In my last post I wrote about how dumb it was for our Secretary of State to try and threaten other countries, especially those as big and independent as Russia and China, into rendering Edward Snowden. Apparently some of the geniuses in the White House and State Department have figured this out after the last couple of days of embarrassing failures. From the New York Times:
Discussions between American and Russian officials continued on Wednesday, and the White House further softened its language in the hope of an outcome that does not further damage ties between the two countries.
“We agree with President Putin that we don’t want the situation to harm our relations,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, referring to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The Obama team has been doing better in the more important media efforts than they have in diplomacy, mainly because they have reliable allies in the media with a lot of power to manipulate public opinion.
|Amnesty International Condemns Violations of Snowden's Human Rights By U.S. Government||
In an important development today, Amnesty International stated that “The US authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights.”
This is significant because the international press coverage of the Snowden drama has almost completely ignored the question of whether Snowden’s rights are being violated by U.S. efforts to prevent him from seeking asylum under international law.
It will be interesting to see if any of the major media outlets covering these events will report on this important and apparently well-grounded legal argument, given that they have reported on the Obama administration’s arguments that countries are legally obligated to hand Snowden over to the United States. Also, Amnesty International is one of the most important human rights organizations in the world, and its statement should be relevant to news reporting on the Snowden case.
Read the full Amnesty International statement here.
|Snowden’s Revelations Go from Being a “Serious Breach” to Not “Significant” as Obama Administration Shifts Message||
As we have previously noted, the Obama administration has reversed course, seeking to lower the profile of the Snowden case after its threats against Russia, Ecuador, and Hong Kong backfired and after apparently realizing that public support for Snowden remains high despite a U.S. government-led effort to demonize him in the media. This has resulted in a litany of mixed messages from senior administration officials.
Is the Obama administration simply disorganized, or has the strategy changed over time as information about the Snowden case and government surveillance reaches wider and wider audiences? Also, what is the overall strategy of the government as an international effort develops to protect the right to privacy and the right to asylum? We try to answer some of these questions here.
|Gentlemen Don't Read Each Other's Mail||
A reporter went after State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell at the State Department's Daily Press Briefing today about European anger in response to Snowden's revelations of U.S. surveillance of European officials and citizens. Here we will quote at length because the exchange was amusing and revealing:
QUESTION: When discussing this issue, the – with the Europeans or others who might be upset or are saying that they’re upset, the U.S. position is that all countries engage in intelligence gathering and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you?
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m not going to get into the content of that diplomatic exchange, other than to say that we’re going to have it very directly and privately with the countries concerned.
QUESTION: But --
QUESTION: Change topic?
QUESTION: Hold on, I’m just – but you’re not admitting any wrongdoing, though?
MR. VENTRELL: I didn’t say that. I said we’ll have our --
QUESTION: I know. I want to make sure that I understand, when these conversations happen, you’re not saying, “Oh, sorry.”
MR. VENTRELL: Again, I’m just not going to characterize --
QUESTION: You’re not – you’re explaining what you do, and you’re saying, “This isn’t unusual and you probably do it as well.”
MR. VENTRELL: To take the lens back a little bit, I think a number of these countries are countries we have a very strong relationship with on a number of fronts --
QUESTION: Or you did, at least, have a very strong relationship with.
What’s up with John Kerry, or whoever is writing his talking points? Did he really think he was going to publicly threaten Russia and bully its government into capturing Snowden and rendering him to the U.S.? (Wikileaks has correctly noted that such a capture and hand-over would be a “rendition,” analogous to the people the U.S. and allied governmental agencies have captured and turned over to countries like Egypt and Syria to be tortured).
There would be “consequences,” warned Kerry, if the Russians didn’t do what he wanted – and for China and Hong Kong, too. Russia doesn’t even have an extradition treaty with the U.S., and even if it did, it would be Kerry’s threats to interfere with the laws of asylum and refugees that were the real violation of international law here, not Russia’s allowing him to remain in Russia, or pass through its airport.
An amateur could have told Kerry that if he really wanted to threaten Russia, he should have at least had the sense to do it in private. A public threat just makes it even less likely that any leader would embarrass himself by following U.S. orders. Not that Putin was likely to do that anyway.
