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What the Wikileaks Cables Say about Leopoldo López Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Friday, 21 February 2014 14:19

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been thrust onto the international stage during the past week of protests in Venezuela and his arrest on February 21. López is mentioned at least 77 times in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Many of the cables focus on internal disputes within the opposition, with Lopez often in conflict with others both within his party and others in the opposition. Given this history, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the current protests that he has been leading, calling for “la salida” – the exit – of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro have also caused internal divisions within the opposition. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America wrote last week:

While Capriles shook hands with Maduro in January, signifying not only a more conciliatory stance but tacitly recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado have both taken a harder line and are working outside of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD).

…..

Without a doubt, in immediate political terms the biggest beneficiary of yesterday’s [Feb.12] violence was López.

This week, Smilde added in a quote to USA Today, "Before this happened, Lopez was playing second fiddle to Capriles… I think his goal is to try and leapfrog over Capriles. The student protests have put him in the spotlight."

The Wikileaks Cables show an interesting history of Lopez’s rise to leadership and also show some of the divisions within the opposition. Below, one party leader is quoted as saying that “for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez, joking that ‘the only difference between the two is that Lopez is a lot better looking.’” And also, “During a party event December 6, Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary-General Tomas Guanipa called on Lopez to respect the unity table and its agreements and consensus. Guanipa urged Lopez to ‘not continue dividing us, we should not go through life like crashing cars, fighting with the whole world.’”

The U.S. government has been funding the Venezuelan opposition for at least 12 years, including, as the State Department has acknowledged, some of the people and organizations involved in the 2002 military coup. Their goal has always been to get rid of the Chávez government and replace it with something more to their liking. However, their funding is probably not their most important contribution in Venezuela, since the Venezuelan opposition has most of the wealth and income of the country. A more important role is the outside pressure for unity, which, as these cables and the history of the past 15 years show, has been a serious problem for the Venezuelan opposition. The cables also show that this is a serious concern for the U.S. government.

Below are relevant cables, in chronological order:

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PBS Offers “Birther” View of Venezuela, Unrebutted Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Thursday, 20 February 2014 13:22

Carl Meacham, the former Republican senior advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared last night on PBS’ Newshour. When asked by host Gwen Ifill what “is really behind all of this right now?” Meacham responded by questioning the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Venezuela:

Let’s remember this has been probably — it’s been a year since Mr. Maduro — roughly a year since Mr. Maduro was elected — some people say that he won, some people say that he didn’t win — to office.

A statistical analysis shows just how unlikely it was that, as Meachem says “he didn’t win.” In Venezuela’s elections, the electoral authority conducts a rapid recount of 53 percent of the voting machines, selected at random. The probability of getting the audit result, if in fact the opposition candidate had received the majority of the votes, was found to be less than 1 in 25 thousand trillion.

While Meacham is correct in stating that “some people say that he didn’t win”, it is also true that “some people,” – in fact many people – say that President Obama is a Muslim who is holding office illegally because he was not born in the United States. The statement from Meacham is revealing because it is indicative of his close ties to prominent right-wing Venezuelan politicians.

It is unfortunate that PBS did not offer its listeners anything other than a far-right point of view in this broadcast.

 
Why Statements From U.S. Officials About Efforts to Oust Democratically Elected Governments Matter Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 19 February 2014 17:07

Greg Weeks, a professor who specializes in Latin America at UNC Charlotte, did not seem to understand my column yesterday in the Guardian.  He dismissed the recent statements from the U.S. government about Venezuela as meaningless.  Since he is Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, perhaps there were others who did not understand these statements as well.  So I wrote some further explanation for him and posted it on his blog.  Today, of course, U.S. statements got even more hostile, after Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats. But as explained below, these are not just unfriendly comments by administration officials, but words chosen carefully and deliberately to encourage certain actions by Venezuela’s opposition.   Below is what I wrote yesterday:

Greg, maybe this will help your readers to understand what these statements mean. I wanted to include the White House statement on the Honduran coup for comparison but didn't have room.

