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Killings Continue in Bajo Aguán as New Report Documents Abuses by U.S.-Trained Honduran Special Forces Unit Print
Written by Alex Main   
Friday, 22 February 2013 14:11

A few days ago two more land rights activists were murdered in the Bajo Aguán, a region of Honduras where dozens of campesinos have been killed over the last three years. On February 16, Jacobo Cartagena, member of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (or MUCA, by its Spanish initials), was shot and killed as he waited for a bus.  Hours later, José Trejo Cabrera, was shot down while driving a motorcycle near the town of Tocoa. Trejo was the brother of Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer who had defended small farmers’ land claims who himself was shot to death last September as he was leaving a wedding. Amnesty International has called on the Honduran government to “urgently investigate” José Trejo’s killing and noted that “the day before he was shot dead [he] had been in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, to meet with officials in an effort to ensure justice for his brother’s murder and visiting media outlets to keep the spotlight on the case.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, José Trejo had said “if they killed my brother, what will they not do to me?” He and others blamed the powerful businessman Miguel Facussé for his brother’s murder.  Facussé and a handful of other wealthy landowners in the region have hundreds of armed security guards who are believed to be responsible for many of the numerous killings and other attacks targeting campesino activists. Honduran authorities have failed to bring those responsible for the killings to justice or to take effective measures to protect the activists.  As the AP notes, “no one is serving time in prison for any of the 89 assassinations of campesinos committed in the Aguán Valley since December of 2009 when land occupations began…”

Since August of 2011, hundreds of Honduran soldiers have been stationed in the Bajo Aguán as part of the so-called Xatruch Intervention Force, ostensibly to mitigate the ongoing violence taking place there.  But targeted killings of campesinos have continued unabated and representatives of land rights movements have accused military personnel of being involved in attacks on their members.  A new report authored by Annie Bird of Rights Action adds significant weight to these allegations.  It documents 34 cases of abuses directly involving members of Honduras’ 15th Battalion, a special forces unit of the Honduran army that has been present in the region for decades and has played a central role in the Xatruch Force.

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Washington Post, Miami Herald Issue Embarrassingly Erroneous Editorials on Ecuador Print
Written by Jake Johnston and Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 21 February 2013 17:24

The Miami Herald editorial board commented on the recent reelection of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa earlier this week, noting that “opposition candidate Alvaro Noboa, whom Mr. Correa defeated 57 percent to 43 percent, has indicated that he might challenge the results, accusing Mr. Correa of rigging the election.”

Just one problem; Noboa actually received 3.7 percent of the vote, putting him in 5th place overall. In fact, even the second place finisher in the election received just 23 percent of the vote, putting him some 34 percentage points behind Correa. The results cited in the Herald editorial were actually the results of the 2006 presidential election where Noboa did in fact earn 43 percent of the vote.

Perhaps the editorial board should have consulted with their own reporters, who noted after the election that, “President Rafael Correa crushed the opposition Sunday, avoiding a runoff and winning the right to lead this Andean nation through 2017.” The article didn’t even mention Noboa.

The error is particularly striking since it is the opinion of the Herald’s editorial board, and so is presumably read by at least one other person on the board besides the author.

The Herald goes on to say that electoral authorities “have an obligation to hear Mr. Noboa out” because that “is what’s supposed to happen in a democracy.” And The Miami Herald has an obligation to fact check, because that is what’s supposed to happen at a newspaper.

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IMF Ignores Proven Alternatives With Recommendations to Honduras Print
Written by Arthur Phillips   
Thursday, 21 February 2013 10:00

On Friday, February 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it had concluded its most recent Article IV consultation with Honduras. The Fund’s recommendations varied little from those it has offered many other countries in recent years: cut public spending, reduce deficits, reform pensions and depress wages.

The IMF regularly conducts Article IV consultations with almost all of its member countries—with Argentina, which since 2006 has refused to take part in the process, being one notable exception. The official reviews are a way for the Fund to present its analysis of each country’s economic prospects and to advocate for a set of reforms. While it is difficult to precisely assess the influence of the consultations, it has been noted that in many cases the recommended policies have been adopted against popular public opinion. And in countries that end up borrowing from the fund, these policies are often preconditions for receiving future IMF loans.

