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Battle Over Secretary of Defense Nomination May Affect Latin America Policy, Too Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Saturday, 22 December 2012 13:08

There is an epic battle going on, mostly in the shadows, over President Obama’s reported intention to appoint former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  Robert Naiman describes some of the stakes here:  

“On Afghanistan, the AP notes- ("Pentagon front-runner Hagel has strong Obama ties, likely favors rapid Afghanistan withdrawal "):

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is a contrarian Republican moderate and decorated Vietnam combat veteran who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. [...] Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that "the American people want out" of the war. …

"On Iran, the AP noted that ‘Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.’”

"On the Pentagon budget, a Washington Post editorial noted that in September 2011 Hagel called for cuts to the Pentagon budget. .."

And on the battle within the Beltway:

“The outcome of this battle is likely to be determined soon. If Obama nominates Hagel, easy Senate confirmation is expected. But it's possible that in the absence of a sufficiently broad and vigorous response, the neocon Swift Boaters could kick up enough dust to convince some of the Obama political people that, even though they could win the fight easily, it's not worth the fight, and life would be much easier politically if they would just appease the right and appoint someone the right won't object to, and move on to other things."

"That outcome would be a shame, because far more than any other likely Obama nominee, Hagel represents the foreign policy that the majority of Americans voted for in 2008 and 2012: less war, more diplomacy.”

And now New York Congressman Elliot Engel, former Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and the new ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly confronted his party’s President to oppose a Hagel nomination. 

What about Latin America?  It seems that there are objections from the right here too:

On Thursday that chorus was joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is reportedly concerned about Hagel’s past support for ending the US boycott on Cuba’s communist regime. Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant told the Washington Free Beacon that ‘promoting democracy in Latin America is a priority for Senator Rubio, and he’s put holds on other administration nominees over the issue. If President Obama were to nominate Senator Hagel, for a cabinet position, I’m sure we would have questions about Cuba positions.

So, it looks like people who care about the Western Hemisphere have a stake in this fight, too.  President Obama didn’t change policy in this hemisphere from that of the Bush Administration. But he paid a political price for that, as his administration was isolated from almost all of Latin America, e.g., for helping the coup government in Honduras legitimize itself.  In addition to the Cuba embargo, there is the  so-called “drug war” and other issues where the Obama administration may feel pressure to take some steps in a positive direction, and it would be good to have a Secretary of Defense who is at least more open-minded than a lot of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.  And of course, it would send a terrible message to the country and the world to see President Obama cave once again to the neocon right, as if elections here don’t really matter. 

 
Miguel Facusse is Tragically Misunderstood Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 21 December 2012 14:00

The Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson conducted a rare interview with Miguel Facussé Barjum, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Honduras, and also believed to be behind the killings of dozens of campesinos in the Aguan Valley, where Facussé has extensive land holdings. He has been the subject of much recent scrutiny, as Wilkinson notes, especially following the assassination of attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf campesino organizations in the Aguan. Wilkinson describes some of the allegations and criticism leveled at Facussé from members of the U.S. Congress and human rights organizations:

In October, shortly before he lost reelection, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) took the unusual step of singling out Facusse in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Berman demanded a major overhaul of U.S. policy toward Honduras, including suspension of aid to human rights abusers. He repeated Trejo's accusation, calling for an investigation of Facussé.

"It is breathtaking that Facusse has been so untouchable," said a House of Representatives staffer with knowledge of the issue, who spoke anonymously in keeping with Washington protocol.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, in filings with the International Criminal Court, alleges that Facusse may have committed "crimes against humanity" in the killings of Trejo and several peasant farmers.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the FoodFirst Information and Action Network, the International Federation for Human Rights and other groups details a number of killings, kidnappings, torture, forced evictions, assaults, death threats and other human rights violations that victims, witnesses and others attribute to Facussé’s guards. In May this year, Reporters Without Borders declared Facussé to be a “predator” of press freedom. Facussé’s response has sometimes been to threaten to sue for defamation. As he explains in the LA Times article, “He said he considered suing Berman but was advised by friends that legal action would be a waste of time.”

