Corruption in Chile and Brazil

By Luciano Melo

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

A growing perception of corruption in Latin America, most recently in Brazil and Chile, is eroding confidence in two of the region’s most dynamic presidents – Dilma Rousseff and Michelle Bachelet.  The Chilean and Brazilian corruption cases are both serious, but differing perceptions and expectations in the two countries suggest the scandals will have different impacts.

  • Chile has long been the darling of economists and political scientists (and U.S. policymakers) in terms of democratic maturity, economic development, and transparency. The use of political influence to secure millions of dollars in sweetheart loans there has pulled the country down from its high perch, and since the issue directly touched President Michelle Bachelet’s own family members, it has become a huge deal in and outside Chile.
  • Although among the six main economies in the world and alone among the BRIC countries in boasting a stable democratic system, Brazil, by contrast, has repeatedly been tainted by corruption scandals that would lead to the fall of most Scandinavian governments in a matter of days. Former President Lula’s son became a millionaire while his father was in power, yet this fact hardly stained the ex-President’s popularity.  The scandals weighing down President Dilma Rousseff are different.  Brazilian citizens customarily have thought of Petrobras, one of the few remaining state enterprises after the wave of privatizations under President Cardoso during the 1990s, as a great source of national pride, and this sentiment was encouraged by the PT government, never a fan of the neoliberal predilections of its predecessor.  So when the scandal touched almost all of the party’s leaders, in addition to the prized national oil company, even Brazilians inured to corruption felt pain. Moreover, Lula and Dilma’s party, the PT, had promised to do politics in a different way.  As a union leader and a woman who fought against the dictatorship, respectively, they represented the rise to power of leaders based entirely outside the traditional parties and their murky ways of doing business.  Now, some of Dilma’s disillusioned supporters are demanding her impeachment, and many famous artists who once endorsed the PT are feeling betrayed.

Latin American voters have long manifested contrasting expectations of their presidents – cynicism about their venal nature coincided, as Latin America specialist Guillermo O’Donnell once said, with hope that they be “acclaimed saviors.”  Within the codependent relationship between citizens and politicians, trust is impaired once betrayal surfaces, but the marriage normally continues.  In some cases of rupture, as happened with impeached President Fernando Collor in 1992, it hasn’t meant the end of the political affair.  In the October 2014 elections Collor was reelected as Senator for the state of Alagoas.  Dilma and Bachelet have already said they will not resign, and that they intend to implement a comprehensive cleanup.  The road will be easier for Bachelet.  The Chilean scandal is still small and remains manageable, and although the decline in commodity prices has already  affected the country’s economy, further taxing Bachelet’s popularity, Chile has a sovereign reserve fund to cushion any blows.  For Dilma the conjuncture is considerably bleaker.  She was on the board of Petrobras while its executives were engaged in costly shenanigans, and it is now known that the fraudulent scheming also involved the Health Ministry and the state-owned bank Caixa Economica Federal.  And in Brazil, in contrast to Chile, the fiscal situation is sufficiently tight as to constrain the president’s room to maneuver as the commodity-driven economy stagnates.  At this point both women appear likely to survive their challenges, but the road ahead looks a lot tougher for Dilma than for Bachelet.

April 16, 2015

The Summit of the Americas: Important Progress

By Aaron Bell and Eric Hershberg

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

VII Summit of the Americas Photo Credit: OEA-OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has returned the Summit of the Americas (SOA) to the way it was before George W. Bush turned it into a forum in which the U.S. was increasingly isolated – a community of vibrant but respectful debate reflecting the varied perspectives of the hemisphere.  The event in Panama this past weekend was dominated by Cuba’s attendance at its first SOA and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama’s cordial public encounter and hour-long meeting, the first of its kind between the two nations’ leaders in over half a century.  The next step in improving relations will be for Obama to formally announce Cuba’s removal from Washington’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” which the State Department reportedly recommended last week.  Regrettably, the leaders did not take advantage of the Summit as an occasion to announce a target date for the formal restoration of diplomatic relations and the appointment of Ambassadors.  But that, presumably, will come soon, and regardless, in the plenary session Obama set a new tone for U.S. policy when he acknowledged that “the days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity — those days are past.”  Obama clearly articulated a desire to move beyond not only the legacy of U.S. intervention in the region but also the stale ideological debates that, he observed pointedly, pre-dated his birth.