The Fund’s recommendations on Honduras diverged little from the policies it is pushing in many other countries. Below is a selection from the IMF’s brief (347-word, to be exact) Executive Board Assessment of its most recent consultation with Honduras:

Directors . . . underscored the need to tighten macroeconomic policies and press ahead with structural reforms . . .. [They] welcomed the planned reduction of the budget deficit in 2013, and urged early adoption of the measures needed to ensure this outcome and avoid further central bank borrowing or accumulation of domestic payments arrears. They called for sustained medium-term fiscal consolidation . . . [and] supported plans to restrain the public sector wage bill . . . and emphasized the importance of reducing energy subsidies . . .. Directors concurred that monetary policy should be tightened . . . [and] regarded plans to reform state-owned enterprises as critical to strengthen the fiscal position and support growth, and encouraged timely implementation . . . and welcomed the ongoing reform of public pension funds.

It is difficult to overlook how much this assessment resembles the Fund’s recommendations to European countries struggling to emerge from the global recession. CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot and Senior Research Associate Helene Jorgensen recently released a paper analyzing 67 Article IV consultations for European member countries between 2008 and 2012, in which the authors found that the lending body was pushing a “one-size-fits-all” approach that often included pro-cyclical policy recommendations. In the paper Weisbrot and Jorgensen summarized their findings, in part, as follows:

This content analysis finds a consistent pattern of policy recommendations, which indicates (1) a macroeconomic policy that focuses on reducing spending and shrinking the size of government, in many cases regardless of whether this is appropriate or necessary, or may even exacerbate an economic downturn; and (2) a focus on other policy issues that would tend to reduce social protections for broad sectors of the population (including public pensions, health care, and employment protections), reduce labor’s share of national income, and possibly increase poverty, social exclusion, and economic and social inequality as a result.

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Grandin on “the Latin American Exception” Print
Written by Alex Main   
Wednesday, 20 February 2013 10:00

In early February, New York University professor Greg Grandin came across a map on the Washington Post’s web page highlighting in red the 54 countries from around the world that participated in one way or another in the U.S.’s extraordinary rendition program.  Grandin, a well-known historian and Latin Americanist, quickly noticed that nations from every region had collaborated in the Bush Administration’s clandestine detention and interrogation program except for… Latin America.  The fact that no Latin American country lent support to the program was in itself a remarkable fact that speaks to how much the region has evolved politically over the last two or three decades. 

On February 18, Grandin published an insightful analysis on Tom Dispatch that provides some historical perspective on this “Latin American Exception.”  Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. worked closely with the region’s military dictatorships to render their brutal security forces and intelligence services more efficient in clamping down on – and disappearing – civilians involved in left-wing movements.  The U.S. then supported efforts to synchronize and internationalize the work of these repressive regimes.  As Grandin writes,

The result was state terror on a nearly continent-wide scale.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s Operation Condor, which linked together the intelligence services of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile, was the most infamous of Latin America’s transnational terror consortiums, reaching out to commit mayhem as far away as Washington D.C.,Paris, and Rome.  The U.S. had earlier helped put in place similar operations elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, especially in Central America in the 1960s.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had been tortured, killed, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial, thanks in significant part to U.S. organizational skills and support.  Latin America was, by then, Washington’s backyard gulag.  Three of the region’s current presidents -- Uruguay’s José Mujica, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega -- were victims of this reign of terror.

But that was then.  By the 1990’s most of these repressive regimes progressively gave way to democratic ones.   Today, most of the governments of the region lean left and have adopted both domestic and foreign policy agendas that sharply differ from the U.S. agenda.  In many ways, Latin America is today more independent of the United States than Europe is.

