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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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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.]

Last week, reports came out that a woman was “brutally attacked” by four men who “stripped [her] of all of her clothing” in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, while she was walking home from an event hosted by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.  It appears that Arely Victoria Gomez Cruz was attacked “on a public street in full view of many people” primarily because she is a transgender woman.  Just two blocks away from where she was attacked, Walter Tróchez, a gay man and member of the resistance movement to the coup, was killed in 2009.  These two events, one shortly after the June 2009 military coup and the other within the past week, illustrate something about the type of violence going on in Honduras: Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world and, since the coup that forced out democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, over 90 LGBT people have been killed.

As of late, the mainstream media has focused a great deal on LGBT rights in Russia as a result of the Russian government’s new law criminalizing expressions of “nontraditional sexual relationships.”  But the rash of killings and other violent attacks on members of Honduras’ LGBT community have received relatively little attention in the U.S. media.  It’s worth noting that the media uproar around the state of LGBT rights in Russia has come on the heels of U.S. government criticism of the draconian law earlier this month.  Yet the law was actually passed several months ago, on June 11th, and signed by Putin at the end of that month.  Could Russia’s August 1st decision to grant temporary asylum to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden have something to do with the sudden explosion of interest in this issue?   

The new U.S. government and media attention to LGBT rights in Russia seems to bear all the hallmarks of “pinkwashing,” a phenomenon involving a government or company deliberately highlighting support for gay rights while ignoring or downplaying other relevant human rights issues.  In this case, while the U.S. government seeks to raise the profile of violations of LGBT rights in Russia, it stays mum, or at least speaks up less, when it comes to LGBT rights in countries that are official friends, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Similarly, we hear little praise for countries that have made great strides in LGBT rights if they are official enemies, such as Cuba, where the daughter of the current president leads that country’s National Center for Sex Education.  Mariela Castro, who helped pass a law expanding access to sex affirmation surgery as part of the island’s national health system, had to fight a travel ban recently in order to attend an international awards dinner in New York.

After two months of protests that started over price gouging in public transportation and spread to a variety of issues spanning the political spectrum, positive results are beginning to be seen in Rio de Janeiro, where governor Sérgio Cabral, once touted in the New York Times as a possible 2014 presidential candidate is now so unpopular that socialist former mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo said that he doesn’t think he could even get elected as a condominium residents association secretary.

Sérgio Cabral (right) with businessman Eike Batista. (Photo by Brazil 247)

During the last week a series of measures was announced that seem to show a turning of the tide against the hegemony wielded by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the Rio de Janeiro state and municipal governments over local residents.

First, after spending over $500 million rehabbing the structurally sound Maracana stadium – its third multi-million rehab in a dozen years - the plan to privatize and sell it off to a group of cronies for a fraction of that value has been stalled. The landmark status for the neighboring high school and Indigenous museum buildings has been upheld by the court system, so they can no longer be destroyed to create a parking garage. Furthermore, the federal government has blocked destruction of the public swimming pool and athletic track that made up part of the stadium compound. According to the privatization agreement, these are deal killers. The original plan was to surround the stadium with parking garages and luxury shops for the white, middle-class patrons who would now be the only ones able to easily afford ticket prices.  The consortium that was poised to take over management of the stadium announced that it was going to back out, then changed its mind but still hasn’t closed a deal. It appears that the new, expensive ticket prices are keeping fans away and this might prove to be a deciding factor in blocking privatization.

This past Tuesday, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald testified before the Brazilian Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense (CRE) at a public hearing on the clandestine surveillance activities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil.

Greenwald, who has published many top-secret NSA documents leaked to him by whistleblower Edward Snowden, explained how the agency’s surveillance programs go far beyond gathering intelligence related to terrorism and other national security threats, as the U.S. government has suggested. According to Greenwald, NSA spying has focused on foreign business interests as a means for the U.S. government to gain a competitive advantage in negotiations. Greenwald mentioned that he has information regarding instances of NSA surveillance of the Organization of American States (OAS) and secret intelligence documents on economic agreements with Latin American nations. He explained that this type of surveillance has helped the U.S. to make the agreements appear more appealing to Latin American countries. Brazil’s concern about this economic espionage is particularly understandable given that it is the U.S.’s largest trading partner in South America.

