Who Will Attend the OAS Presidential Summit in Panama?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

OAE-OAS & tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Summit of the Americas isn’t until next April, but interest in how Panama as host handles near-unanimous pressure from Latin America to invite Cuban President Raúl Castro, and how the United States and Cuba will respond, is growing fast.  Speaking to reporters at the United Nations last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson answered several questions on the U.S. position.  Key excerpts follow:

  • Asked “if the United States is still opposed to Cuba attending.”  On the Summit of the Americas, I think we’ve been pretty clear in our position on the summit, which is that obviously Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit.  …  And the fact of the matter is we have said from the start that we look forward to a summit that can include a democratic Cuba at the table.  We also have said that the summit process, ever since Quebec in 2001, has made a commitment to democracy, and we think that’s an important part of the summit process.  But the decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries. And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made. …
  • Asked “is there a chance that the U.S. might refuse going.”  Again, I think you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we’re really not going to answer hypotheticals in the future yet.  Obviously, the Summit of the Americas is in April and that’s not a situation that we can answer, although I think we have made clear that we believe the summit process is committed to democratic governance and we think that the governments that are sitting at that table ought to be committed to the summit principles, which include democratic governance. And therefore that’s our position at this point.  Obviously, we have a position on Cuba which does not at this point see them as upholding those principles.

Panama’s likely invitation to Cuba – reflecting the consensus of 32 hemispheric nations at the last Summit – will draw protests from official quarters in Washington.  But it’s far from certain that the Obama Administration would risk blame for torpedoing the 20-year Summit process.  Obama survived a handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral last December, and being in the same room with him again as a President in the second half of his second term will have little political consequence.  A workshop in Mexico City in June, in which CLALS researchers participated, and another in Ottawa in September, sponsored by the Center and the University of Ottawa, explored likely outcomes.  Mexican international relations specialists speculated that a reasonable outcome was for the United States to show up like a polite guest, and thus avoid having the anachronism of U.S. antagonism toward Cuba overshadow its broader relations with Latin America.  Canadian experts were deeply concerned that Cuba’s inclusion might undermine the centrality to the OAS of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but they agreed that failure to convene a Summit would constitute a serious blow to the OAS and to the regular summits that provide Canada a seat at the inter-governmental table.

The reality is that Cuba does not conform to the Democratic Charter or to the broader OAS criteria of democratic rule, but equally real is that Latin America sees Cuba as a full member of the hemisphere and has lost all patience with those in Washington who would deny that.  Either Washington — and Ottawa — set aside their objections to Cuba’s inclusion or they bid farewell to such fora and their constructive impact on regional relationships that ought to matter to them.  Moreover, if they acquiesce to Cuban participation but then try to commandeer the agenda and make the Summit a seminar on democracy and human rights, it will only reinforce the widespread sense in the region that Washington cannot move beyond its obsession with the trivial matter of Cuba and get on with a serious conversation among equal partners.  They would thus sacrifice an opportunity to discuss issues on which significant, substantive advances are possible through dialogue among leaders of countries throughout the hemisphere.  The value of the Summit rests with the capacity of all involved to act like grownups.  President Obama did so at Mandela’s funeral, and it will be telling whether he can do it again in Panama this coming April.

October 2, 2014

Haiti: Not Back, Not Better

Photo by: Gonmi | Flickr | Creative Commons License

Photo by: Gonmi | Flickr | Creative Commons License

The third anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti has passed with no sign of either serious reconstruction or progress toward improving democratic institutions.About three-quarters of the earthquake rubble has been removed, and several hundred thousand individuals have been moved to temporary shelters and some back into permanent housing. A light-industrial park in northern Haiti is providing jobs to some 1,300 workers. The U.S. Government alone has committed over $3.6 billion toward relief, recovery, and reconstruction, of which $2.5 billion has been disbursed as of September 30, 2012. Despite these billions, the infrastructure remains a shambles; the economy is weak; unemployment is around 40 percent; and the World Food Program estimates that 6.7 million people (out of a population of 10 million) are “food insecure.”

