South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

U.S.-Latinx: Might Trump Prompt “Statistical Disobedience”?

By Stephan Lefebvre*

Eric Garcetti at a press conference

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a press conference on the 2020 Census. Garcetti leads a coalition of over 160 U.S. mayors that oppose adding a question about citizenship on the census. / Office of Eric Garcetti / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census have set the stage for confrontation between Latino/a/x individuals and the U.S. government.  Community groups, civil rights organizations, a group of 18 U.S. states, and others are challenging the administration in court – oral arguments for the first of six legal challenges began last Friday.  Grassroots organizing around Latinx statistical disobedience is also under way, urging individuals to respond to the citizenship question randomly, without regard to their own status, to make the results unusable.

  • The legal challenges have yielded documents revealing the discriminatory intent of the citizenship question. Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas known for his anti-immigrant views and inaccurate claims about voter fraud, wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in July 2017 advocating the citizenship question.  Kobach said – falsely – it was necessary to deal with the “problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”  Several months later, the U.S. Justice Department issued a “formal request” to the acting director of the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question to attain data “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”  Claiming the measure is necessary to prevent “vote dilution” among minority groups, it is very different from the alleged problem Kobach identified.  Representation in the U.S. Congress is based on total population, not total voting population, as confirmed in 2016 unanimously by the Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott.
  • It is still not clear where the idea for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census came from, but its purpose – to weaponize the census to be used against Latina/o/x and other undocumented communities – has been clear from the start. Kobach has said that his advocacy was informed by conversations with Steve Bannon, the far-right activist and former senior advisor to President Trump.  Secretary Ross initially testified to Congress that the proposal for a citizenship question was initiated by the Justice Department, but he later issued a memo contradicting this when documents came to light showing his earlier involvement.

Census Bureau testing of the 2020 Census questionnaire indicates that there is deep concern among the undocumented and Latinx communities.  Field staff conducting interviews report many red flags.  In presentations made during a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, Census Bureau documents quote one interviewer saying, “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door.  I could hear them inside.  I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving. … It’s because they were afraid of being deported.”  In another case, a Spanish-speaking respondent said, “The possibility that the census could give my information to [U.S. government] internal security, and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”  In response, community-engaged scholars like Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy are calling for “statistical disobedience,” the willful misrepresentation of one’s legal status.

If the six legal challenges to the citizenship question fail, the prospects of statistical disobedience will be high.  Falsifying responses on the census is a punishable offense, but some community leaders have argued that if the Latinx statistical disobedience is widespread, enforcement will be highly unlikely.  This is not unlike other acts of historical civil disobedience.  The grassroots campaign behind statistical disobedience not only helps prevent the citizenship question from being used to target undocumented and Latinx communities; it can also drive up participation and awareness of the 2020 Census by Latinx communities who have been historically under counted.  Community leaders want to be ready.

August 21, 2018

* Stephan Lefebvre is a Ph.D. student in Economics at American University studying stratification economics.  His forthcoming article in the journal Diálogo is titled “Bold Policies for Puerto Rico: A Blueprint for Transformative, Justice-Centered Recovery.”

Honduras: Would a Constituent Assembly Help?

By Hugo Noé Pino*

Several people raise their hands in the Honduran National Congress

A recent session in Honduras’ National Congress. / Congreso Nacional de Honduras / Creative Commons

The need for Honduras to convene a National Constituent Assembly appears increasingly compelling even though the country’s political elites continue to oppose one.  Proponents of an “ANC” argue that it would not only help the country overcome the fraud perpetrated in last November’s elections; it would give oxygen to the country’s failing democracy.  They note that the current constitution, promulgated in 1982, has been violated and modified so many times – such as when President Juan Orlando Hernández was allowed to run for reelection – that the document’s original meaning has been obscured if not lost.  ANC proponents cite other facts pointing to the need for an assembly:

  • The constitution calls for a “planned economic policy,” in which the state and law “shall regulate the system and process of planning with the participation of the Powers of State, and political, economic and social organizations shall be duly represented.” But that planning model, which has never been implemented in Honduras, has been overtaken by the neoliberal model, based on market freedoms, adopted in the 1990s.  Amendments passed in 2012 were intended to create special employment and development zones, but not a single one has emerged.
  • Since the 2009 coup, Honduran society has been polarized by violations of the law, the concentration of power, abuses, corruption, and other problems – all aggravated by the widely contested election of last November. Business, workers, farmers, trade unions, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors have been unable to find agreement on how to deal with the nation’s pressing problems.  ANC supporters say that true national reconciliation is going to require a new social pact that a new constitution can create.
  • Backers also argue that the ANC would breathe new life into the political parties – deeply discredited by the corruption and chaos engulfing them – and allow them to become a mechanism for intermediation between society and the state. An assembly, they say, would bring political leaders and the people together in pursuit of better alternatives to the current system.  A system of checks and balances, including a new judicial system, would help guarantee the separation of powers and enhance citizen participation in public policy.

Prospects for an ANC do not look good at this moment despite important endorsements, such as that of the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference in a public letter last December.  Most of the political elite, responsible for setting the country on its destructive course, stridently oppose the idea, but proponents feel the elites will eventually have to accept one.  The “national dialogue” launched after the November elections has made no progress or, worse, has aggravated tensions.  The black cloud over those elections and the surge in corruption cases under investigation – an important achievement of the Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) and its partners working under the Attorney General – have driven politicians to dig in their heels.  Their efforts to hold onto power, prevent transparency, and block accountability puts them directly against the sort of reforms an ANC would represent. 

  • Even when the political class eventually allows the ANC proposal to take off, many obstacles lay ahead. One of the first – and extremely difficult – steps would be selection of a truly independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee a referendum on the ANC and the election of assembly delegates.  The questions on the ballot would be simple, focused on support for the ANC and support for presidential reelection, but the task of making Honduras an inclusive society, with transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law would take the sort of vision and discipline that only a new constitution would provide.  While critics claim an ANC would be playing with fire, it’s certainly better than the current situation in which we are all threatened with being burned.

August 14, 2018

* Hugo Noé Pino is currently a professor and coordinator of a Ph.D. program at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (Unitec) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018