You can find it here:

http://www.cepr.net/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/top-ten-ways

The White House statement on the day of the coup did not condemn it, merely calling on “all political and social actors in Honduras” to respect democracy.

This diplomatic language is very important. As any diplomat in this town will testify, this is one way in which governments communicate their positions and alliances. Everybody I know realized immediately from the White House statement after the Honduran coup that Washington supported the coup, and there were no surprises for us in what the Obama administration did in the months and years that followed.

So you see, these statements from Kerry and the State Department are not just random “vanilla” comments on the state of democracy or the economy in Venezuela or concern about arrests. (Maybe you didn’t read the piece very carefully, but my point on the arrests was that in other countries, if protesters are arrested for violent acts, the U.S. does not call for their immediate release.) These are carefully worded statements, like the White House statement on the coup in Honduras, that communicate their position without putting the U.S. government in the position of saying that they support a military coup in Honduras or a strategy of “regime change” in Venezuela, but making it clear to their allies and adversaries that they actually do. They have enormous impact, as you can understand. When Kerry changed his position on the April elections, he didn’t have to say “these elections were free and fair and the opposition should give up its attempt to pretend that they were stolen.” He just implicitly recognized the result and that was the end of the opposition’s campaign, since U.S. allies Spain and José Miguel Insulza at the OAS had already given up, so the Obama administration was the last ally that the Venezuelan opposition had holding out for non-recognition of the election results.

I hope this makes it clearer for you and your readers.

Mark Weisbrot

 

 
Violent Protests in Venezuela Fit a Pattern Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 19 February 2014 13:40

Venezuela’s latest round of violent protests appears to fit a pattern, and represents the tug-and-pull nature of the country’s divided opposition. Several times over the past 15 years since the late, former president Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the political opposition has launched violent protests aimed at forcing the current president out of office. Most notably, such protests were a part of the April 2002 coup that temporarily deposed Chávez, and then accompanied the 2002/2003 oil strike. In February of 2004, a particularly radical sector of the opposition unleashed the “Guarimba”: violent riots by small groups who paralyzed much of the east of Caracas for several days with the declared goal of creating a state of chaos.  As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has explained, then – as now – the strategy is clear: a sector of the opposition seeks to overturn the results of democratic elections. An important difference this time of course is that Venezuela has its first post-Chávez president, and a key part of the opposition’s strategy overall has been to depict Nicolás Maduro as a pale imitation of his predecessor and a president ill-equipped to deal with the country’s problems (many of which are exaggerated in the Venezuelan private media, which is still largely opposition-owned, as well as the international media).

Following Maduro’s electoral victory in April last year (with much of the opposition crying “fraud” despite there being no reasonable doubts about the validity of the results), the opposition looked to the December municipal elections as a referendum on Maduro’s government, vowing to defeat governing party PSUV and allied candidates. The outcome, which left the pro-Maduro parties with a 10 point margin of victory, was a stunning defeat for the opposition, and this time they did not even bother claiming the elections were rigged. According to the opposition’s own pre-election analysis, support for Maduro had apparently grown over the months preceding the election. As we have pointed out, this may be due in part to the large reduction in poverty in 2012 and other economic and social gains that preceded the more recent economic problems.

Defeated at the polls, the anti-democratic faction of the opposition prepared for a new attempt at destabilizing the elected government, and promoted relatively small, but often violent student protests in early February.  They then called for a massive protest on February 12, Venezuela’s Youth Day in the center of Caracas.  The demonstrations have been accompanied by a social media campaign that has spread misinformation in an attempt to depict the Maduro administration as a violent dictatorship instead of a popular elected government. Images of police violence from other countries and past protests – some several years old – have been presented on social media as having occurred in recent days in Venezuela. A YouTube video that has been watched by almost 2 million viewers presents a one-sided portrayal of the situation and falsely states that the Venezuelan government controls all radio and television in the country, among other distortions. Similar disinformation occurred in April 2002 and in other past incidents in Venezuela, most notably when manipulated video footage was used to provide political justification for the coup d’etat.

