Venezuela: Can Trump’s Coercive Diplomacy Help?

By Michael McCarthy*

A large auditorium-style room filled with people watching a speaker at the front

U.S. President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017. / John Gillespie / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Trump’s new rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country.  At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump called President Maduro an authoritarian and said “this situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”  Washington’s approach emphasizes sticks – sanctions against President Maduro, senior advisors, and threatened action against the oil sector – over carrots, while also voicing support for the opening of new mediated face-to-face talks between Maduro and the opposition.  A contact group of six Latin American and four European countries is promoting the talks, with the backing of UN Secretary General and the Vatican, to help avoid the worst-case scenario of open conflict.  Previous efforts to coordinate a multilateral coalition that simultaneously keeps the pressure on the government while opening negotiation avenues have failed – and agreeing on a roadmap is even more complex in view of the installation of the Constituent Assembly that stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

  • Trump’s new Executive Order directs financial sanctions that come close to directly threatening Maduro’s vital supports. It bans Caracas from issuing new debt in the United States and prohibits U.S.-based CITGO – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company – from repatriating dividends to Caracas.  These measures will impose austerity on Maduro (who claims he will still make upcoming debt payments) and future actions are likely to try and undermine the government’s economic foundations.
  • In addition to installing the Constituent Assembly, Maduro seems to be pursuing a new regime-survival strategy in which he plays the role of a non-vengeful victim. Maduro criticized Trump’s sanctions and called him “the new Hitler” after the UN speech on Tuesday, but he’s also offered donations to aid post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston and invoked John Lennon in a call for “giving peace a chance” in a New York Times ad earlier this month.  To regain a degree of credibility, Maduro will probably consider making elections for Governors slated for October 15 look competitive, but whether he has the political capital with his base to make bigger political or economic moves is unclear.  He may look to establish a new institutional equilibrium of dual legislatures, though it would hinge on removing the threat of retaliation against the opposition via the Constituent Assembly’s so-called “Truth Commission.”  He may also try to address massive fiscal imbalances by reforming the multi-tiered exchange rate, though this would be difficult as the system’s subsidized dollars help underwrite regime loyalty.

While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally.

None of the piecemeal actions that Maduro is apparently contemplating can defuse the political and social crisis, but a combination of steps may be enough to convince China and Russia to stay in the game.  Despite Trump’s statement that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the Administration apparently is open to a policy of coercive diplomacy that includes genuine support for talks.  Trump attacked his predecessor for “leading from behind,” but figuring out how to sequence sticks and carrots in coordination with Latin American and European countries may require just that.  The bottom line is that the chance of a breakthrough on the biggest issues – the Constitutional road map and conditions for electoral participation – remain low, although some movement by both parties toward the middle seems realistic.  Despite the actions of outside actors, the situation is likely to remain poised over a knife-edge – without the catharsis of either peace or regime change.

September 21, 2017

* 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.

Nicaragua: Protest Abstention, Dedazos and Electoral Farce

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

A group of people holding Nicaraguan flags and banners protest outside

Organized by the Sandinista dissident group Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), protesters took to the streets last year ahead of the general elections to demand recognition of their party, and free and open elections. Many members of MRS will abstain from voting in the upcoming elections. / MRS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in protest abstentionism in Nicaragua’s presidential election last November appears likely to worsen in elections this November 5 – undermining the legitimacy of the Daniel Ortega government but not threatening its control.  The  Supreme Electoral Council, dominated by the ruling Sandinista Party (FSLN), proclaimed that 68 percent of the registered electorate had voted last November 6, but two more credible estimates – that of independent observers (closer to 30 percent) and post-election public opinion polls (50 percent) indicated a much lower turnout.  Non-voters come in at least two variants: the disinterested, disengaged, and poorly informed; and protest abstainers.  The evidence points to the latter reason.