Putin poked fun at these threats yesterday when he declared that Snowden is a “free man,” and brushed aside the whole affair as like “shearing a piglet – a lot of squealing but not much wool.”
Various U.S. media outlets suggest ulterior motives for why Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa may want to consider granting political asylum to whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, writes “In championing Snowden, President Correa is further cementing his image as a successor to Chávez who can take on the US." The Washington Post projected a similar theme with an article headlined, “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Public Radio International’s The World likewise headlined a piece with “Ecuador Leader Thumbs Nose at US, Trying to Help Snowden with Asylum.”
Writing in CNN online, however, Latin America scholar Steve Striffler advances an entirely different and apparently (to the media) incomprehensible notion: that Ecuador’s decision might be based on principles. Striffler writes that “The prevailing explanation among U.S. pundits … [that] Correa's stance … is all about scoring political points …is too simplistic an explanation and relies on a misunderstanding of Correa and the leftward shift that has swept Latin America during the past 25 years.”
He goes on to write:
…when Correa offered Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange asylum in 2012, he had relatively little to gain politically beyond raising his international profile. At the time, he was expected to easily win re-election (which he did), in large part because under his administration unemployment levels had reached record lows, public spending on education had more than doubled and medical care was more accessible than ever. This was despite the fact that Ecuador had been hit harder than almost any country in the region by the financial crisis of 2008.
Correa pumped money into the economy, reformed the financial system, took control of the central bank and otherwise worked, however imperfectly, to build a government and economy that serves the interests of the people.
Simply put, Correa's popularity insured that there was relatively little to be gained by taking on Assange in 2012. Quite the opposite, Correa's embrace of Assange produced an intense backlash by the media in Ecuador, which then amped up opposition during the election.
On Tuesday, June 18th, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 21 U.S. Senate Democrats expressing “concern regarding the grave human rights situation and deterioration of the rule of law in Honduras” and questioning the State Department’s assessment that the Honduran government is taking measures to protect basic human rights and address abuses committed by security forces. The letter, which was initiated by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), also notes “recent reports of death squads working with the police” and “a pattern of violence and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, members of the clergy, union leaders, opposition figures, students, small farmers and LGBT activists.” It calls for a “thorough review” of U.S. security assistance to Honduras “to ensure that no U.S. assistance is provided to police or military personnel or units credibly implicated in human rights violations.” Finally, it asks Kerry to “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ upcoming November 2013 elections are free, fair and peaceful.”
It is rare for so many Democratic senators – approximately 40% of the entire Senate Democratic caucus – to take a position on Latin America policy, particularly one that appears to run counter to administration policy. The committee positions held by the letter signers add even more weight to the message that’s being delivered to Kerry. Here’s a quick breakdown of the signers’ committee assignments:
|October 5, 2012||Henrique Capriles’ campaign coordinator Leopoldo López is quoted in the press saying, "We have been and will continue to be respectful of the established processes," ahead of the October 7 presidential elections.|
|October 7, 2012||Capriles assures voters that their vote is secret. His election campaign tweets, “Remember that the vote is secret, only you and God will know who you voted for! Vote without fear” and similar messages during election day.|
|Ignacio Avalos, director of the independent Venezuelan Election Observatory is quoted in the press saying "The government and the opposition both agree that the electoral system is good in general," and, "Opposition experts concluded that you cannot cheat the system."|
|When going to vote, Capriles tells reporters “if I had any doubt whatsoever of the transparency of this process I wouldn’t be here.”|
|Following the National Electoral Council’s (CNE) announcement that President Hugo Chávez has won re-election, Capriles promptly concedes defeat, accepting the electoral results even though other members of the opposition reject the results, citing alleged fraud and “irregularities.”|
|March 5, 2013||President Chávez dies.|
|March 8, 2013||The MUD boycotts the swearing-in ceremony of Vice President Nicolás Maduro as interim president, and most of the opposition does not attend.|
|March 9, 2013||The CNE announces that elections for a new president will take place April 14.|
|March 25, 2013||Opposition legislators Ricardo Sánchez, Carlos Vargas, and Andrés Avelino announce they are breaking with Capriles’ campaign, warning of a MUD plan to reject the election results, and saying the Capriles campaign was “encouraging a climate of instability and violence, where the terrible and painful consequence ...intensifies the perverse division between Venezuelans.” They also referred to some opposition members’ acceptance of illegal campaign funds.|
As we noted earlier, a leaked State Department memo suggests that Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield tried to discourage investigators from State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security from investigating the circumstances in which four villagers were killed in a joint DEA-Honduran police counternarcotics operation in Ahuas, Honduras last year. Additionally, according to the allegations summarized in the memo, DEA officials refused to cooperate with OIG investigators working on the same case.