Progress in political affairs has also been slow, and incumbent leaders remain reluctant to commit to elections. The head of MINUSTAH, Chilean diplomat Mariano Fernández, last week reiterated calls for the Haitian government to hold legislative and local elections that were supposed to have been held a year ago. He said an agreement reached last month by President Michel Martelly and members of parliament to form a semi-permanent electoral council to stage elections for one-third of the 30-seat senate and local mayors was “an important first step.” The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner, also tried to emphasize the positive during a recent visit to Port-au-Prince, but noted “there is a lack of faith in the system, the sense that the rule of law is not respected, that institutions like the judiciary and the police and the prisons and the prosecutors are not doing the job adequately, and that the government isn’t living up to expectations.”

The Obama Administration’s pledge to “build back better” may have been slightly bold from the start, but one of the objectives – to use the crisis to drive some reforms in both the Haitian government and how international programs are implemented – was indeed within reach. The business-as-usual approach since the earthquake has led to the loss of a historic opportunity to move the country forward. While the Haitian political class continues to focus on its internecine struggles, the international community has funneled its vast funds to its own NGOs, most of which operate outside a master strategy and far from the political and bureaucratic authorities nominally in charge of overseeing and coordinating their programs. Real progress is unlikely until both local and outside players develop a shared vision for the future – hopefully before another natural disaster pushes the reset button again.

Central American Elites Are Evolving But Cling to Power

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

The sources of Central American elites’ wealth are evolving, as are their fundamental interests and the ways they wield political power.  Land‑intensive production – the focus of decades of insightful scholarship – continues to prevail in Guatemala and Honduras, but the economically powerful now maintain their position through a growing array of service-sector activities and by capturing rents from public coffers.  Changes in their economic foundations are but one of several transformative processes that swept the region beginning during the 1980s, making the past three decades a period of fundamental rupture with the past.

  • Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua during the 1980s transformed the economies in all three countries and had spillover effects in Costa Rica and Honduras.  Most striking is the case of El Salvador, where elites abandoned the countryside upon which they had depended from time immemorial, never to return.
  • Structural adjustment programs, implemented throughout the region during the 1990s, changed the role of the state in Central American economies and thus the ways in which the public sector intersected with the elites’ wealth-accumulation strategies.  Hasty and corruption-ridden privatizations, in particular of energy and telecommunications and of an array of public services, created a reformist façade but gave private-sector groups a piñata that helped to ensure uninterrupted enrichment.
  • During that same decade, transitions to electoral democracy contributed to elite reliance – albeit with some important exceptions – on political parties, campaign strategies and legislative lobbying to protect their interests.  Ties to military and death squad enforcers are no longer the principal vehicles for the enforcement of elite imperatives, though Honduras today is increasingly reminiscent of the worst times in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Central America’s elites have yet to offer the region a vision of reform that will enable the isthmus to overcome misery, exploitation and predatory rule.  While dominant groups have embarked on aggressive state-building strategies, experts question whether these are producing the virtuous dynamics that advance the general welfare of the population and ensure effective governance. 

Scholars from across Central America have reached these conclusions through research and seminars under a multi-year AU program on Central American elites and power.  To foster better understanding of the shifting landscape in the region, and thus to illuminate plausible paths toward more equitable distribution of power and resources, the Ford Foundation is supporting this effort, undertaken in partnership with more than two dozen researchers from institutions throughout the isthmus and the United States.  The project was the focus of a recent workshop at FLACSO Costa Rica, and several publications will result over the course of 2013 and 2014.  Click here for more information.

Political Participation in Latin America Expanding

participatory democracy coverFrom local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries.  Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute.  Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites.  These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule.  Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole.  We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela).  A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.

New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network.  More information on the project can be found here .  (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)

Honduras: What is U.S. policy?

