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Colombia Peace Talks Survive Elections, May Have Lasting Implications for Regional Integration and US-Led “War on Drugs” Print
Written by Peter Hayakawa   
Thursday, 19 June 2014 13:41

Ending a very close race, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos won a decisive five-point victory Sunday in Colombia’s second round of presidential elections, beating challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round in an upset. The campaign centered on one issue: the future of the Santos-led peace process under way in Havana between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC that may have the potential to end a half century of civil war.

Zuluaga, who had been hand-chosen by Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and ran in opposition to the peace talks (though he had softened his position after the first round), quickly conceded defeat this Sunday. Uribe, however, wasted no time in claiming that the elections had been marred by “massive fraud,” a charge quickly rejected by international electoral observers. 

Santos’ victory has certainly dealt a major blow to ‘Uribismo,’ as the rightwing movement around Uribe is known. Colombians largely seem to support the peace process as well as efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador, and it looks as though few were convinced by Uribe’s wild charges during the campaign that the peace process would open the path to “Castrochavismo,” allowing the “FARC to run this country from Havana.” Uribe has long loomed over Colombian politics, but Zuluaga’s defeat signals that his influence may be waning, even on the political right. Meanwhile, Santos’ support of the peace talks won him the backing of some of Colombia’s most prominent business people, in addition to endorsements from indigenous groups and left-wing coalitions.  

Uribe might have thought twice about investing so much political capital in opposing the negotiations. While it is true that the peace talks had the support of Venezuela and Cuba, they also had the support of virtually every other country in the region, as well as the United Nations, in addition to broad domestic support. More to the point, the peace talks have the support of the United States. Just a month ago, on May 18th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. support for the peace process, which, given that they were the main election issue, arguably amounted to an endorsement of Santos.

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The World Cup Bus to Nowhere Print
Written by Brian Mier (Guest post)   
Monday, 09 June 2014 11:28

The Rio de Janeiro city government inaugurated the most expensive public works project officially connected to the World Cup last week.  Although construction of some of the stations is expected to continue throughout the next few months, a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor called the Transcarioca now connects Galeão International Airport to the wealthy beachside neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, 39 kilometers away, without going anywhere near the city’s downtown, Maracanã soccer stadium or the tourist hotel neighborhoods on the city’s south side. The final cost of the project is estimated at R$2.2 billion (approximately US$970 million). Photos and videos of shoddy workmanship have cropped up on the Internet, and according to O Dia, a local newspaper, the inaugural voyage had only one paying passenger.

Despite spending around R$4 billion preparing for the World Cup, Rio de Janeiro, with a metropolitan area of over 12 million people, remains one of the world’s largest cities with no direct public transportation link between its international airport and downtown. Officially billed as a means by which World Cup tourists will move around the city during the games, the only apparent use of the Transcarioca will be to connect tourists to nearby metro or train lines which could have just as easily been connected to the airport if it weren’t for what author and geographer Chris Gaffney calls the “mafiaesque” influence that the city’s 49 private bus companies have on the city’s transportation policy.

The Brazilian government estimates that it has allocated R$25.8 billion on the World Cup, divided roughly in thirds between stadium construction and reformation; airport and infrastructure improvement; and public transportation projects. Although there is a large public outcry from across the political spectrum over the amount of money spent, especially on stadiums, some of the comparisons made with things like health and education have been blown out of proportion.  Even Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a traditional enemy of the ruling PT party, admitted recently that: 1) the total amount spent on the World Cup over the course of seven years is equivalent to around one month’s spending on public education; 2) most of this money was lent by the BNDES (the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank); and 3) a large proportion of the money lent went to the private sector, as in the case of stadium construction and reformation in cities like São Paulo and Curitiba, and will be paid back with interest.

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John Kerry on the Latin American Economies: Getting it Half-Right Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 04 June 2014 16:34

On Sunday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry published an op-ed in the Miami Herald, in which he gave the official Washington view on democracy and economic progress in Latin America.