The memo, which dates from October of last year and which CEPR has seen, summarizes “several investigations into possible cases of misconduct [that] were influenced, manipulated or called off,” as Reuters described them. Some of the other cases mentioned in the document include allegations that members of the Secretary of State’s detail “allegedly engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries,” including in Colombia (the memo notes that “[t]hese events occurred prior to the Secret Service scandal in Colombia”); and that U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” (Gutman denies the allegations.)
The section on the Ahuas shootings also reveals that, although the DEA agents in Honduras were officially under the authority of the U.S. ambassador in Honduras, the ambassador’s security attaché – also known as the Regional Security Officer (RSO) - was initially “not aware of the incident, as DEA had not reported it.” The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence, Special Investigations Division (DS/ICI/SID) only “became aware” of the incident “through news reporting.”
Yet another investigative report from the Associated Press’ Alberto Arce reveals more details on the extent of corruption within the Honduran police. Arce describes how a recent U.S.-funded program aimed at cleaning up the Honduran National Police ended in dismal failure:
One by one, hundreds of police officers were called to a hotel in the capital and subjected to polygraph tests administered by Colombian technicians funded by the U.S. government. "Have you received money from organized crime?" they were asked in a series of questions about wrongdoing. "Have you been involved in serious crimes?"
Nearly four of every 10 officers failed the test in the first five months it was administered, some giving answers that indicated that they had tortured suspects, accepted bribes and taken drugs, according to a U.S. document provided to The Associated Press.
Then, despite the clear indications of serious wrongdoing, the police cleanup effort went nowhere.
By April of this year, the Honduran government said it had dismissed a mere seven officers from the more-than-11,000-member force, a vivid illustration of the lack of progress in a year-old effort aided by the U.S. to reform police in a country that's swamped with U.S.-bound cocaine and wracked by one of the world's highest homicide rates.
Some of the seven officers have since been reinstated, the minister of public security told congress.
Arce notes that recent efforts to purge the police forces of dirty cops were opposed by “dozens of officers [who] simply refused to accept a mass polygraph exam, seizing a police building until the government backed down” after 1,400 of them were suspended last week and told to take the test.
As we have previously noted, following the Venezuelan National Electoral Council’s (CNE’s) decision to conduct a full audit of voting receipts, as Henrique Capriles had originally demanded, Capriles reversed his position and announced he would boycott the audit. Concurrent with this shift, he began to focus on new demands: he wanted an audit of the voter registry and the fingerprint registry, claiming that such audits would be needed in order to ensure there had been not repeat voting. Capriles has not plausibly explained how such repeat voting would be possible in a system where there are two records: an electronic record and a paper record of voting receipts, and where each voter must first present identification and fingerprints before being allowed to vote.
Auditing all the remaining paper voting receipts is no simple task. The receipts must be brought in from all over the country to the Mariches storehouse where the audit is being conducted, and election monitors from the U.S. have noted that some of the boxes containing these receipts are even being carried by canoe from remote areas in the Amazon and elsewhere. While the CNE was consumed with this task over the past several weeks, Venezuelan opposition figures raised a cry, demanding to have the fingerprint registry examined.
