Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

President Obama’s Visit to Buenos Aires: An Important Gesture

By Katherine Hite*

Parque de la memoria Argentina

Parque de la Memoria, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jennifer Yin / Flickr / Creative Commons

While most eyes are on U.S. President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the timing and agenda of his follow-on travel to Argentina – while controversial – also is a significant opportunity for the United States to burnish its image in Latin America.  Obama arrives in Buenos Aires on the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup d’etat, marking a brutal period of systematic human rights violations in which the United States lent tacit support.  In an important attempt to ameliorate the controversy over his timing, Obama will be delivering a cache of declassified documents on both what the U.S. knew regarding the 1976-1983 repression and on the green light that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the dictatorship’s dirty war against political opponents during the final year of the Ford presidency.  In addition, the President will visit the Parque de la Memoria, site of a memorial to the thousands of victims of the military regime.  He’d expressed interest in a visit to the ex-Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), notorious former clandestine detention site where an estimated 5,000 Argentines were imprisoned, 90 percent of whom were murdered, but political sensitivities in Buenos Aires precluded it.

Argentina has pioneered efforts to come to terms with the past, from prosecuting and jailing former military officers guilty of violations, to “recuperating” former clandestine detention centers, where citizens were tortured, executed, and made to “disappear.”  Human rights activists have converted several of these former centers, such as the ex-ESMA, into spaces to remember and to educate the public with a message of accountability and of “never again.”  Some memory sites also seek to connect human rights violations of the past to ongoing violations, including police brutality and the abuse of the incarcerated, as well as to present-day struggles for social justice.  Argentine school children learn about their past and study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an important moment for the U.S. president publicly to recognize the U.S. historic role in Argentina’s tragic past – and for Argentines to show Washington, itself accused of torture and clandestine detention in recent years within its “War on Terror,” that such abuses can never be tolerated and that perpetrators must be brought to justice for a democracy to be healthy and stable.  Countries throughout the region, including Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have similarly created memorials and museums of memory.  Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights gets over 10,000 visitors a month.  It houses a large permanent display documenting the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and like the ex-ESMA, opens its spaces to human rights organizations, artists, theater groups, and others for workshops, plays, movie series, and more.  In El Salvador, the Museum of the Word and the Image sponsors an exhibit on the roots of the country’s civil war as well as memories of the suffering and resistance.  It has also sponsored exhibits on Salvadoran migration to the United States during the war and connects past to current violence, both within El Salvador and in close relation to the United States.  Together these efforts invite acknowledgment, reflection, and dialogue.  President Obama’s activities in Argentina, like President Clinton’s apology in Guatemala for the U.S. role in past violations in that country, are an important gesture that, within a broader U.S. commitment, could help facilitate a less tarnished image for Washington in Latin America along with his historic shift in policy toward Cuba.

March 21, 2016

* Katherine Hite is professor of political science at Vassar, with special interest in Latin American politics, social movements, and the legacies of violence for governments and societies throughout the Americas.

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Haiti: Plus ça change …

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: a-birdie and Free Grunge Textures / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: a-birdie and Free Grunge Textures / Flickr / CC BY

Haiti buried Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier last week, but his and his father’s ghosts continue to haunt Haitian politics and keep institutions so weak that, after two decades of operations, the United Nations decided to renew its mandate there yet again this week.  Duvalier didn’t get the state funeral his family and closest supporters wanted, but his sendoff was dignified enough to demonstrate that political elites have forgiven his excesses – including thousands of extrajudicial killings and unbridled corruption – or were at least nostalgic for his version of “law and order.”  President Martelly tweeted that Duvalier was “an authentic son of Haiti” and sent his personal friend and counternarcotics chief, Gregory Mayard-Paul, to the service.  While a small group of protestors outside the church demanded justice for the dictator’s abuses, several hundred of Haiti’s economic and political elite applauded the eulogies for Baby Doc, who was forced into exile in 1986 and returned in 2011.  Duvalier outlived by three months the first president to be elected after his removal, Leslie Manigat, who himself was overthrown in a bloodless coup after serving less than six months in office (1988).  The next democratically elected successor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted in two coups (1991 and 2004) and last month was put under house arrest for alleged corruption.

Institutional weaknesses dating back to the Duvaliers’ rule and before continue to stymie progress in Haiti.  Because the government is unable to provide even basic police services for  the people, this week the United Nations Security Council again – for 20 years in a row – authorized an extension of a mission to provide either peacekeeping or “stabilization” support.  The vote was unanimous and, according to the UN’s own press report, the MINUSTAH mission would continue “for another year, until 15 October 2015, with the intention of further renewal.”  Like past resolutions, this week’s called on Haitian political leaders “to work cooperatively and without further delays to ensure the urgent holding of free, fair, inclusive, and transparent [elections]” at the legislative, partial senatorial, municipal, and local levels.  Senate elections are three years overdue, perpetuating the sort of political crises that have long plagued the country.  Officials’ reassurances to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and others last week that elections will be held this month lack credibility in the absence of an electoral law and the complex preparations necessary for voting.

