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Will the U.S. Government, Media Seek to Improve Relations with Venezuela? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Tuesday, 05 March 2013 22:08

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s announced today that President Hugo Chávez had died at 4:25pm. According to Venezuela’s constitution [PDF], new presidential elections are supposed to be held within 30 days.

The news could present an opportunity for an improvement in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, but that is unlikely. Earlier in the day, Maduro announced that the Venezuelan government would expel the U.S. military attaché for unsanctioned meetings with certain Venezuelan military officers. While this is of course a significant development in U.S.-Venezuela relations that marks yet further deterioration, unfortunately it seems safe to say that most U.S. media outlets will not provide the crucial context necessary in order to understand current relations and why they are so tense.

Maduro mentioned the April 2002 coup d’etat in his press conference today. Declassified C.I.A. and other government documents reveal the U.S. role in that coup against Hugo Chávez. As Scott Wilson, former foreign editor at the Washington Post has explained:

Yes, the United States was hosting people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S.-sponsored NGOs in training some of the people that were involved in the coup. And in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the United States government said that it was a resignation, not a coup, effectively recognizing the government that took office very briefly until President Chavez returned.

I think that there was U.S. involvement, yes.

(Video clip here. This information has however never been reported this fully in the pages of the Washington Post itself.)

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Media Bias in Brazil Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Tuesday, 05 March 2013 08:20

The L.A. Times ran a very nice and uncommon report by correspondent Vincent Bevins about media bias in Brazil on Sunday.  The article notes that most of the major media is still controlled by the same handful of rich families who supported the military coup against the left government of João Goulart in 1964. These publications and TV outlets:

have been critical of the [Workers] party, despite a public approval rating for President Dilma Rousseff as high as 78%. Not a single major news outlet supports her, with some newspapers and magazines particularly harsh in their criticism.

“It's an extremely unique situation now in Brazil to have such a popular government and no major media outlet that supports it or presents a left-of-center viewpoint," says Laurindo Leal Filho, a media specialist at the University of Sao Paulo...

“Brazilian society was based on slavery for over 300 years, and has almost always been run by the same social strata," Leal Filho says. "Some parts of the upper class have learned to live with other parts of society that were previously excluded … but the media still reflect the values of the old-school elite, with very, very few exceptions."

Of course the same could be said – more strongly – about the media in all of the countries that now have left governments in South America:  certainly Bolivia (perhaps the worst media), Ecuador, Argentina, and Venezuela. We can also include Paraguay, where the major media helped depose the social democratic President Fernando Lugo last year.  All of these governments have had their battles with the media, and all (except Paraguay) have increased government media as a counter-weight, with varying degrees of success.  Venezuela has created a number of state TV stations, but they only have about 5.4 percent of the TV audience, so the opposition still has a media advantage there too.

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Sean Wilentz and Cold War Liberals Prefer that Untold History Remains Unheard Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Saturday, 02 March 2013 11:59

Jonathan Schwarz, editor of MichaelMoore.com, wrote a brilliant takedown last week of Sean Wilentz, historian and friend of Hillary Clinton who was angered by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States.  Wilentz’s long diatribe against Stone and Kuznick’s book (also a 10-part film series on Showtime) in the New York Review of Books isn’t much worth reading.  He never really challenges the main thesis of Stone and Kunzick that, with his generally unprovable and superficial objections, he is trying to undermine: that the United States is really an empire, and that empire has been, and remains today, the driving force of U.S. foreign policy; and that actual “national security” concerns have only rarely had anything substantial to do with our wars and assaults on other peoples, including involvement in dictatorships, the overthrow of democratically elected governments, and even genocide. (Stone and Kuznick’s response is here.)

But Schwarz’s response is a very nice read. He nails it when he says that if Cold War liberals like Wilentz were right,

“U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.”

A couple of billion people or so throughout the world understand how that turned out. But Schwarz hammers it home because it is apparently not so clear among some intellectuals and journalists here in the heart of the “free world.”