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Reporting Ahead of Ecuadorean Elections Fits a Familiar Narrative Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Sunday, 17 February 2013 18:16

International media reporting ahead of Ecuador’s elections today has sounded familiar themes, understating the achievements of the Rafael Correa government and attributing Ecuador’s recent economic and social progress to “luck” or happenstance, and high oil prices. Correa is depicted as an enemy of press freedom, despite the fact that Ecuadorean media is uncensored and the majority of it opposes the government; and despite his granting of political asylum to Julian Assange. He is also depicted as a member of Latin America’s “bad left” who has ambitions of regional leadership should “bad left” leader Hugo Chávez succumb to illness or otherwise be unable to continue in office.

A common theme in press accounts is that the Correa administration’s social programs are “funded by the country's oil proceeds.” While some reporting has gone deeper and noted that “Correa has taken on big business and media groups, imposing new contracts on oil companies and renegotiating the country's debt while touting his poverty reduction efforts,” others have not. “High prices for oil exports resulted in higher revenues which the government invested in social programs and public infrastructure,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in a Friday article. The New York Times’  William Neuman presented a contradictory picture of the economic importance of Ecuador’s petroleum sector, writing that “Ecuador is the smallest oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, yet oil sales account for about half of the country’s income from exports and about a third of all tax revenues, according to the United States Energy Information Administration,” just before stating in the next paragraph that “Mr. Correa has taken advantage of high oil prices to put money into social programs, earning him immense popularity, especially among the country’s poor.”

Petroleum exports have been important to Ecuador’s economy for a long time; this did not suddenly come about with Correa. While Correa was favored by high oil prices during most of his six years in office, the collapse of oil prices in 2008 was a major blow to the economy.  Also, an important change during Correa’s first term has been the Ecuadorean government’s relationship with foreign oil companies. Correa notably has driven a much harder bargain than his predecessors, “imposing a windfall profits tax for concessions made to companies for the exploitation of domestic natural resources” that “raised over $500 million for the government in 2010,” as our latest paper notes. A raft of financial and regulatory reforms have also put a considerable amount of revenue in the government’s coffers, contributing to the increase  from 27 percent of GDP in 2006 to more than 40 percent in 2012. Stimulus spending – 5 percent of GDP in 2009 – boosted the economy and allowed Ecuador to get through the global recession with minimal damage, losing only about 1.3 percent of GDP during three quarters of recession, despite being one of the hardest hit countries in the hemisphere by external shocks. Non-petroleum sectors such as construction, commerce and services have also been important drivers of growth in recent years, including in 2011, when Ecuador had some of the highest real GDP growth in the region at 7.8 percent, second only to Argentina in South America.

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CEPR Paper on Ecuador’s Financial Reforms Helps Explain Why Voters Likely to Re-Elect Correa Print
Written by Alex Main   
Thursday, 14 February 2013 19:53

On Sunday Ecuadorians will head to the polls to vote for a president and vice president, members of the National Assembly, mayors, and other elected officials. As we’ve done ahead of other elections in Latin America, CEPR has published a report offering some economic context to help understand the choices that voters are likely to make.

The report, entitled Ecuador’s New Deal: Reforming and Regulating the Financial Sector, focuses on the innovative financial reforms that have been implemented since President Rafael Correa took office in 2007.  The report explains how these measures helped Ecuador recover from some of the hemisphere’s worst shocks during the world recession.  It also shows how the reforms contributed to a substantial increase in government revenue much of which has been channeled toward health, education, housing and other social spending.  Given these advances, it is not surprising that the latest polls put Correa at 50 percentage points ahead of his closest opponent. 

Earlier today, CEPR issued the following press release outlining the contents of the paper:

A new paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) examines the financial reforms carried out by the Rafael Correa administration, reforms which the paper concludes are in large part responsible for the economic success Ecuador has experienced over the past several years, including its successful counter-cyclical policies during the global recession after 2008. The paper, “Ecuador’s New Deal: Reforming and Regulating the Financial Sector,” examines the Correa government’s taking control of the Central Bank, implementation of capital controls, increased taxation of the financial sector, and other regulatory reforms. It concludes that these played a major role in bringing about Ecuador’s strong economic growth, increased government revenue, a substantial decline in poverty and unemployment, and other improvements in economic and social indicators.

