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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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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.

In an article this week in the Malaysian Star, South Centre Director Martin Khor describes a move by Latin American and Caribbean countries – most of which belong to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas group, or ALBA –  to form an alternative to the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) to settle investor-state disputes, noting the predilection of ICSID to rule in favor of corporations:

LEADERS of several Latin American countries have set up a new coalition to coordinate actions to face the growing number of international legal suits being taken against governments by transnational companies.

A ministerial meeting of 12 countries held in Guayaquil, Ecuador, decided on several joint actions to counter the threat posed by these lawsuits, which have claimed millions or even billions of dollars from governments.

Seven of the countries, mostly represented by their ministers of foreign affairs, trade or finance, adopted a declaration with an agreement to form a conference of states affected by transnational interests.

They are Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, St Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Venezuela.

But while these are all ALBA members (except the Dominican Republic), Khor notes that several other countries were also present at the meeting are not: “Representatives of another five countries (Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico) also attended the meeting and will convey the results to their respective governments.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) met with Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo on Wednesday as part of a tour through Central America. According to press reports, Menendez characterized the trip, during which the Senator also visited El Salvador and Guatemala, as an opportunity to evaluate regional counter-narcotics and security initiatives that the U.S. is funding at increasing levels through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). A Spanish-language press report on the trip quotes Menendez as having said that he intends to “explore the specific points of this funding proposal,” and that he wants to “see what works and what does not.”

The State Department’s 2014 budget proposal, submitted on April 10, requests $161.5 million in funding for CARSI, a $26 million increase from the previous year. The proposal requests $4.5 million in foreign military financing specifically for Honduras, an increase of 450% over the FY2012 total. And Just the Facts, a joint project of nonpartisan groups focused on U.S.-Latin American relations, notes that current budget proposals have total U.S. military and police funding for Honduras in FY2014 at $8.7 million, a 63% increase over 2013 projections. Furthermore, according to a Congressional Research Service report, as of last July the State Department and USAID had planned to allocate a combined $72 million to Honduras in FY2012.

These rising levels of funding for the police and military run counter to the concerns of many lawmakers in Washington around the lack of accountability for U.S. involvement in Honduran security and anti-narcotics operations. It also highlights the seriousness of recent reports that the State Department has been supporting units under the command of National Police Chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who allegedly ran death-squads a decade ago, and, more broadly, that the police have been accused of continuing to commit death-squad murders today. In December the National Autonomous University, citing the police’s own reports, announced that police had killed 149 civilians in the previous two years.

At a speech celebrating May Day in Bolivia today, President Evo Morales announced the expulsion of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country. According to the AP, Morales stated:

"The United States does not lack institutions that continue to conspire, and that's why I am using this gathering to announce that we have decided to expel USAID from Bolivia.”

The role of USAID in Bolivia has been a primary point of contention between the U.S. and Bolivia dating back to at least 2006. State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell characterized Morales’ statement as “baseless allegations.” While State Department spokespeople and many commentators will characterize USAID's work with oppositional groups as appropriate, a look at the agency's work over the past decade paints a very different picture.

Documents obtained by investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood show that as early as 2002, USAID funded a “Political Party Reform Project,” which sought to “serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS [Morales’ political party] or its successors.” Later USAID began a program “to provide support to fledgling regional governments,” some of which were pushing for regional autonomy and were involved in the September 2008 destabilization campaign that left some 20 indigenous Bolivians dead. Meanwhile, the U.S. has continually refused to disclose the recipients of aid funds. As a recent CEPR report on USAID activities in Haiti concluded, U.S. aid often goes into a “black box” where it becomes impossible to determine who the ultimate recipients actually are.

Reuters reported Sunday that the president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) Tibisay Lucena has criticized opposition candidate Henrique Capriles for not presenting proof to back up his claims of fraud (also the focus of our post earlier today):

"We have always insisted that Capriles had the right to challenge the process," Tibisay Lucena, president of the electoral council, said in a televised national broadcast.

"But it is also his obligation to present proof."

She dismissed various opposition submissions alleging voting irregularities as lacking key details, and said Capriles had subsequently tried to present the audit in very different terms than the electoral council had agreed to.