It would be inaccurate and unfair to say that Haiti has made no progress since Jean-Claude’s ouster almost 30 years ago.  The vicious and corrupt Haitian military has been disbanded, and – although the Tonton Macoutes that the Duvaliers deployed to force the population into submission were never brought to justice – vigilantes no longer roam the streets terrorizing entire neighborhoods.  Haitian elections have been messy but, in many observers’ estimation, clean enough to give Presidents and legislators a good bit of legitimacy.  But the tragedy of Haiti that keeps repeating itself is one of unfulfilled aspiration.  Individual Haitians are deeply committed to education – sacrificing huge portions of family income to keep children in school – and, when jobs are available, work as hard as anyone in the hemisphere.  Despite billions in aid, the country’s institutions are too weak, and the elites’ interest in keeping them that way is too strong, to move the country faster.  The politically and economically powerful who prospered under Duvalier surely hope that any responsibility they had for his excesses was buried with him, and if Haitian history is any guide, they’ll get away with it – while the UN and international community keep internal Haitian tensions in check and help provide basic services.

October 16, 2014

Venezuela: Racing to the Bottom

By CLALS Staff

VenezuelaThe casualty figures from last Wednesday’s confrontation between government and opposition groups in the streets of Caracas – three dead, several dozen injured and many thousands angry – are clearer than the solutions to Venezuela’s current crisis.  The airwaves immediately flooded with the usual accusations of who provoked whom.  The protest leaders – who have shoved aside the opposition’s more moderate standard-bearer, Henrique Capriles – blamed toughs within the pro-government “colectivos.”  President Maduro blamed “small fascist groups” for the violence.  He has accused protest leader Leopoldo López of trying to orchestrate a coup, and a court is charging him with murder and “terrorism.”  López denies the coup-plotting, but he does state forcefully that, under the campaign slogan of “La Salida,” he wants to put millions in the streets to force Maduro to step down.  Failing that, he’s building a base from which to launch a referendum to remove Maduro when the Constitution allows in 2016.

As always, both sides in the dispute claim to have the support of “el pueblo” and to seek only to promote the people’s interests.  The people did speak, albeit by a small margin, in favor of Maduro in last April’s presidential election, but the opposition – especially the boisterous faction that’s orchestrating the current protests – has never officially acknowledged his legitimacy as president.  Maduro’s ad hoc reactions to Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation, including policies that he boasts are going to make the “bourgeoisie squeal,” appear desperate and counterproductive.  Confusing audacity for leadership, Maduro has signaled that if López and his followers want to take to the streets, he’s ready to accept the challenge.

Venezuelan politics has long been characterized by a vicious cycle in which each side strives to provoke the other into making mistakes that injure itself – and each side can’t resist rising to the provocation, fueling a downward spiral.  Maduro and the opposition hotheads have found soul mates in one another – feeding on each other’s extremism – and it’s happening just as Capriles and other opposition moderates were making progress in a decade-long effort to redefine political dynamics in the country.  Maduro’s tough talk and López’s battle calls for massive protests, for salida, and for recall referendums are reminiscent of 2002‑04, when Chávez grew steadily stronger as he survived a coup, a national strike, mysterious bombings and other clandestine operations by foes, a recall referendum and more.  For a young (42 years old) Harvard-educated man from the wealthy end of town to think that he can best Maduro in the streets shows the sort of questionable judgment that gives a little credibility to government allegations that his provocations are part of a bigger, externally directed plan.  The U.S. State Department spokesman insisted on Thursday that it “is absolutely not true” that Washington is interested in “influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela.”  Whatever the merit of the allegations and denials,  Venezuelan elites on both sides of the deep divide seem ill-prepared to find a better way of doing politics.

Honduran Election Crisis Marks New Phase in Country’s Agony

By CLALS Staff

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Juan Orlando Hernández Photo credit: Tercera Informacion / wikimedia commons / and Xiomara Castro / Photo credit: hablaguate / Flickr / Creative Commons

Yesterday’s election in Honduras was peaceful and orderly – the 61 percent voter turnout forced polls to remain open an extra hour – but anomalies in the vote count have cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of the results. Although most polls for months indicated that Libre candidate Xiomara Castro had a several-point lead over National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández (and a few polls showed they were in a dead heat), the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said the Nationalist beat Castro by more than a five percentage point  margin – 34.2 percent to 28.6 percent. Castro and other candidates had repeatedly claimed the National Party activist who heads the TSE (which has no representative from the nontraditional parties or Libre) would skew the results and, citing exit polls, she has alleged that fraud tainted up to 20 percent of yesterday’s votes. The TSE’s claim that, of more than 1.6 million ballots cast, there were no null or blank votes – when party poll watchers reported many – has also drawn attacks on its credibility. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ambassador and the European Union observer team hastily declared the process transparent and clean.