Perhaps seeing the limits to suing for defamation when the allegations are supported by evidence, Facussé, it appears, wanted to sit down with Wilkinson in order to set the record straight. He explains that, while yes, his airplane was "was used to illegally carry the foreign minister out of the country against her will" during the 2009 coup d’etat; and yes, drug planes have used his property to traffic cocaine; and yes, he normally keeps a pistol on his desk; and yes, he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and yes, he was aware of the plans for the 2009 coup in advance – he’s misunderstood. One has to appreciate the tremendous pathos as Facussé laments, "My name is mud all over the world," he said. "I'm the bad guy in the world."

And

As for the allegations of involvement in the lawyer's killing?

"I probably had reasons to kill him," he said, "but I'm not a killer."

 
Sunday’s Election Indicates Power Shift is Unlikely in Venezuela Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Monday, 17 December 2012 18:22

The overwhelming victory of Chávez’s party, the PSUV, in yesterday’s elections for state governors is another indication that the widespread prognostications of gloom and doom ahead for both chavismo and for Venezuela may once again be off the mark.  The PSUV won 20 of 23 states, increasing their total from 15 to 20 governorships.  They were able to do this without Chávez being able to campaign, which is interesting not only because he is an important political figure and campaigner, but also because by a law which predated Chávez, most TV stations are required to carry the president’s speeches (these broadcasts are called cadenas).  Since the government TV stations have only about 6 percent of the television audience, this was an important factor that helped in the October 7 presidential elections – without the cadenas the media would have been stacked against him, since most print media and radio are also privately owned and to varying degrees against the government.  This election, like the October 7 presidential election, also showed the superior organization of the president’s party, which in most of the 20 states that they won, they won by large margins.

It thus appears that if Chávez is unable to complete his term, the most likely scenario would be that his endorsed candidate, Nicolás Maduro, would win the presidency in the special election that is required to take place 30 days after a presidential resignation.  Polls taken before the last election showed Maduro trailing by 6 points behind the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski; but that is before the recent endorsement from Chávez, and of course the boost that Chávez would give him with any further appeals to the electorate.  Capriles avoided disaster by winning the governor’s race in Miranda, but it was not by a huge margin (50 - 46), especially considering the massive media exposure he had during his presidential campaign. 

Of course, many things are possible, but the wishful scenarios that one sees in much of the media, “that a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future,” is looking increasingly unlikely.  For a relevant comparison, Lula da Silva finished his second term in 2010, and had relatively little trouble getting his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff – who had never before held elective office – elected president.  The major media, and the anti-Chávez commentators that have a near monopoly on discussion of Venezuela, tend to exaggerate the role of Chávez’s personal charisma in Venezuelan politics, and tend to underestimate the importance of the unprecedented improvement in living standards – real (inflation-adjusted) income, employment, poverty reduction, and increased access to health care, public pensions, and education.  These gains have been at least as big in Venezuela under Chávez as they were under Lula in Brazil, and will likely determine the outcome of any special election – if there is one -- as they did the election of October 7. 

 
Monroe Doctrine 2012: U.S. Congress Wants Iran to Stay Out of "Our Little Region Over Here” Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 13 December 2012 16:02

Yesterday the Senate passed a slightly amended version of a House bill designed to limit Iran’s dealings and interests in the Western Hemisphere. The bill, H.R.3783, the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” calls for a plan that would, among other things, “address any efforts by foreign persons, entities, and governments in the region to assist Iran in evading United States and international sanctions” and

support United States efforts to designate persons and entities in the Western Hemisphere for proliferation activities and terrorist activities relating to Iran, including affiliates of the IRGC, its Qods Force, and Hezbollah, under applicable law including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; and

 (D) to address the vital national security interests of the United States in ensuring energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere that are free from the influence of any foreign government that would attempt to manipulate or disrupt global energy markets.

The historic trajectory out of which the legislation emerges is clear in the first two sections under the “Findings” (background):

Congress finds the following:

(1) The United States has vital political, economic, and security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

(2) Iran is pursuing cooperation with Latin American countries by signing economic and security agreements in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships to lessen the blow of international sanctions and oppose Western attempts to constrict its ambitions.