"It has been manipulated to generate false expectations about the process, including making it look like the consequence of the wider audit could affect the election results," she said.

Lucena's statements that the election audit of the remaining voting machines, as initially called for by Capriles, will not change the results are correct, although perhaps not for the reasons she meant. As noted on Friday, we did a statistical analysis of the probability of the results of the audit of the first 53 percent of voting machines finding the results it did if the remaining 46 percent of voting machines in Venezuela had enough discrepancies to change the results of the election. The probability, according to our calculations, is less than 1 in 25,000 trillion.

The math is pretty straightforward. Considering how many votes by which Nicolás Maduro was declared the winner, and that the initial audit of 54 percent of machines didn't find anything, and considering how many votes there are per machine, it is almost impossible for the remaining 46 percent of machines to have enough discrepancies to change the election results.

“Venezuela to audit votes without opposition conditions” reads the headline of a BBC article published over the weekend.  According to the piece, Venezuela’s electoral authority “will not carry out the full recount demanded by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.”  A USA Today article from last Thursday notes that “Capriles said the opposition would not participate in the audit because the National Electoral Council did not meet its demand for an examination of registers containing voters' signatures and fingerprints.”  An Associated Press headline – “Government formally rejects top-to-bottom Venezuela vote audit, heightening tensions” – suggests that the Electoral Council’s rejection of the opposition’s demands is stoking the flames of political conflict in the country.

As is often the case in the media’s coverage of Venezuela, a crucial piece of context is missing from these and other articles on the recent decisions of the National Electoral Council (known by its Spanish initials as CNE).  Faithful readers of our blog will remember that Henrique Capriles, after the CNE announced that he’d lost the elections by a narrow margin of around 270,000 votes (narrowed down to 224,000 votes following the final count of votes cast abroad), refused to accept the results and immediately called for a recount, though other opposition spokespeople called instead for a “complete audit” of the voting machine receipts.  After first calling on his supporters to take to the streets, leading to violent clashes in which over half a dozen people were reportedly killed, Capriles finally formally filed a set of demands to the CNE.  Subsequently, on April 18th, the CNE agreed to audit the remaining 46% of boxes of voting machine receipts that had not yet been verified (54% of the boxes had been previously verified in the presence of witnesses from both parties). 

What AP, USA Today, BBC and others fail to mention in their most recent articles is that Capriles accepted the CNE’s April 18th decision to proceed with the audit of the remaining voting receipt boxes, and said that the opposition would participate in the process.  According to AFP and other sources, Capriles said that the opposition campaign “accepts what the CNE (…) has announced to the country. We will be there in the audit.  We consider that the problems are in these 12,000 boxes (that will finally be opened in this audit).  We will undoubtedly be able to show the country the truth.”

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is currently “boycotting” a second audit of the voting results for the April 14 presidential election, which the National Electoral Council has agreed to undertake.  Capriles claims that the election was stolen through fraud.

In a CEPR press release we note that it is practically impossible to have obtained the results of the audit that took place after the polls closed on April 14, if the election were actually stolen through fraud. 

When the polls closed, a random sample of 53 percent[i] of all the machines (20,825 out of 39,303) was chosen, and a manual tally was made of the paper receipts.  This “hot audit” was done on site, in the presence of the observers from both campaigns, as well as witnesses from the community.  There were no reports from witnesses or election officials on site of discrepancies between the machine totals and the hand count.

The following is a calculation of the probability of auditing 20,825 machines and finding zero errors when there are actually 50 among all 39,303 (this means that there are 50 machines with errors among the ones that were not audited).  The assumption here is that there would have to be at least 50 bad machines -- i.e. where the machine count did not match the paper ballot – in order to reverse a margin of 272,000 votes.

This assumption is of course understating the number of bad machines that would be necessary to reverse the result. The average machine has only about 360 votes, and the maximum was about 564. And here we are assuming the election is stolen by moving about 2700 votes per machine from Capriles to Maduro,  on 50 machines.  If more machines were bad, then the probability below gets even (vastly) smaller.  So the calculation below is actually a very high estimate of the probability of obtaining the April 14 audit results, if the election were stolen.