“Not so long ago, naysayers doubted that the growth of democracy in Mexico and elsewhere across the Americas would translate into better lives for the people who live there,” he writes.

And then the bait and switch: “The last decade has been a story of democracy and economic achievement in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region’s economies grew at a rate of 4 percent a year, trade with the United States nearly tripled, and more than 73 million people were lifted out of poverty.”

Now the part about the regional growth rate is true. But Mexico didn’t share in the recovery:

Figure 1. Mexico and Latin America: Average Annual Real Per-Capita GDP Growth, 1960-2013
Mexico v LA blogpostimage

The above figure used GDP growth per person, which is a better measure than the overall growth rate that Kerry uses (since population growth doesn’t increase living standards). Note that Latin America and the Caribbean did in fact experience a growth rebound in the past decade. Average annual growth was just 0.4 percent annually from 1980-2000 – a long-term growth failure that is uncommon in the history of capitalism.

The region grew at a vastly better 2.0 percent annual rate from 2000-2013, despite the Great Recession. But not Mexico, which averaged only 0.6 percent annually, slightly worse than during the lost decades. The poverty rate in Mexico in 2012 (52.3 percent) was as bad is it was in 1994 (52.4 percent). So much for “democracy and economic achievement” in Mexico. The U.S. government of course is reluctant to acknowledge this because Mexico has been run by friendly right-wing governments for decades, and NAFTA has been the model for subsequent commercial agreements.

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108 Members of Congress Urge Action on Political Repression and Human Rights Abuses in Honduras Print
Written by Stephan Lefebvre   
Monday, 02 June 2014 12:39

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter regarding “egregious violations of human rights” in Honduras signed by 108 members of Congress. The letter represents the latest in an ongoing effort by social movements and citizens’ organizations in Honduras, diaspora community groups, U.S. solidarity activists and many others to reverse the trend of political repression and human rights abuses since the 2009 coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D- IL), who circulated the letter, and early signers Rep. “Hank” Johnson (D- GA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D – CA) have all been engaged on this issue for years. The signers are concerned with human rights violations that have been documented under the National Party governments of President Porfirio Lobo and the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the most important change they are calling for is an end to U.S. government support and training for groups and individuals responsible for these human rights abuses.

The situation in Honduras is alarming. That country has the highest homicide rate in the world, with an average of 19 murders each day in 2013. Since targeted and politically-motivated killings have become an almost regular occurrence, people struggling for justice put their lives at risk. Based on the government’s record keeping, at least 33 journalists were killed during the previous president Porfirio Lobo’s term (2010-2014). As the congressional letter says, other targeted groups include “members of the LGBT community and indigenous and campesino activists.” Many lands rights activists have been killed, and the letter to Secretary Kerry explains how the Honduran government has allowed the homicides to take place with impunity:

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Argentina Reaches Paris Club Debt Deal without IMF Intervention; Creditors Come Under Fire Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Friday, 30 May 2014 14:08

Locked out of international capital markets since its 2001 default, Argentina cleared a major hurdle on Thursday when it reached an agreement with the Paris Club, a grouping of 19 major economies, to resume debt payments and clear outstanding arrears. The Paris Club issued a statement, noting that:

The scheme offers a framework for a sustainable and definitive solution to the question of arrears due by the Argentine Republic to Paris Club creditors, covering a total stock of arrears of USD 9.7 billion, as of 30 April 2014. It provides a flexible structure for clearance of arrears within five years including a minimum of USD 1150 million to be paid by May 2015, the following payment being due in May 2016.

Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who led the negotiations for the Government of Argentina, told a local radio station that, “Argentina is continuing its path of regularizing and paying off the debt that 40 years of neoliberalism left us,” Reuters reported.

Long thought to be a lynchpin of any possible deal, Argentina secured the settlement without the involvement of the IMF. President Fernández told the press, “It is the first time that a country negotiates without the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (FMI), and without ceding our independence.”