  • Critics of the now-autocratic FSLN had nowhere meaningful to go electorally. In June 2016, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) withdrew recognition of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) from Eduardo Montealegre, a prior presidential nominee who had finished second to Daniel Ortega in 2006, and recognized Pedro Reyes, a political non-entity soon booted from party leadership.  Years before, in 2008, the government withdrew recognition from the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, which included most of the well-known Sandinista dissidents (including author Sergio Ramírez, once Daniel Ortega’s Vice President, and several surviving members of the Sandinistas’ original nine-person National Directorate).
  • Focus groups organized by scholars at Florida International University (FIU) and follow up studies confirmed high abstention rates driven by unhappiness with the election. Interviewees said, for example, “There was no candidate who fulfilled my expectations for making the country better … none … capable of taking the country forward.”

Protest abstentionism appears likely to be equally high or even higher in the municipal elections on November 5, reflecting frustration from an unexpected source:  loyal Sandinistas opposing the imposition of candidates by President Daniel Ortega, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.  Adapting Mexican political discourse, many FSLN nominees for mayors, vice-mayors, and municipal councilors are now criticized as representing dedazos, candidates “fingered” from above.  Two unhappy Sandinistas told the opposition paper Confidencial on August 29 of their discontent.  “It hurts me … but that is what [the party] has left me… not to vote in the municipal elections,” said one in Masaya.  “They didn’t take the party loyalists into account [in picking candidates], so the party loyalists will not take the party into account in the elections in November,” said a former FSLN supporter in Corinto.

  • Associates of the old PLI, reconstituted as Ciudadanos por Libertad (CxL), have been granted legal registration – and intend to compete as long as the Organization of American States observes the elections. The OAS role remains unclear, however, prompting the initial CxL candidate for Mayor of Managua to resign his candidacy earlier this month.

What the opposition proclaimed an “electoral farce” last November seems likely to be repeated on November 5.  Ortega has taken steps to allow “same-day registration” of voters on election day – apparently to counter abstentionism – and recent reports of distributing cédulas (national identity cards necessary for voting) to minors have surfaced in La Prensa, presumably also with an intent to increase electoral turnout.  However, anger over dedazos may be deep enough to keep many members of the FSLN away from the polls.  In spite of high abstention levels, the Ortega family enjoys control over all branches of government – National Assembly, Judiciary, and Electoral Council – and continues to enjoy an implicit corporatist accord with COSEP, the leading business organization, while having long proven adept at undermining potentially competitive leaders.  Overreaching via the dedazos may have caused visible cracks in the partisan foundation of the dynasty – strengthening party dissidents’ portrayal of Daniel and Rosario as usurpers – but no leader capable of undermining their grip over governmental structures is yet visible or appears likely to emerge in the near term.

September 18, 2017

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Colombia: Pope Francis Appeals Directly to the People

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Pope in Popemobile with people surrounding him.

Pope Francis in Colombia last week. / Christian Wlaschütz

By appealing directly to the Colombian people to open their hearts to the hard work of forging lasting peace during his visit last week, Pope Francis avoided direct confrontation with opponents of the peace process but put new pressure on them to cease obstructionism and allow full implementation of the accords.  Since the Congress approved the revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in December 2016, there has been important progress on the formal level of the implementation of the peace accords.  The FARC surrendered its weapons and started its transformation from military group to political party of the same name.  However, as the country prepares to enter a new phase – with the launch of transitional justice processes under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission – peace remains a concept that has still not achieved public enthusiasm.  As I have argued previously (here and here), one of the reasons is that common people do not perceive the relevance of the peace process for themselves and lack a sense of participation in it.  The Pope’s five-day visit, concluding last Sunday, seemed intended to address exactly these challenges.

Under the motto “Let’s make the First Step,” Pope Francis emphasized the importance of reconciliation, peace, truth, justice, and the “culture of encounter” on a spiritual level that transcends the struggles of daily politics.  Millions of Colombians, regardless of political affiliation, turned out to hear Francis’s non-partisan message of peace.  In Villavicencio, a center of armed violence during the war, 6,000 victims and former combatants publicly attested to their path from suffering towards active involvement in society.  Having found healing, forgiveness, and repentance, many now work as psychologists, human rights defenders, or social leaders.  Millions around the country watched the event on TV and saw that reconciliation is not an easy path – one without justice or truth – but includes these elements.  In Cartagena, the Pontiff emphasized two other essential components of peace: social justice and human rights.