During the hearing, Greenwald made reference to a 2009 letter wherein Thomas Shannon, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (from November 2005 – November 2009) and current U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, celebrated the NSA’s surveillance program in Latin America and how it has helped advance U.S. foreign policy goals in the region. Greenwald wrote a detailed account of his findings in an article entitled “Did Obama know what they were thinking?” in the Brazilian print magazine, Época. In this piece, Greenwald explains that Shannon’s letter, addressed to NSA Director Keith Alexander, discusses how the spy agency obtained hundreds of documents belonging to Latin American delegations detailing their “plans and intentions” during the summit. Shannon asserted that these documents were instrumental in helping the Obama administration engage with the delegations and deal with “controversial subjects like Cuba” and “difficult counterparts” like former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and Bolivian President, Evo Morales. In the same letter Shannon encouraged Alexander to continue providing similar intelligence as “the information from the NSA will continue to give us the advantage that our diplomacy needs,” especially ahead of an upcoming OAS General Assembly meeting in which he knew discussions on Cuba’s suspension from the OAS would ensue.

Much of New York City grows eerily quiet in the late summer, but on Monday, August 6th one corner of Manhattan – 777 United Nations Plaza – was buzzing with activity.  Argentinean president Christina Kirchner, accompanied by 12 Latin American foreign ministers and a number of other foreign dignitaries, had come to kick off her country’s one-month presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by personally chairing the month’s first open debate of the Council.  It is rare for a head of state to preside over UNSC debates, but Kirchner has consistently sought to raise Argentina’s profile on the world stage and, as a key promoter of Latin American integration, is clearly determined to use the Council’s global bully pulpit to bolster the international clout of the region’s new multilateral organizations.  Thus the August 6 open debate which Kirchner chaired was on “cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.” 

Along with representatives of the EU and the Arab League, the foreign ministers of Cuba, Peru and Venezuela were in attendance representing, respectively, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur).  It was the first time that representatives of both CELAC, launched in Caracas in 2012, and UNASUR, launched in Brasilia in 2008, spoke before the Council.

Kirchner used her midday speech at the UN to highlight the achievements of CELAC and UNASUR in helping resolve internal and bilateral political conflicts in the region.  As an example she cited the role of the Rio Group – CELAC’s predecessor – in resolving the heated dispute between Ecuador and Colombia resulting from the latter’s decision to invade and bomb its neighbor’s territory in March of 2008.  She also mentioned UNASUR’s successful efforts to put an end to the violent destabilization campaign against Bolivian president Evo Morales in September of 2008. 

Perhaps due to time constraints, Kirchner didn’t mention the successful mediation carried out by her late husband and political predecessor Nestor Kirchner who, as Secretary General of UNASUR was instrumental in repairing relations between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela.  Nor did she mention UNASUR’s strong opposition to the 2009 Honduran coup which played a role in greatly delaying international recognition of Honduras’ post-coup governments.  Contrary to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), both bodies firmly opposed recognizing elections held in Honduras without the prior restoration of the country’s democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has finally been granted asylum by a country that he’s actually able to travel to.  Regardless of whether asylum in Russia is only temporary, this is precisely the situation that the U.S. government has been trying to avoid ever since Snowden’s identity became known on June 9thAccording to the State Department, “Mr. Snowden is not a human rights activist, he’s not a dissident, he’s been accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three very serious felony counts, and must be, should be, returned to the United States to face a free and fair trial as soon as possible.” 

When confronted with accusations that the extreme measures taken by the Obama administration to try to capture Snowden are a form of political persecution, the State Department offers contradictory rebuttals, first saying, “he would be tried as any U.S. citizen would be, and he remains a U.S. citizen.”  and then stating, “I wouldn’t want to compare [Snowden’s] case to any other case in the U.S. or elsewhere.”  This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incoherent public statements made by U.S. government officials trying to justify their pursuit of Snowden. 

