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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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Fifty-eight Members of Congress ask for investigation of Honduras killings and policy review – will Kerry and Holder act? Print
Written by Alex Main   
Thursday, 31 January 2013 19:33

On January 30th, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder received a letter from fifty-eight members of Congress asking for a U.S. investigation into a DEA-led counter-narcotics operation in Ahuas, Honduras that went badly wrong.  Four indigenous Mosquitia villagers, including at least one pregnant woman and a 14 year-old boy, were shot and killed in a small boat in the Patuka River during the May 11, 2012 operation.  Three other passengers were critically injured.  CEPR visited the site of the killings last Summer and, together with Rights Action, published a detailed report describing the central role that the DEA played during that operation and the flawed nature of the Honduran official investigation of the incident.  The Honduran human rights group COFADEH and the Honduran government’s Human Rights Ombudsman have asked the U.S. to carry out its own investigation, but so far U.S. officials have rejected the idea.

This letter, initiated by Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson, marks the first time that members of Congress have publicly called for a U.S. investigation of the shooting and shows that, despite the U.S. Administration’s attempt to brush the incident under the rug, the issue continues to fester.  The surviving victims and the victims’ families have received no form of compensation and have great difficulty obtaining vital medical care (one of the wounded victims’ hands would probably have been amputated had COFADEH not helped pay for surgery).  As our August report described, the killings generated outrage and a strong sentiment of injustice among members of the communities near Ahuas, and as a result, resentment toward U.S.-led counternarcotics operations has grown stronger in the Mosquitia region.

The signers of the letter include Representative John Conyers who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Meeks who is a high-ranking Democrat on House Foreign Affairs and Rep. Van Hollen who is the ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee.  As State Department titled helicopters and contractors were a key part of the operation along with at least ten DEA agents, the letter is addressed to the top officials of both State and the Department of Justice.  Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has proven to be a staunch supporter of the current course of the so-called “war on drugs”.  John Kerry, however, has been critical of human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by Honduran security forces, and recently backed the limiting of U.S. police assistance to Honduras. His quick and disconcerting mention of Honduras during his confirmation hearing last week provides little indication of whether he intends to review any aspect of policy toward that nation as chief diplomat of the U.S.

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Piñera Praises Chávez at CELAC Summit; Media Influences Public Opinion on Venezuela But Not So Much Governments Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Tuesday, 29 January 2013 17:52

el pais fake alien as chavez

Image: This satire of El País' publication of a fake photo of President Hugo Chávez on its front page last week captures the quality of much media reporting on Venezuela.  El País is the most influential paper in Spain and has much influence also in Latin America.

 

In writing about the media’s ongoing hate-fest for Hugo Chávez, I pointed out that the major media’s reporting had been effective, in that it has convinced most consumers of the Western media – especially in the Western Hemisphere and Europe – that Venezuela suffers from a dictatorship that has ruined the country.

But there is an important sense in which it has failed.  Of course it has failed to convince Venezuelans that they would be better off under a neoliberal regime, and that is one reason why Chávez and his party have won 13 of 14 elections and referenda since he was first elected in 1998.  Perhaps of equal importance, it has also failed to persuade other governments that President Chávez is motivated by some kind of irrational hatred of the U.S. – as the media generally reports it.  Most foreign ministries have some research capacity, and although they are influenced by major media, at the higher levels they have better information and make their own evaluations.

That is why Chávez has been able to play a significant role in the growing independence and regional integration of Latin America, despite his vilification in the media, and years of effort by the U.S. government to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors.  For example, the governments that decided to form the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) – a new hemispheric organization including all countries other than the U.S. and Canada – don’t care whether the media dismisses it as “Chavez’s project.” When Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay decided to admit Venezuela as a full member of the trading bloc Mercosur, they didn’t care what the media in any of their respective countries would say about it.

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World Bank and IMF Forecasts Follow Predictable Pattern for Haiti, Venezuela Print
Written by Arthur Phillips and Stephan Lefebvre   
Monday, 28 January 2013 14:22

The World Bank has joined the “doom and gloom” chorus on Venezuela’s economy. And in Haiti, the Washington-based institution again appears overly optimistic.

On Tuesday, January 15, the World Bank released its latest global economic forecast, which projects 2013 global GDP growth at 3.4%, up 0.4% from its preliminary estimate for 2012 and down a half a percentage point from its previous forecast in June. The Bank emphasized that the low rates were largely a result of sluggish growth in the U.S. and Europe. As for Latin America and the Caribbean, the regional predicted growth for 2013 is listed at 3.6%, up more than half a point from the estimated figure for 2012.

As with many media commentators over the past few years, the World Bank predicts that Venezuela’s economic recovery from the global recession cannot hold up. The Bank forecasts 1.8% growth in 2013, a sharp drop from an estimated 5.2% last year. Since the Venezuelan economy is not slowing, there is no obvious reason to predict a collapse in economic growth.