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Administration Rejects Congressional Request for Investigation of Ahuas Killings Despite Evidence of DEA Role Print
Written by Alex Main   
Wednesday, 13 February 2013 21:28

At the end of January, I blogged about a Congressional letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder asking, among other things, for a U.S. investigation into the May 2012 killing of four Honduran indigenous villagers in Ahuas, Honduras during a counternarcotics operation that involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  The letter, signed by 58 House representatives, argues that a credible U.S. investigation of the incident is necessary given the “deeply flawed” nature of the investigation carried out by Honduras’ Public Prosecutor and that, according to media reports, Honduran police agents stated that “they took their orders from the D.E.A.”

On February 12, the Washington Times reported that despite “pleas from liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the State and Justice departments have no intention of investigating purported human rights violations and misconduct by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Honduras.”  Times’ correspondent Guy Taylor spoke to an anonymous State Department official who indicated that the Department was satisfied with the Honduran official investigation and stated that “there will be no separate investigation.”  Furthermore,

In a statement last month, DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden told The Times that the investigation conducted by Honduran authorities “concluded that DEA agents did not fire a single round” and that “the conduct of DEA personnel was consistent with current DEA protocols, policies and procedures.”

The anonymous State Department official reaffirmed this position stating, “as we have confirmed previously, DEA agents were involved in a supporting role, and did not fire their weapons.”

The basis for this determination, as the DEA spokeswoman made clear in her previous comments to the Times, is the report summarizing the conclusions of the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s office.  Though cited by the DEA and State Department, this report has not been made public.  However, there is abundant evidence that the investigation that generated the prosecutor’s report was indeed “deeply flawed.”  Last year’s in-depth report on the May killings, co-authored by CEPR and Rights Action, explained how key forensics tests were performed long after the incident occurred and how the autopsies of the victims took place a month after the incident and, according to numerous eye witnesses, were carried out in a stunningly unprofessional manner.  Key participants in the counternarcotics operation – including at least ten DEA agents and several State Department contractors – were never questioned, nor were their weapons submitted to ballistics tests.

Most importantly, the report’s apparent findings – at least as they have been represented by the State Department and the DEA – are directly contradicted by another report produced by the Honduran National Human Rights Ombudsman.  This report, which we also discussed in a previous post, is largely based on the testimonies of the Honduran police agents of the “Tactical Response Team” (TRT) that participated in the counternarcotics operation.  Whereas, according to State and DEA, the prosecutor’s report confirms that the DEA merely played a “supportive role” during this operation, the Ombudsman’s report concludes that the DEA essentially led the entire operation:

All members of the TRT have stated that they only receive orders from American superiors and that they don't report anything, neither before nor afterwards, to their legal Honduran superiors, given that they ultimately don't deal with orders or logistics of any sort.

Furthermore, though State and DEA adamantly claim that the DEA agents “did not fire their weapons,” the Ombudsman’s report suggests that the DEA was directly responsible for the discharge of one of the helicopter’s high caliber automatic mounted guns against the boat carrying those who were killed in the incident.  The report states that:

According to the account of various TRT (Honduran Tactical Response Team) members, as the Barra Patuca pipante was approaching the pipante transporting the drugs, which in that moment was adrift down river, a burst of fire could be heard, supposedly coming from the boat coming from Barra Patuca causing the member from the FAST Team of the DEA to communicate by radio with the foreign pilot on helicopter number four, who proceeded to give the order to the artilleryman from Honduras who was on the same helicopter to support his teammates by opening fire on the boat with the victims that was coming from Barra Patuca.

In other words, according to the testimony of Honduran police agents, the helicopter pilot – identified as non-Honduran – gave instructions to the helicopter gunner to open fire on the “boat with the victims” after being contacted by one of the DEA agents involved in the operation.  Given this second “official” version of events, which appears to directly contradict the conclusions of the Public Prosecutor’s report and suggests that the DEA may bear much responsibility for the lethal outcome of the May incident, it is difficult to see how U.S. officials can continue to maintain that there is no need for a separate, U.S. investigation. 