The sustained surge in crime and violence in Honduras – including more than 60 politically motivated murders in the past year – is raising doubts about the viability of the government and its institutions.  The term “failed state” is often abused, but there’s no doubt that Honduras falls short of the rhetoric about its stability and democracy that the Obama Administration recited when arguing for the country’s readmission to the OAS after the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya.  Indeed, the coup set the country on a downward spiral from being a weak democracy to one struggling for basic credibility.  The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate – 91.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

Undersecretary of State María Otero has spent time and energy trying to establish a policy toward Honduras.  During a visit to Tegucigalpa last month, she signed an agreement with Foreign Minister Corrales that “sets the stage for results-oriented action towards our shared objective of a safe Honduras that respects the rule of law and human rights,” and she announced that the United States would provide an additional $1.8 million in aid to help counter gang activity in Honduras.  Despite her efforts, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa have failed to go beyond ready-made programs and put in place a framework for a comprehensive policy.  Programs are not policy.  The Administration appears reluctant to admit that its Honduras policy, which has failed, needs an overhaul.

Multimillion-dollar programs will not succeed until they take into account that the Honduran “partners” upon which they depend are themselves at the core of the problem.  Three years after the coup, the Obama Administration still fails to see that its allies in the struggle against transnational and local gangs, as well as its efforts to build judicial institutions, are the same people who mocked the rule of law, overthrew the previous president, and re-politicized the military and police to serve their own purposes.  (The reasons for Washington’s unwillingness to help fund a “Commission for Security Reform” approved by the Honduran Congress are unclear, but this may be a factor.)  There are strong suspicions in many sectors of Honduran society that members of the country’s political-economic elite are the sponsors of the sicarios (hired gunmen) who have killed dozens of citizens whose offense was to demand an end to government impunity.  Given the challenge that the growing popularity of the country’s new political party, LIBRE, poses to traditional powerbrokers, informed observers expect violence to increase in the run-up to elections next year.  Absent public explanation of U.S. policy, it is fair to ask why Washington hasn’t seen these patterns – obvious to Hondurans – and why it hasn’t offered sustained support from the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement to investigate the assassinations and trace them back to the power bosses.  It is also fair to ask Assistant Secretary of State Brownfield and others who espouse the militarized approach to dealing with organized crime how this strategy, which has failed elsewhere, will succeed in Honduras.  Why hasn’t the Obama Administration supported the sort of U.N.-sanctioned investigative capacity that has proven effective with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala?  Why has Washington not even pushed for meaningful implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released last year?  If Washington wants to make its rhetoric about Honduras into reality, it needs to do more than just to funnel funds into programs run by questionable partners.

ALBA’s Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Discussion of the U.S. election in  the countries roughly aligned under the banner of the “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina – generally reflects their own polarized domestic politics.  In Venezuela, comparisons between the two countries electoral campaigns were common.  Washington-based commentator Moisés Naím suggested that Romney could learn from Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles’s empathy and inclusiveness in order to unseat Obama.  Andrés Correa ripped President Obama, saying he needs to take Chávez more seriously and needs “an atlas and a compass so he can figure out where he is and come to understand that the United States has more connections with Latin America than with any other part of the world.”  In a column that appeared in several countries, Argentine Ricardo Trotti praised the civic spirit of the first U.S. Presidential debate, and took Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández to task for not engaging in debates.  “The fear of debating implies a fear of democracy,” he wrote.  In Nicaragua, former education minister Humberto Belli Pereira made a similar point in La Prensa, as did a commentator in Bolivia’s El Deber.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama as being naïve about the pernicious influence of the “failed ideology” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers attracted wide coverage throughout the region – with predictable reactions from each side.  In ALBA countries, opposition media evinced skepticism of Obama and appreciation for Romney’s promises to take a hard line against Chávez, and pro-government outlets portrayed the Republican as a loose cannon who trumpets Manifest Destiny and military options.  Chávez’s reference to Romney as “crazy” during the primaries set the tone for some media.  On Aporrea, a popular pro-Chávez online forum, one commentator said he preferred Clinton Eastwood’s empty chair to either Romney or Obama.  In Argentina, Martin Kanenguiser wrote in La Nación that his country could only “tie or lose” in the U.S. election, particularly in regard to the Argentine relationship with international financial institutions.  The 2011 elections in Argentina, followed by the U.S. 2012 contest, have contributed to a sour atmosphere for bilateral relations, noted Leandro Morgenfeld in Marcha.