Many countries have received threats or suffered blowback for even considering Snowden’s asylum request.  Indeed, in perhaps one of the more dramatic moments so far in the Snowden saga, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, had his plane rerouted and searched based on an unfounded suspicion that Snowden was on board.  Given that Snowden seems to have found himself a stable living situation - at least for now - let’s step back for a moment and review some of the actions and statements of the Obama administration and members of the U.S. congress with regard to Snowden.  They reveal how important this case is to the government, and also some of the contradictions that have emerged in the process:

  1. Various parts of the U.S. government were involved in trying to win China’s cooperation with efforts to capture Snowden, and after he left for Russia strong words were used to illustrate U.S. frustration with China.  White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on June 24:
  2. I think it’s fair to say that this is a setback in the effort by the Chinese to help develop mutual trust.  And I think, as we’ve said with regards to the failure by Hong Kong to provisionally arrest Mr. Snowden, that we don’t buy suggestions that the Chinese weren’t a part of -- that this was just a logistical or technical issue in Hong Kong alone.  So we do believe it’s a setback.  

    While censuring China, he also tried to build a case for why Russia should cooperate:

    I can note, as I have, that we have worked cooperatively with the Russians in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and have a fairly substantial history of law enforcement cooperation with Russia as a backdrop to this discussion.  But I wouldn’t want to characterize communications at this point or speculate about outcomes.  This is clearly fluid and we’re monitoring --

    Although it is difficult to be certain since other bilateral meetings were not open to the public, it seems like this tough rhetoric was not toned down during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

A contentious new law on “development promotion” that quickly passed the Honduran congress last month has provoked alarm in communities already trying to halt projects that could roll over indigenous rights and damage the environment. The “Ley de Promoción del Desarrollo y Reconversión de la Deuda Pública” (Development Promotion and Public Debt Restructuring Act) – passed under unusual and controversial congressional rules - will facilitate the sale of various public and natural resources for development purposes.

Legislators promoting the bill cited Honduras’ fiscal woes, saying revenue generated through the sale of concessions and of public assets would help the government pay off its debt. A new report [PDF] from the Congressional Research Service notes:

Honduras suffered an economic contraction of 2.4% in 2009 as a result of the combined impact of the global financial crisis and domestic political crisis. Although the economy has partially recovered, with estimated growth of 3.3% in 2012, the Honduran government continues to face serious fiscal challenges. The central government’s deficit has been growing in recent years. As it has struggled to obtain financing for the budget, public employees and contractors occasionally have gone unpaid and basic government services have been interrupted. Honduras also continues to face significant social disparities, with over two-thirds of the population living in poverty.

The CRS report goes on to state that “President Lobo also inherited a weak economy with high levels of poverty and inequality.” But as we described in a November 2009 report, “poverty and inequality decreased significantly during the Zelaya administration, with rapid growth of more than 6 percent during the first two years,” and “Some expansionary monetary policy was used to counter-act the global downturn in 2008.” This was interrupted by the coup – the “domestic political crisis” referred to by CRS -- to which we noted the Honduran economy was “especially vulnerable,” as well as to the global economic downturn.

Colonel Denise Lind has announced [PDF] that she found U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning “guilty” of five counts of violating the vaguely-worded Espionage Act, among other charges -- carrying a possible sentence of over 100 years imprisonment -- for providing information to journalists including those at Wikileaks. Manning had been prosecuted for over 20 charges, including “aiding the enemy.” Manning had pled guilty to 10 lesser offenses.

Manning faced possible life imprisonment were he to have been found guilty of the charge of “aiding the enemy,” which U.S. government prosecutors claimed he did since material Manning is said to have leaked was made available to Al Qaeda following its publication by Wikileaks. (Glenn Greenwald has suggested that Bob Woodward published “far more sensitive” information – which actually was read by Osama bin Laden – than Wikileaks did.)

