The Politics of the Refugee Crisis in Latin America

By Luciano Melo*

Syrian refugees Uruguay

Syrian refugees arriving in Uruguay. Photo Credit: International Organization for Migration / Flickr / Creative Commons

Several Latin American governments have pledged to accept Syrian refugees – part of one of the largest refugee movements in history – but support for robust resettlement programs appears likely to fall short.  According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 6 million Syrians have been displaced within their country and 4 million more have fled abroad, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  One million have entered Europe, putting a heavy burden on the EU, and the United States has agreed to settle 10 thousand (although the refusal by 31 U.S. governors to accept them raises questions about follow-up).  Public support for receiving migrants dropped in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November, but France has announced that it will admit 30,000 new refugees in the next two years, a measure that President Hollande characterized as the country’s “humanitarian duty.”

Several Latin American governments also have agreed to absorb refugees.

  • Brazil, with ties to Syrian immigrants since the 19th century and one of the largest communities outside Syria, has promised to accept 20,000 refugees from the current conflict. More than 8,000 have already settled in Brazil.
  • Venezuela also set a goal with the UNHCR of receiving 20,000 Syrians, but President Nicolás Maduro’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “the only leader with authority in Syria” suggests low enthusiasm for implementation.
  • Chile and Argentina have had modest programs to settle Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Chilean President Bachelet has agreed to settle 100 Syrian families, whereas Argentina’s “Syria Program” agreed to offer permanent residence to 300 Syrians after three years.
  • Uruguay, which resettled Syrian families from Jordanian camps in 2004, recently suffered a setback when refugees in September protested in front of a government building complaining about the cost of living and lack of jobs. Observers estimate that almost 100 Syrians will actually leave the country.

The cost of settling families and individual refugees can be high, and each country will face challenges in meeting their commitments.  Brazil is in a deep crisis – with negative GDP growth expected next year, impeachment processes initiating against President Dilma, and gigantic corruption scandals rocking the political system.  The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with skyrocketing inflation, and the country appears to be in permanent political crisis.  Chile has experienced an economic slowdown since the price of copper fell, and Argentina has been trying to recover from recession and double-digit inflation rates in the first months of the newly elected President Macri.  Even Uruguay expects lower growth – down to 2 percent from the previously estimated 2.5 percent – and a fiscal deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP.  The good news is that accepting refugees does not necessarily affect the economy negatively.  Turkey and Lebanon, which have resettled 2.2 million and 1.8 million since the war started, are expected to have 4 percent and 3 percent growth in the coming year, confirming that the issue is mostly political rather than economic.  In Latin America, in contrast with the U.S., the crisis has not been used by leaders to polarize public opinion.  In fact, the topic is barely on the radar of common citizens, and the media rarely cover it.  The Syrian war and ISIS terrorism are remote concerns, and more pressing local matters – recessions, corruption scandals, and impeachments – take precedence.

January 4, 2016

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Argentina: Who killed Alberto Nisman?

By Fulton Armstrong

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo.  Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress.  Three main scenarios have emerged.

Scenario A:  Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing.  He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him.  Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.

Scenario B:  Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government.  Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known.  In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case.  (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.)  Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.

Scenario C:  In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine.  Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding.  Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE.  Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.

However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any.  CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret.  The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives.  Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects.  But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.

February 9, 2015

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

Egypt Policy – Latin America Style

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

We who follow U.S. policy in Latin America shouldn’t be surprised to see Washington’s policy toward Egypt drift from support for democracy to support for the status quo ante.  President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to Muslims – calling for an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” – came just six weeks after he told the Summit of the Americas that he wanted “an equal partnership” with the hemisphere and sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”  When 30-year President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, the Administration eagerly linked Egypt to the “Arab Spring” and, despite concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, tried to make the relationship with Mohamad Morsi work.  Over time, however, Morsi – successor to an undemocratic regime in an undemocratic country with no democratic traditions and no democratic institutions – was accused of being undemocratic.  The estrangement grew so deep that the Obama Administration still cannot bring itself to call the July 3 coup against Morsi a coup, and Secretary of State Kerry saw fit to refer to the military takeover as “restoring democracy” even as the Army was firing on unarmed crowds.