Argentina’s 2001 default followed years of following IMF prescriptions, which only exacerbated the crisis. Argentina broke off relations with the IMF in early 2006, paying back all of its outstanding debt to the Fund in one move. In a statement following the current deal, Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of Jubilee USA, praised the lack of IMF involvement:

“Argentina negotiated an agreement that keeps the IMF out of Argentina... IMF austerity programs have wreaked havoc in both poor and wealthy countries.”

Business News Americas reported that the creditors agreed to exclude the IMF “in return for a larger down payment by Argentina.”

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Ahead of House Vote, Members of Congress Warn Sanctions Could Undermine Dialogue in Venezuela Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 28 May 2014 17:09

Ahead of a House vote to pass sanctions against Venezuelan officials today, 14 members of Congress sent a letter [PDF] to Secretary Kerry yesterday urging against sanctions, warning that they could undermine the dialogue process between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Instead, the members - who include John Conyers (D-MI) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) - suggested that the U.S. should exchange ambassadors with Venezuela. The sanctions bill passed the House this afternoon with the support of a number of Venezuelan ex-pats in the U.S. who are mostly “from the middle class and upper middle class,” and is championed by anti-Cuba hawks in the House such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate.

The letter also notes - unlike statements by sanctions proponents such as Ros-Lehtinen - that opposition protesters are responsible for some of the killings and other human rights abuses over the past few months, and that the Venezuelan government has taken steps to hold perpetrators accountable, with at least 19 arrests of "state agents." The letter states:

at least 42 people have died, including opposition activists, government supporters, bystanders and security agents.   Government security forces have been implicated in killings and accused of human rights abuses, and at least 19 state agents have been jailed in relation to these alleged abuses.  A number of fatalities and injuries have reportedly been caused by protesters themselves.  Security forces and civilians have been shot and killed while trying to remove barricades erected by protesters and motorcyclists have been beheaded by wire stretched across the road by protesters.

It also notes that the U.S. would be isolated regionally in sanctioning Venezuelan officials, as

While the United States government does not have to agree with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, it should take their opinions into account, as it takes European or African governments’ opinions into account in those regions.  The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organization of American States (by a 29-3 vote) have all issued statements that are in various ways supportive of the Venezuelan government and that call for the respect of the country’s democratic institutions.  A number of presidents and governments, including Michelle Bachelet of Chile, have publicly warned against attempts to forcibly remove the democratically elected government of Venezuela. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki noted on Wednesday, there are “no indications that other Latin American countries at this time would support sanctions on Venezuela.”

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Remember When Venezuela and Bolivia Kicked the U.S. DEA Out of Their Countries, Accusing It of Espionage? Looks Like They Were Right... Print
Written by Stephan Lefebvre   
Thursday, 22 May 2014 10:48

En español | Em português

 

In their latest article on U.S. government spying for The Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras review and publish leaked documents that show that the U.S. government may have used the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to aid the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on U.S. citizens and non-citizens in foreign countries. The NSA is shown to have assisted the DEA with efforts to capture narcotraffickers, but the leaked documents also refer to “a vibrant two-way information sharing relationship” between the two intelligence agencies, implying that the DEA shares its information with the NSA to aid with non-drug-related spying. This may explain how the NSA has gathered not just metadata but also the full-take audio from “virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”

The authors write,

The DEA has long been in a unique position to help the NSA gain backdoor access to foreign phone networks. “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners,” the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts reported in a 2004 memo. Indeed, with more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies around the globe.

But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence.”

What’s more, Selander adds, the NSA has aided the DEA for years on surveillance operations. “On our reports, there’s drug information and then there’s non-drug information,” he says. “So countries let us in because they don’t view us, really, as a spy organization.”

