rights activists and peasant leaders in the area.

The military powers granted to Cartes are especially alarming in a country that spent most of the 20th century either in political turmoil or under brutal dictatorship. The increased militarization of the Cartes regime is occurring in a context of growing discontent over public sector layoffs and privatization plans.

Nearly 17 months ago, dozens of heavily-armed Honduran and U.S. police agents carried out a pre-dawn drug interdiction operation along the Patuca River that left two women, a teenager and a young man dead and several others injured.  There is no evidence that the dead victims or the 12 other individuals traveling on the same boat – six of whom were women and six of whom were children ranging in age from two to fourteen – had any ties to drug trafficking.  The tragic incident – which Rights Action and CEPR analyzed extensively in the report “Collateral Damage of a Drug War” – left over half a dozen orphans in its wake and deeply scarred the tightly knit indigenous community of Ahuas, where the shootings took place. 

As we noted in a recent follow-up report – “Still Waiting for Justice” – the judicial investigation of the incident remains woefully incomplete and neither the injured victims nor the relatives of the deceased victims have received any sort of compensation.  Particularly troubling is the fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which played a leading role in the May 11, 2012 operation, has failed to cooperate with Honduran investigators who have sought to question the DEA agents who participated in the mission and perform forensic exams on their firearms. 

In January of this year, 58 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern about the Ahuas killings and asking for a U.S. investigation of the incident to be carried out.  A full six months later, the DEA sent the 58 members a response which made no reference to the request for an investigation and provided a description of the DEA’s role in the incident which contains significant inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims. 

CEPR has obtained a copy of this letter and is making it available online [PDF].  Here is the complete text of the paragraph of the letter that addresses the Ahuas killings:  

On May 11, 2012, the Honduran TRT, supported by DEA FAST, were recovering over 400 kilograms of cocaine when there was an exchange of gunfire between suspected drug traffickers and Honduran TRT members.  Although no injuries were confirmed nor injured persons identified immediately after the shooting, media reports and a report subsequently issued by the GOH stated that two men and two women were killed on May 11, 2012.  The GOH report also determined that neither of the female decedents was pregnant, and that no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident.  According to the DEA’s Office of Inspections’ internal review, no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident.  Contrary to media reports referenced in your letter, all operations conducted under Operation Anvil were led by the GOH, with support from DEA and DOS.  All operations are planned, coordinated and executed with input and agreement from DOS, DEA and the GOH. 

Let’s now take a closer look at the assertions that the DEA makes in this paragraph:

A new report [PDF] from Rights Action examines the conflict in Río Blanco, Honduras, where the indigenous Lenca community has been involved in a stand-off against security forces and a major development company (Desarollos Energéticos, SA, or DESA) in order to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River. The report’s release comes just a few weeks after a court ordered the arrest of one of the most prominent figures opposing the dams, Berta Cáceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), on weapons and other charges that are widely seen as bogus. Two of Berta’s colleagues, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina also face charges under accusations that they “had instigated the protests” that have blocked access to the project site for over 185 days, and Amnesty International has declared that “If they are imprisoned,” the organization “will consider them prisoners of conscience.”

The case has attracted international support for COPINH, the persecuted activists, and the Lenca community of Río Blanco, with over 11,000 people having signed a MoveOn.org petition urging the U.S. government to tell the Honduran authorities to drop the bogus charges. Protests have been held in several cities in the U.S. and various Latin American countries in support of Cáceres, Gómez and Molina and the Río Blanco community. "In Honduras it is increasingly clear that those who oppose a government plan may be imprisoned," Ana Marcia Aguiluz of the Center for Justice and International Law told the Associated Press.

The Rights Action report addresses the charges against Cáceres and her colleagues, concluding that:

The public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary have aggressively and tendentiously prosecuted accusations against Lenca community members, and the human rights activists who support them.  The state has subjected human rights defenders to penal processes for actions which are simply the legitimate defense of the rights of indigenous communities.  This has led to the impending imprisonment of one of Honduras’ most recognized indigenous rights activists, Berta Caceres.

