U.S. Southern Command: Diminished Resources Affect Mission

By CLALS Staff 

General John F. Kelly Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

General John F. Kelly
Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

In an annual posture statement to Congress and a press conference, SouthCom Commander John Kelly played up the successes of his command’s counternarcotics mission – particularly its “engagements” throughout Latin America – but emphasized that his effectiveness is threatened by budget cuts.  The General said that cooperation with Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and others was “very, very valuable,” and he boasted that the United States has trained over 5,000 Mexican soldiers over the past year.  But he warned that “severe budget constraints” are limiting the Command’s ability to build on the progress.  On Capitol Hill, he said, “Let me be frank: reduced engagement risks the deterioration of U.S. leadership and influence in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.”

Kelly had lots of praise for individual counternarcotics operations – specifically Colombia’s “unbelievable heroic efforts” with crop eradication and attacks on processing labs – and cited the effectiveness of his Command’s drug interdiction programs (capturing about 132 tons of cocaine in 2013) despite funding cutbacks.  But the General reported that his Command failed to intercept 80 percent of the drugs flowing out of Colombia and about 74 percent of all maritime flows.  Despite his praise for Colombia, his statements confirmed that it is still a major producer (reportedly third, after Peru and Bolivia) and the major exporter of cocaine to the United States.  SouthCom estimates that the cocaine industry is still worth $85 billion a year and has “franchises” in 1,200 U.S. cities.  Kelly also reported that heroin consumption in the United States is up 65 to 80 percent in the last several years – “and it all comes up through Latin America.”  He said that SouthCom has been directed to reduce the amount of drugs reaching the United States from Latin America by at least 40 percent – a goal he said he cannot achieve because of cutbacks.

Policymakers and program-managers always face a balancing act when speaking in Washington.  They understandably tout their successes; cite resource constraints as the reason for failure to attain mission objectives; and make a pitch for resources.  SouthCom, having a budget that dwarfs that of any other agency, traditionally has been primus inter pares in Latin America, but Kelly portrayed his Command as merely one of many in the U.S. interagency.  His praise of Colombia as a “regional security exporter” also hints at the unwillingness or inability of the Command to continue its investment in such operations.  When the best-funded U.S. agency operating in Latin America projects itself in this fashion, admitting that the vast majority of illegal narcotics still reach U.S. territory, it’s natural for U.S. taxpayers to wonder what they are getting for their many millions of dollars.  If the Obama administration cannot make a better case, U.S. counternarcotics policy would appear to lack direction and, absent a systematic review, will continue essentially on autopilot.

Brazilian and Mexican Press Criticize Russia but Remain Focused on the Home Front

By CLALS Staff

Latin America’s low-key reaction to events in Ukraine and Crimea suggests that opinion makers are distracted by domestic issues and perceive such far-off developments as having little bearing on the region.  The Brazilian press has noted the “pathetic and weak” leadership of the United States and Europe and said Russia was creating a “Soviet Union light” with nationalist rather than communist undertones.  Commentators have criticized Russia’s propagandistic narrative, in which criticism of Russian expansionism and interventionism is countered with examples of the American and European bloody history.  They have said Putin’s motives are a clear and explicit demonstration of power, where Crimea is a non-negotiable territory.  They have variously called Obama’s diplomatic responses “flaccid” and his speech about Putin’s motives an “unintelligible declaration.”    Prior to Putin’s military moves, President Dilma Rousseff asserted that the protests in Venezuela are different from those in Kiev, where an “institutional rupture” is taking place, and she has been relatively quiet since.  There have been minor considerations on how a European crisis affects the Brazilian economy, since Europe absorbed 20 percent of Brazil’s exports last year.

The Mexican press has loudly criticized Putin’s actions.   Commentators have described Russia as a “monstrous creature who combines state capitalism and a corrupt oligarchy.”  They have accused Putin of threatening world peace over strategic interests.  They note that Putin holds considerable leverage over Europe (via its supply of vital energy resources) and the United States (in negotiating over Syria and Iran), and they say that he appears likely to get his way in the Crimea.  Some have denounced Putin for attempting to turn the clock back to Russia’s imperialist days, and describe this tendency alongside the United States’ inability to shape events as signs that both are declining world powers.