 
Venezuela Devalues its Currency Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Friday, 08 February 2013 19:02

En Español

Venezuela devalued its currency today, from 4.3 bolivares fuertes to 6.3 at the official exchange rate.   As with most economic news from Venezuela, it was not well reported.  A Reuters news article stated, as though it were a fact, that the move will “spur galloping inflation.”  But the biggest devaluation during the Chávez years, in January 2010, produced no increase in the core rate of inflation, and only a temporary increase in the headline rate; it then fell for more than two years, even as economic growth accelerated to more than 5 percent in 2012. Annual inflation was 19.5 percent in 2012.  At the time of the devaluation in January 2010, there were reports in the Washington Post predicting 60 percent inflation as a result of the devaluation.

Of course we would expect some temporary increase in inflation from a devaluation, as there was in 2010 – because the devaluation will increase the price of imports – but how much and how long it lasts depends on other government policies as well. 

The devaluation will increase the cost of capital flight, and by making imports more expensive, provide a boost to import-competing industries. For this reason, and because it reduces the black market premium and reduces capital flight, the move will overall be good for the economy.

 It is widely reported, as in the Reuters article, that the devaluation will help with government finances because each dollar in oil export earnings will now exchange for more domestic currency; in fact this is often stated as the reason for the devaluation. But government spending in domestic currency is not dependent on the exchange rate.   

 
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Implicated in Corruption Investigation Print
Written by Arthur Phillips   
Thursday, 07 February 2013 14:21

A front-page article in the print edition of today’s Washington Post details how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez twice approached federal health-care officials about Dr. Solomon Melgen’s outstanding $8.9 million debt to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which the doctor claims was the result of being overbilled. Melgen, personally and through his ophthalmology company, has made major contributions to Menendez’s political campaigns.

This is the latest news to follow reports that on Wednesday, January 30, the FBI raided Melgen’s offices, soon after which the senator’s office described the doctor as “a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years.” Two days later, following John Kerry’s resignation from his seat as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become Secretary of State, Menendez took over the position, one of the most powerful and prestigious in Congress.

Menendez, who is Cuban American, has taken a hard line against easing travel restrictions to Cuba and has been described as “fiercely pro-embargo.” The New Jersey Democrat has also worked closely with lawmakers across the aisle on policy towards Iran, including his co-authorship of sanctions legislation with Republican Senator Mark Kirk last year.

Early reports of the FBI’s search focused on allegations that in 2010 Senator Menendez accepted free flights to the Dominican Republic from Dr. Solomon Melgen and had sex with prostitutes during these trips, a claim he has vehemently denied. It was also noted that Menendez is not married, and that prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the senator, who in January of this year wrote a $58,000 personal check to reimburse Melgen for two trips.

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AP Investigation: U.S. Spends $20 Billion Over 10 Years on Increasingly Bloody Drug “War” in Latin America; Rejects Drug Policy Reform Print
Written by Alex Main   
Tuesday, 05 February 2013 13:58

It started in Colombia in 2000, moved on to Mexico in 2008 and now rages in Central America.  Since the beginning of the century, the U.S.-backed “war on drugs” has progressively spread throughout the northern part of Latin America, leaving tens of thousands of lost lives in its wake. An in-depth investigative piece published by the Associated Press over the weekend explains how this so-called “war” – which relies on U.S. funding, training, equipment and troops – has grown in recent years to become “the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War.”

The article, authored by Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Martha Mendoza, describes how the U.S. has “spent more than $20 billion in the past decade” and deployed U.S. army, marine and navy troops to support a heavily militarized campaign to fight drug trafficking throughout the region.  The fact that the efforts have been accompanied by soaring violence – with, for example, 70,000 Mexican lives lost in the last six years – doesn’t seem to trouble the U.S. officials in charge of implementing U.S. drug policy internationally.  In fact, they seem to consider spikes in violence to be a sign that the “strategy is working.” 

William Brownfield who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Mendoza that “the bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations… come under some degree of pressure.”

For others in Washington, the shocking number of lives lost suggests that the strategy is in fact not working.  New York Congressman Elliot Engel, a moderate Democrat who is now the ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the AP that he supports a congressional review of counternarcotics programs in the Western Hemisphere.

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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.

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