Last week the CNE reaffirmed earlier reports that it would conduct this audit as well, the latest of about 20 audits demanded by the opposition to which the CNE has agreed. The CNE officials have said, however, that the fingerprint verification will take time, and they would be unlikely to release results until September. While Capriles’ call for the fingerprint audit have gained traction in the English language media, the CNE officials’ announcements that they plan to conduct such an audit have not. As we have noted, there has been very little reporting on the audits in the U.S. and U.K. press in general, from the just completed audit of all the remaining voting receipts, to the 18 audits demanded by the opposition (and carried out by the CNE), mostly carried out before the election. The most recent -- and very brief -- reference to the audits in Reuters, for example, inverts the opposition’s shifting demands to put the blame on the election’s winner: "Maduro originally accepted a proposal for a full audit of the close April election which he won, but then backtracked and has since hardened his stance."
Ahead of today’s closing of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Guatemala, numerous drug policy, human rights and other organizations called on the governments of the Americas [PDF] to consider alternatives to the decades-long U.S.-led “war on drugs.” The open letter appeals from these groups echo those made ahead of the Central American Integration System summit at the beginning of May: “Prohibitionist policies and the war on drugs have intensified violent conflict in the region,” and human rights have suffered. Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco made a similar declaration: “The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug-trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them,” and “Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.” Human Rights Watch recommends decriminalization of personal drug use.
The drug question was the focus of the meeting, which followed the release of an OAS report that considers alternative policies including legalization and treatment, as opposed to criminalization and incarceration. Timed to coincide with the OAS General Assembly, an op-ed in the Guardian of London on Tuesday by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos summarizes four drug policy scenarios described in the OAS report.
The OAS report is just the latest in a tide of policy papers, studies, opinion pieces, rallies and marches all with a similar refrain: it’s time for a change on drug policy. While the U.S. continues to express resistance (Kerry is reported to have remarked at the assembly that “I say to all those who speak about legalization and reform: the challenges go far beyond a single ingredient. Drugs destroy lives, destroy families.”), countries in Latin America are moving ahead. Most notably, Uruguay is poised to become the first country in the region to legalize and regulate marijuana, with the lower house expected to soon approve such reforms that are backed by President José Mujica and his Frente Amplio party.
The Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) is nearing the end of the third and final phase of its audit of the remaining votes from the April 14 presidential election, reportedly scheduled to finish on June 7. As we have noted, the English-language media has generally neglected to report the audit’s progress, despite that the process was originally demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles as a means to resolving the dispute over the election’s outcome. Capriles has also underscored the audit’s relevance – despite having shifted his demands and decided to officially boycott it – by claiming this month that he had actually won the election by 400,000 votes.
As predicted through a statistical analysis of the initial “hot audit” of 53 percent of voting machines on April 14, the audit of the remainder has so far produced results upholding the official results showing Maduro to be the winner. According to the CNE, the first two phases “have yielded 99.98% agreement between the voting receipts deposited in boxes and the data recorded on the tallies issued by the voting machines," media outlets report.
Does Capriles have a plausible claim that the election could have been stolen? Contrary to his characterization of a biased and obstructionist CNE, as we have previously noted the CNE has made many concessions to the opposition, including 18 different audits, all of which involve witnesses from both parties. Capriles talks of numerous opposition observer complaints from throughout Venezuela on election day, yet our election live-blog on April 14 included numerous live reports from election monitors who talked to opposition representatives at dozens of voting centers in several states; few had any complaints, even less that could be considered serious. Capriles has shifted the focus of his attack to the electoral registry, but demographers from the Catholic University had reviewed the electoral registry prior to the election and found it trustworthy.
The two biggest gangs in Honduras publicly agreed to a truce on Tuesday, calling it an effort to reduce the violence that plagues the country and asking for forgiveness and government support. Romulo Emiliani, the Catholic bishop of San Pedro Sula—the world’s most violent city outside a warzone—helped broker the agreement along with Adam Blackwell, a security ambassador for the Organization of American States (OAS). President Pepe Lobo has reportedly said he is prepared “to do whatever is necessary" to back the initiative.
The truce has been compared to a similar agreement between the same transnational gangs in El Salvador, made in March of last year. That country’s government reported a halving of the murder rate after the truce, and a 45 percent drop in the first four months of 2013 compared to the previous year. Despite such pronounced success, in January the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for El Salvador that many (including the gangs themselves) interpreted as an effort to undercut the truce’s effectiveness. Responding to the warning, which referred to outdated murder tallies, the Salvadoran Minister of Justice and Security wondered aloud whether the State Department was misinformed and said the notice demonstrated that for the United States, “street violence, deaths, robberies mostly committed by gang members, that is not their priority—their priority is drug trafficking.”