Francis managed to combine gestures, massive events, and declarations to emphasize Colombia’s opportunity to leave the violent past behind and open a new chapter of history.  His key message – that it is possible to live together in peace – reached many millions.  In encounters with the poor, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, victims of conflict, and people with special needs, he drove home that social inclusion is a prerequisite for real change.  He emphasized that the peace process “is not a process for minorities,” but rather all of society.  Changing the political dynamics around the peace accords will take time, but the Pope has clearly invited detractors to change their attitude and support the process.  One news commentator hinted at the sort of awareness that would require.  Reporting on Francis’s visit to San Francisco, one of the most marginalized sectors of Cartagena, she said, “This is a Cartagena that we do not know. Thanks to this visit we see the other Cartagena.”  Maybe Colombians will also see the “other Colombia” now.

September 14, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Chile’s Transition to Clean Energy Matrix

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Giant wind turbines in Northern Chile

Parque Eólico Canela in Coquimbo, Chile, one of many wind-producing farms in Northern Chile. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Since Michelle Bachelet’s return to the presidency in March 2014, Chile has aggressively pursued an ambitious program to transition the country’s energy matrix toward non-conventional renewable resources.  The emphasis on non-conventional includes mini-hydro facilities with a generating capacity under 20 Megawatts, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and potentially ocean currents.  Chile aims to generate 60 percent of its electricity from domestic renewable energy resources (including all forms of hydro) by 2035, and 70 percent by 2050.  To encourage that transition, Chile is one of only two Latin American countries (the other being Mexico) to establish a carbon tax, under which energy-intensive industries and utilities that exceed mandated emissions levels are charged US$5.00 per ton of CO2 emissions.  Chile’s drive to adopt a cleaner energy matrix is motivated as much by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is to enhance energy security.

  • During the mid-1990s, Chile faced consecutive years of severe drought that had hugely detrimental impacts on the country’s dams, responsible at the time for around 50 percent of the country’s electricity. An abundance of natural gas in neighboring Argentina led to the construction of pipelines across the Andes and new thermal generators in Chile, but Argentina began cutting natural gas exports in 2004 (and eventually stopped them altogether) because disastrous policies there had caused domestic shortages.  Bolivia, in turn, rebuffed Santiago’s entreaties to purchase its gas unless Chile granted it territorial compensation for the loss of Bolivian access to the Pacific after the 19th century War of the Pacific.  Chile had to build two expensive receiving terminals to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from East Asia as well as Trinidad and Tobago.  The Chileans were also forced to use more coal and diesel, exacerbating the already precarious air quality in many Chilean cities, particularly during the winter.

In recent years, more than half of all investment in non-conventional, renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean has been directed to Chile, primarily to build solar and wind parks to supply the mining industry in the north of the country.  The shift to renewable energy has largely been financed by the private sector, with no subsidies other than reimbursement for small-scale photovoltaic and other nonconventional contributors to the grid at the full retail price (and no transmission charge).  Chile’s antipathy to subsidies reflects the country’s market-based economic orientation and a conscious decision to prioritize state-of-the-art renewable technology sourced from elsewhere rather than encourage the development of its own industry.  The recent investment boom in renewables was driven by the business-friendly climate, the fact that Chile is not a significant hydrocarbons producer, and the inflationary impact of the last three years of drought on the price of hydroelectricity.