Manning is just one of eight whistle-blowers to be charged under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration – more than twice as many as all other presidents combined – demonstrating an unprecedented campaign against those who expose government wrong-doing. It also represents an assault on the freedom of the press, since one significant impact will be that fewer whistle-blowers will be as likely to go to the media with previously undisclosed evidence of U.S. government misdeeds. As Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said, “[I]t seems clear that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future."

In addition to the ACLU, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the verdict, among others.

This month, readers of The Atlantic were treated to a lengthy article documenting alarming threats to democracy in certain Latin American countries with progressive and leftist heads of government. The piece, written by Kurt Weyland and titled “Why Latin America is Becoming Less Democratic,” is riddled with significant errors and mischaracterizations. Perhaps even worse, editors at The Atlantic didn’t make clear that the article was first published in a “journal” that is funded by the U.S. government.

The original article was published in the Journal of Democracy, which has long focused on providing analysis to justify U.S. government intervention abroad.  The Journal of Democracy is an official publication of the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) International Forum for Democratic Studies. Although nominally a “nongovernmental” organization, the NED receives most of its funding from the U.S. Congress.  In 1991, Allen Weinstein, who helped found the NED and then became its acting president, told the Washington Post, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA" [1].

Some examples of the NED’s work include using U.S. government resources to fund groups and individuals involved in the short-lived 2002 coup d’état in Venezuela, and two years later funding organizers of the recall effort against then-president Hugo Chávez. One of the NED’s core grantees is the International Republican Institute, which played a major role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Haiti in 2004.

These are just a few examples that highlight the NED’s disreputable history in Latin America, which would take far more space than a blog post to tell.  While it clearly would have been worth noting the source of the article, the article itself is full of both factual errors and egregious mischaracterizations.  To keep this post brief, I’ll only review a few of the most egregious errors here.

  1. Weyland writes: “Since the third wave reached Latin America in 1978, the region had seen only occasional threats and temporary interruptions of democracy in individual nations.”
  2. This statement is only reasonable if one completely ignores the U.S. government’s role in the region, which constituted a threat to democracy that was neither “temporary” nor limited to “individual nations.”  Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. conducted a massive and well-organized campaign, especially in Central America, using Cold War pretexts to install and support leaders who would foster favorable conditions for U.S. business interests. 

The Hill is reporting that “A House panel unanimously voted Wednesday to limit the U.S. share of the Organization of American States [OAS] regular budget to 50 percent or less.”  Does this mean that members of Congress have come to realize the OAS’s role in arbitrarily changing the result of Haiti’s 2010/2011 elections?   Do they want to limit the U.S.’s enormous influence over parts of the OAS? 

Nope.  Members of Congress have introduced this and other bills to limit U.S. support for the OAS precisely for the opposite reason:  they believe that the OAS is no longer an effective tool for “defending U.S. interests abroad,” and this is only the latest attempt to punish deviation from Washington’s objectives.  Here is an excerpt from research prepared for Congress that shows the limits of “bipartisan” debate on this topic:

U.S. policymakers have responded to the United States’ declining ability to advance its policy preferences within the OAS in a number of ways. Some Members of Congress allege that the OAS has allied itself with anti-U.S. regimes, and is weakening democracy in Latin America. Accordingly, they maintain that support for the OAS runs counter to U.S. objectives in the hemisphere, and that the United States should withhold funding from the organization. Others disagree, arguing that OAS actions continue to closely align with U.S. priorities in many cases, and that defunding the OAS would amount to the United States turning its back on the Western Hemisphere. They maintain that weakening the one multilateral forum that includes every democratic nation of the hemisphere would strengthen the hands of hostile governments while further weakening U.S. influence in the region.

In other words, the debate seems to be whether the goal of defeating our government’s official enemies would best be served by maintaining funding or reducing funding to the OAS.  Few in Congress question why we are making enemies with democratic countries in Latin America, or countries that pose no threat to the U.S., such as Cuba.