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Has the DNI Come around to Recognizing that Latin America Poses Few Threats to the U.S.? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 17:52

The Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released its “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” [PDF] for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today. The assessment takes what is probably a much more realistic and beneficial stance (for both the people of the U.S. and of Latin America) on Latin America than previously. In contrast to last year’s assessment, which fretted over perceived political instability in Venezuela, the only South American threat noted this year – and mentioned only in passing – is “cocaine from source countries in South America.” (This is in the context of “[d]omestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups” operating in Central America.)

On Honduras, the assessment states:

Central America’s northern tier countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—will likely struggle to overcome the economic and security problems that plague the region.  All three countries are facing debt crises and falling government revenues because of slow economic growth, widespread tax evasion, and large informal economies.  Entrenched political, economic, and public-sector interests resist reforms.   Domestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups, as well as Central America’s status as a major transit area for cocaine from source countries in South America, are fueling record levels of violence in the region.  Regional governments have worked to improve citizen security but with little-to-moderate success.  

The homicide rate in Honduras remains the highest in the world.  New Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez will likely prioritize security policy and seek to build a coalition within the divided legislature to push his economic reform agenda.  However, weak governance, widespread corruption, and debt problems will limit prospects for a turnaround.

In this case the assessment seems to be overstating the extent of Honduras’ “debt crisis.” As we noted ahead of the November elections last year, “the country's debt burden is still relatively low, with interest payments on the debt totaling less than 1.7 percent, and much of the debt is internal and denominated in domestic currency.” This means that the new government “will have ample room to pursue expansionary fiscal policies, increase employment, and invest in infrastructure, education and development” if it chooses to do so. But economics does not seem to be the DNI’s strong suit. Last year’s assessment described an “increasingly deteriorating business environment and growing macroeconomic imbalances” in Venezuela and warned that “[d]ebt obligations will consume a growing share of Venezuela’s oil revenues, even if oil prices remain high.” But as CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a November column for The Guardian:

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Brookings Institution Calls on Obama to Support a Hypothetical Coup Against Venezuela's Maduro Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Saturday, 25 January 2014 12:19

On Thursday, the Brookings Institution issued a memo to President Obama titled “Venezuela Breaks Down in Violence.” As might be expected from the title, the memo (and an accompanying video) depicts an alarming situation where

Venezuela is experiencing declining export revenues, accelerating inflation and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods. At the same time, the Maduro administration has foreclosed peaceful options for Venezuelans to bring about a change in its current policies.

But, contrary to the alarmist title, the violence is only a possibility in the future: “Economic mismanagement in Venezuela has reached such a level that it risks inciting a violent popular reaction,” and further on the reader learns that actually “[t]he risk of a violent outcome may still be low…”

The possibility of such chaos is troubling to the author, Harold Trinkunas since “it is in the U.S. interest that Venezuela remain a reliable source of oil,” while “[p]opular unrest in a country with multiple armed actors, including the military, the militia, organized crime and pro-government gangs, is a recipe for unwelcome chaos and risks an interruption of oil production.”

Trinkunas, who “previously served as an associate professor and chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California” urges the Obama administration to take action. At the top of his recommendations is for the U.S. to enlist Brazil – “whose interests are also at risk” - in an attempt “to convince the Maduro administration to shift course.”

Trinkunas makes clear what course he wants the U.S. government to take should a crisis result in Maduro being removed from power. While one might think that such a hypothetical scenario would indeed be one when the Inter-American Democratic Charter should be invoked (Trinkunas suggests that it be used against Maduro now), that would be naïve. Instead:

…we should also begin quiet conversations with others in the hemisphere on what steps to take should Venezuela experience a violent breakdown of political order. Such an event could potentially fracture the regional consensus on democracy on a scale much greater than that of the Honduran coup in 2009. Maduro’s allies in the region would most likely push for his immediate restoration, but in the absence of functioning democratic institutions, this would only compound Venezuela’s internal crisis. The United States would need to work with key states in the region—Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia—on a regional consensus in favor of rebuilding democracy in Venezuela.