Statements and activities surrounding the SOA also reaffirmed the broad range of perspectives in the hemisphere,  including in attitudes toward the United States.  The “People’s Summit,” held parallel with the SOA, provided a forum for left-wing critiques aimed primarily at U.S. meddling in the region, in particular its foreign military bases and its recent allegation – which it subsequently backed away from – that Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to U.S. national security.”  The sanctions it imposed on senior officials drew critiques from around the region, including from Argentina, Colombia, and from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who summarized regional sentiment in characterizing them as “counterproductive and inefficient.”  The criticism was overshadowed, however, by widespread applause for changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Obama also won points from observers for meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who used the Summit to denounce the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and present to Obama a list of 11,000 signatures opposing Washington’s sanctions.  Maduro praised the meeting as the “Summit of Truth” and even “cordial,” noting that it opened the door to further discussions on the bilateral relationship.  Obama also seemed to subscribe to a different role for civil society representatives – as opponents of sitting governments – at the summit, choosing to meet privately, for example, with Cuban dissidents opposed to the Raúl Castro and his government.

Obama’s steps to remove the festering U.S.-Cuba issue from the hemispheric agenda have been game-changing, even if some presidents criticized Washington’s continued enforcement of the economic embargo and the Administration’s bewildering inability to move faster to remove Cuba from its highly politicized terrorist list.  This summit may signal a return to the values and respectful debate that Obama, and before him Bill Clinton, espoused at past Summits, and may pave the way for cooperation over contemporary issues rather than Cold War-era ideological hang-ups.  In the final days before the Summit, senior White House advisors had intervened to ease tensions over the State Department’s national security rhetoric vis-à-vis Venezuela, emphasizing with regret that assertions regarding Venezuela’s posing a security threat were an unfortunate procedural necessity rather than a genuine assessment of the situation.  This recognition that “words matter” turned on their head the words used earlier in the week by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in lamenting that Latin American governments were not using language similar to Washington’s to characterize the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela.  While the correctives from the White House and the focus on the transformation of U.S.-Cuba relations were both conducive to a successful SOA, these developments did overshadow both the official theme of this year’s summit – Prosperity with Equity – and related discussions on energy, the environment, and education.  These crucial issues, all ripe for regional cooperation, are the core of what should become the focus of U.S.-Latin American relations for the remainder of this administration and beyond.

April 13, 2015

Bolivia’s Elections and Evo’s Surprising Political Malaise

By Robert Albro

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Departmental and municipal elections in Bolivia last week dealt a significant setback to President Evo Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).  Benefiting from strong economic growth, broad-based support from among the country’s many social movements, and the absence of major controversy, last October Morales was elected to a third term as Bolivia’s president with an impressive 61 percent of the vote.  He is on track to be in office until 2020, making him the longest-serving leader in Bolivian history.  Last week, however, the party won just four of nine races for departmental governor and two of the races for mayor in Bolivia’s ten largest cities, reversing a trend of sustained MAS dominance since Evo’s election in 2006.  Most alarming for the MAS is that it lost across the board in the previous strongholds of La Paz and El Alto.  This unexpected outcome has touched off speculation that the MAS is running out of steam.

The MAS emerged as a national political force during the sustained social ferment of the early 2000s.  It reaped the benefits of widespread popular disenchantment with government as a movement for change and indigenous enfranchisement, and it built a successful coalition across ethnic, class, rural-urban, and to some extent, regional differences.  The MAS’s rise coincided with the collapse of the country’s established political parties.  As the only remaining national political movement, the MAS has since often identified its approach to governance as a bottom up, participatory, or popular plebiscite – a multiethnic and plurinational vision of local autonomy that it has successfully enshrined in the country’s constitution.  Addressing last week’s upset, Vice President Alvaro García Linera noted the MAS had done a poor job of cultivating new local leaders.  Evo suggested it was a “punishment vote” in response to recent corruption scandals involving MAS candidates.  Nor did Morales do his candidates any favors when he threatened not to work with opposition politicians in El Alto or La Paz if they were elected.

Despite this setback for the MAS, local opposition at the polls does not necessarily lead to national opposition.  The political opposition remains fragmented, and the MAS remains the country’s only truly national political party.  Even where it lost races for governor or mayor, in most cases the MAS enjoys a majority in the state legislatures or city councils.  However, several factors – corruption scandals, continued dependence on the extractive industries, and the party’s habit of co-opting right-wing non-masistas as candidates where it thinks they will win – point to the stubborn persistence of different national and local political realities.  When the MAS has run into problems in recent years, as with recent controversy over a plan to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, it is because it misread local political terrain, chose poor candidates, and ran afoul of regional or local autonomies.  The horizontal and plural coalition-building that has been the MAS’s hallmark can be a clunky local political instrument.  Last week highlighted that local electorates are less driven by social movement ferment, ideology, or historical change; are notably distrustful of MAS impositions from above; and are more interested in prosaic matters of good governance and candidates they know and trust. It was certainly not the beginning of the end of the MAS.  But if the national party continues to struggle in the face of diverse local political realities, it could signal for the MAS a gradual death by a thousand cuts.