Thirty years ago, the international development community was abuzz with excitement. This was because it appeared that the perfect solution to poverty, exclusion and under-development had finally been found in the form of microcredit. As originally conceived, microcredit is the provision of micro-loans to the poor to allow them to establish a range of income-generating activities, supposedly facilitating an escape from poverty through individual entrepreneurship and self-help. Perhaps nowhere more than in Latin America was the excitement so intense. Stoked by the uplifting claims of Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto [1], that a vastly expanded informal economy would prove to be the economic salvation of the continent, the U.S. government through the World Bank and its own aid arm, USAID, along with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), led the charge to establish the microcredit movement as the dominant local intervention to address poverty.

However, the sour reality that Latin America faces today is that all the excitement over microcredit was fundamentally misplaced. As I argue in a recent article [PDF] published in the Mexican journal Ola Financiera, the microcredit movement has likely proved to be one of the most destructive interventions brought to Latin America over the last 30 years. A growing number of Latin American governments and international development agencies are now finally reconsidering their once unconditional support for the microcredit model. So what went wrong? Let me point to a few of the most important problems.

First, the overarching outcome of the microcredit model in Latin America has been an increase in the supply of “poverty-push” informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures. Yet rather than creating a De Soto-esque foundation for rapid growth and poverty reduction, the very worst possible foundation for promoting long-term poverty reduction and sustainable development was created. As economists such as Alice Amsden, Robert Wade and Ha-Joon Chang have convincingly shown, the now wealthy developed countries and the East Asian “miracle” economies found that what is really needed to escape poverty is for the state to engineer an entirely different constellation of the “right” enterprises: that is, enterprises that are formalized, large enough to reap important economies of scale, can innovate, can use new technology, are willing to train their workers, can supply larger enterprises with quality inputs, can facilitate new organizational routines and capabilities, and can eventually export. Economic history shows, too, that financing the expansion of the “wrong” sort of informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures will simply not lead to sustainable development. As Ha-Joon Chang brilliantly points out, Africa has more individual entrepreneurs than perhaps any other location on the planet, and many more are being created all the time thanks to rafts of microcredit programs backed by the developed countries, yet Africa remains in poverty precisely because of this fact. Likewise in Latin America: by programmatically channelling its scarce financial resources (savings and remittances) into informal microenterprises and self-employment ventures, and so away from virtually all other higher-value uses, the continent has actually been progressively destroying its economic base.

ABC, the far-right newspaper in Spain, has again been caught running a false report related to Venezuela. On July 18, the paper reported that Secretary of State John Kerry had phoned Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua and told him that the U.S. government was enacting a raft of sanctions against Venezuela for its having offered political asylum to whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The punitive measures, according to ABC, included revoking the visas of senior officials' and Venezuelan businessmen’s “associated with chavismo” (which the paper reported had already begun a week earlier), and suspension of U.S. exports of gas and oil derivatives to Venezuela. The paper also reported that Kerry had informed Jaua that the U.S. would not permit any Venezuelan plane suspected of carrying Snowden to fly over either U.S. or NATO-member country airspace, unless the plane was a presidential flight carrying President Nicolás Maduro himself. “Immunity is not for the plane, but the president,” ABC’s “sources” cited Kerry as saying.

The report was picked up by a number of Venezuelan media outlets, including the opposition-oriented El Universal, the Miami-based Venezuela Al Día, and even what is widely considered Venezuela’s most objective newspaper, Últimas Noticias. U.S. English-language media outlets were more cautious, with only UPI running an article summarizing the ABC report prior without waiting for verification from the State Department.

But AFP reported on Saturday:

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that Kerry spoke about Snowden by telephone on July 12 with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.

But she denied as "completely false" a report in the Spanish newspaper ABC that Kerry had threatened to suspend sales of gasoline or oil products to Caracas if it granted Snowden asylum.

"The secretary made no reference in his conversation with Foreign Minister Jaua as to what our response would be if Venezuela were to assist Mr. Snowden or receive him," she said, reading from a statement.