Taking to the Huffington Post this week, former Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben attacks Argentina’s position regarding the ongoing litigation with vulture funds, a case readers of this space are familiar with. Raben states that, “The Argentine government's behavior toward U.S. courts and U.S. judges has gone beyond contempt, and its ongoing defiance of our legal system must come to an end.” Anticipating the possibility of the case going to the Supreme Court, Raben saves some criticism for the United States, which has sided with Argentina in the court case:

the U.S. executive branch made the disappointing and unfortunate decision to support Argentina at the lower-court level, on the unsubstantiated grounds that holding Argentina accountable would somehow undermine the vague U.S. foreign-policy goal of promoting the orderly restructuring of defaulted sovereign debt.

Raben concludes that, “It would be downright dangerous for the Department of Justice to maintain its support for Argentina after its disgraceful displays of disrespect for the U.S. judicial system.”Raben would have you believe that his conclusion and expertise in the matter is simply based on his previous experience:

As a former assistant attorney general, I am familiar with the struggles and the balancing involved in weighing various legal and policy questions and deciding whether to ask the Supreme Court to review a case.

But readers of the Huffington Post might be interested in something else not mentioned in Raben’s article: that his lobbying firm, The Raben Group, has been paid over $2.1 million by a group representing the same vulture funds that are suing Argentina, according to lobbying disclosure documents. In fact, the American Task Force Argentina (ATFA), of which Raben is the Executive Director, has spent nearly $4 million lobbying the White House, Treasury Department and U.S. Congress. Nowhere in the article does Raben disclose this relationship. His 382 word Huffington Post bio notes his past working for Barney Frank, his time as Assistant Attorney General and his current position “on the boards of the American Constitution Society and Alliance for Justice,” yet never mentions his management position at ATFA or even the existence of his lobbying firm.

A federal district court has ruled that the Obama administration must declassify records with the names of individuals trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas or SOA. 

Famously known as the “School of Assassins,” the school trained members of foreign armed forces who later went on to participate in some of the bloodiest and most repressive regimes in contemporary Latin America.   During El Salvador’s civil war, the most heinous violations of human rights were committed by SOA graduates, who organized death squads and planned the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980) and participated in the El Mozote Massacre (1980), where more than 800 civilians were murdered.  SOA graduates made up the majority of the Chilean officers who overthrew Allende in favor of Pinochet in Chile.  And in Argentina, General Roberto Viola was among the many SOA graduates that participated in the dirty war—he was convicted of murder, kidnapping and torture in 1985.

Though SOA changed its name and instituted reforms in 2001, its graduates have continued to be involved in anti-democratic activity and egregious human rights abuses.  Case in point: Honduras.  Four of the six generals linked to the coup against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya were trained at the WHINSEC in recent years, including top General Romeo Vásquez.  SOA graduates have been  the subject of CEPR’s ongoing coverage of violence and impunity in Honduras; we wrote about soldiers that shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which included among their number at least one soldier trained at the WHINSEC. 

Thanks in large parts to the grassroots campaign against the school organized by SOA Watch, a number of Latin American countries have stopped sending troops to WHINSEC.  The first country to pull out was Venezuela in 2004, followed by Argentina and Uruguay in 2006.  Other countries that stopped sending troops include Bolivia, Ecuador and most recently Nicaragua.  However, Honduras and other Central American countries – including Costa Rica – continue to send police and military personnel to the school.  The Bayonet reports that for the “Cadet Leadership Development Course” that began October of 2012, there were 64 Honduran Army cadets in attendance, representing the largest share from a single country.  One cadet was quoted saying that the course was “useful in the future during joint operations.” As readers of the Americas Blog are aware, a joint U.S./Honduras counternarcotics operation last May resulted in the killing of four indigenous villagers with no apparent ties to drug trafficking. 

5:05 PM EDT: International Representation at Maduro's Inauguration

Nicolás Maduro has just been sworn in as president of Venezuela. Despite the refusal of the United States and Venezuelan opposition leader to accept the legitimacy of the election results, an overwhelming amount of the region's leadership showed up or was represented at Maduro's inauguration today.