Last week, former CIA director David Petraeus coauthored a column with the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon hailing U.S. policy in Colombia as “one of the best stories on the national security front of the 21st century to date.” That same day, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stood before the United Nations in New York and recalled the more than 220,000 people who have been killed in the conflict over the past 50 years, emphasizing the “harsh and ugly reality of a conflict that [is] unfortunately, still in force.”

The juxtaposition of the two leaders’ statements points toward the U.S.’s ongoing focus on a militarized approach to the war on drugs, despite overwhelming evidence that suggests that Plan Colombia has been, according to Amnesty International, “a failure in every respect.”

Petraeus, a key driver of U.S. efforts to increase drone operations in the Middle East, touts Plan Colombia as a “success story” because of the massive increase in the size of Colombia’s armed forces and influx of new intelligence and targeting technology. Such measures for Colombia’s success remain predictably superficial, and are, moreover, divorced from the program’s stated aims to reduce cultivation and drug-related violence. While there has indeed been an increase in military presence since Plan Colombia’s inception in 2000, it has by no means been a victory for U.S. “security assistance.”

La Silla Vacía, a Colombian news and opinion website, has been publishing top ten lists with profiles and full explanations on various topics to map the “most powerful” individuals and organizations in Colombia.  For example, there have been lists describing who has the most influence in congress, in negotiating land reform and rural land rights, and in shaping public opinion (hint: the top spot goes to a former president).  Yesterday, they profiled the most influential actors in Colombia’s NGOs and civil society networks.  Topping of that list was U.S. federal government agency USAID.* 

According to foreignassistance.gov, the U.S. government is spending about $354 million this year in foreign assistance to Colombia, of which about 98 percent comes from USAID and the State Department.  This amounts to a lot of influence on public policy mainly through funding dozens of NGOs, as the article from La Silla Vacía explains.  Of course, the term “NGO” is notoriously flexible.  As we can see common conventions dictate that organizations primarily funded by foreign governments –namely the U.S. government—are be labeled NGOs. 

From interviews with six directors or former directors of NGOs and two former ministers, Juan Esteban Lewin, the piece’s author, was able to get a sense for how USAID shifts public policy discussion in Colombia.  The amount of financial resources available through USAID affects which issues Colombian NGOs work on.  As they compete with each other for funding, the NGOs end up shifting their focus to more closely match USAID’s four main working areas (three of which are related to post-conflict peace).  On the other hand, since a good part of the funds actually end up in the hands of USAID subcontractors—the article names Olgoonik Technical Services, Management Systems International and Chemonics—the money flowing into Colombian nonprofits from the U.S. government agency isn’t as large as it first appears. 

The author quotes one interviewee as saying that international funders “call the shots” and “dole out prominence to local NGOs” (“tienen la sartén por el mango y le dosifican el protagonismo a las ONG locales”).

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington last week and made a strong statement yesterday by using her speech at the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the U.S. for its illegal espionage activities in Brazil.  Currently, the U.S. government maintains that NSA information gathering is done for reasons of national security, but Rousseff argued at length that this argument “cannot be sustained” while calling for “a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet.”  President Obama, who spoke directly after her, made no reference to the NSA spy program or Latin America at all, even though it was widely expected that Dilma would bring up these issues. 

When the press reported that Rousseff had cancelled a state visit to Washington last week, many writers contextualized the decision by describing the revelations of NSA espionage in Brazil: from collecting data on millions of private communications, to hacking the networks of oil company Petrobras (majority owned by the state), and even gaining access to Dilma’s personal communications.