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US Congressional Appropriations Bill Would Impose New Restrictions on Honduras Support Print
Written by Dan Beeton and Alexander Main   
Thursday, 16 January 2014 10:09

The new budget appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, and set to be taken up by the Senate in the coming days, includes several passages that are relevant for Honduras, including stronger restrictions on U.S. assistance for the police and military. It also includes language opposing involvement by international financial institutions like the World Bank and IADB in the financing of large dam projects, such as those planned in Rio Blanco, and other language that could help victims of the May 2012 DEA operation in Ahuas -- that resulted in four villagers killed and several others injured -- finally receive compensation.

Under the "Honduras" section, the bill [PDF] reads:

  1. Of the funds appropriated by this Act under the headings ‘‘International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement’’ and ‘‘Foreign Military Financing Program’’, 35 percent may not be made available for assistance for the Honduran military and police except in accordance with the procedures and requirements specified under section 7045 in the explanatory statement described in section 4 (in the matter preceding division A of this consolidated Act).

  2. The restriction in paragraph (1) shall not apply to assistance to promote transparency, anti-corruption, border security, and the rule of law within the military and police.

This 35 percent is a significant increase from the 20 percent previously withheld over concerns about human rights violations by Honduran security forces.

The “procedures and requirements” appear under the section (Division J) titled “Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014”:

Honduras. - The agreement modifies language in the Senate bill regarding Honduras in subsection (e). There is concern with the security challenges facing Honduras, which has become a transit hub for illicit drugs from South America. The assistance provided by this Act is intended to help stem the trafficking and address related violence, corruption, and impunity. The agreement recognizes the need for fundamental reform of Honduran law enforcement and judicial systems. In accordance with section 7045(e) of this Act, 35 percent of funds that are available for assistance for the Honduran military and police may be obligated only if the Secretary of State certifies that-

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More Forced Evictions in Rio de Janeiro: What Happened to the Statute of the City? Print
Written by Brian Mier (guest post)   
Monday, 13 January 2014 14:34

On the night of January 7 another series of forced evictions took place in the Metrô-Manguiera favela slum in Rio de Janeiro. Approximately 500 meters from Maracaná stadium, site of the 2014 World Cup final match, 40 families were brutally kicked out of their homes by the military police who used pepper spray and tear gas grenades.

Unfortunately, this did not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following preparations for Olympics and World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of people have already been evicted due to event-related construction projects and real estate speculation activities. They have received compensation settlements well below market rates or have been relocated to the far outskirts of the city,  in violation of the City’s Organic Law which stipulates that victims of forced evictions have to be relocated close their previous residences. How can these types of activities still happen 12 years after the national Statute of the City was passed?

The Statute of the City of 2001 mandates that all cities of over 20,000 implement a Master Plan that follows a series of norms to guarantee effective public participation in all city government spending and project implementation.  When the Statute was passed, cities were given a grace period of 5 years to either facilitate new Master Plans or revise their current plans to abide by the new directives.  At the time, Rio de Janeiro’s 1992, 10- year plan was still in effect.  With the 5 year grace period granted by the Statute of the City, it remained legally binding until 2006.  The City Council passed a further, 2 year extension, however the new Master Plan was only ratified in February,  2011.

During the legislative vacuum between the expiration of the old Plan and the ratification of the new one, the City Council passed a series of laws to facilitate real estate speculation related to the World Cup and the Olympics. Furthermore, Mayor Eduardo Paes issued Decree N. 32080 on April 7, 2010, which authorizes forced evictions in all areas that the City Government decides are at risk for natural disasters.  This decree is being used as a political tool to clear out areas of interest for the real estate industry in places like Providencia Favela, located in the newly gentrifying port area, where the City is building a cable car system for tourists and over 800 families are targeted for eviction. Since there was no Master Plan in effect during this period, are these new laws and decrees legal?