Chile has several other things going for it in achieving its goals, including a good regulatory framework and resources that are in growing demand.  Chilean regulators allow generators to sell electricity in only one of three time blocks during the day — giving solar and wind power a competitive edge in public purchase agreement auctions.  This more than halved the bidding price offered by generators and made solar power competitive with natural gas and even electricity sourced from hydro.  In the near future, as the country’s energy matrix shifts to greater reliance on solar and wind power, Chile intends to utilize hydroelectricity to supply peaks in demand for electric power (usually in the evening hours) to make up for intermittencies in sunshine and wind.  (At the moment, fossil fuels provide that function.)  New developments in storage technology will also help.  Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, needed to make storage batteries.  The interconnection of Chile’s northern and central grids in 2018 should also facilitate greater use of different renewables and redirect the electric power generated from them to where it is most needed.  Chile, already a leader in Latin American alternative energy production, is poised to enhance that position.

September 11, 2017

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He taught a seminar on “Energy and Climate Cooperation in the Americas: The Role of Chile” at Stanford’s Santiago campus during the summer 2017 quarter.

Brazil’s Foreign Policy:  A Regressive Path?

By Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues*

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Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes speaks at a MERCOSUR meeting regarding the situation in Venezuela. / Divulgação / Flickr / Creative Commons

President Dilma Rousseff’s foreign policy was less active than President Lula’s, but Brazil has lost prominence in international politics even faster since her impeachment almost exactly one year ago.  According to the Soft Power 30 survey, Brazil now ranks 29th in international influence, having ranked 24th in 2016.  One reason is both domestic and political:  President Temer’s government has had to struggle to be recognized as legitimate.  The other is strategic: a wrong bet made by the new heads of Brazil’s foreign affairs.

  • Temer left the Ministry of Foreign Relations in the hands of the Social-Democratic Party (PSDB), appointing São Paulo Senator Jose Serra – at that stage a potential presidential candidate – as foreign minister. Temer and his PSDB partners’ most important project was to align Brazil more closely with the United States.  In parallel, they sought to progressively dismantle the South-South international policy that President Lula championed and President Rousseff continued, with its focus on the BRICS countries.
  • Their approach was based, however, on the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the U.S. election, and they had no “Plan B” for collaboration with the Trump Administration and its significantly different view toward Latin America and Brazil. Unable to rescue the heart of his policy, Serra resigned after nine months, claiming health issues, and another PSDB senator and political ally, Aloysio Nunes, took the job with a clear plan to align Brazil with the international market.  Brazil’s application to the OECD was done fast and without controversy.

At the same time, several important issues have been disempowering Brazil’s foreign policy.

  • MERCOSUR and UNASUR. The most important diplomatic capital Brazil built in the past 20 years – launched by President Cardoso, deepened and revamped by Lula, and maintained by Dilma – was the broad South American cooperation built in MERCOSUR and, later, UNASUR.  Temer has refocused the former on trade and essentially abandoned the latter.  The country’s vision for broad integration has fallen prey to ideological suspicions.
  • Venezuela. By shaming President Maduro as a dictator, Brazil essentially disqualified itself as a possible neutral player in efforts to resolve the Venezuela crisis, the most important challenge in South America today.  Many Brazilian observers believe Brasilia’s absence could mean a blank check to a still unknown and unpredictable White House policy on Latin America.  President Trump’s recent suggestion of a possible military intervention in Venezuela has deepened those concerns.
  • Corruption. The Temer Administration is poorly positioned to push for the sort of initiatives that many governments and societies need to combat corruption.  The problem has deep roots, but Temer’s rise to power in the wake of a campaign attacking alleged corruption by Lula and Dilma gives greater salience to his own shortcomings.  The Attorney General’s Office and the Lava Jato investigators have accused him and most of his ministers of corruption.  This makes Brazilian foreign policy fragile and contradictory in this field despite the government’s efforts to cast itself as a champion of integrity.  It is much more like “a saint with feet of clay,” according to a Brazilian saying.