Other helpful context for Dilma’s decision would be the ongoing talks between her administration and the U.S. government since the news first broke of NSA activity in Brazil in early July.  Here are highlights of official meetings that show Dilma’s decision to cancel the visit came after repeated, high level communications with U.S. government representatives:

  • U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Rousseff talk over the phone for 25 minutes, and Biden offers to provide more information and technical details to Brazil, but no specific plans are reported. (7/19) 
  • U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon (now replaced by Liliana Ayalde) meets with officials at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, where Foreign Minister Figueiredo asks for “a formal written explanation… as soon as possible, this week.” (9/2)
  • Obama meets with Rousseff on the sidelines of the G20 economic summit, and afterward the Brazilian president says she wanted specifics on the spying: “I want to know everything they have.  Everything.” The Obama administration agreed to a one-week timeline for a formal response, according to Rousseff. (9/5)
  • National Security Advisor Susan Rice meets with Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, saying that the Obama administration wants to clarify the issue and has ordered a comprehensive review of the NSA. (9/11)

A new CEPR paper by economist David Rosnick examines the impact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade and investment agreement, modeled on NAFTA – could be expected to have on U.S. wages.  The TPP, which is currently being negotiated by 12 countries in Latin America, Asia, North America – as well as by Australia and New Zealand – would result in a net lowering of wages for most U.S. workers, as the inequality effect of the increased trade would outsize the miniscule economic growth projections associated with it. Latin American governments involved in TPP negotiations include Chile, Mexico and Peru, all of which already have NAFTA-style trade and investment arrangements with the U.S.

Economic growth and job creation have historically been promoted as key incentives for why countries should rush to enact such so-called “free trade” agreements. NAFTA, for example, was touted as offering tremendous economic potential to Mexico, with predictions that the country would become a “First World” nation. But Mexico’s growth – stagnant since the neoliberal era that began in the 1980’s – did not pick up following NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot and then-Research Associate Rebecca Ray noted in a paper last year:

Mexico’s economic growth since 2000 has not improved over that of the long-term failure of the previous two decades.  Its average annual per capita growth of 0.9 percent for 2000-2011 is about the same as the 0.8 percent annual rate from 1980 to 2000, and a small fraction of the 3.7 percent rate of the pre-2000 era.  

Mexico’s economy since 2000 has also performed very badly as compared with the rest of Latin America.  Its annual growth of GDP per person is less than half of the growth experienced by the rest of the region.

The impact on Mexico from the global recession – caused by the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble and bubbles in European countries – has been significant, and negative. Mexico, whose exports to the U.S. accounted for 21 percent of its GDP in 2007, suffered the worst output loss -- 9.4 percent of GDP -- in Latin America during the 2008-2009 recession. Although Mexico's growth was good in the three years of recovery since its recession, inspiring a spate of articles in the business press with high praise and hopes that 30 years of economic sacrifice had finally paid off, the economy shrank in the second quarter of this year and projections for 2013 have now been halved to a meager 1.8 percent growth.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network released its World Happiness Report for 2013 last week. Following up on the first such report, released last year, the U.N. says that the 2013 edition

delves in more detail into the analysis of the global happiness data, examining trends over time and breaking down each country’s score into its component parts, so that citizens and policy makers can understand their country’s ranking. It also draws connections to other major initiatives to measure well-being, including those conducted by the OECD and UNDP’s Human Development Report…

The World Happiness Report, as with similar such studies as the Happy Planet Index is in part a response to perceived shortcomings with traditional economic and social measures such as growth, poverty rates, employment, education, life expectancy and other indicators.

While U.S. media coverage of the report was not overwhelming, there was some. The report was also covered in numerous international outlets in countries throughout Europe, in Asia, Africa and Australia and New Zealand, among others. CNN noted that 

“On a regional basis, by far the largest gains in life evaluations in terms of the prevalence and size of the increases have been in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Sub-Saharan Africa", the report said. Reduced levels of corruption also contributed to the rise.

But CNN neglected to mention that Venezuela ranked first – again – among South American nations as happiest.

Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske gave a talk at the Institute of the Americas in San Diego. During the Q and A, audience member Aaron Montenegro asked her about the May 11, 2012 DEA-related shooting incident in Ahuas, in Honduras’ Mosquitia region in which four local, unarmed villagers were killed and several others wounded. (As Americas Blog readers know, CEPR has co-authored two in-depth reports on the incident with Rights Action, based on evidence and interviews with survivors, witnesses, and various U.S. and Honduran officials; and on a review of official investigations.  And we have blogged about ongoing developments regarding the case as well.)