Furthermore, we can see that the projection numbers follow a trend. Both the World Bank and the IMF have been consistently underestimating growth projections in Venezuela.

vz gdp projection2011 vz gdp projection2012 1

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Kerry on Latin America: More of the Same? Print
Written by Alex Main   
Saturday, 26 January 2013 17:20

Senator John Kerry, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, spoke for close to four hours at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.  He discussed U.S. policy in the Middle East and Asia at length, mentioning Afghanistan thirty-five times, China thirty-three times, Iran twenty-four times and Vietnam twenty-one times, according to the Wall Street Journal.  With the exception of Mexico – which came up a total of twelve times – hardly any of the hearing touched on the Western Hemisphere, which was mentioned only four times.  Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez, who is of Cuban-American descent, was the only one to ask a question about Kerry’s vision for relations with Latin America.

Menendez started off his question by saying “2013 will be a year of great change in the Western Hemisphere,” then mentioned “the impending change of leadership in Venezuela,” the new PRI administration in Mexico, and the recently-launched peace talks in Colombia.  “So,” he asked Kerry, “can you briefly talk to me about your views and vision as it relates to what I think is a new and momentous opportunity in the hemisphere?”

Kerry’s response [PDF] was indeed brief and elicited no reaction from his Senate colleagues. His statements suggested that, with Kerry as chief diplomat, U.S. policy toward the region will remain on automatic pilot, cruising along on more or less the same course that the State Department has followed since the Bush administration.  His response also showed a startling disregard for the perspectives and policy priorities of the governments and peoples of Latin America. Here’s what Kerry replied to Menendez:  

Well I agree with you, Mr. Chairman. It is an opportunity that's staring at us, and I hope that we can build on what Secretary Clinton has done and the Obama administration has already done in order to augment our efforts in that region.

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Jamaica and the IMF: How Not to Learn From Past Mistakes Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Thursday, 24 January 2013 14:45

Once again it seems that Jamaica and the IMF are on the verge of a new lending agreement. And once again, it sounds like more of the same failed policies as before. Last week, after a three-day retreat with Cabinet members, the AP noted that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller “said the Cabinet recently signed off on all fiscal consolidation matters to forge a new IMF deal.” Reason to celebrate? Not so fast. As Jamaican analyst Dennis Chung was quick to point out, “further expenditure cuts and tax increases will only pave the way for further economic contraction.” The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is predicting even more job cuts in 2013 precisely because of the impending IMF agreement. Unemployment is already nearly 13 percent.

As Chung notes, also relevant to the discussion is the recent research by the IMF showing that austerity policies have much larger negative effects than previously thought (at least by the IMF). But one need not look outside Jamaica or do a regression analysis to see the deleterious effects of austerity. Faced with extremely high debt payments, and having spent the last few years trying to court the IMF by cutting spending (following a previous IMF agreement which mandated such austerity), Jamaica has been a prime example of the pitfalls of this failed economic policy making. Debt levels haven’t come down, economic growth hasn’t returned, and the downward spiral has continued apace. Even a few dissident IMF directors have expressed concern.

Jamaica was the only country in the Latin American and Caribbean region to see three consecutive years of negative growth from 2008-2010 according to ECLAC, and it hasn’t exactly rebounded nicely since. GDP actually shrank in the first half of 2012 compared to 2011 and ECLAC predicts a paltry 0.1 percent growth rate for 2013, “assuming that an agreement is signed with IMF,” as the Jamaica Gleaner reported.

Unfortunately, while Jamaica needs serious debt relief in order to free up resources for the type of investment that will get the economy moving again, that seems to have already been taken off the table. Last week Finance Minister Peter Phillips stated, “[l]et me make it clear, since there are lot of rumours around, no haircut is contemplated.” The rumors concerned the possibility of a second debt exchange, but the main problem with the first one was that it never went far enough and there was no haircut. Just like with the continued austerity policies, the IMF in Jamaica is providing a great example of how not to learn from past mistakes. 

 
The Man Who Ousted the President is Now Running for President Print
Written by Arthur Phillips   
Thursday, 24 January 2013 11:52

The Associated Press recently reported that General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who led the military-backed coup against democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, would himself run for president in this year’s election. The move has been anticipated since late 2011, when Vásquez, along with a number of ex-military officers, formed the new Honduran Patriotic Alliance party.

Putting aside the irony of Vásquez’ candidacy, his announcement serves as a reminder of the political violence and institutional breakdown that has plagued the Central American country for the three-and-a-half years since he executed the coup. In November 2009, 5 months after Zelaya was dispatched, the illegitimate government proceeded with national elections, hoping these would in effect white-wash the coup. The Obama administration did all it could to ensure that this effort was successful, and current president Lobo was elected under a cloud of repression and impunity.