April 9, 2015

Brazilian Truth Commission Looks at Police Violence

By Paula Orlando

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

A new truth commission is about to investigate Brazil’s legendary police brutality and, for the first time, attempt to bring some public accountability for the crimes committed by the state. Police kill an estimated six people per day. Civil society organizations persuaded the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly (ALESP) to establish the commission, the first to focus on human rights violations in the post-dictatorship period. It will hear testimony from witnesses and survivors of police brutality, and examine documents and other evidence related to major cases of police violence in the city and state in the last decades. The initiative follows the recent release of reports by the National and Sao Paulo State Truth Commissions on human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In fact, the reports suggested that present-day violence should be understood as a legacy of the lack of accountability for past violations.

The “Truth Commission of Democracy Maes de Maio” – named after a prominent movement of family members of victims of police violence that fights for justice and changes in security policies – held its first hearing on March 21. Parents of some of those killed in May 2006, when at least 493 civilians were killed in a period of 10 days, testified. (The National Truth Commission had accounted for 434 people killed during the 21 years of military rule.) The violence in May 2006 took place in the context of a conflict between the police forces and the “First Command of the Capital” (PCC) – a criminal organization formed within the detention system, and was justified as part of a “war on crime.” A study conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School and the Brazilian Human Rights Organization Justiça Global contends that at least 122 deaths were directly linked to the police, and many of these bodies showed signs of execution. Four other civilians remain missing after nine years, and nearly all the cases have been archived without a resolution. With the participation of representatives designated by the National Secretariat of Human Rights, legislators, and members of social movements, the new commission will also examine other massacres, such as one at the Carandiru penitentiary in 1992 and the nighttime slaughter – also linked to police officers – of several people who were sleeping near the Sé Cathedral, in downtown Sao Paulo, in August of 2004.

The truth commission is more than a symbolic step towards recognizing and bringing some degree of state accountability in human rights violations; it shows the growing pressure of the movement against anti-police violence and in favor of justice and reparations for victims. Deputy Adriano Diogo, a major proponent of the panel, has warned that the way ahead “will be difficult; this is a discussion that the Brazilian government does not accept to have.” Insofar as the truth commission succeeds, it will not only create an institutional space linked to the state to clarify cases of police violence; it will stimulate an important discussion of the legitimization of police brutality in the context of “fighting crime.” In addition, it could contribute to the understanding that unlawful police violence is a form of political violence that no democratic society should endure.

April 6, 2015

A Web Forum: Implications of Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

By Eric Hershberg

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Anyone concerned with Cuban affairs will remember “D‑17” – the day in 2014 that Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced their intention to restore diplomatic ties and endeavor to normalize relations.  Catalyzed by a year and a half of secret negotiations by senior confidants of the two presidents, bypassing normal diplomatic channels, the unexpected announcements provoked elation in most quarters.  After 55 years of estrangement and hostility, the two presidents acknowledged that an alternative path based on mutual respect was both possible and desirable.  Momentum toward restoring diplomatic relations is advancing steadily, but the path toward “normalization” is replete with obstacles, for there never has existed a “normal” state of affairs in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Despite widespread relief and optimism, a long road lies ahead.

Countless op-ed pieces have been written since D-17, and many of them have been very insightful, but the genre tends toward soundbites rather than deep analysis of the implications of change.  In this context, the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University and the Cuba Program at the Social Science Research Council today launch a Web Forum that delves more deeply into the ramifications of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations, drawing on the scholarship of the contributors and on the substantial body of academic research that can inform our understanding of the present conjuncture and potential trajectories in the future.