Some commentators have already questioned whether the latest truce will result in outcomes similar to those seen in El Salvador. These doubts are due in part to the recognition that the police are widely believed to be involved in death squads and the military has been blamed for murders and disappearances, many against land rights and opposition activists. Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce quoted the rector of the National University of Honduras, Julieta Castellanos, as saying “The dynamic of violence in the country goes beyond gangs and reflects the existence of multiple actors that are difficult to pinpoint.” In December Castellanos presented a Violence Observatory report that showed police responsibility for at least 149 violent deaths in the previous 23 months, including the rector’s son, Rafael Alejandro Vargas. Castellanos also voiced concern that the truce could exacerbate the already extraordinary level of impunity in Honduras.
After months of speculation, in early May the IMF formally approved a new lending agreement with Jamaica worth $932.3 million. With additional commitments from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, the total loan package amounts to $2 billion. But, after another year of negative economic growth (the fourth in the last five years), will this time be any different?
Jamaica previously agreed to an IMF loan in early 2010, which was coupled with a debt exchange that sought to lower interest rates but did not provide any haircut (a lowering of the debt’s principal). The agreement mandated harsh austerity measures and despite the debt exchange, Jamaica’s interest burden remained the highest in the world, at 11 percent of GDP. The agreement eventually broke down after a Jamaican court ruled that the government had to distribute back pay to public sector workers, against the wishes of the IMF. Nevertheless, Jamaica has largely continued the austerity measures from the first agreement. After a return to growth –albeit slow- in fiscal year 2011/12, Jamaica slipped back into a recession this past year, after cutting non-interest expenditure by over 2 percentage points of GDP. Even some within the IMF warned that the fiscal consolidation efforts were going too far and could threaten “the fragile recovery and social cohesion.”
As a precondition for the new IMF agreement, the Jamaican government undertook a second debt exchange in February of this year, seeking to lower interest costs and “bring down the debt burden over time.” However, similar to the previous exchange, the principal of the debt was not touched and interest costs remain extremely high and damaging. Of the 131 countries for which IMF World Economic Outlook data is available, Jamaica will still have the highest average interest burden in the world over the next six years. The debt exchange succeeded in extending the maturity profile of domestic debt (the amount coming due within five years decreased from 53.2 percent to 23.4 percent), but Jamaica is still expected to spend some 8 percent of GDP on interest payments for the next three years, crowding out needed spending elsewhere. Overall debt servicing is projected to take up 45 percent of total government expenditures over the next three years, only a slight reduction from the 46 percent average over the previous three.
Ten days ago Guatemalan courts convicted former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, to 80 years in prison for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Though the ruling has just been overturned on technical grounds, it was the first time that a country has been able to use its own criminal courts to try a former head of state for genocide, arguably making it one of the most important court decisions in decades. Despite the significance of the ruling, not just for what it represents for the more than 200,000 victims of the genocide and their families, but also for human rights worldwide, the mass media in the U.S. has mostly ignored the U.S. role in contributing to and supporting the genocide.
The New York Times provided a couple of exceptions in the last week. Its “Room for Debate,” feature, which is regularly published online but not in the print edition, and allows perspectives from a broader political spectrum than is normally permitted in news articles or even the op-ed page, published a range of opinions on the extent of U.S. support and complicity for the Ríos Montt regime. And last week the New York Times published an exceptional print article about the role of the U.S. government in Guatemala, Reagan’s financial and fervent military support for Ríos Montt’s bloody dictatorship, and how this aspect of the genocide had been conspicuously absent during the trial against Ríos Montt.
Amazingly, the Washington Post chose not to report at all on the historic ruling in their print edition following the day of the ruling. Although stories on corruption scandals in India, a detained youth activist in Egypt, and voting in Pakistan did make the international section of the print edition of that day’s Washington Post, the Post found no space to print this story. Two days after the conviction was announced (and after it made headlines around the world), and buried deep in the digest section of Sunday’s print international section were a total of 73 words dedicated to what it said human rights activists called “a historic moment” in Guatemala.
