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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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Outrage Following Honduran Colonel‘s Attack against U.S. Human Rights Defender Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 20 December 2013 17:44

Last week, Colonel German Alfaro, the commander of Operation Xatruch III in Honduras’ Aguan Valley, personally denounced Annie Bird, co-director of the U.S. and Canada-based human rights NGO Rights Action, on TV and radio, alleging among other things that she is engaging in “destabilization work” in the Aguan. The accusations, which were also covered in La Tribuna and Tiempo newspapers, came just after Bird accompanied campesinos in the Aguan to the Attorney General’s office to file human rights complaints, including some against Honduran soldiers. Alfaro also said he was opening an investigation into Bird’s activities.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement yesterday condemning Alfaro's accusations. This was followed by a statement today signed by representatives of 33 human rights, labor, faith-based and other organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Sisters of Mercy, and the Washington Office on Latin America calling on the State Department to denounce Alfaro's comments.

HRW's Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco also urged the U.S. government to condemn Alfaro's accusations:

Given its ongoing cooperation with Honduran security forces, the US government should use all the tools at its disposal to call a halt to verbal attacks on activists by senior Honduran military officials[.] Whether directed at human rights defenders or campesino leaders, such accusations only add to a climate of fear and intimidation.

Alfaro’s statements fit into an ongoing pattern of violence, intimidation and threats against human rights defenders in Honduras, both foreign and domestic, that has including the kidnapping by armed men of two European human rights defenders in July; threats and public accusations against American and Canadian human rights defenders and electoral observers ahead of and during the elections; and threats and public denunciations of Honduran human rights defenders like Bertha Oliva and Victor Fernandez.

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Was Snowden’s Letter to Brazil a Quid-Pro-Quo Offer? Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 19 December 2013 16:11

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s “Open Letter to the People of Brazil” made headlines this week, with many U.S. and international media outlets characterizing it as a quid-pro-quo offer of help investigating NSA surveillance in Brazil in return for asylum. In an article about the letter, Folha de Sao Paulo – which also first published the letter -- stated, “US espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden has promised to cooperate with investigations into the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil. In order to do so, he wants political asylum from Dilma Rousseff's government in return.”

“Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum,” read a USA Today headline for a story about the letter (even though the article stated midway-through that “It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil”). The Financial Times ran a similar headline: “Edward Snowden offers Brazil help on spying in return for asylum.” CNN reported that Snowden was offering “a deal”: “Help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum.”

But in his letter, Snowden does not make his offer of assistance contingent on the asylum. He points out that the U.S. government has constrained his ability to travel, and will do so “[u]ntil a country grants permanent political asylum.”

It is also clear that Snowden is responding, in part, to requests from Brazilian senators for help in investigating U.S. spying in Brazil, which he says he is unable to do while in Russia. As Folha reported:

"Many Brazilian senators have asked my help with their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I expressed my willingness to assist, where it is appropriate and legal, but unfortunately the US government has been working very hard to limit my ability to do so," said the letter.

Snowden was referring to an open [Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry] in the Senate to investigate the activities of the NSA in Brazil, which included monitoring the phone calls and emails of both Dilma and Petrobras.

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Nelson Mandela’s Inconvenient Appreciation for Cuba Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 12 December 2013 17:46

President Obama traveled to Soweto, South Africa this week for the memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela. Over 60 heads of state also attended the services, but only five were invited to speak - among them Cuban president Raúl Castro, with whom Obama shook hands – the first such greeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba since President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in 2000. Obama’s handshake with Castro was condemned by a number of Republican members of Congress. Senator John McCain likened it to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler, while perennial Cuba-hater Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – who in the past has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination – called it “a propaganda coup for the tyrant [Castro].” Cruz made headlines for himself by walking out on Castro’s speech at the ceremony, with a spokesperson saying that “Sen. Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela.”

But while Republicans have received attention for their criticism of the handshake – just as they did when Obama similarly greeted democratically-elected then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez in 2009 – Obama’s speech at the event has been described by some as a rebuke of some foreign governments, including Cuba’s. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said without apparent irony, while in Singapore a U.S. delegation was concluding (unsuccessfully) the latest round of efforts to get other countries to agree to a variety of controversial and potentially harmful measures in a proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. As we have described in a research paper, most U.S. workers would lose out from the planned TPP in the form of reduced wages.

As many analysts, historians and observers have pointed out, the condemnation of the Obama-Castro handshake is also ironic considering Mandela’s long appreciation for the Cuban government and its unwavering opposition to apartheid and similar racist regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa. Most notably, Cuba provided 36,000 troops to beat back the efforts of the South African military to crush independence in Angola.

As the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas points out, while Cuba provided Mandela, the African National Congress and South Africa with inspiration, guidance, resources, training and doctors, “The U.S. government, on the other hand, reportedly played a role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and subsequently branded him a terrorist -- a designation they only rescinded in 2008. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.” Then there’s the small matter of U.S. and South African support for the counter-revolutionaries in Angola. As Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books including Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 said yesterday in an interview with "Democracy Now”: “…the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation."

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Cuba, on Behalf of ALBA Country Group, Blocks World Trade Organization Talks Print
Written by Deborah James   
Saturday, 07 December 2013 11:06

Bali, Indonesia - Early the morning of December 7th, in the talks of the 9th Ministerial meeting of the WTO, a paragraph was removed from draft text – obviously at the demand of the United States – relating to the embargo/blockade against Cuba. Members are here negotiating a deal on “trade facilitation,” which would simplify customs and border procedures, but which also puts binding conditions on developing countries to ensure fast and efficient transit procedures (meaning that other members could file cases against them in the WTO for failure to comply).

Civil society organizations working here have sharply criticized the texts for putting binding rules on developing countries for further pro-corporate liberalization commitments that are not to their advantage, while not offering enough changes to existing WTO rules which limit developing – but not developed – countries from investing in farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

Given the topic of the negotiations, facilitating trade, it must have appeared reasonable to Cuba to insert a paragraph setting down a binding rule against discriminatory measures on goods in transit. However, when negotiators convened on the last night of the conference at 9 p.m., after a long week of negotiations focused on other issues, and the Chair of the Ministerial distributed the draft text for final approval, Cuba noticed that its paragraph[1] had been removed. After repeated efforts to gain the floor, the Cuban Ambassador, Nancy Madrigal, appears to have been treated rather brusquely by the chair, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan of Indonesia, who did not even let her speak.

Upon reconvening the meeting, Ambassador Madrigal sought clarification of how the negotiations on the pending issues would continue, given that Cuba’s text had been removed without even the slightest consultations. The chair, however, did not offer a path to further negotiations, and instead was clearly expecting everyone to simply affirm their agreement. At that point Ambassador Madrigal read a statement on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) countries of Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela, rejecting the entire text.

What we have before us remain unbalanced and we will do everything within our reach and power so that the WTO does not continue to be used for neoliberal globalization. What we see is a perpetuation of subsidies and support policies used by developed countries that remain untouchable. It is inconceivable that an organization that [is accepting a deal on trade facilitation] is incapable of adopting one paragraph against discrimination on goods in transit. [paraphrased excerpt]

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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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