Edited by Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, the Forum encompasses a variety of themes – from U.S.-Cuba relations, to hemispheric dynamics, to the consequences for ongoing political, societal, and economic change in Cuba.  What does it mean to contemplate “normalization” between two countries with such a fraught history of interaction?  How might experiences of “normalization” between the U.S. and other countries with which it sought to reduce longstanding hostilities provide lessons for those who seek to understand the likely course of events involving the U.S. and Cuba?  To what degree does D-17 and its aftermath alter the landscape of international relations in the Western Hemisphere?  How might Cuban cultural production and everyday life engage differently with U.S. audiences and with members of the Cuba diaspora?  Will rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba have consequences for Cuba’s political trajectory?  What impact will changed bilateral relations and a relaxation of U.S. sanctions have on ongoing efforts to “update” and perhaps transform Cuba’s economic model?  The organizers hope that the Forum enriches debates about these and other matters, with contributions from leading experts from Europe, Latin America, and Canada as well as from the U.S. and Cuba.  We encourage readers to download the essays and to circulate them widely. View the Forum at http://www.american.edu/clals/implications-of-normalization-with-ssrc.cfm

April 2, 2015

Why Is Madrid Not in the Game in Latin America?

By Fulton Armstrong

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y  Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Spain’s media, government ministries and academic specialists watch what they call Iberoamérica closely, but President Rajoy and other political leaders have adopted a lower policy profile in the region than in the past – and they appear unlikely to raise it soon.  Local observers stress that Spain’s interests in the region – preserving historic leadership and influence and building commercial relations – remain the same.  The Foreign Ministry’s website emphasizes the goal of achieving “relations based on equality and balance with all of the countries” in Latin America and to be the European Union’s “key agent” in relations with the region.  Spain also puts great stock in the annual Iberoamerican Summits, even though attendance can fall short of what it hopes for, such as in Veracruz, Mexico, last December.  Madrid rolled out the red carpet for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in February, during which both countries’ leaders spoke of their unstinting friendship and backing.  Spanish investment in Latin America has rebounded from the setbacks of the 2008 crisis and the bad odor left by Argentina’s nationalization of Repsol’s shares in the YPF oil corporation in 2012.  Trade has never been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship, but it too has been steady, according to local experts.

Neither of Spain’s two leading parties, however, has shown much interest in making relations as “special” as they like to say.  The frisson of excitement from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba – arguably a validation of longstanding Spanish policy that engagement is better – did not last long.  Observers in Madrid say the government is neither concerned about new U.S. competition on the island, such as in the hotel industry, nor excited that Spanish companies will win big when U.S. tourists flood in.  After former President Zapatero met with Cuban President Raúl Castro late last month, current Foreign Minister García-Margallo accused him of “extraordinary disloyalty and … inappropriateness,” apparently for violating several Spanish protocols for former heads of government.  But Margallo’s pique was consistent with the Partido Popular’s longstanding chilliness toward Cuba (particularly under former President Aznar) and almost certain was aggravated by the fact that Raúl had stood him up for a meeting in Havana in November.  The two parties use similar rhetoric to condemn Venezuelan President Maduro’s increasingly abusive policies, but neither has provided creative leadership in finding solutions to the country’s impasse.  Former President Felipe González, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has agreed to join the legal defense team of jailed oppositionists but apparently not counseled them on broader strategies.

Transient issues, such as frustration that investments might be nationalized, and widespread perceptions that Venezuela and other problem cases in Latin America are intractable probably lie at the heart of Spain’s preference to stay on the sidelines.  The shift probably also reflects Spanish leaders’ focus on internal priorities – an economy still reeling from the 2008 crisis and youth unemployment so high (over 40 percent in some regions) that there’s fear of a “lost generation.”  In important ways, Spain’s posture toward the region parallels Washington’s – showing fatigue or doubt at a crucial juncture in Latin America’s search for political and economic models as well as effective trading alliances.  Even though Latin American rhetoric tends to reject outside models for democratic transition and institution-building – including Spain’s – Madrid’s historical experience gives it potential advantages in dealing with the region’s political challenges.  Spain and the United States approach in Latin America are quite different – Washington tends to rely on programs to strengthen regime opponents as agents of change – but their strategic objectives in Latin America are complementary.  It would make sense for the two to team up in the region, cooperate in diplomatic strategies, and provide the sort of respectful partnership that many Latin Americans seem to yearn for.

March 31, 2015

Central American Minors: Headed Home?