President Temer and his Foreign Ministers’ two-pronged approach to foreign policy entails risks for Brazil’s international clout.  By deconstructing the so-called “ideological diplomacy” of Lula, Dilma, and their Workers Party, the new team is eliminating an agenda that has achieved unity, albeit in fits and starts, of the continent around a series of issues relevant to them all.  Their efforts to refocus policy on trade and financial issues – essentially a neoliberal agenda that most of the region has rejected – may ultimately yield them economic and political benefits at home, but at the cost of moving Brazil off center stage and reducing its ability to provide regional leadership in the future.  The country’s inability to drive a regionally-supported resolution in Venezuela is already being felt.  Even if this reorientation of foreign policy is ultimately successful, the political capital that gave Brazil a higher international profile as a major world democracy will be difficult to rebuild. 

September 6, 2017

*Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

U.S.-Cuba: Orwell Redux

By Philip Brenner*

Political cartoon depicting U.S. Cuba relations in 1903

A political cartoon showing U.S. President William McKinley literally branding Cuba as a U.S. possession as a result of the Platt Amendment. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s removal of important historical documents on U.S.-Cuba relations from the public record bolsters commentators’ description of the President’s behavior as Orwellian and undermines understanding of key events in the past.  Double-checking the accuracy of citations for a forthcoming book on the history of Cuba, I discovered that the State Department “retired” its website entitled “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations.”  The Department claimed that the cost would be too great “to revise and expand this publication to meet the Office’s standards for accuracy and comprehensiveness,” but it assured readers that the “text remains online for reference purposes, but it is no longer being maintained or expanded.”  Not true.

  • Until May 9, 2017, the Milestones series provided an accurate account of the 1901 Platt Amendment, under which the United States gave itself the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs when it saw fit. That account is no longer available.  The only mention of the Platt Amendment occurs in a brief summary about President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Good Neighbor Policy:  “In 1934 at Roosevelt’s direction the 1903 treaty with Cuba (based on the Platt Amendment) that gave the United States the right to intervene to preserve internal stability or independence was abrogated.”  Milestones provides no further insights.

Suspension of Milestones hinders an understanding of this important chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations – beginning with the U.S. occupation (1898-1902), during which the military dictated a series of laws intended to prepare Cuba for economic domination by U.S. companies.  It removes from the official U.S. government record the fact that, by 1905, U.S. individuals and companies owned 60 percent of Cuba’s rural land (Cubans owned 25 percent), and iron mines in Oriente Province were almost all U.S.-owned.  Loss of Milestones also erases from the public record U.S. acknowledgment that the administration of President William McKinley (1897-1901) sought control by designating a list of acceptable candidates who could be elected to a Cuban constituent assembly in 1900.  When Cuban voters instead chose an independent slate to draft the new constitution, U.S. officials asserted the election proved that Cubans were irresponsible and unfit for self-government.  General Leonard Wood, the U.S. military governor, described those elected as among the “worst agitators and political radicals in Cuba.”  This helped lay the groundwork for Senator Orville Platt, a Republican from Connecticut, to include an amendment to an Army appropriation bill in 1901 written by Secretary of War Elihu Root.

  • While the United States at the time claimed the Amendment’s intent was to preserve Cuba’s independence and stability, the State Department candidly acknowledged one hundred years later in its Milestones series that it was really “to shape Cuban affairs without violating the Teller Amendment,” which in 1898 stipulated that the United States had no intention to remain in Cuba after the war and occupation. In addition to allowing U.S. intervention whenever Washington saw fit, it directed that Cuba would lease territory to the United States for up to three naval coaling stations; that Cuba could not enter into a treaty that offered a military base to any other country; and that Cuba could make no laws contravening prior U.S. military decisions.

U.S. cynicism and insincerity outraged Cubans when they were forced to write the Platt Amendment into their own Constitution in 1901 as a condition for the end of U.S. occupation.  U.S. observers who know about it share that outrage, but – without accurate accounts of history – understanding what happened is much more difficult.  It is like flying through a fog without instruments, and crashes are bound to ensue.  Perhaps even more important, as Orwell hoped his readers would see, when history is based on lies, people learn to live only in the present, and have no hope for the future.

 August 28, 2017

* Philip Brenner is a Professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and co-author with Peter Eisner of Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence (Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017).