Reports say that a total of 61 diplomatic delegations, headed by presidents, prime ministers and vice presidents, among others were present at the ceremony. At least 17 presidents are reported to have attended.

All 12 of the UNASUR nations sent delegations to the inauguration, 8 of them headed by their presidents. All 33 of the CELAC nations (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) were also represented.

Delegations from Iran, including President Ahmadinejad, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East were present.

The following presidents attended:

Dilma Rousseff (Brazil)
Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia)
Raúl Castro (Cuba)
José Mujica (Uruguay)
Cristina Kirchner (Argentina)
Evo Morales (Bolivia)
Ollanta Humala (Peru)
Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua)
Porfirio Lobo (Honduras)
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves (San Vicente and the Grenadines)
Prime Minister Keith Mitchell (Grenada)

Prime Ministers from Saint Lucia, Antigua, Barbados, Saint Kitts and Nevis also attended.

2:55 PM EDT: William Hague Recognizes New President

This message was issued by the Secretary of State for the United Kingdom:

On the occasion of the inauguration of Nicolas Maduro as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the UK Government looks forward to working with the Government and people of Venezuela to strengthen our relationship and deepen cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

Opposition protests turned deadly yesterday, with at least seven people having been reported killed and over 61 others injured as opposition groups reportedly burned the homes of PSUV leaders, community hospitals, and mercales (subsidized grocery stores), attacked Cuban doctors, attacked state and community media stations, and threatened CNE president Tibisay Lucena and other officials. Violence is likely to continue today, as both Capriles and Maduro have called for their supporters to demonstrate in the streets. Maduro and other senior government officials have condemned the acts and have warned that the opposition is attempting a coup d’etat. PSUV legislators have suggested they may pursue legal action against Capriles for promoting instability.

The campaign of violent protest, in conjunction with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ refusal to recognize the election results, represents the first major extra-legal destabilization attempt by Venezuela’s opposition since the failed coup in 2002 and oil strike in 2003. It is also significant in that the U.S. is backing Capriles’ position, thereby helping to provoke conflict in Venezuela – even though most Latin American nations and many other governments around the world have congratulated Maduro on his victory and called for the results to be respected.

The opposition strategy is predictably divisive, however. Factions within Venezuela’s opposition have long opposed extra-legal and especially violent methods of attempting to force change. Some in the opposition have also hinted that Capriles’ cries of “fraud” are not credible. Opposition-aligned CNE rector Vicente Diaz has said that while he supports a full audit of the votes, he has no doubt in that the results given by the CNE are correct. Diaz made comments to this effect on opposition station Globovision yesterday; the TV hosts then quickly concluded the interview.

On June 15, 2012 a violent eviction of campesinos from occupied land in the Curuguaty region of Paraguay left 17 people dead, including 6 police officers. A week later, President Fernando Lugo was impeached without due process by an opposition controlled legislature, in what most of the rest of the region would regard as a coup. The reason given was Lugo’s poor handling of the situation in Curuguaty.

Next Sunday Paraguay will hold presidential elections, the first since the removal of Lugo. The election pits the Colorado party, which ruled Paraguay for 61 years until the 2008 election of Lugo, versus the Liberal party of current President (and Lugo’s Vice President) Federico Franco. Yet, 6 months after the clash in Curuguaty, and on the eve of presidential elections the Paraguayan government has done little to investigate what happened on June 15. As Natalia Viana of Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil writes in this week’s edition of The Nation, “As Paraguay prepares to elect a new president on April 21, a growing number of citizens believe that answering the question of what happened in Curuguaty is the key to the truth behind Lugo's impeachment.” What’s more, Viana notes, is that “it is increasingly clear that his ouster was facilitated by entities in Paraguay who not only wanted him gone from the moment he was elected, but who enjoyed financial support from the United States.”

For some time about 70 landless people had been occupying 2,000 hectares of land. Viana notes that the “supposed owner of the land, Blas Riquelme, was a known land grabber and former president of Paraguay's conservative opposition party, the Partido Colorado (Colorado Party). But it was Riquelme who was occupying the land unlawfully; its rightful owner was the Instituto Nacional de Desarollo Rural y Tierra—the Paraguayan Land Institute—which tried to fight the eviction, only to be ignored by the local courts.” Paraguay has long been dominated by large landholders and is the fourth largest exporter of soy in the world; according to Viana two percent of the population controls over 75 percent of the land. Eventually, 14 of the landless Paraguayans were arrested. Then in December, Vidal Vega, who was a key witness in the investigation into the violent eviction, was assassinated. 