A group of Latin America scholars have taken issue with the supposed “irony” of Edward Snowden’s requests for asylum in Ecuador, and acceptance of asylum in Venezuela. The authors debunk what they say “has become a media meme” that it is “ironic” that a whistle-blower and free press advocate like Snowden would seek asylum in those countries. The authors point out, “most media outlets in Ecuador and Venezuela are privately-owned, and opposition in their orientation.”

The letter also offers important context and corrections of reports that seem to discredit the governments of Ecuador under President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Venezuela under Hugo Chávez (and now Nicolás Maduro), which “contribute to a climate of demonization that enables U.S. aggression against those countries and damages relations between the people of the U.S. and our foreign neighbors.” While the media contacts for the letter say they have received few responses from the reporters and editors to whom they sent the letter, it has received some attention, with Chicago Public Media station WBEZ interviewing Ecuador expert Steve Striffler (at 22:30) on their “World View” program yesterday and posting an article about the letter on their site here.

Here is the full text:

The supposed “irony” of whistle-blower Edward Snowden seeking asylum in countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela has become a media meme. Numerous articles, op-eds, reports and editorials in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and MSNBC have hammered on this idea since the news first broke that Snowden was seeking asylum in Ecuador. It was a predictable retread of the same meme last year when Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and the Ecuadorian government deliberated his asylum request for months.

Of course, any such “ironies” would be irrelevant even if they were based on factual considerations.  The media has never noted the “irony” of the many thousands of people who have taken refuge in the United States, which is currently torturing people in a secret prison at Guantanamo, and regularly kills civilians in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries. Nor has the press noted the “irony” of refugees who have fled here from terror that was actively funded and sponsored by the U.S. government, e.g. from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, and other countries.

I have lived in Brazil for 18 years.  Yesterday I decided that an opportunity to protest for a 40-hour workweek was too important to pass up, and headed to Rio de Janeiro’s Candelaria square to march with the unions.

The march was part of a general strike held across Brazil yesterday. Across the country banks, ports, factories and construction projects shut down.  Protesters closed off 50 highways in 18 states.  In Brasilia, the Landless Peasant’s Movement (MST) occupied the Incra (agrarian reform) Federal Ministry.  The strike was coordinated by a group of 70 union federations, such as the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT; the Unified Workers' Central, in English) and Força Sindical, the national student union (UNE) and social movements like the MST. 

(Photo by Brian Mier)

After meeting with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden today, Human Rights Watch issued a statement reiterating their appeal for his asylum case to be treated fairly. The statement read:

“Edward Snowden has a serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by Russia or any other country where he may apply,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “He should be allowed at least to make that claim and have it heard.”

Snowden has disclosed serious rights violations by the US. But US law does not provide sufficient protection for whistleblowers when classified information is involved. The US has charged Snowden, among other things, with violating the Espionage Act, a vague law that provides no exceptions or defenses to whistleblowers who disclose matters of serious public importance.

Washington’s actions appear to be aimed at preventing Snowden from gaining an opportunity to claim refuge, in violation of his right to seek asylum under international law.

But while human rights organizations and legal experts have pointed out the compelling case for granting Snowden asylum, most of the media continues to treat offers from Latin America as nothing more than governments “thumbing their noses” at the U.S. A front page article in today’s New York Times on the U.S. pressuring Latin American governments to not accept Snowden’s asylum doesn’t quote any organization or individual making the legal case for asylum, but does quote former American ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson:

“What I think is going on among Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua and possibly others is, who can replace Chávez as the main U.S. antagonist?”

The article also points out that the U.S. is threatening these countries, whose only action has been to consider asylum for Snowden, as human rights groups have recommended. The Times quotes an anonymous official:

“There is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point,” a senior State Department official focusing on the matter said recently, adding that helping Mr. Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.”

“If someone thinks things would go away, it won’t be the case,” the official said.

Revelations of extensive NSA spying on several Latin American countries have further weakened U.S. relations with neighbors south of the border. Colombia, Mexico and Argentina are demanding answers, Peruvian president Ollanta Humala condemned the spying, and the Brazilian Senate has called on U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon to testify about the U.S. surveillance of millions of Brazilian citizens.