Guatemala: Anti-Corruption Still Losing Momentum

By Ricardo Barrientos*

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala looks upward

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala. / OECD / Andrew Wheeler / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), Attorney General, and civil society remain bulwarks in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala – and occasionally score big hits – the Administration of President Jimmy Morales is slowly grinding them down and generating opposition to much-needed reforms.  In a speech at the signing of the National Development Agenda last month, the President attacked provisions in the law requiring transparency in public procurement and budgeting as counterproductive, while also lashing out at the judges, congressmen, general comptroller, and civil society leaders who support such measures.  He claimed on that occasion and others that anti-corruption measures have hindered his ability to govern.

  • The Morales Administration has not just complained; it has tried to remove anti-corruption controls. On July 14, CICIG and the Ministerio Público (MP) made the first of dozens arrests of persons involved in a corruption network run by former Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister (CIV) and potential presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, Alejandro Sinibaldi.  Three days later, the government responded to the case, known as “Corruption and Construction,” with a Presidential Decree declaring a “State of Emergency” on conditions of the nation’s roadways.  The order would allow the government for 30 days to sign new contracts and modify existing ones with companies involved in the scandal, including Brazilian contractor Odebrecht, free of all anti-corruption controls.  Congress not only rejected the Decree, but also impeached current CIV Minister, Aldo García, and forced him to take the blame for decrepit road conditions.

Despite such high-profile cases, Guatemalan anti-corruption advocates are concerned the MP and CICIG could still lose the war against corruption.  In addition, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has publicly lamented that structural reform – the Commission’s other mandate – has been too slow.  Last month, he said that “with current [circumstances] it is very difficult to defeat corruption and impunity.”  Some local observers believe that Velásquez’s focus on constitutional reforms to enhance the Attorney General’s powers is overly ambitions, and that other important initiatives are more attainable, but they acknowledge the generally hostile political environment he faces.  Advocates also believe that the Morales Administration is waiting out the term of fiscal general (attorney general) and head of the MP Thelma Aldana, who steps down next year.  The President even excluded her from his delegation attending a summit in June with U.S. Vice President Pence and Central American counterparts.

The strident complaints of some Guatemalans about U.S. support to CICIG and other anti-corruption initiatives has fueled perceptions that external support for clean government is more important than local demands for good governance – and coincided with a decline in the civic engagement that helped bring down the corrupt government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  Much attention in Guatemala City has focused on outgoing U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and is now naturally shifting to the man confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3 to replace him:  Luis Arreaga – most recently a deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement – is a Guatemala-born naturalized U.S. citizen who, nominated to the post by President Trump in June, is expected to distance himself from the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to anti-corruption programs.  Even though Attorney General Aldana was bumped from President Morales’s delegation at the June summit, Pence publicly praised Morales’s “personal dedication” to fighting corruption.

August 21, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Cuba: Attacks Against U.S. Diplomats?

By William M. LeoGrande*

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The U.S. Embassy in Havana. / Melanie K. Reed / Flickr / Creative Commons

The details about alleged sonic attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana in fall 2016 remain shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, but the incidents – whatever they were – could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization.  The State Department has admitted that after more than eight months of investigation, it “can’t blame any one individual or country” for the reported impairment of U.S. diplomats’ health.  Although press reports indicate the victims suffered hearing loss and headaches from exposure to something in or near their residences, the State Department has provided few details about their symptoms, the number of officers involved, their positions, or their prognoses.  The department’s spokesperson said last week that “we still are trying to … determine the actual cause of their situation … The investigation is ongoing.”  Nonetheless, in May the Trump Administration expelled two diplomats working at the Cuban Embassy in Washington because, according to the spokesperson, Havana is “responsible for the safety and security of our diplomats,” – a responsibility it failed to meet.