Hernández and Castro have both declared victory – promising high tensions in at least the short term. Castro is the wife of former President Mel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup in 2009, and has assembled a broad and deep popular base in Libre outside of Honduras’s two traditional parties. The government, military, economy and, importantly, news media are all dominated by elites that have long resisted the sort of popular movement she has built.  Few observers believe that, particularly with U.S. endorsement of the election results, Castro’s demands for a recount or other review of the results will be heeded.

If the results had been seen as accurate and fair, the election could have helped Honduras close the dark chapter of tensions and violence that started when the military forced President Zelaya into exile three and a half years ago. If Hernández is allowed to take office, his low vote – barely a third of all votes cast – alone promises a prolonged crisis like that which has plagued current President Lobo since his inauguration, a period during which both criminal and political violence has skyrocketed, public finances have deteriorated alarmingly, and political polarization has reached unprecedented heights. Under a Hernández presidency, the crisis may become even worse. Castro ran a campaign explicitly committed to peace and reconciliation and consistently urged her supporters to give democratic process a chance. She has never shown even the slightest inclination to call her supporters to violence, but popular anger has festered since the 2009 coup and there’s no guarantee that some frustration will not spill into the streets.  The surge in right-wing violence in Honduras since the coup – reminiscent of death squad activities in other Central American countries in the 1980s – has persuaded many protesters to keep their heads down, but this election may lead to desperate acts which the death squads will be eager to respond to, threatening a spiral of violence the hemisphere’s second-poorest country can ill-afford.

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.

September 11 Coup in Chile: Global Ramifications

By Eric Hershberg

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

In Washington last week many events recalled the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity government of Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in a dictatorship that, even by South American standards of the time, stood out for its brutality.  Discussion about “the other September 11” highlighted the human cost of the coup, the role of U.S. government agencies in undermining Chilean democracy and encouraging the military’s actions, and the memories of the coup and dictatorship that remain deeply embedded in Chile today.  These and similar gatherings around the world and in Chile featured demands for the full truth about the dictatorship’s crimes – the fate of some thousand of the disappeared remains unknown today, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Diego Portales University – and to hold those who committed them fully accountable.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet destroyed Latin America’s longest standing democratic regime and ended a unique experiment testing the proposition that electoral democracy could catalyze a transition to socialism.  In Chile, the coup initiated 17 years of military rule grounded in state-sponsored violence, but it also resonated far beyond that country’s borders, marking a watershed in global affairs.  To this day how people around the world conceive fundamental issues of political change, economic development and human rights is affected by September 11, 1973.  These broader legacies were the focus of a panel discussion at American University, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Washington College of Law, this week.  (Click here for details.)

We can now see three large sets of consequences that the Chilean coup had far beyond its borders. 

Political:  Across Southern Europe, it reverberated powerfully, undermining the confidence of sectors of the Left that believed fervently a socialist transition could be effected through victory at the ballot box.  After the coup, Eurocommunists in Italy and Spain came to believe that victory would require an alliance with Christian Democrats or other centrists, lest a coup coalition akin to that in Chile bring down democracy altogether. For much of the Latin American left, the Chilean experience would over time prove a wake-up call, alerting those aspiring to turn the world upside down that democracy was not a mere bourgeois luxury and suggesting that “second-best” options – more gradual change –were preferable to maximalist goals that would likely jeopardize democracy.

Economic: The coup paved the way for “neoliberal” policies that would shake the foundations of conventional thinking about development for nearly three decades.  They were prescribed across Latin America.  It would not be until the emergence of ALBA in the mid-2000’s that the region would again witness a faith (however misguided), in the capacity of import-substitution and inward-oriented redistribution to achieve lasting economic advance in the region. 

U.S. policy:  Finally, the coup set in train levels of violence and human rights abuses so abhorrent that they drove major changes in U.S. human rights policy and international jurisprudence.  In the United States, advocacy organizations, progressive majorities in Congress, and the Carter Administration introduced unprecedented legislation aimed at preserving democracy and curbing human rights abuses.  Well beyond Washington, numerous international regimes put in place to combat impunity were motivated and influenced by what had taken place in Chile and the imperative of ensuring that it not happen again.  

Just as the cataclysmic event that took place in the U.S. on 9/11/01 opened the door to extreme and ongoing changes felt around the world, so too did the Chilean tragedy that began on 9/11/73.

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.

 

 

Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.