As we have noted, an Organization of American States resolution passed on Tuesday – with the U.S. and Canada dissenting – further demonstrates Washington’s current political isolation in the hemisphere. The resolution expressed “solidarity” with Bolivia and its president, Evo Morales and “firmly call[s] on the Governments of France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to provide the necessary explanations of the events that took place” related to President Morales’ plane being denied airspace and forced to land in Austria, whereupon it was searched, apparently due to bad U.S. intelligence that Edward Snowden was on board. (CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot touches on theories of a “dry run”/rehearsal response to Snowden leaving Russia here.)

The targeting of President Morales’ plane is all the more egregious considering the U.S. government’s ongoing refusal to extradite Bolivia’s former president Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada for serious human rights crimes related to the shooting of protesters in 2003. Goni lives comfortably just outside Washington, D.C. in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and as a member emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue is close to Washington foreign policy circles. The worst allegations that pundits have leveled at Snowden are that his leaks could endanger Americans – allegations for which there is no evidence. The case against Goni, however, is serious: he is believed to be responsible for ordering the military to attack protesters, resulting in the shooting deaths of over 67 and injury to over 400.

Late on July 9th, after many hours of negotiations, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (made up of the representatives of the 34 active member countries of the OAS) approved a resolution expressing solidarity with President Evo Morales of Bolivia, condemning violations of international law and the inviolability of heads of state, and “firmly” calling on France, Portugal, Italy and Spain to provide the “necessary explanations” as well as apologies "as appropriate."  The resolution comes on the heels of similar statements by other regional bodies, namely UNASUR and CELAC, strongly rejecting the four countries’ decisions to deny airspace access to the plane of President Morales due to the suspicion that U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden was traveling aboard the plane.   In the words of the OAS resolution, by their actions the four European countries “potentially [compromised] the safety of the Bolivian President and his entourage; and [violated] international law.”

Nearly every country in the region backed the resolution.  The only holdouts were Canada and the U.S., identified in footnotes as refusing to join the regional consensus in support of the resolution.  The U.S. has been identified as having provided the four European governments with the false intelligence regarding Snowden’s presence on the plane, according to Reuters, and could hardly be expected to condemn its European partners, especially given that their actions have resulted in a particularly serious diplomatic crisis, affecting European relations with a number of Latin American countries.  But, rather than try to block the resolution entirely, the U.S. and Canada – which has almost systematically backed the U.S. agenda at the OAS in recent years – chose instead to discreetly voice their opposition in the form of footnotes.  Nevertheless, the two countries’ rejection of the resolution has been noted in the Latin American media; the U.S. in particular appears to be more isolated in the region than ever.

This article in The Hill, Obama administration set to make NSA leaker Snowdens trip tough, looks at some of the possibilities for Snowden flying to safety without running into interference from the U.S. government or its allies.  It contains this interesting speculation:

“Morales was forced to refuel in Austria, which is not a NATO member. Snowden was not aboard the flight, but some have speculated that it might have been a dry run to test how a flight carrying the accused felon would fare over NATO-member countries.”

Dry run by whom?  I don't think Evo could have fooled the U.S. into thinking that Snowden was on his plane.  More likely a "dry run" by the U.S. -- especially since they were almost certainly watching Evo's plane and knew exactly who boarded it and who didn't.  If U.S. intelligence agencies didn't do that, then they are more incompetent than anyone can imagine.

The article isn’t very convincing on the eastern route:

“Traveling eastward from Moscow also looks dim. It would involve a nearly eight-hour flight across Russia that would touch dangerously close to Chinese and Japanese airspace. There would be no likely sympathetic refueling destination in the Pacific Ocean on the way toward South America.”

It’s not clear what the problem is with Chinese airspace; there is no evidence that they want to interfere with Snowden’s travels.  Also, it’s not clear why Snowden couldn’t refuel in eastern Russia, and then fly down the Pacific in international air space to friendly countries in South America, which would be well within range of a non-stop flight for a decent private plane.