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An Honest Look at Mexican Economic Growth in the NAFTA Era Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Tuesday, 07 January 2014 12:39

CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot examines how the Mexican economy has fared under 20 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in a new column in The Guardian. The answer is summed up well in Mark’s original title, “Twenty Years Since NAFTA: Mexico Could Have Done Worse, But It’s Not Clear How.”

Mark writes:

Well if we look at the past 20 years, it’s not a pretty picture. The most basic measure of economic progress, especially for a developing country like Mexico, is the growth of income (or GDP) per person. Out of 20 Latin American countries (South and Central America plus Mexico), Mexico ranks 18, with growth of less than 1 percent annually since 1994. It is of course possible to argue that Mexico would have done even worse without NAFTA, but then the question would be, why?

From 1960-1980 Mexico’s GDP per capita nearly doubled. This amounted to huge increases in living standards for the vast majority of Mexicans. If the country had continued to grow at this rate, it would have European living standards today. And there was no natural barrier to this kind of growth: this is what happened in South Korea, for example. But Mexico, like the rest of the region, began a long period of neoliberal policy changes that …put an end to the prior period of growth and development. The region as a whole grew just 6 percent per capita from 1980-2000; and Mexico grew by 16 percent – a far cry from the 99 percent of the previous 20 years.

He also notes that – unsurprisingly considering how little growth there has been, that “Mexico’s national poverty rate was 52.3 percent in 2012, basically the same as it was in 1994 (52.4 percent).”

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US Government Misled Public on Critical Role in Colombia’s 2008 Illegal Cross-border Attack Print
Written by Alexander Main   
Friday, 03 January 2014 11:45

“The territory of a State is inviolable; it may not be the object, even temporarily, of military occupation or of other measures of force taken by another State, directly or indirectly, on any grounds whatever.”

- Article 21, Charter of the Organization of American States

In the pre-dawn hours of March 1, 2008, the Colombian military launched a carefully planned air and ground attack against a small FARC guerilla camp located in the thick tropical forest surrounding the Putumayo River.  The attack – which killed top rebel leader Raúl Reyes and at least 21 other camp inhabitants – might have been just another bloody chapter in Colombia’s 50-year-old civil conflict had it not been for one important detail: the camp was located in Ecuador, over a mile from the Colombian border.  Colombia had not asked for Ecuador’s permission to carry out the incursion, nor provided its neighbor with any warning that it would take place.  As a result, a major diplomatic crisis ensued with three countries suspending relations with Colombia and most of the region strongly condemning the illegal violation of Ecuador’s territory.  Only one government – that of the United States – openly supported Colombia’s need to “respond to threats posed by [the FARC] terrorist organization.”

The Washington Post has now revealed, in an in-depth article on CIA covert action in Colombia, that U.S. support for Colombia’s March 1 operation wasn’t just rhetorical.  The CIA – which maintained control over the “smart” GPS-guided bombs that were used in the operation – had given Colombia “tacit approval” to carry out the bombing.  Prior to the operation, U.S. officials had unlocked the bombs’ GPS system using a special “encryption key” they had designed to ensure that “the Colombians would not misuse the bomb.” According to the Post’s sources, which include current U.S. and Colombian officials, the discovery that Reyes, their main target, was located in Ecuadorean territory was “awkward” since: 

to conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.

The Air Force colonel had a succinct message for the Colombian air operations commander in charge of the mission. “I said, ‘Look man, we all know where this guy is. Just don’t f— it up.’”

U.S. national security lawyers viewed the operation as an act of self-defense. In the wake of 9/11, they had come up with a new interpretation of the permissible use of force against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the FARC. It went like this: If a terrorist group operated from a country that was unable or unwilling to stop it, then the country under attack — in this case, Colombia — had the right to defend itself with force, even if that meant crossing into another sovereign country.

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