In other words, the members of Congress who have passed this legislation want Iran to stay out of “our little region over here” as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson referred to the Western Hemisphere in 1945. Such policies go back to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Western Hemisphere to be exclusively the United States’ sphere of influence. Apparently the U.S. Congress did not get the memo that even the Council on Foreign Relations considers the Monroe Doctrine to be dead- an anachronistic framework for an age in which Latin America has found a new independence from the United States and increasingly seeks out business and political arrangements with countries such as China and India.

Read more...

 

 
Washington Post Predicts Disaster for Venezuela, So What if They Turn Out Wrong for the 19th Time? Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 18:16

The Washington Post editorial board has long been one of the most shrill voices in the U.S. against the left governments of Latin America, and of course most apoplectic about Venezuela.  I have often suspected that they write these editorials for the right-wing press in Latin America, which often picks them up, and especially since most of the Post’s readers could care less about Venezuela or the other governments that they hate so much, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, etc.   This is a nice favor for their friends down South, because there are still many people who don’t know that the Post’s editorial board has been taken over by neocons, and so “Fox on 15th Street” still has a reputation in some quarters as a “liberal” voice.

As it has been doing without success for more than a decade, the Board in its latest editorial forecasts economic doom in the near future:

To win the election, the government spent wildly, running up a budget deficit of 20 percent of gross domestic product.  The next president consequently will be forced to devalue the currency, giving a boost to inflation that is already in double digits and worsening already-severe shortages of consumer goods.

According to the October estimate of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – no fan of Chávez – the government budget deficit for 2012 is forecast at 7.4 percent of GDP.  The Post doesn't give a source for it's 20 percent number, but a recent Wall Street Journal article attributed the number to Barclays.  This is the big investment bank that embarrassed itself and cost some of its investors a lot of money by telling them just two days before Venezuela’s October 7 election than “an opposition victory looks likely.”  Chavez won by 11 percentage points, which was just about the average of pre-election polling.

Also it is not clear why a budget deficit, as the Post argues, would force the government to devalue the currency.  After all, the government is mostly borrowing and spending in domestic currency, not dollars.  As for inflation, it is true that it has picked up in the two months since the election (October and November), but inflation over the past year has been 17.9 percent, as compared with 26.1 percent for 2011 and 28.2 percent for 2010.  So the trend over the past two years has been downward, despite the fact that the economy was recovering from a recession.

The Post Editorial Board also argues that if Chávez were to become incapacitated, it “could tip Venezuela, one of the largest U.S. oil suppliers, toward a prolonged period of turmoil or even violence.”  It’s not clear why this would be the case; Chávez has already asked his followers to vote for his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, if he can no longer serve – indicating his desire to follow the constitution, which would mandate an election within 30 days of his leaving office. It’s possible that it could take more than 30 days to get things prepared, depending on events – but there’s no indication of potential turmoil or violence. There were similar predictions in much of the press regarding the October presidential election, but instead there was a record voter turnout, a clean election, and a peaceful acceptance of the results.

 
'Times' Fails to Include Expert Opinion in Discussing Argentina Media Law Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Monday, 03 December 2012 16:37

In a New York Times article over the weekend, Simon Romero and Emily Schmall report on the “battle” between the Argentine government and Grupo Clarín, the country’s largest media conglomerate. The “battle” centers on the implementation of a 2009 media law that would require Grupo Clarín to divest some of its TV, radio and cable broadcast licenses. In 2009, their licenses amounted to 73 percent of the nationwide total, a level that would not be allowed in the United States.

The reporters give readers the opinions of the two sides: the CEO of Clarín contends that “[t]his is about more than Clarín; this is about democracy,” while government officials respond that the law is about guaranteeing a “plurality of voices.”

Yet the Times fails to include the voice of Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of the Expression for the UN, who has described the Argentina media law as “a model for the continent and other regions of the world,” adding that "the principles of media diversity and pluralism are fundamental" in freedom of expression. 

As is generally the case when center-left governments challenge the media, there is reason to believe that the Argentina law is not about an attack on freedom of expression, but rather about democratizing a media landscape dominated by heavily-monopolized media conglomerates that are often opposed to the forces of change under way in the country. The Special Rapporteur agrees; and the Times’ readers would have benefited from hearing his opinion as well. 