The question then would be whether the U.S. would flagrantly violate international law, and do what Obama previously said he wouldnt do, by going after his plane in international air space.  This is something that a reporter should ask the White House.

CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot did an interview via email with one of Greece’s leading daily newspapers, Eleftherotypia last week. The interview, which occurred prior to the news that Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia had offered political asylum to Edward Snowden, appears in Eleftherotypia today. Mark’s original responses, in English, appear below:


Eleftherotypia: Why do you think Snowden did it?  He has destroyed his life now. Does he have a very high sense of justice or is there something else behind it?

Mark Weisbrot: I think he explained his reasons very eloquently in his first public interview, with Glenn Greenwald, and especially this:

I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there, day to day, in the office, watches what happening­, and goes, "This is something that’s not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."

I think he strongly believes this.  He is against the idea of government deciding major issues of public policy in secret.


What will happen to him? How do you see the asylum requests developing?

He has at least three countries -- Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela -- that are almost guaranteed to give him asylum.  There are numerous others that would give him asylum or refugee status if he showed up in their territories, which includes their embassies.  So the main problem right now is transportation.  But I think that will be resolved, sooner or later.


Will the U.S. use the carrot-and-stick policy in order to make sure no country offers him asylum so they can get him back to face justice?

They are trying very, very hard to do that. But they are losing -- contrary to what you might read or hear in the international media.  First, as I mentioned, there are several countries willing to give him asylum or refuge. This includes Russia, which he rejected because of their conditions. Second, they cannot push everyone around indefinitely. France in particular was embarrassed by this latest episode where they blocked Evo Morales' plane from passing through their air space, on the false rumor that Snowden may have been aboard. Spain, which considers its relations with Latin America to be important especially because of its large investments and commerce there, also paid a price for being Washington's thug in this case. So there are costs to their strategy.

Rory Carroll has been reporting on Ecuador and the Snowden case for the Guardian, but not without serious criticism.  Most outrageous was the headline on his most recent article, which may have not been the reporter’s doing: Rafael Correa not considering Snowden asylum: helping him was a 'mistake.'

This is of course very misleading; Correa made it clear in his interview that providing travel documents was a “mistake,” since this is not Ecuador’s responsibility; and that he would consider asylum for Snowden if Snowden was in Ecuadorean territory. The headline tells the reader that Correa has abandoned Snowden, but anyone who reads it can see that if Snowden arrived at an Ecuadorean embassy, his application for asylum would be seriously considered, and very likely granted.

The Guardian has since corrected the headline.

Correa himself criticized Carroll’s reporting on the interview, saying:

Translation: “My statements for The Guardian totally decontextualized. Fortunately we have it taped. [We are] to not fall into the same trap of the very same as always!"

UNASUR released a statement today in response to the incident where Evo Morales' plane was forced to land in Austria after threats to search the plane for Snowden.  EU officials are scrambling to explain why Bolivian government officials are claiming that the president's plane was blocked from flying over several countries.  These events seem to parallel the incident where U.K. government officials threatened to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy in order to capture wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Here is our translation of the UNASUR statement:

Statement from the Union of South American Nations

The Union of South American Nations – UNASUR – has taken note, with the greatest concern, of the Statement-Denunciation issued by the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, by which the government states its claim before the international community due to the surprising withdrawal of permissions over airspace and landing for the presidential airplane that carried President Evo Morales Ayma and his party, in return flight, after his participation in the Second Summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, held in the Russian Federation.

The Union of South American Countries – UNASUR – makes public its strong solidarity with the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and in particular with its President Mr. Evo Morales Ayma.  Additionally, it expresses its indignation and profound rejection of these acts which constitute unfriendly and unjustifiable acts that have also put in serious risk the security of the Bolivian head of state and his party.

UNASUR demands a clarification of these acts and an explanation as it were to arise.

This is the original, posted on the website for Peru's foreign ministry.

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