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

Two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last year, two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center during the height of its operation. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Legislative safeguards have protected from deportation most of the 68,000 unaccompanied children (UACs), almost all of them from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who were apprehended at the southern border of the U.S. last year – but the challenges are far from over.  This temporary reprieve comes despite warnings by the Obama administration at the height of the crisis – and U.S. embassy-supported education campaigns in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since then – that youth considering flight to the U.S. will be returned home.  Provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 have aided these Central America kids to legally remain in the U.S. by making them ineligible for expedited removal or voluntary departure until their cases are decided by an immigration court judge.  Attempts by the Department of Justice to fast track initial hearings have yet to result in expedited case closures, as judges typically issue continuances to children securing legal counsel and soliciting forms of deportation relief.  While it is still too early to predict case outcomes, several trends are evident:

  • Available data suggest that large numbers of UACs are benefiting from relief codified in U.S. immigration law, including asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and non-immigrant visas for victims of trafficking and other qualifying crimes. According to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, approval rates for asylum applications submitted by minors have hovered around 80-90 percent for the past year.  (The bulk of applications of the most recent wave of arrivals have not yet been decided.)
  • More than 7,000 child migrants have been ordered deported between October 2013 and January 2015 for failing to appear in court, but their attorneys and advocacy groups have blamed an overburdened and resource-starved court system, pointing to documented instances in which clients were never notified of their hearing date or notices arrived late or were sent to the wrong address. In other cases children have been ordered to appear in court hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they have been placed in sponsor care.  With sufficient evidence, children who have received deportation orders in absentia may file motions to reopen their cases.
  • Access to legal representation continues to impact case outcomes. In fiscal years 2012-14, 73 percent of UACs with attorneys were permitted to remain in the country, compared to just 15 percent of children without representation.  According to federal data obtained by Syracuse University, as of October 31, 2014, less than one-third of UACs in pending cases had secured an attorney.

While the fate of these Central American kids hangs in the balance, so too do the legal protections that guarantee their day in court and their access to deportation relief.  An emboldened Republican-controlled Congress has resuscitated efforts to amend the TVPRA provisions protecting these children from expeditious return to their home countries.  Similar bills still under debate by the House Judiciary Committee propose tighter restrictions on the most commonly solicited forms of relief – asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.  Asylum seekers, for example, would face shorter filling deadlines and be required to wait for hearings in a “safe” third country.  A proposed revision to the hotly contested SIJS statute allowing abused, neglected, or abandoned children to reunite with a second parent in the U.S. would have serious repercussions for Central American UACs, many of whom are in the care of parent sponsors.  Meanwhile, a steady flow of new arrivals – 12,500 UACs and 11,000 family units since last October – are added to backlogged court dockets and increase the likelihood of a due process crisis.  Observers in the region and in Washington are acknowledging gingerly the possibility of a new wave of youth migration during the coming months, as conditions fueling the exodus from Central America remain acute.  The politics of such a renewed surge are complex, and may shape both the immigration policy debate in the U.S. and the prospects for Congressional approval of the administration’s request for $1 billion in development assistance for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.

March 26, 2015

OAS: New Leadership, Old Challenges

By Aaron Bell and Fulton Armstrong

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA - OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

José Miguel Insulza and Luis Almagro Lemes Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Uruguayan diplomat Luis Almagro, elected secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, says he wants to revitalize the hemispheric organization – a herculean, if not impossible, task.  Almagro was the only candidate remaining after Guatemalan Eduardo Stein and Peruvian Diego García-Sayán withdrew from the race – the former for health concerns, and the latter due to a perceived lack of support from his government.  Almagro previously served as Foreign Minister under former president José Mujica and is a member of his Movimiento de Participación Popular, whose left-leaning sympathies led observers to wonder whether Almagro could draw sufficient backing even running unopposed.  But Almagro received formal support from several prominent nations ahead of time, including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, and he got 33 of 34 votes (Guyana abstained) to secure his election.  Following the election, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the new Secretary General to “lead the OAS through this genuine reform process by helping to refocus the OAS on its core pillars – democracy, human rights, sustainable development, and citizen security,” all while resolving its fiscal challenges.  “We look to [him] for his leadership, but we want him to know that he does not stand alone.”  His five-year term begins in May.