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Hank Johnson on the Two-Year Anniversary of the Ahuas Killings and the Launching of a Joint Inspector General Review of the Incident Print
Written by Alexander Main   
Monday, 12 May 2014 15:37

Sunday, May 11 marked the grim two-year anniversary of a tragic incident that CEPR has investigated and frequently blogged about: the DEA-related killing of four indigenous villagers in the northeastern Moskitia region of Honduras.  The victims – two women, a fourteen year-old boy, and a young man – were in a small passenger boat headed to the town of Ahuas when they were shot dead by a counternarcotics team made up of DEA and Honduran agents.  Four other boat passengers were injured.  When Honduran police authorities described the drug interdiction operation as “successful,” local authorities and human rights groups protested, pointing out that those killed all had legitimate reasons for traveling on the river and that there was no evidence that police agents had fired in “self-defense” as the DEA alleged.  

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), who initiated a congressional letter demanding a full U.S. government investigation of the incident back in January of 2013, has authored an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America that was published on the two-year anniversary date.  The piece laments the DEA’s response – or lack of response – to the congressional letter, which was signed by 58 members of the House of Representatives:

Sadly, the response we received from the DEA failed to address key questions about the U.S. agents’ role in the incident and showed no indication that measures would be taken to avoid future accidents of this kind. Though the official reply to the letter made no reference to our request for an investigation, an anonymous DEA official told the press that there would be “no separate investigation.”

Most appalling, though, was the news months later that the DEA had ignored Honduran investigators’ requests to interview the U.S. agents involved in the operation and perform forensic tests on their weapons. Given that Honduran police told the investigating team from the Public Ministry that the DEA had led the mission and ordered a helicopter gunman to fire on the passenger boat, this lack of cooperation could only heighten suspicions of DEA responsibility for the deaths.  

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Dinant: We Don’t Forcibly Evict; Government Security Forces Do That Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 08 May 2014 13:16

As we’ve described before, there is much controversy surrounding the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation’s investment in palm oil production in the Bajo Aguan, Honduras. Wealthy landowners have been engaged in a violent conflict with campesinos, resulting in the deaths and forced evictions of many campesinos at the hands of security forces both governmental and private. The company at the heart of the investigations and recent media scrutiny is Dinant, owned by the man many consider to be Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful, Miguel Facussé.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the Food First 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.

Facussé has attempted to clean up his public image before, such as a notable December 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he made the case that just because he keeps a gun on his desk, and just because he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and just because one of his private planes was used to fly the foreign minister out of the country (against her will) during the 2009 coup, and just because he was aware of the coup plans before the coup, he’s really not a “bad guy.” And sure, he admitted he “probably had reasons to kill" attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf of campesino groups in the Aguan, but Facussé said, "I'm not a killer."

Now Dinant has demonstrated a similar PR savviness. Writing in the Guardian after a series of articles examining the IFC/Dinant controversy, Dinant corporate relations director Roger Pineda Pinel noted among other things that “We have never engaged in forced evictions of farmers from our land; such evictions are undertaken exclusively by government security forces acting within the law and under instruction from the courts.”

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The Colombian President, “Some Judge” and the Mayor of Bogotá Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Monday, 28 April 2014 13:04

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed Colombia's president Juan Manual Santos and described his thoughts on the controversial ouster of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro:

Mr. Santos said he didn't want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.

Well, lucky for Santos, he got his wish. The New York Times reported on April 23:

But a judge in Bogotá on Tuesday found that Mr. Santos had acted improperly when he ignored a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend the ouster because it could violate the mayor’s rights.

“Some might like it and others not, but my obligation as president of the country is to obey the law and the rulings of judges,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he had no choice but to reinstate Mr. Petro.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps not. On April 25, the Associated Press reported:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he'll appeal a court ruling that forced him to reinstate the capital's mayor a month after the official was removed for administrative irregularities.

And why would he do such a thing, if he was indeed “ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so”, as “some judge” had in fact done? The AP explains:

Santos said Friday said that he will appeal the decision because it has put the government's credibility at risk.

 
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