A recording of the revealing exchange is posted here, and a full transcript follows:

Question:  I'd like to mention something that you didn't talk about, and that's the Ahuas case in Mosquitia and the lack of cooperation coming from the U.S. Embassy.  For those of you who don't know, in indigenous territory, the Mosquitia, there was a massacre that took place in the name of fighting narcotráfico, and this was taking place with U.S. State Department helicopters, with DEA agents and subcontracted Guatemalan pilots. And there has been a refusal to participate within this investigation as far as the ballistic tests are concerned.  So I would just like for you to maybe address that and why there hasn't been so much forward participation with that if you are talking about impunity. And then, another question I would like to 

Moderator: Wait a minute, let’s do that one...

Question: OK.

CELAC, a regional bloc that includes every country in the Americas except the U.S. and Canada, released a statement yesterday on the situation in Syria.  The group, whose rotating presidency is currently held by Raúl Castro of Cuba, called for an end to the violence in Syria by way of a negotiated political solution.  In the statement CELAC issued a reminder that any action on Syria must be approved by the U.N. Security Council in accordance with international law.  

Below is our translation of the statement, from the original text in Spanish.

***

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) deeply regrets the loss of human lives and expresses grave concern for the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, and for the dangers it poses to the Middle East and for international peace and security. 

CELAC expresses its strongest condemnation for the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, regardless of where they are used and who deploys them, and its member states reaffirm their full commitment to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction.

Therefore, we call upon those who have verifiable evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and those who have used them to turn in that evidence to the research teams set up by the United Nations, as part an effort that will fully clarify the facts and prevent further consequences. 

We ask that the Security Council, based on its vested powers and the Report of the Fact-Finding Mission on Syria, intensify its efforts for peace, so that the attacks might end, and resolve that if the use of chemical weapons is verified then those responsible will not be allowed impunity.  CELAC reminds that any action can only be taken by the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

CELAC, reiterating its commitment to peace and its respect for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in International Law, including International Humanitarian Law, demands an immediate end to the violence and that civilian populations be protected, and firmly calls to end the provision of weapons to the Syrian territories and to all sides, in order to avoid violence and attacks against civilian populations and to create the conditions whereby a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria that has cost thousands of innocent people their lives can progress. 

In this context, CELAC calls upon the Secretary General of the United Nations to continue his efforts to bring an end to the conflict and reiterates its support for Lakhdar Brahimi, United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy, and for an international conference on the situation in Syria.

President Obama is in St. Petersburg, Russia to participate in the G20 Summit today and tomorrow, amidst a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and several G20 member nations. Looming over the summit are the Obama administration’s plans for a possible military attack on Syria, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a U.S. military response without U.N. Security Council approval “can only be interpreted as an aggression" and UNASUR – which includes G20 members Argentina and Brazil, issued a statement that “condemns external interventions that are inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”

New revelations of NSA spying on other G20 member nation presidents – Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico – leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and first reported in Brazil’s O Globo, have also created new frictions. Rousseff is reportedly considering canceling a state visit to Washington next month over the espionage and the Obama administration’s response to the revelations, and reportedly has canceled a scheduled trip to D.C. next week by an advance team that was to have done preparations for her visit. The Brazilian government has demanded an apology from the Obama administration. In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, an anonymous senior Brazilian official underscored the gravity of the situation:

[T]he official, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the episode, said Rousseff feels "patronized" by the U.S. response so far to the Globo report. She is prepared to cancel the visit as well as take punitive action, including ruling out the purchase of F-18 Super Hornet fighters from Chicago-based Boeing Co, the official said.

"She is completely furious," the official said.

"This is a major, major crisis .... There needs to be an apology. It needs to be public. Without that, it's basically impossible for her to go to Washington in October," the official said.