  • Speculation about what happened is rampant, but lacks evidence. The State Department’s reference to “any one individual or country” and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s unequivocal statement that it “has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception” have fueled speculation that a third country may have staged the attacks.  Russia is a favorite suspect, with China a distant second, but conspiracy theorists cannot explain how a third country could conduct such sensitive operations in an environment like Havana where foreign diplomats – especially U.S. diplomats – are under constant surveillance.
  • Speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm.  Moreover, the incidents happened at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations were improving and most people expected normalization to continue under President Hillary Clinton.  Neither is it clear why Canadians would be a target.  The U.S. and other militaries have developed low- and high-frequency weapons that cause hearing loss, headaches, and even incapacitation on the battlefield and in crowd-control situations.  But if such a weapon was the cause of the symptoms U.S. diplomats experienced, presumably it would be immediately recognizable.

A popular explanation is that the injuries were an unintended side-effect of a surveillance operation gone wrong.  Without information about symptoms and operating conditions, however, the technology is difficult to fathom.  Lasers, microwaves, and sound waves have long been used for stand-off eavesdropping operations, but primarily against targets in locations to which the attacker has no access, which is not the case with diplomatic residences in Havana.  Moreover, U.S. Embassy regulations strictly forbid having sensitive conversations outside the chancery, so Cuban security services would have little motivation to invest in the expensive equipment and real-time monitoring necessary to target residences.  In short, none of the extant explanations fit very well with the few facts known at this point.

The impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand.  President Trump’s June 16 announcement tightening regulations on U.S. trade and travel to the island gave no hint of a crisis over an issue as fundamental as diplomats’ safety, and left the door open to continuing dialogue on issues of mutual interest.  President Raúl Castro has criticized Trump’s new policies but, as recently as mid-July, repeated his willingness to work with Washington on a host of issues within the context of respect and mutual benefit.  However, until all the facts are known and responsibility for the incidents is definitively established, the Cuban-American right will continue to stoke speculation about Cuban villainy in hopes of derailing the bilateral cooperation still underway.

August 14, 2017

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Colombian Peace Process: Difficulties Ahead  

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

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A sign indicating one of the Transitional Local Zones for Normalization, where many FARC members have relocated and surrendered arms. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

Implementation of the Final Peace Agreement in Colombia is showing important progress – particularly regarding the demobilization and disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – but the government has been slow delivering services and facilities in the demobilization zones, ensuring fair application of the amnesty law, and providing credible security guarantees.  Some 6,900 FARC members have relocated to the 20 Transitional Local Zones for Normalization and six Transitional Local Points for Normalization, surrendering 7,132 arms to the UN verification mission – more per demobilized member than in any other Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process in the world.  In addition to expressing concerns about government services, FARC leaders are increasingly anxious for the security of demobilized members as well as residents of zones they previously occupied.

  • The expansion of organized illegal armed groups, including successors of the paramilitaries, and the emergence of new illegal groups made up of FARC dissidents (estimated to be 5-10 percent of FARC members) and guerrillas from the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) threaten security in large expanses of the countryside. Those groups are filling the void left by the FARC and gaining control over drug trafficking routes previously dominated by the guerrillas as well as illegal mining operations.  A steadily increasing number of human rights defenders and social leaders – 186 in 2016-17 – have been killed while making property claims under authorized restitution processes, socializing the peace agreements, and confronting mega-extractive projects.
  • The National Substitution Program of Illicit Crops is also in question. By June, nearly 80,000 families in 13 departments signed agreements to voluntarily eradicate coca fields in return for assistance starting new projects.  When agreements are not reached, however, the security forces enter affected areas by force, deepening residents’ apprehensions about the voluntary nature of the agreements.  (In a U.S. Senate hearing last week, U.S. State Department officials said the Trump Administration is not supporting the crop substitution program because the FARC, which has influence in the areas, remains designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization under several U.S. laws.)