This dearth of words from the Washington Post shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, not reporting or investigating news about massacres and genocide in Guatemala when it had the opportunity to do so is consistent with the Post’s reporting on the country throughout the 1980s when the U.S. government supported death squads in the countryside killing anyone and everyone that they could. Yes, the Post reported on Guatemala, and on guerrillas, and occasionally it even paid some lip-service to the idea that some people claimed that the government and army, not the guerrillas, were behind the vast majority of deaths in the country. But, despite reliable indications and reports that government-led massacres and even a genocide was in fact underway in Guatemala, for example from this October, 1982 episode of PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Report and this one from November of 1983, the Post neglected the opportunity to dig up the truth during this period. The New York Times, it should be pointed out, also mostly ignored the genocide when it was taking place. This was the pre-internet era, so if these newspapers did not report on massacres, for the United States public and policy-makers, they weren’t part of the news. (However, investigative reporter Allan Nairn did get opinion pieces into the NYT and Washington Post some time after the worst massacres had occurred.)
As we have noted previously, statistical analysis shows that Venezuelan opposition challenger Henrique Capriles has an almost impossible chance of seeing the April 14 election result change through a full audit of voting machines, as he had demanded.
We have issued two press releases about this, as well as our full paper detailing our calculations step-by-step, and CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot had an op-ed on this in Aljazeera English. Mark also presented these findings at a recent high-profile conference at the Celso Furtado Center in Rio. Despite being reported in a variety of Latin American and Spanish media, including Spanish newspaper El País, Argentine media outlet Télam, and Venezuela’s Panorama, the U.S. media has ignored this important part of the story. We have corresponded with several reporters who initially expressed interest in the one-in-25-thousand-trillion figure. None of them has since cited the statistical improbability of Capriles’ seeing the election results change through the full audit, nor have other major U.S. media outlets. One reporter writing for a major U.S. newspaper has told us that his editors refuse to publish anything related to our statistical analysis or regarding the audit and its significance more generally.
Henrique Capriles’ recent comments demonstrate why the ongoing vote audit, and more importantly, the first audit (conducted on April 14) is still relevant. In an El Pais article from May 9, Capriles says that 400,000 more people voted for him than Maduro, and that therefore the CNE’s vote count must have been wrong:
“If they rescind the electoral records we have questioned in the electoral dispute we have filed with the Supreme Court - which make up 55.4 percent of the votes cast – we would win the elections by 400,000 votes, two percent in our favor. And that’s without going into details,” he says with righteous conviction.
It appears that Capriles is still alleging the vote count was stolen in a way that would have been detectable in the first audit, and hence the statistical analysis still applies. If tens of thousands of voters voted multiple times, it would be very difficult to stuff the receipt boxes to match the multiple voting, without having some discrepancies between the machine and the paper count. The receipt boxes are in plain sight of all observers and it would be impossible for a voter to stuff multiple pieces of paper through the thin slot without anyone seeing. It would also be impossible to vote more than once without not only the collaboration of observers to fix the machines to allow this, but a conspiracy involving tens of thousands of people, with no subsequent leaks.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) sells itself as “working to prevent conflict worldwide” but there is one country where their mission looks more like promoting rather than preventing conflict. Exhibit A is their report on Venezuela, released today.
There is a lot wrong with this report – most of it reads like a statement from the Venezuelan political opposition, rather than a neutral third-party observer. But the most ugly and pernicious thing is the report’s insistence that “the validity of the election result [in Venezuela] needs to be clarified” and that a “full and transparent audit result” is necessary, or else the government’s “rule will increasingly come to be seen by many as an imposition, with unpredictable, possibly violent consequences.”
These statements strongly imply that the Venezuelan government is to blame if the opposition returns to violence, as it has in the past, in its ongoing refusal to accept the results of a democratic election.
For the governments of Latin America, and almost all of the world, there is no doubt about the “validity of the election result.” It is really only the Venezuelan opposition and the U.S. government that has questioned it.