Other media reports suggest that Brazil may implement measures to channel its Internet communications through non-U.S. companies. But when asked in a press briefing aboard Air Force One this morning, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes did not suggest that such an apology would be forthcoming:

Since the beginning of the global economic downturn in 2008 governments around the world have faced protests led by popular movements. 

Recently there have been mass protests close to home, in Brazil. These protests were initially sparked by a hike in bus fare prices and tensions over preparations for the FIFA World Cup but quickly developed into more complex nationwide movements demanding more government transparency, particularly with regard to public spending; increased investment in social safety-nets, and greater opportunities for political participation.

The Brazilian protests made big news headlines here in the States; the largest such protests in Brazil since the early 1990s. However, while there is worldwide attention to mass uprisings, there has been little U.S. media coverage of a national strike taking place in another nearby country, Colombia. As explained by Dave Johnson from the Campaign for America’s Future:

There is a big strike in Colombia, and you probably don’t know about it. Farmers and others are protesting over a variety of grievances including the devastating effect of free-trade agreements, privatization and inequality-driven poverty. Corporate-owned American media is not covering it... Almost the only American outlet covering this strike is the Miami Herald.

In fact, major news outlets like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have not covered the farmers’ national strike in Colombia to date (save for the Post’s running of a 127-word AP blurb on August 30). The New York Times has only acknowledged the Colombian farmers’ struggle in an article on the stalled Colombian peace talks from Saturday, August 24 and a 130-word note on August 31. The earlier article mentions the farmers’ struggle in passing:

The rebel group said in its statement that it needed to ‘focus exclusively’ on analyzing Mr. Santos’s proposal, while also criticizing the government's economic and social policies at a time when protests by farmers, truckers and coffee growers are roiling parts of the country.

As we have previously described, members of Congress have called for suspension of U.S. aid to Honduras’ police and military over allegations – and evidence – of human rights abuses, including forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. The U.S. State Department response has been one of deception and circumvention, with officials saying U.S. assistance to the Honduran police does not go to National Police Director Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla – at the same time that Honduran officials point out that Bonilla is of course in charge of all Honduran police officers.

It appears though that the State Department has no problem in halting support to rights-abusing police forces elsewhere when it wants. Reuters reported yesterday:

The United States has suspended assistance to the police department of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia as a result of allegations of serious human rights violations, the State Department confirmed on Thursday.



The allegations stem from 12 killings committed between 2010 and 2011, some of which were committed by an "ad hoc task force within the police department," a U.S. State Department Human Rights Report said.

The alleged extra-judicial killings stemmed from the circulation of a hit list targeting persons deemed to be criminals. Five suspects whose names were on that list were shot and killed during police operations.

A newly declassified intelligence estimate [large PDF] from the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) reveals that the U.S. military considers International Monetary Fund (IMF) policy constraints on Honduras to be a factor that could lead to greater unrest. The memo is dated July 22, 2011 and was originally designated as “SECRET/ORCON/NOFORN” (meaning “Dissemination & Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator” and “Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals/Governments/Non-US Citizens”).

In assessing Honduras’ “social environment,” the memo states:

Economic conditions in Honduras will have a tremendous impact on the social environment over the mid to long term. Efforts to combat rampant poverty, inequality, and unemployment will continue to be hindered by budgetary pressures. Over the medium term, IMF-established targets aimed at boosting Honduran macroeconomic stability will continue to reign in public expenditures. Should key social programs remain under- or unfunded, preexisting socio-economic cleavages between the poor and elite business sectors may be further aggravated and lead to an escalation in protests.

The document comes back to this theme in its conclusion, with the last two sentences reading:

Honduras' progress towards compliance with IMF guidelines and recent full reintegration into the international community increase the likelihood of the country receiving expanded international aid. However, as Honduras continues to reign in its domestic fiscal policy to remain in compliance with IMF mandates, the nation will continually struggle to effectively respond to growing security and socio-economic concerns. [Emphasis added.]


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