In his acceptance speech, Almagro stated that he intends to rise above the role of crisis manager and facilitate “the emergence of a revitalized OAS,” but major challenges await him:

  • The political crisis in Venezuela has long challenged the OAS, and an escalation in sanctions and rhetoric from the United States has made its balancing act harder. Current Secretary General José Miguel Insulza criticized the Obama administration’s national security warnings while also calling out the Maduro government for the arrest of opposition leader Antonio Ledezma and its resistance to dialogue with the opposition.  Almagro has been critical of U.S. sanctions as well, and quietly worked behind the scenes to encourage negotiations between political opponents in Venezuela, but his public silence on abuses by the Maduro government worries his critics.
  • The Cuba issue will also put Almagro in a tight spot. Havana’s participation in the Summit of the Americas is likely to build pressures for its readmission to the OAS, and Almagro’s record shows he’ll be sympathetic.  But the process could be fraught with risks for the new Secretary General.  Outgoing Secretary General Insulza bears scars attesting to U.S. Senators’ penchant for personalizing attacks when the OAS doesn’t go their way.
  • Any reform agenda is going to get battered from both sides. The OAS mandates are broad and expensive, and members don’t agree on priorities.  As Deputy Secretary Blinken’s comments suggest, Washington wants the organization to focus on its agenda, but much of South America, particularly the ALBA countries, wants the OAS to pull away from U.S. influence.  Nor do differences lie strictly along North-South lines, as made clear by protests during last year’s general assembly against Brazil’s resolution condemning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Almagro seems to have the experience and temperament to be an excellent choice for the job, and his coming from Uruguay, whose good offices have credibility virtually everywhere, may serve the OAS well.  But the challenges will be daunting.  He faces several ongoing crises, particularly in Venezuela, and ongoing splits within the region over the OAS’s role.  One tempting option would be for Almagro to try to distance himself and the organization from Washington – a difficult task at best.  Not only is his headquarters several hundred meters from the White House and the State Department, but the United States government (and to a lesser extent Canada) provides substantially more funding for the OAS’s general fund and through special donations than any other member state.  Almagro’s actions will also be watched closely by U.S. conservatives who, stung by President Obama’s move toward diplomatic relations with Cuba, are looking for a fight over Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and even on some issues with Brazil.  Whatever Almagro does, it will be with the black cloud of the OAS’s financial difficulties over him, and the possibility that failing to successfully balance all of these issues may weaken the OAS and benefit regional organizations like CELAC and UNASUR, which are smaller and less well established, but independent of North American influence.

March 23, 2015

Honduras: Charter Cities Lurch Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Honduran government expects to get the green light this month from a Korean consulting firm for a master plan to hand governance of several small communities over to private investors to develop them, but concerns about the plan run deep and appear unlikely to fade.  Called ZEDEs – the Spanish acronym for “Employment and Economic Development Zones,” the specially designated areas are also called by their proponents charter cities, model cities, and startup cities.  The first tranche of towns facing conversion are in the southern Honduran departments of Valle and Choluteca, with a new port built on the Gulf of Fonseca.  The government says that the affected communities will remain an “inalienable part of the Honduran state,” but amendments to the Constitution, laws, and regulations permit their governing body – which is unelected – to establish “policies and regulations” and their own police and other public services.  Called the “Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices,” the board is dominated by representatives of Honduran millionaires and an even greater number of non-Hondurans of predominantly libertarian ideology.  Among them are American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; former President Reagan’s son Michael; and Michael Strong, chief executive of Radical Social Entrepreneurs.  The ZEDEs’ guiding principle is to liberate communities from government taxation, oversight, and corruption in order to attract investment and stimulate prosperity.

The ZEDEs initiative has been plagued by opposition since its inception, however.  Numerous reports underscore that the affected communities were never consulted, and demands for a referendum have repeatedly been rebuffed.  Honduran implementation of the model has been rejected by the U.S. economist who proposed it, Paul Romer (formerly of Stanford University; currently at New York University).  He withdrew because of the lack of Honduran transparency, including secret deals with interested U.S. parties.  The Honduran Supreme Court initially voted 4-to-1 against a Constitutional amendment allowing creation of ZEDEs in 2012, but the Congress impeached the four dissenters and replaced them with supporters who voted unanimously in favor.  There are numerous reports of intimidation of local civil society leaders, who deem them credible in view of clashes between wealthy businessmen and campesinos in other areas resulting in hundreds of deaths in recent years.

Honduras has a desperate need for economic growth – two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line – and its model of national governance, riddled with corruption and non-transparency, is indeed in crisis.  But there’s no evidence that fighting one form of corruption with another non-transparent system will help anyone but the big investors.  Indeed, Honduras has ranked among the most violent countries in the world for several years, with the term “failed state” looming darkly over it – making it perhaps the worst place to experiment with provocative new models of governance without popular consultation or support.  Critics seem to have a good case: real reform and economic stimulus would focus on cleaning up the government and holding accountable the elites that have brought the country to ruin and now are trying to impose this model on their fellow citizens, rather than usurping the affected communities’ sovereignty.

March 19, 2015

Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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