The International Crisis Group has a $20 million dollar annual budget, about half of which comes from the United States and allied governments who share the State Department’s political agenda, with additional contributions from big oil companies including BP and Shell. So in some ways it is not surprising that it would take the position of the U.S. government, even when the U.S. government is, as in this case, completely isolated in the world. However, the ICG does not always do this in other countries, so this report stands out as a particularly disgraceful blot on their record.
The initial trial of Guatemala’s ex-president Efraín Ríos Montt concluded on Friday with a conviction on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and an 80-year prison sentence. Hailed as “the first time any nation [has] been able to use its domestic criminal courts to try a former head of state for genocide,” the ruling has many people looking back at the history while wondering what will happen next. After a CIA-planned coup in 1954 to defend the interests of the United Fruit Company, Guatemala was ruled for 42 years by right-wing dictatorships. For 36 of those years a civil war was fought between the government and a leftist insurgency, with the government also targeting hundreds of thousands of indigenous villagers and other civilians as part of a scorched-earth campaign. In this, the Guatemalan government was supported politically and equipped with weapons by the United States, with full knowledge that they were used in a campaign of genocide, torture and war crimes.
One of the important justifications for the Reagan administration’s support of Ríos Montt may sound eerily familiar. In a memorandum prepared by the State Department for President Reagan on the occasion of his upcoming meeting with Ríos Montt, Secretary of State George P. Shultz gives the following account of the situation:
Key Congressmen continue to react negatively to numerous reports, many of them fabricated, others true, of government atrocities against noncombatants. Ignoring the likelihood that Rios Montt will be overthrown and replaced by a repressive government if we fail to provide politically meaningful support to him, they argue that Guatemala’s human rights record must be substantially improved beyond the present situation before moving ahead with security and, in some cases, economic assistance.
From: Your Meeting with Guatemalan President Rios Montt on December 4. [Includes Talking Points], Secret, Memorandum, November 20, 1982, 4 pp.
As was pointed out in the Pan-American Post this week, similar justifications are being used for militarized U.S. support for the coup government in Honduras:
The Honduran national police are inefficient, corrupt, resistant to reform, and may be conducting extrajudicial killings in an organized capacity, but they’re the only reliable force in the country in the fight against transnational crime. At least, according to the United States [government].
A new investigative feature by award-winning Associated Press correspondent Alberto Arce probes deeper into recurring police death squad activity in Honduras. Following up on his reports in March, Arce details the cases of several gang suspects who have disappeared after being taken into police custody, as well as what witnesses have described as the gunning-down, in cold blood, of suspects in the streets. The article reveals that:
At least five times in the last few months, members of a Honduras street gang were killed or went missing just after run-ins with the U.S.-supported national police, The Associated Press has determined, feeding accusations that they were victims of federal death squads.
In March, two mothers discovered the bodies of their sons after the men had called in a panic to say they were surrounded by armed, masked police. The young men, both members of the 18th Street gang, had been shot in the head, their hands bound so tightly the cords cut to the bone.
That was shortly after three members of 18th Street were detained by armed, masked men and taken to a police station. Two men with no criminal history were released, but their friend disappeared without any record of his detention.
A month after the AP reported that an 18th Street gang leader and his girlfriend vanished from police custody, they are still missing.
As we have previously examined, Arce has noted that U.S. support for the Honduran National Police while some officers engage in death squad activity would seem to violate the Leahy Law. Rather than proceed with greater caution or reexamine ongoing policy, the U.S. State Department has responded defensively. Arce quotes Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield as saying
“The option is that if we don’t work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of the mission of policing, or communities take matters in their own hands. In other words, the law of the jungle, in which there are no police and where every citizen is armed and ready to mete out justice,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said in Spanish during a March 28 video chat.*
Bloomberg’s Nathan Gill wrote a particularly one-sided article on Thursday, in which he states that “Ecuador’s bid to reduce poverty by taxing its banks is threatening to deepen the nation’s economic slump.”
“Slump” seems somewhat dire to describe the state of the Ecuadorian economy. In 2012 the economy grew by 5 percent, and it is projected to grow by 4.45 percent for 2013.