The White House said today that a 100 percent audit of the votes in Venezuela was “an important, prudent and necessary step.”

Now it is no surprise that the White House would be on the side of the opposition to the Chavistas, which has been the U.S. position even before the military coup that Washington supported in 2002.

The really ominous thing here is that for years the Obama administration has been smart enough not to overtly take sides in an internal struggle within Venezuela.  That’s because the Obama team knows that this only helps discredit the opposition. 

They know very well that their call for a 100 percent audit will, if it has any influence, make it less likely that the Venezuelan government would support such an audit.  This statement will just add fuel to the fire of those who say that the normal election rules, which mandate an audit of 54 percent of the machines (matching the paper ballots), should be respected; and that it would be a violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty to give in to external pressure.

So why did the White House make this statement, which is also sure to greatly annoy the new government of Venezuela?  The most obvious answer, unfortunately, is that they want to promote conflict within the country.  That is not a good sign.  In previous Venezuelan presidential elections, since the recall referendum of 2004, both Republican and Democratic administrations did not necessarily want conflict because these elections were very close to the U.S. national elections, and it is a general rule to avoid risks that might raise the price of oil before an election, and so they recognized the results.  It would be a very bad turn indeed if they have changed their policy.

If the White House merely wanted to support a 100 percent audit, it could do so privately, even to both sides (the NYT reported today that President Maduro reached out to the Obama administration through Bill Richardson, looking to improve relations).  The White House statement today shows once again that it is definitely not interested in improving relations. Nor is it interested in a 100 percent audit of the vote. 

10:12 PM EDT: The National Electoral Council (CNE) officially declared Nicolás Maduro president. Tibisay Lucena, CNE’s president, made the announcement with Maduro standing by her side.

According to unconfirmed reports, after being declared the winner, Maduro suggested that the equivalent of a coup is being prepared by those who will not respect Venezuelan constitutions. Jorge Rodríguez, the governing PSUV’s campaign manager, has been quoted saying that Capriles, by disregarding the CNE’s results, “is calling for a coup against Venezuelan democracy.” 

Regarding a potential audit or re-count, Professor David Smilde reports that an audit of a majority of the votes is always conducted after an election: 

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines that emit a paper ballot which the voter then deposits in a sealed box. In all elections 53-54% of these boxes are subject to citizen audit immediately after the election. Citizens who were selected to work a given election table and witness from political parties go through the votes one by one. That process takes a couple of hours.

Mark Weisbrot noted this in his response to initial reports of the White House’s statement in support of a full re-count, which he called "calculated" and "very suspicious." Since then, the State Department press office released the transcript for its daily press briefing, which demonstrated the U.S. government’s insistence on calling for a recount despite no indications that the CNE was considering such a move. Reporters present at the briefing attempted to get a firm answer from the State Department as to whether it was suggesting that the U.S. would not recognize the election unless all votes were re-counted, as only the opposition has demanded. Here is an excerpt from that exchange. 

Rory Carroll responds to my criticism of his NPR interview on Venezuela by calling it a “daft polemic.”  But I would like for him to explain why inflation and currency depreciation, which do not measure living standards, are more important than poverty, extreme poverty, income inequality, income per person (measured in real, inflation-adjusted terms), health care, and employment. That would truly be a “daft polemic” – but that is what he is implying in his interview.

There are other things wrong with his interview that I didn’t have room for in 800 words.  For example, he says that Chávez “basically rained petrodollars over the country, certainly in his first seven years in power.”

In fact, Chávez didn’t have petrodollars to rain on anyone for his first four years, because he did not have control over the national oil company (PDVSA).  That was controlled by his opponents, who during those years had “a strategy of military overthrow,” according to opposition leader and journalist Teodoro Petkoff.  So they used PDVSA to try and overthrow the government, including the military coup of 2002 and the devastating oil strike of 2002-2003.