To Latin America watchers, this chronology is reminiscent of U.S. policy in our own hemisphere.  The case of Honduran President Mel Zelaya is clearest.  The Honduran military removed Zelaya– in his pajamas – from his home and country in June 2009 for proposing a referendum that, the putschists claimed, violated the Honduran constitution.  The Obama Administration’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Arturo Valenzuela, testified that the action was, in his opinion, a coup, but the State Department never categorized it as such and, despite rhetoric committing to restore Zelaya, the Administration let the interim regime consolidate power.  Amidst a state of emergency, media closures, and other irregularities, the State Department also gave its blessing to elections held several months later.  Zelaya’s rhetoric before the coup was caustic, and he squandered political capital in needless confrontations, but he never threatened Honduran “democracy” or violated human rights as the interim regime did.  Nor did he preside over a steady deterioration of security, civil rights, and the economy as the current government has.  Yet, ironically, the Obama Administration has never set the history of the coup straight – just as the Bush Administration never rectified its disastrous support for the 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela.

The excesses of some leaders, like Zelaya and Chávez, make supporting or turning a blind eye to a coup very tempting.  But Washington has also shelved its moral outrage when much less provocative presidents – democratically elected but progressive-leaning – have been removed from power, if not with a gun at their head.  The “constitutional coup” against President Lugo in Paraguay last year is the most recent example.  The gap between U.S. rhetoric about democracy, rule of law, and due process on the one hand and its tangible actions on the other has a number of causes. 

  • American “exceptionalism” – the sense that U.S. success gives it a right to judge others and intervene even when national interests are not at stake – sometimes leads Washington to over-extend and make rash decisions.
  • Eagerness to act quickly – to appear decisive – often makes policymakers confuse the symptoms of problems, which seem amenable to quick solutions, and the essence of the problems themselves.  Policies address the short-term while neglecting the strategic.
  • Washington lobbies – the pro-Israel lobby in the case of any matter in the Middle East and the Cuban-American lobby in Latin America – are able to dominate U.S. perceptions of events, pushing administrations into a corner. 
  • Administrations embarrass themselves when they throw around words like “Arab Spring” and “democracy.”  When the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they act betrayed rather than admit they got carried away by wishful thinking. 
  • Double-standards –the expectation that progressives succeeding authoritarians will be perfectly democratic and flawlessly inclusive – make it difficult for Washington to avoid prematurely throwing a potential ally overboard. 
  • Another factor, and potentially the most important, is that the U.S. government builds deeper relationships with elites and the security services that do their bidding than with any other forces.  During the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” the U.S. Government entrusted Egypt with extremely sensitive operations, including the interrogation (and alleged torture) of suspected terrorists, and Washington relies on Latin American security services to prosecute the “war on drugs.” 

When U.S. interagency committees discuss how to respond to crises, the departments and agencies with the deepest ties in the country under discussion claim more influence over events there than anyone else – and win most policy debates.  The problem is that their ties are mostly to political and economic elites – or the military and intelligence services that back them – which are rarely agents of change.  Washington winds up allied with forces that suppress the new voices essential for the “springs” and “democracies” that it says it wants.

 

 

Arms, Allies, and Ahmadinejad: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Robert A. Pastor and Tom Long

Photo by: Bruce Tuten | Creative Commons | Flickr

On its 50th anniversary, the Cuban missile crisis continues to attract attention as a landmark event in U.S. foreign policy.  Unfortunately, the lessons that are often drawn from the crisis are the wrong ones – and they are predicated on a version of the history that is built on more fabrications than facts.  The lesson most often drawn from the crisis is that President John F. Kennedy’s firmness and resolve compelled Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev  to withdraw the missiles.  As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it:  “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”  Unlike Chamberlain at Munich, Kennedy confronted Khrushchev and prevailed.