Cold War liberalism was a curse during the Cold War, and remains so today.  It is the dominant framework in discussions about Latin America today, and not just on the right – which conjures up fantasies about left-leaning Latin American countries supporting terrorist camps with Iran – but also among the liberal foreign policy establishment that occupies most of the media space.  In 2009 almost all of these liberals, including journalists, editors, and prominent human rights groups, looked the other way when Washington helped the coup-installed government of Honduras legitimize itself.  Most of them even pretended that the Obama administration was trying to help restore democracy, when there was a mountain of evidence to the contrary.  The deposed, democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya eventually told the world that the Obama administration was actually behind the coup, and there is every reason to believe him, given all the circumstantial evidence.  But don’t expect any investigations or even investigative reporting to shed more light on what the Obama administration actually did to support the coup.

The good news is that Washington today is mostly limited to preying upon weakest, poorest countries in this region, like Honduras and Haiti.  Most of the rest of the region, for the past 15 years, has finally been free to elect their own governments without a U.S. veto.  But we can’t thank Cold War liberals like Sean Wilentz – who felt compelled to raise questions about Obama’s relations with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers during the 2008 presidential campaign – for that progress.  This positive change is due to the fact that their friends have lost power in the hemisphere and the world. 

 
Media Reports on “Charter Cities” Ignore the Larger Context Print
Written by Arthur Phillips   
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 09:43

On Friday, February 22, Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio’s The Current aired a nearly half-hour story about the Honduras government’s plans to create private, so-called “charter cities.” The show’s featured guest was Honduras president Pepe Lobo’s chief of staff, Octavio Sánchez. For some background, just days after the 2009 coup, Sánchez penned an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which he argued that democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya’s exile at gunpoint was constitutional. More recently, Sánchez has worked feverishly to make the same case for charter cities.

Sánchez’s pitch was briefly contested with a sound bite from Keane Bhatt, creator of the blog Manufacturing Contempt. Bhatt called the plan “social engineering at the behest of an international group of investors,” a point on which he elaborated in an article in the current print edition of the NACLA Report on the Americas. Also, later in the show Rights Action’s co-director Grahame Russell debated the merits of the proposed private cities with Carlo Dade, a professor at the University of Ottawa who endorses the concept.

As has been examined elsewhere, the charter cities concept is attributed to NYU economics professor Paul Romer, who envisions it as a path toward a rules-based, law-abiding society. In practice, though, the idea would take advantage of Honduras’ institutional breakdown to invite private corporations to build new cities on already-inhabited land, and to establish lax legal systems and tax codes to further attract foreign capital for low-cost production. Critics, such as economics professor and former Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention William K. Black, say the charter cities would lead to greater inequality. “Oligarchs . . . see this as yet another way to increase their wealth at the expense of other folks,” Black explained on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas earlier this month.

Last September, Romer unexpectedly removed himself from the project after the Honduras government signed its first agreement with a group of private investors, a process which Romer claims should have first been approved by the transparency commission of which he was an appointed member (though the body was never formalized due to challenges in the Supreme Court). The NYU professor considered this an unforgivable affront and divorced himself from his nearly realized utopia.

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Chávez Haters Not “Limited by Truth, Reality or Common Sense” Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Tuesday, 26 February 2013 10:42

A new op-ed in the Guardian by Ricardo Hausmann portrays a dystopian fictional Venezuela, one in which the Venezuelan government has run the economy into the ground despite abundant oil wealth, but yet its charismatic president continues to be re-elected through some sort of sinister trickery.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s the same tired story repeated in the U.S. and U.K. media almost every day, but in this case Hausmann was apparently given free rein to present his own set of “facts.” It isn’t surprising that Hausmann would write something so divorced from reality; he went to elaborate lengths to invent a conspiracy theory about supposed fraud in Venezuela’s 2004 recall referendum by relying on fake exit polls. An independent panel of statisticians selected by the Carter Center determined that Hausmann and his colleague Roberto Rigobón had in fact found no evidence of fraud. [PDF]

But let’s get back to Hausmann’s latest Guardian piece, starting with the economy. Hausmann writes, "Since 1999, the year [Chávez] took over the presidency, Venezuela has had the lowest average GDP growth rate and the highest inflation of any Latin American country except Haiti."

The source for this “lowest average GDP growth rate” to which Hausmann links is a highly opinionated BBC article which in turn quotes a colleague of Hausmann’s from the Center for International Development at Harvard University who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. Had Hausmann consulted official government data, or growth numbers for the region from the IMF, he would have found a very different set of facts.

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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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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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