Both Brazil and Mexico have a full plate of domestic issues monopolizing political attention.  In Brazil, the middle class and elites remain upset about corruption surrounding the ruling PT, and many Brazilians continue to seethe over the scale of public expenditures that have constructed soccer stadiums rather than solid institutions for providing education and health.   The cost of preparations for the World Cup, set to start in three months, as well as the fortunes of the Brazilian team in that crucial tournament, have great implications for the fate of the Dilma administration.  Insofar as international issues reach the national agenda, Dilma appears most concerned with domestic political developments in Venezuela, where UNASUR has offered to play a mediating role.  In Mexico, President Peña Nieto and the media appear seized with security issues – ranging from the spectacular arrests of drug traffickers to the troubling emergence of “self-defense” groups – and the president’s ambitious economic reform agenda.  The Cold War-style East-West maneuvering over Ukraine hasn’t registered deeply in either country or elsewhere in Latin America.

Latin America Skeptical of U.S. Immigration Debate

By Aaron Bell

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Latin America’s subdued response to the immigration reform debate in the United States reflects a region-wide skepticism buttressed by the recent history of unfulfilled expectations.  Mexican media and a handful of Central American counterparts across the board have identified the Republican Party as the primary impediment to progress.  Conservative editorialists in the region, many of whom denounce President Obama and the Democrats as political opportunists rather than legitimate advocates for immigration reform, have also expressed frustration with the Republicans for not coming up with a better approach.  In particular, they think the party’s digging its own political grave by failing to rein in members and supporters who smear Hispanic immigrants as a threat to the ethnic identity of the United States.  Some have fond memories of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which balanced security and enforcement with compassion and amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Mexico’s El Universal has been one of the most frequent contributors to the discussion of immigration reform, particularly with editorials giving greater attention to the human rights aspect of the debate.  They’ve called for reforms so that undocumented workers can “come out of the shadows,” so that families can stay together without fear of deportation, and so that harsh punishment meted out to undocumented workers caught crossing the border can come to an end.  The Mexican government has been relatively quiet on the issue of immigration reform in the previous decade, with the exception of a complaint lodged against Alabama’s HB 56, which requires police to take certain actions if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an immigrant is in the United States unlawfully.  But last summer Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade took to the pages of El Universal to complain that proposed enhanced border security measures were a detriment to regional development – and not a solution to immigration problems.

Public opinion data on Latin American views of the reform debate is limited, though circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between reforms and overall views of the United States.  Pew Research found that public opinion of the United States among Mexicans dipped sharply following the passage of Arizona SB 1070 in 2010, which laid the groundwork for HB 56.  Those numbers have since rebounded, with 66 percent of those polled holding favorable views of the United States in 2013, when many perceived that the Obama administration would achieve a positive outcome in the reform debate.  Although critical of Republican approaches, commentators who support reforms are not inherently in favor of the Democratic Party.  Only half of those Mexicans polled held a favorable view of the Obama administration, and some commentators have noted the high number of deportations on Obama’s watch.  For Latin American observers, humane and fair treatment for migrant workers and immigrants is the primary concern – and neither party appears poised to deliver.  The region’s skepticism that this round of debate over immigration reform will produce anything new appears at the moment to be warranted. 

Is Obama Declaring “Mission Accomplished” on Drugs?

By Kevin Gatter

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo Credit: Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The Obama Administration is claiming major progress in the war on drugs, but the evidence is subject to challenge – and the good news surely hasn’t reached Latin America yet.  On July 9, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released an annual report that asserted a significant decline in the U.S. cocaine market, with sizable decreases in both the number of deaths caused by cocaine overdose and the rate of people testing positive for cocaine in the workplace.  It also suggests that potential pure cocaine production capacity in the Andes has fallen by approximately 41 percent since 2001, including 10 percent last year alone.  The report credits this decrease to numerous factors, including U.S.-Colombia partnership, “strengthened democratic institutions,” an increased commitment to counternarcotics cooperation and citizen security in Peru, alternative development, enhanced law enforcement efforts, and focused and persistent education about drug abuse.

Other experts say the picture may not be as rosy.  The UNODC has yet to find what it considers accurate data on coca cultivation since 2011 and, importantly, asserts that declines in past years were offset by an increase in efficiency in the manufacturing chain from coca bush to cocaine hydrochloride.  Additionally, the UNODC estimates that while the estimated total area of coca cultivation in 2011 was only three-quarters of the level in 1990, the quantity of cocaine manufactured in 2011 was at least as high as in 1990.  In any event, it is important to recognize that even if the U.S. is consuming less cocaine, demand for other drugs remains high.  Some analysts speculate that the U.S. market is moving away from Andean cocaine and toward marijuana and methamphetamines from Mexico.  Furthermore, some experts say that growing cocaine demand in Europe and elsewhere is driving prices up and reducing U.S. consumption.