 
Spanish-language Media Jumps on Assange’s “Ecuador is Insignificant” Comment, Disregards Context Print
Written by Alex Main   
Monday, 03 December 2012 15:25

CNN and much of the Spanish language press regaled in an apparent “aha!” moment last week when, in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange referred to Ecuador as an “insignificant country.” CNN en español immediately reported on the incident on its Spanish-language news program. “For Julian Assange, Ecuador is an irrelevant country. Textual quote,” the anchor said, making quote signs with his fingers for added effect.  “The founder of Wikileaks belittles President Rafael Correa in an interview on this network,” he added, before broadcasting a very short excerpt of the interview in which Assange made the offensive remark.

Other Spanish-language news outlets quickly chimed in, eager to inform their audience that Assange, who has spent the last five months in Ecuador’s London embassy, gravely disrespected the country that has offered him asylum.  “Assange doesn’t mince his words, and calls Ecuador ‘insignicant’ ” headlined El Comercio, Ecuador’s leading daily.  Spanish online newspaper Libertad Digital stated:

Despite being six months now in their embassy in London, the founder of Wikileaks hasn’t said very nice things about Ecuador.  In an interview with the U.S. television network CNN, he avoided commenting on the situation of freedom of expression or the control of media by the government of Rafael Correa, as it is a country that is “insignificant” and its decisions don’t have the same importance as those of other states.

But relatively little attention was paid to a statement that WikiLeaks published in reaction to the coverage that Assange’s Ecuador comment had generated.  The statement provides a bit of critical background information that was generally not mentioned, or buried deep inside the articles:

Read more...

 

 
State Department All a Twitter About Human Rights in Honduras Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 30 November 2012 12:47

The Obama administration has been outspoken recently about human rights, but some statements are somewhat disconnected from actual policy.

Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough visited Honduras this week, meeting with President Lobo, “members of his cabinet, and civil society representatives.” At the conclusion of his visit, he issued a statement, saying among other things that

I …extended my congratulations to the Honduran people on their strong participation in a peaceful, democratic, primary election process on November 18, recognizing the commendable work of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

“Peaceful” and “democratic” perhaps, aside from the various assassinations of opposition candidates and members belonging to the LIBRE party this year, and other political repression recently submitted to the International Criminal Court as evidence of “crimes against humanity and impunity in Honduras.” These murders represent another serious threat to Honduran democracy in the wake of the 2009 coup, and have led some analysts to conclude that “free and fair” elections next year are all but impossible. But the Obama administration seems to pretend the repression is not happening by describing the process as “peaceful.”

U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, meanwhile, also has become a vocal champion of human rights - on Twitter - reminding followers of significant dates in U.S. history for labor and civil rights, for example, and decrying attacks on women, and other serious rights abuses in Honduras.

On Wednesday, Kubiske Tweeted:

 

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Daily Headlines – November 27, 2012 Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Tuesday, 27 November 2012 12:45

Yesterday Argentina appealed a ruling by a New York court that could force Argentina to pay holdout bondholders known as vulture funds, reports the Associated Press.  Judge Thomas Griesa ruled last week that Argentina must put $1.3 billion into an escrow account by December 15. If Argentina refuses to do so, the court ruling would force Bank of New York Mellon, which distributes payments to those bondholders who did accept a restructuring following the 2001 default, to stop those payments. The ruling is based on the parri passu clause, which the court interpreted as requiring equal treatment to both the bondholders who accepted a restructuring and those that held out. If, as President Kirchner has indicated, Argentina refuses to pay the vulture funds and the appeal is unsuccessful, it could lead Argentina into a technical default. Siding with Argentina in the court case is the US Federal Reserve, commercial banks and holders of restructured bonds. Also, as the AP points out, even critics of Kirchner in Argentina have criticized the judge’s ruling in recent days, as it threatens the successful economic growth that resulted after the default in 2001. For more on the case, click here and here.