However, the more complete story that we now know – forcefully buttressed by a host of excellent books released to commemorate this anniversary – is very different, and one of the reasons is that we have learned much more about the complicated role of Cuban President Fidel Castro, who initially opposed the Soviet proposal to place Missiles in Cuba, but then felt betrayed when Khruschev decided to withdraw them without consulting.  We also learned that the nuclear warheads and a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons were already stationed in Cuba when the missiles were detected.  If Khrushchev had not withdrawn the missiles, and the U.S. had invaded, which it was about to do, these weapons would have been used, triggering a nuclear holocaust.   More recently, we learned that Castro tried to convince the Soviets to leave the tactical missiles, which the U.S. did not know about, after the denouement of the crisis, but fortunately, Khruschev rejected that proposal.

We cannot be absolutely certain as to why Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, but all the available evidence suggests several factors.   First, Robert F. Kennedy had conveyed a complex proposal to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin:  the U.S. would  not  invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew the missiles.  More important, he said that the U.S. would withdraw its missiles from Turkey but only on condition that this information would not be made public.  Because of this deal, Kennedy was able to “spin” the event so that it looked like we won without giving up anything.  Robert Kennedy also said that he feared that the U.S. military might take matters into its own hands if the crises were not resolved soon.  At the same time, Fidel Castro sent a long message to Khrushchev, saying he expected an imminent invasion by the U.S. and recommending that the Soviet Union launch a first strike against the United States.  Coupled with the shoot-down of a U-2 over the island and a straying of another U-2  in Soviet Asia, these various factors led the Soviet leader to fear that both he and Kennedy were losing control of events, and thus, an immediate resolution of the crisis was essential.   That is why he transmitted his decision on radio.

Today’s great U.S. foreign policy fear is that a nuclear Iran will destabilize the Middle East.  Once again, the drama plays out in the middle of a U.S. electoral campaign, as did the Cuban crisis.  Once again, there are calls for threats and “red lines.”  An honest look at the events of 1962 yields useful lessons for today.  First, we should expect our leaders to have the courage to negotiate with adversaries to avoid conflict – and to stand up to domestic voices, including generals and advisors, pressing for war.  The second, more challenging lesson requires a U.S. president to step inside Nikita Khrushchev’s shoes.  The Soviet premier was able to stand up to an ally to avoid being dragged into a war with nuclear ramifications.  If Israel insists on a pre-emptive attack on Iran, will a U.S. president have the courage to restrain his ally, as Khrushchev had in restraining Fidel Castro?

Robert A. Pastor is a professor of International Relations at American University’s School of International Service and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Latin American and Latinos Studies. He has served as National Security Advisor for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter, and he was a Senior Fellow and director of programs on democracy, Latin America, and China at the Carter Center. Most recently, he is the author of The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future.

Tom Long is a doctoral research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Brazil: A Permanent Seat Litmus Test?

Minister Patriota and Secretary Clinton Photo by: Ministério das Relações Exteriores via http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrebrasil/6162800484/

The U.S. State Department is expressing increasing frustration with Brazil for staying on the sidelines of debate on Syria.  Mike Hammer, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, said recently that “a country of Brazil’s stature can have influence, and we want them to be part of this effort – pressing Assad and his military to put an end to this horrible campaign.”  Other critics have linked Brazil’s reluctance to press other countries in South America to condemn the al-Assad government – notably Venezuela, which supports it – with its quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council.  (Brazil kept Syria off at least the public agenda during a recent meeting with Venezuela.)  Jorge Castañeda, former foreign minister of regional rival Mexico, said Brazil is “not ready for prime time.”

Brazil supports the peace plan laid out by Kofi Annan, and has said it would back sanctions or an arms embargo if it were part of that plan.  Brazil also proposed further international delegations to investigate Syrian atrocities, though previous visits have failed.  Itamaraty stresses the risks of confronting the massive Syrian army, and it continues to demand that the Security Council be the sole forum for international action.  Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota announced opposition to sanctions imposed without U.N. authorization.

Brasilia’s position is in keeping with its traditional skepticism about international intervention and the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”  The notion of using Syria as a litmus test for Brazilian readiness to join the Security Council seems premature as no serious initiatives are before the UNSC and the Annan plan, which Brazil supports, is in play.  If anything, Brazil has demonstrated a commitment to keeping the UNSC at the center of the international diplomacy.  State Department pressure on Brazil to expend political capital to rein in the ALBA countries on a distant issue like Syria is unlikely to bear fruit until clearer international diplomatic strategies emerge.