ONDCP’s report has a self-congratulatory tone that – combined with Obama’s clear de-emphasis of counternarcotics at his Central American Summit in San José in May – suggests eagerness to declare victory in a 40-year war against a scourge that continues to have dire implications for every country touched by the drug trade, especially those in Central America and Mexico.  The data are extremely difficult to corroborate.  Cultivation estimates, based on satellite studies of a sampling of possible growing areas, have been notoriously suspect, and the UNODC’s concerns about ignorance of leaf-to-cocaine yield are valid.  Many of the flow estimates are based on interdictions, but U.S. agencies have openly acknowledged that interdiction operations have been significantly reduced for budgetary reasons.  A drug flow that Washington doesn’t detect is not a drug flow that has disappeared.  Moreover, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is based on self-reporting in interviews and omits significant populations, including the homeless and incarcerated. Policy makers around the hemisphere surely hope that ONDCP’s triumphalism is warranted, but the key indicators of success will be a decline in drug-related violence, a weakening of transnational criminal groups, an end to the southbound flow of arms from the United States, the flourishing of alternative economic options for coca farmers, and reversal a pervasive popular suspicion that governments and security agencies have been corrupted by the billions of drug dollars flowing through the region.

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

Gay Rights Amidst Uneven Cultural Change

The lower chamber of Uruguay’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage on December 12 that is expected to sail through the Senate. The law, which polls show is supported by a majority of Uruguayans, comes just two months after the country legalized abortion.  Even for Uruguay, long seen as among Latin America’s most progressive and democratic countries, these measures represent a major shift in social attitudes.

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

MUMS Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual | Flickr | Creative Commons

Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Bard College political scientist Omar Encarnación argues that the 2005 legalization of gay marriage by Spain’s socialist government was a model for activists and legislators across Latin America. Transnational networks with ties in these cities have led the charge, using human rights language and gaining support from human rights organizations. Evidence in support of his argument is growing:  the city of Buenos Aires and later all of Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2002 and 2010 respectively, as did Mexico City, in 2012.  Where legislatures have not acted because of opposition from religious or other groups, activists have appealed to courts, earning recognition of important civil rights for gay couples in Brazil and Colombia. Progress in the ALBA countries, Chile, and Central America has been more limited still.  Honduras banned gay marriage in 2005. Discrimination, both legal and de facto, remains an issue.

The changes in Uruguay and elsewhere indicate the need for an updated map of Latin America that reflects widely differing approaches to social issues.  Secularism is an emergent force in global metropolises such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the region’s social policy and politics has diminished considerably.  But the decline in the Catholic Church’s power to block gay rights does not mean a continued shift in social norms is inevitable.  Evangelical faiths have exploded in parts of the continent, many of them even more conservative than the Catholic Church in opposing gay rights. Moreover, in countries that lack the strong transnational human rights networks of Argentina and Colombia, activists have fewer tools at their disposal.

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosul trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.

Peru: Humala’s Difficult Balancing Act

Photo: Peruvian mine | Mihai (clandestino_20) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Peru’s new cabinet installed in July – President Ollanta Humala’s third since his inauguration a year earlier – faces the daunting task of sustaining national development while increasing social enfranchisement.  The reshuffle came amid loud criticism of a crackdown, which killed five people, on protests against the proposed $5 billion Conga mining project in Cajamarca.  The incident underscored the difficulty for Humala as he endeavors to implement a dual strategy of capitalizing on the growth potential of Peru’s mining industry – primarily gold and copper (60 percent of exports) – while respecting community concerns about the environmental consequences of extraction.  Mining wealth is needed to improve the lives of ordinary people –28 percent of Peruvians live in poverty – but unlike preceding governments this administration has committed itself to consultation with residents of localities that will be affected directly.    The new prime minister has announced suspension of the Conga project until the U.S. mining company involved provides better environmental guarantees.

Humala’s popularity has plummeted.  Despite new laws increasing Peru’s mining revenue, the creation of a new Ministry of Social Inclusion, and a new Prior Consultation Law, indigenous protesters feel betrayed by Humala.  They accuse him of continuing the aggressive extractive policies of his predecessor, Alán García, and insist his administration has not given adequate attention to concerns of local communities on issues such as the integrity of the water supply in zones affected by the mining ventures.  Recent signs of a resurgence in violence by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and of setbacks in efforts to curtail the influence of the narcotics trade are also eroding Humala’s support.

Humala narrowly won the presidency as a center-left candidate, committed to creating a framework for the more equitable distribution of the wealth generated by Peru’s natural resources.  Now, some of his political allies say he has courted foreign investment for the mining sector without adequate consultation, and further protests seem likely.  Humala’s challenge is not unlike that of other countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, trying to balance between these competing interests.  His success or failure will have an impact beyond Peru’s borders, as South American countries dependent on commodity exports struggle to walk the tightrope between satisfying foreign investors and domestic electorates.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 441 other followers