Today, violence against dissidents, journalists, women, union leaders, activists, the LGBT community and others continues unabated. And while the State Department has withheld some aid to the Honduran military and police, it continues to work closely with the government on counternarcotics efforts with little accountability. The U.S. government has still not conducted an investigation into an incident on May 11, 2012, in which the DEA was involved and in which State Department helicopters were used, that left four innocent people dead.

Though political repression still runs rampant, the opposition LIBRE party, led by the former president and his wife Xiomara Castro, continues to organize in advance of upcoming elections. Party leaders have announced that they will escalate their presence through a series of public demonstrations, the first of which is slated for today, January 24. Yet as long as the U.S. government keeps supporting the Honduran armed forces and working directly and without oversight in drug interdiction efforts, those in power in Tegucigalpa may have little incentive to address the dire human rights situation.

 
Does Guatemala Include “Extrajudicial Executions” in its Calculation of National Murder Rates? Print
Written by Sara Kozameh   
Friday, 18 January 2013 17:30

On January 14th, a day marking the one-year anniversary of his administration, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina presented his first annual report on the state of the country. In his speech, Pérez Molina, a former general, graduate of the School of the Americas and accused of being  a war criminal implicated in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide, hailed a “historic 10 percent reduction in violent crime” and “an almost five point drop in the homicide rate per every 100,000 inhabitants” from the previous year. Guatemala currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world (41 murders per every 100,000 inhabitants); it had a total of 5,122 murders in 2012. Ironically, while President Pérez Molina was reporting back to the nation on crime statistics and murder rates that morning, the mayor of the town of Jutiapa had just been shot down, dying almost immediately of sixteen bullet wounds. 

In the 1980s, the “scorched-earth” campaign of the Guatemalan military tortured, slaughtered and massacred entire villages, resulting in the deaths of over 200,000 people. Under the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt from 1982-83 state violence in Guatemala has been said to have been the most brutal. A year ago, after years of attempts by human rights defenders to put him on trial, Ríos Montt was charged with genocide in Guatemalan courts. He has since filed two petitions to acquire amnesty from the law, the second of which is still awaiting a ruling. Last month Pérez Molina, who himself served under General Ríos Montt during the 1980s, issued and then suspended a decree stating that it would stop adhering to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987,  which human rights defenders say could be an attempt to prevent legal challenges from taking place.

In 2011, when presidential elections were held, Guatemalan and international human rights organizations warned of the danger in electing a former general implicated in “scorched earth” campaigns and extrajudicial executions, pointing out that militarization and repression would likely escalate if Pérez Molina were to win. 

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The Guardian vs. the Conventional Wisdom on Venezuela Print
Written by Alex Main   
Wednesday, 16 January 2013 15:35

Earlier this month my colleague Dan Beeton noted that the major media, after incorrectly predicting a close race in Venezuela’s presidential elections, had quickly reverted to the familiar “gloom and doom” predictions for Venezuela’s economic future.  Additionally, many recent opinion and news pieces have echoed the Venezuelan opposition’s view that the decision to postpone Chávez’s inauguration was legally questionable.  On January 8th, a Chicago Tribune editorial neatly summarized the prevailing wisdom: “Venezuela after Chavez will likely be plagued by political turmoil and economic struggle.”

Just as it appeared that the current conventional wisdom on Venezuela had spread and hardened irreversibly throughout the major media, on Monday the UK daily The Guardian published an editorial entitled “Venezuela, defying predictions – again.”  The piece deftly takes on a few commonly held views found in much of the media coverage of Venezuela.

The postponement of Chávez’s inauguration “is not a coup,” the Guardian states. In fact, “the constitution allows for a president-elect to be sworn in by the supreme court, and the postponement has now been endorsed by the court itself.”  It’s worth noting that head of the Organization of American States José Miguel Insulza, the government of Brazil and a number of other regional governments have also publicly agreed with this assessment, which we explored in detail last week.  Few U.S. media reported on the international acceptance of the decision to postpone Chávez’s swearing-in, instead preferring to focus on the views of members of the Venezuelan opposition, some of which lack consistency.  For instance, opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the postponement, only to later reject the Court’s determination that the move was constitutional.

The Guardian editorial also points out that the frequent predictions that rivals within the pro-government coalition “would begin falling out have not materialized” and that:

dire warnings about a mismanaged economy, with soaring inflation, crumbling infrastructure and currency control problems, also need examining with care.  After all, the Venezuelan economy has grown for nine successive quarters, has a relatively low debt burden, and the fall in inflation indicates a government with the ability to control inflation while maintaining growth. Oh, and Venezuela is sitting on the world's largest oil reserve.

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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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