Carroll’s portrayal of Chávez as “playing the race card” is also somewhat misleading.  He gives the impression that this was an important part of his politics. But in fact it was not. It was more like in the United States under President Obama, where part of the right-wing opposition plays on racist sentiment against the president (only this was much more open and explicit in Venezuela, with opposition calling Chávez a “monkey” and “gorilla” ), but President Obama does not make a point out of being African-American.  Chávez was proud of his Afro-Venezuelan and indigenous heritage, but he did not talk about it all that much.  And like Obama, he didn’t use the bully pulpit to talk about racial discrimination, or try to mobilize voters along these lines.  In Venezuela, even more than in the U.S., most people are not aware of the extent of racial discrimination.  Of course this is even more true of the upper income groups. I remember being on a television show with a prominent Venezuelan-American, and he declared that there was no racial discrimination in Venezuela; this is a typical belief of upper-income Venezuelans.  But in Venezuela, as in much of Latin America, while it is obvious to even a casual observer that there is a huge difference in skin color between upper-income and lower-income groups, there is not anywhere near the sense of “racial” identity (or even awareness of racial discrimination) as there is in the United States.  So even if Chávez had wanted to mobilize people along racial lines, it would not have been an effective political strategy.

CEPR has released a new paper, along with the human rights organization Rights Action, examining the Honduran Public Ministry's official report on the May 11, 2012 shooting incident last year in which four local villagers were killed in Ahuas in Honduras’ Moskitia region during a counternarcotics operation involving U.S. and Honduran agents. This is also the first time that the Public Ministry's report has been made available to the public, posted to Scribd in English here, and Spanish here.

The Honduran Public Ministry’s report deserves special scrutiny because thus far it represents the official version of events according to the Honduran authorities. And since the U.S. government has declined to conduct its own investigation – despite the wishes of 58 members of Congress - it also represents by default the version of events tacitly endorsed by U.S. authorities as well. The DEA and State Department didn’t allow Honduran investigators to question the U.S. agents and contractors that participated in the May 11 operation. At the same time a U.S. police detective working for the U.S. Embassy reportedly participated in the Public Ministry’s investigation, so the U.S. also bears some responsibility for the report’s flaws.

The CEPR/Rights Action paper found that the Public Ministry's report:

  • Makes “observations” (not conclusions) that are not supported by the evidence cited;
  • Omits key testimony, that would implicate the DEA, from police who were involved in the May 11 incident;
  • Relies on incomplete forensic examinations of the weapons involved, improper forensic examinations of the victims’ bodies and other improperly gathered evidence;
  • Does not attempt to establish who is ultimately responsible for the killings;
  • Ignores eyewitness reports claiming that at least one State Department-titled helicopter fired on the passenger boat carrying the shooting victims;
  • Does not attempt to establish whether the victims were “in any way involved in drug trafficking” as both Honduran and U.S. officials originally alleged;
  • Does not attempt to establish what authority was actually in charge of the operation;
  • Appears to be focused on absolving the DEA of all responsibility in the killings.

Yesterday WikiLeaks announced the release of a new archive of U.S. diplomatic cables and other documents, 205,901 of which “relat[e] to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger." This new addition contains cables, intelligence reports and congressional correspondence from 1973-1976 and is part of the larger collection of almost two million documents and U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange has called, “the single most significant body of geopolitical material ever published.” WikiLeaks has grouped the material together in a searchable database called the “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy.”  

The first of these cables to make a splash about Latin America is one that exposes the Vatican’s reaction to news of human rights atrocities in Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet, who participated in the military coup that toppled the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in September of 1973. Pinochet was responsible for the torture and murders of thousands of people.

In the cable to then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, dated five weeks after the military take-over, the Vatican’s deputy Secretary of State Giovanni Benelli dismissed reports of torture and murders by the military government as “exaggerated coverage of events” and denounced the media’s coverage “as possibly greatest success of Communist propaganda,” lamenting that this showed “how Communists can influence free world media in future."

