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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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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.

Just ahead of the midnight deadline set out by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals’ three-judge panel, Argentina’s government submitted a letter (view document here) describing how it would go about paying holders of defaulted bonds. The payments would be for creditors who refused to take part in two previous debt exchanges, including the so-called “vulture fund” plaintiffs in this ongoing case, NML Capital, Ltd. V. Republic of Argentina.

Following the letter’s submission, a number of financial analysts quoted in the major media were unimpressed by Argentina’s latest move. The Wall Street Journal noted that one portfolio manager said “There was some hope they would have a more rational approach to this exercise, but that's definitely not the Argentina way.” Financial analyst Josh Rosner predicted to an AP reporter that "Monday morning is going to be a disaster." He also asked, "What if somebody took that new bond, and the Argentine government defaulted the next day?” Rosner may have momentarily forgotten that the South American government has made timely payments on all the bonds issued in the 2005 and 2010 settlements. The gist of the response in the media was “more shenanigans from Argentina.”

But what was lost in most reactions in the media is that Argentina has made significant concessions to creditors that until recently it had vowed, on principle, not to offer. (The plaintiffs, for their part, have shown no willingness to compromise.) Furthermore, the terms offered to NML would represent a sizeable return on the fund’s original investments in 2008 and would satisfy the requirement under the pari passu clause—which is at the heart of the case— that all bondholders are treated equally. Indeed, to offer a sweeter deal would appear to violate that clause at the expense of bondholders who took part in the 2005 and 2010 exchanges and accepted restructured bonds worth between 25 and 29 cents on the dollar.

Bertha Oliva is the General Coordinator of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained in Honduras. Bertha’s husband was "disappeared" in 1981, a period when death squads were active in Honduras. She founded COFADEH together with other women who lost their loved ones, in order to seek justice and compensation for the families of the hundreds of dissidents that were "disappeared" between 1979 and 1989. Since then Bertha and COFADEH have taken on some of the country’s most emblematic human rights cases and were a strong voice in opposition to the 2009 coup d’Etat and the repression that followed.  We interviewed her in Washington, D.C. on March 15th, shortly after she participated in a hearing on the human rights situation in Honduras at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  During the hearing she said that death squads are targeting social leaders, lawyers, journalists and other groups and called on the IACHR to visit Honduras in the next six months to take stock of the human rights situation ahead of the November general elections (Bertha’s testimony can be viewed here, beginning at 17:40).  

Q:  On various occasions you’ve said that what you’re seeing today in Honduras is reminiscent of the difficult times you experienced in the ‘80s and I’d like you to elaborate on that.

In the ‘80s we had armed forces that were excessively empowered. Today Honduras is extremely similar, with military officers exercising control over many of the country’s institutions.  The military is now in the streets playing a security role – often substituting for the work of the police forces of the country. 

In the ‘80s we also witnessed the practice of forced disappearances and assassinations. In that era it was clear that they were killing social leaders, political opponents, but they also assassinated people who had no ties to dissident groups in order to generate confusion in public opinion and try to disqualify our denunciations of the killings of family members who were political opponents. 

Today they assassinate young people in a more atrocious fashion than in the ‘80s and we’re seeing a marked pattern of assassinations of women and youth.  And within this mass of people that are assassinated there are political opponents.  We refuse to dismiss these assassinations as simply a result of the extreme violence that we’re experiencing, as they try to tell the country.  We say that it is a product of impunity and Honduras’ historical debt for failing to resolve cases perpetrated by state agents…

In the ‘80s the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant.  Today it’s the same.  New bases have opened as a result of an anti-drug cooperation agreement signed between Honduras and the U.S.

In the ‘80s it was clear that political opponents were being eliminated.  Today they’re also eliminating those who claim land rights, as exemplified in the Bajo Aguán.  More than 98 land rights activists have been assassinated.  The campesino sector in the Bajo Aguán has been psychologically and emotionally tortured on top of the physical torture that certain campesino leaders have been subjected to. 

Associated Press reporters Alberto Arce and Katherine Corcoran have written a follow up article to Arce’s investigative feature last week on the continuation of death squad activity by the Honduran police. The new article, which appeared in the New York Times and various other media over the weekend, suggests that U.S. State Department officials may have deceived members of Congress in order to illegally fund Honduran police units even though some police – under the command of National Police Director General Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla - may be involved in death squads.

The article begins:

The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don't operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and "social cleansing."

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the "Tiger," who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.

Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.

"Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general," he said.

Congress has already withheld some funding ($30 million) to the Honduran police under the Leahy Law over concerns about Bonilla's alleged past death squad involvement, but the State Department has continued with some other funding and just announced a new $16.3 million commitment to the Honduran police during a visit to Honduras by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield last weekend. AP noted that “Some of the U.S. money will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla.”

The Organization of American States (OAS) is set to take up proposed reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today at 11:00am EDT (live feed here). While arguments against the reforms have received column space in major U.S. media outlets, little attention has been granted to some of the criticisms laid out by the Ecuadorean government, which has been leading the effort for IACHR reform.

In a presentation [Spanish PDF here; English PDF here] to OAS members in Guayaquil on March 11, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa pointed out that Ecuador is one of seven countries to have “subscribed in absolute terms” to all of the Inter-American human rights instruments, noting that:

Here, torture is not allowed, there is no death penalty, we have not invaded anyone at all, no drone and selectively killing terrorism suspects without trials, along with "collateral damage" as family, neighbors, etc. In Ecuador, as in all true State of Law, we pursue crime, not people, but precisely because it is already a real State of Law, and no one can be above the Law, which disturbs the supremacy powers.

Correa noted that only 24 of 34 states have ratified the “fundamental document” of the American Convention on Human Rights – the “San Jose Pact” that led to the creation of two bodies, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Consequently, he states, only for those 24 countries are the organizations’ decisions binding.

The strong asymmetry between countries attached to the Convention versus those who finance and manage, has come to a completely perverting tool that was initially developed for the benefit of each and every American. Instead of this, some countries plan to intervene in other countries, while judges hide behind immunity by not being under the jurisdiction of the system and especially of the Court.

Correa pointed out a number of contradictions within the Inter-American system, such as that the Inter-American Commission is based in “a country that is not a part of the Inter-American Human Rights System, and that has ratified none of the inter-American human rights instruments” – the United States.

An important new investigative report from the Associated Press’ Alberto Arce describes the apparent ongoing activities of death squads within the Honduran police, reporting that:

In the last three years, the AP has learned, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula. The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the 18th street gang.

The AP report also describes a now-infamous and disturbing video (posted here) that appears to show the extrajudicial, cold-blooded murders of two young men in city streets “by masked gunmen with AK-47s who pulled up in a large SUV” – consistent with the police death squad modus operandi as described in the article.

Arce writes that “Even the country's top police chief has been charged with being complicit,” going on to summarize charges against Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, now the National Chief of Police, for involvement in extrajudicial killings and disappearances back in 2002. Arce notes that “Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past. The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report.”

A confidential 2003 State Department cable made available by Wikileaks reveals that State Department officials wanted Bonilla (then a fugitive) arrested at the time, and also were concerned with “extra-judicial killings of youth” – in which Bonilla was implicated:

¶12. (C) In his meeting with Minister of Public Security Oscar Alvarez, [Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan] Fisk urged Alvarez to take action against corrupt police, to send a strong signal about impunity by arresting fugitive policeman Juan Carlos "Tiger" Bonilla, and to act carefully against whistle-blowers, such as ex-Chief of Police Internal Affairs Maria Luisa Borjas. He also encouraged Alvarez to address the problem of extra-judicial killings of youth and trafficking in persons.


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