No doubt the decline in homicides and kidnappings – a reduction of 50 percent since 2002 – represents significant progress.  The government has created a Special Unit to dismantle irregular groups engaged in violence, as stipulated by Point 3.4.4 of the Final Agreement, but its continued denial that the attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders are part of a systematic practice (as the Ombudsman has asserted) or are politically motivated has hurt the credibility of its commitment to full implementation.  Likewise, weak support for the crop substitution program – coupled with the lack of long-term state presence to provide security and social services – will complicate the achievement of lasting peace in areas from which the FARC has withdrawn.  Multiple reports by Fundación Ideas para la Paz indicate that the FARC has encouraged families to embrace the plan, but U.S. allegations that the former guerrilla organization illicitly manipulates peasants for political advantage does not help to normalize the post-FARC reality in Colombia.  In the same vein, the Trump Administration’s criticism of people protesting forced coca eradication and its suggestion that police should confront protesters threaten to keep the process off balance.  For demobilized FARC, for residents of formerly FARC-held territory, and even for peasants who resisted the guerrillas’ war, successful implementation of the peace accord requires ensuring their personal safety and giving them a fair chance at achieving economic security.

August 7, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and CLALS Fellow.

The Brazilian Roller Coaster … Still Heading Down

By Fábio Kerche*

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Rodrigo Maia (center), Speaker of the House of Representatives, gives an interview to the Brazilian press. If President Temer loses the House, Maia may replace him as President.

The political situation in Brazil is dramatic and shows no prospect of improving in the short term.  The Supreme Court has received an indictment against President Michel Temer on corruption charges.  A close adviser of his was caught on video receiving money in a suitcase.  The Chief Prosecutor, who had been playing a minor role in the anti-corruption Car Wash Operation, saw an opportunity to grab the limelight.  Rede Globo, Brazil’s most powerful media group, made Temer’s fall from power seem likely in a matter of days.

  • But Temer did not surrender. As Supreme Court action against a president must be authorized by the House of Representatives, the battle turned to Parliament.  Using means denounced as unethical, such as giving administration positions to people appointed by congressmen, the President won the first round in the committee with jurisdiction over the case.  The next step, in August, will be a full House vote, which could reverse the committee decision.

Regardless of the outcome of House proceedings, political turmoil appears certain to continue – and Temer’s conservative policies will continue to aggravate social divisions.  If Temer loses and the House gives a green light to a Supreme Court investigation, the Constitution foresees that he must be removed from the presidency during the trial (for up to 180 days) – with little chance of regaining the post, according to analysts.  In this scenario, his most likely successor would be Rodrigo Maia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a member of a small right-wing party that supported the military dictatorship.  He has little experience in electoral terms; many attribute his victories in legislative elections to the reputation of his father, a former mayor of Rio de Janeiro.  His attempt to run for the executive branch in Rio de Janeiro, a more difficult kind of election than for the Congress, proved to be a huge failure.  He is signaling that he would keep Temer’s conservative economic team and continue an agenda that cuts workers’ rights – proposals that are music to the market’s ears but likely to further rile opponents.

  • An alternative pushed by social movements – a constitutional amendment calling for direct elections right now – would seem to offer a chance for Brazil to break its downward spiral. Protesters show little sign, however, of breaking the roadblocks that the mainstream press has created against the proposal.  The popular mobilizations involve thousands of people but are having little resonance on television, in newspapers, and on websites.  The government, press, and market do not wish to delegate to citizens the right to choose their president, at least not now.

By default, general elections scheduled for October 2018 still appear to be the country’s best hope for putting democracy on track again.  The chance that the elections will end the crisis will be undermined, however, if former President Lula da Silva is barred from running.  Convicted of corruption in a process that many observers claim lacked evidence, the matter is now in the court’s hands.  If the conviction is confirmed, the legitimacy of the elections will be in jeopardy.  Brazil’s political institutions will be further weakened as confidence in election results will plummet –more than in a healthy democracy – and the democratic game itself, as expression of popular rights and will, will be threatened.  There is no hope of improvement in the short term.  The impeachment without a crime of former President Dilma Rousseff continues to take its toll.

July 31, 2017

* Fábio Kerche is a Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.