As if on cue from the CIA –whose covert operations in Chile were instrumental in the toppling of the Allende government- the cable insists that reports of torture, disappearances, and murders by the military regime were fabrications, “leftist propaganda”:

Despite Vatican’s efforts, leftist propaganda has been remarkably successful even with number of more conservative cardinals and prelates who seem incapable of viewing situation objectively.

Earlier this week, former president of Brazil Lula da Silva gave a warm and unequivocal endorsement of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela’s presidential race.  Given that the campaign officially started only two days ago, it would seem that this announcement was well timed for maximum effect.  The video was screened first at the Sao Paulo Forum on Monday at a meeting in Caracas , and it has since been aired as a campaign ad on several television stations.  Lula made a similar video praising Chávez for the Sao Paulo Forum in 2012. 

As many have pointed out, there is a deep irony here.  While Venezuela’s socialist party (PSUV) receives praise from political leaders of the Workers Party in Brazil, Henrique Capriles has lauded Brazil’s policy choices under Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff.  Capriles has pointed out gains under both these leftist leaders, and has said that he plans to follow the “Brazilian model” if elected, even saying “I'm 100 percent Lula.” 

Capriles’ basic argument is that Venezuela has been misgoverned under Chávez and needs to undergo a transformation like the one Brazil experienced since 2002, when Lula was elected.  What he does not acknowledge is that while both Venezuela and Brazil have been successful in achieving a more equitable society, in some ways Venezuela has been more successful.  For example, during the period when both Lula and Chávez were in office both inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) and poverty rates dropped faster in Venezuela.  Also, it is important to note that these statistics are based on measures that include only household income, which underestimates gains made through public programs like those in education, healthcare and pensions, which were expanded more in Venezuela than in Brazil.

Capriles is trying to tap into the “good left / bad left” dichotomy in which Brazil is praised as a regional political leader (and one with a gigantic economy), while distancing himself from the ALBA countries.  If we look at recent history, though, this arbitrary division doesn’t make sense.  At the last Summit of the Americas, the region united around the issues of (1) ending Cuba’s isolation, (2) finding alternatives to the drug war and (3) ending the occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands.  Further, we can see that the ALBA countries are not a fringe group and have important ties to leftist political parties in the entire region, as well as the governments of Argentina and Brazil.

There is a powerfully dangerous and condescending myth circulating about so-called ‘civil society’ in Venezuela, which goes something like this: as Daniel Levine put it on a recent radio program, “there’s just not independent groups as we conceive of civil society” in Venezuela. Focusing above all on the Communal Council phenomenon, Levine portrays these directly democratic institutions not as the radically participatory experiment they claim to be, but instead as little more than a cynical ruse by the late Hugo Chávez and his movement to enforce political objectives from above.

I can trace my interest in moving to Venezuela to this very question of civil society. As a young Ph.D student, I clearly remember reading a number of academic articles which attempted to clumsily impose the pre-established conceptual framework of civil society onto the development of participatory institutions in Venezuela. First with the nascent Bolivarian Circles and later with the Communal Councils formally established in 2006, U.S. academics have held up the template of civil society, scratched their heads as to why it doesn’t fit, and then concluded that since it does not, something must be wrong with Venezuela and not with their own concept. The Circles and the Councils, it was and continues to be argued, are not truly independent of the state, and therefore cannot be civil society “as we conceive.”

Firstly, the concept of civil society as we conceive it emerged and was cemented in struggles against dictatorship in the Southern Cone and against Soviet bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, displacing the far more critical variant associated with Gramsci. This new version privileges autonomy from the state as the criterion, systematically obscuring other crucial forces from which organizations might want to remain autonomous: imperial powers, the capitalist market, etc.

As a result, many accept as nominally ‘independent’ many forces that are nothing of the sort: private economic interests, NGOs with powerful funders, and foreign-backed political parties. Such forces constituted the bulk of the organized Venezuelan opposition, whose ‘civil’ credentials are questioned by few. Some have therefore described the 2002 coup against Chávez (which was reversed after 48 hours) as a “civil society coup,” and rightly so. It was this appropriation of an uncritical concept of civil society more than anything else that led many Venezuelan Chavistas to abandon the language of civil society at the same time that the anti-Chavistas seized upon it: this concept doesn’t describe what we’re doing, so let them have it.


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