The report also offers no convincing evidence that Ecuador’s taxation of its banks is hurting the economy.
The article specifically focuses on a set of reforms that took effect on January 1, including the elimination of banks’ tax deductions for reinvested profits and a 0.35 percent tax on assets held abroad. The reporter argues that a sharp drop in bank profits in the first quarter of this year was a result of the taxation. He then argues that an increase in the banks’ interest rates must also be due to the reforms:
Non-government banks, including Citigroup Inc (C).’s local unit, raised rates on corporate loans by an average 0.21 percentage point in the first quarter to 8.88 percent, the highest since November 2010, according to central bank data. That compares with a decline of 0.72 percentage point to 8.81 percent in Colombia and an increase of 0.01 percentage point to 5.79 percent for similar loans in Peru.
However, this causality is not at all clear. It is more likely that this modest increase in interest rates is attributable to a recent uptick in inflation. Consumer prices increased at an annualized rate of 4.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, as compared to a rate of 0.2 percent in the last quarter of last year.
During his trip last week to Mexico and Costa Rica, President Obama sought to down play the U.S.’s security agenda in the region, emphasizing trade relations, energy cooperation and other more benign themes. In a May 3rd joint press conference with his Costa Rican counterpart Laura Chinchilla, Obama stated that it was necessary “to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don't see a brighter future ahead.” Asked by a journalist about the potential use of U.S. warships to counter drug-trafficking, Obama said “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking.”
Human rights organizations from North America and Central America have a very different impression of the administration’s regional security policy. In a letter sent to Obama and the other region’s presidents on April 30th, over 145 civil society organizations [PDF] from the U.S., Mexico and the countries of Central America called out U.S. policies that “promote militarization to address organized crime.” These policies, the letter states, have only resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.” The letter presents a scathing indictment of the U.S.-backed so-called “war on drugs” throughout the region:
Human rights abuses against our families and communities are, in many cases, directly attributable to failed and counterproductive security policies that have militarized our societies in the name of the “war on drugs.” The deployment of our countries’ armed forces to combat organized crime and drug-trafficking, and the increasing militarization of police units, endanger already weak civilian institutions and leads to increased human rights violations.
In Mexico, the letter says, “drug-related violence and the militarized response has killed an estimated 80,000 men, women, and children in the past six years. More than 26,000 have been disappeared, and countless numbers have been wounded and traumatized.” The letter also discusses the situation in Guatemala, where violence is “reaching levels only seen during the internal armed conflict” and “controversial ‘security’ policies have placed the military back onto the streets. And, in Honduras:
Since the coup d’état that forced the elected president into exile in 2009, the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared. We are witnessing a resurgence of death squad tactics with targeted killings of land rights advocates, journalists, LGBT activists, lawyers, women’s rights advocates, political activists and the Garifuna’s community. Both military and police are allegedly involved in abuses and killings but are almost never brought to justice.
On March 19, 2013 Guatemala became the first nation to try a former head of state, Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity in its own courts, an extraordinary achievement that led award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn to state that, “Guatemala has reached a higher level of civilization than the United States,” where such a trial would be unthinkable. Ríos Montt’s took power in a March 1982 coup and his brutal military campaign that human rights defenders have characterized as genocidal received support from President Ronald Regan, though his administration denied it at the time.
Nairn had flown to Guatemala City as a proposed witness but once in Guatemala, he was asked not to testify after another witness, a former soldier, unexpectedly named current President Otto Pérez Molina as responsible for crimes against humanity. In September 1982, Nairn had interviewed then Major Pérez Molina, a commander in the area where the crimes Ríos Montt is being tried for had occurred. It appears that his testimony would have implicated the current president in crimes, and the victims’ lawyers were afraid that pushing the political establishment any further would endanger the case.
On April 18, the case was unexpectedly annulled by a judge not overseeing the trial, pre-trial judge Carol Patricia Flores. She made the illegal ruling two days after former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein signed a communique published in Guatemalan newspapers, along with 11 other former members of the administration of Álvaro Arzú, calling the charges of genocide against Ríos Montt a “threat to the nation” and suggesting that if a sentence for genocide were handed down it could mean a return to political violence.