Meanwhile, writing in The Guardian, Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang highlights the need for a sovereign bankruptcy law, similar to what countries offer debt-laden companies. Once a company declares bankruptcy, “the debtor company and its creditors are forced to work together to reorganise the company's affairs, under clear rules.” Unfortunately, as Chang notes, “no mechanism like this exists for countries, which is what has made sovereign debt crises so difficult to manage.” Chang uses the examples of Greece and Argentina, arguing that the effects of their debt problems go far beyond their borders, noting that “In the Argentinian case, we are risking not just an end to Argentina's recovery but a fresh round of turmoil in the global financial market because of one questionable US court ruling.”

A new report from the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean reports on the reduction of poverty in the region over the last few decades, reports the AP. Overall, despite recording the lowest poverty level in three decades, some 167 million people still remain mired in poverty in the region. This is one million fewer than in 2010 and represents some 29 percent of the population. The report, “Social Panorama of Latin America 2012”, released today, also reports on trends in inequality. The report notes that “on average, the richest 10% of the Latin American population receives 32% of total income, while the poorest 40% receive just 15% of income.” Since 2002, the countries that have shown the largest decrease in inequality are Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In all of these countries the Gini coefficient fell at an annual rate of more than two percent. To read the entire report, which “examines paid employment in care activities, as well as household spending on care services, and proposes a series of policy recommendations,” click here. For more on the reduction of inequality in Latin America, see here and here.

Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is in Washington today to meet with President Obama, reports CNN. In an op-ed printed by the Washington Post last week, Peña Nieto lays out his agenda for the meeting with Obama, noting that “It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns. Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way.” As CNN notes, Peña Nieto will focus on economic issues as well as security in his visit. Meanwhile, writing in Huffington Post, John Ackerman a professor at UNAM-Mexico City writes that Obama is losing credibility by cozying up to Peña Nieto. Ackerman notes that the recent election in Mexico was “a far cry from normal democratic politics” and warns that Peña Nieto represents a return to the old guard, which “represents the worst of Mexico's authoritarian past.” Ackerman concludes that by cozying up to Mexico’s new president “Obama sends a clear message that his Latin America policy will be equally as shortsighted in his second term as it was during his first.”

 
Honduras’ Party Primaries: Voters Went to the Polls, But Can Next Year’s Elections be “Free and Fair”? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 21 November 2012 13:04

“Will the elections in Honduras be free and fair?”

This was the question asked yesterday by Aljazeera’s Inside Story Americas, in a discussion with professor Dana Frank of the University of California Santa Cruz, and Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which filed evidence last week with the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding ongoing impunity for crimes against humanity committed by coup leaders Roberto Micheletti, General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, palm oil magnate Miguel Facusse, and others. (See our previous post here.)

Honduras’ presidential elections are a year away, but if they are anything like the country’s previous elections in 2009, the answer would be no. Those elections were overseen by an un-elected coup regime, which attacked protesters, raided civil society offices and censored media outlets. An Amnesty International spokesperson declared, “Justice seems to have been absent also on Election Day in Honduras," and most Latin American countries refused to recognize the new government of Porfirio Lobo afterward.

Party primary elections were held on Sunday, with the preliminary results showingMauricio Villeda ahead as presidential candidate for the Liberal Party while the National Party was favoring Juan Orlando Hernández,” and former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya emerged – running unopposed - as the candidate of the new Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) party (which emerged from the National Resistance Front to the coup (FNRP)). Notably, of the three, Zelaya had received the most votes (357,926) as of this writing, with Hernández’s 306,012 second. But, only about two-thirds of the mesas had been examined before technical problems caused a vote count disruption, and Hernández’s National Party challenger Ricardo Álvarez called for a “vote by vote recount.” The Supreme Electoral Tribunal vowed yesterday to issue final results “within 10 days.”

As the CCR and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted in its evidence to the ICC, several LIBRE party candidates and members have been killed this year. Spees told Aljazeera:

We saw the same types of threats and violence around the elections in November of 2009 after the coup, and it’s continued and expanded, and what we’re seeing is either killings of candidates or would-be candidates. We’re seeing threats and attacks. It’s not an atmosphere in which you can legitimately, realistically expect to have free and fair elections.

Read more...

 

 
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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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