That the U.S. election has become polarizing illustrates the challenges the new U.S. administration will face in 2013.  If Romney wins and follows through on his rhetoric, he might please hardliners in the U.S. and opposition groups in ALBA-aligned countries, but relations will become even more bitter.  If Obama is re-elected, those opposition groups will continue seeking support for their own agendas and pressure from Washington on ALBA governments. However, the dearth of high level attention would likely continue in a second Obama administration, leaving bilateral relationships to stagnate.  More likely, the real choice in U.S.-ALBA relations will be between empty rhetoric and deafening silence – while further exposing the limits of U.S. influence in the region.

Venezuelan Elections: Chávez Wins, but Confirms Country’s Divide

Henrique Capriles Radonski and Hugo Chávez | Venezuela’s Globovision | Flickr | Creative Commons license

Following a tense day of voting on Sunday, incumbent Hugo Chávez has won the Venezuelan presidential elections.  With 90 percent of the ballots counted, Chávez had approximately 7.4 million votes (about 54.4%) while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles won 6.15 million votes (44.9%).  The president won every state in Venezuela except Táchira and Mérida, and secured a majority of votes in Zulia State, traditionally a bastion of support for the opposition.  Turnout was nearly 81 percent, a very high figure, and thousands of Venezuelans cast their ballots at consulates and voting centers abroad.  As of yet, there have been no allegations of voter fraud or post-electoral violence and both candidates appear to have accepted the result.  A delegation from UNASUR “accompanied” the vote and has affirmed that the electoral process was legitimate.

Chávez will embark on his third consecutive presidential term in January 2013 and, health permitting, will remain in power until at least 2019.  The ruling PSUV has a sufficient majority in parliament to ensure that Chávez will be able to legislate comfortably.  However, should Chávez’s health prevent his completing the term, the PSUV lacks an obvious successor who could carry forward with the Bolivarian Revolution.  Regardless, the Chávez agenda faces huge challenges, particularly with an economy rife with distortions and a security situation spiraling out of control.

While Capriles and the opposition were defeated at the polls, his candidacy galvanized an opposition that is far better organized and more united than at any point since Chávez’s  rise to the Presidency 14 years ago.  The 6.15 million votes Capriles received was the greatest number ever for a losing candidate in a presidential Venezuelan election, and kept Chávez’s margin of victory within single-digits.  Clearly, a large segment of the population opposes further expansion of the Bolivarian Revolution.  It remains to be seen whether a united opposition can complicate Chávez’s efforts to move Venezuela further down the road to his brand of socialism.   

Ecuador’s Difficult Choice on Assange

Photo: Julian Assange by Ben Bryan (bbwbryant) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Many observers have portrayed President Rafael Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an act of defiance – a gratuitous slap at the United States – and, because of Correa’s mixed record of respect for a free press, as a sign of hypocrisy.  How can a President who has prosecuted newspapers for revealing damaging information about his government, according to Correa’s accusers, now stand up as the defender of Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. Government documents?

The lack of clarity on British and Swedish intentions made the decision difficult.  American officials have minced no words about their hopes to prosecute Assange, although none has stated what the charges would be.  Even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist.”  Former Republican presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for his execution.  (A former senior Canadian official said, “I think Assange should be assassinated.”)  The Swedish government, which seeks only to question Assange about allegations of sexual abuses (important offenses in Swedish law), has refused to conduct the interrogations in London or by video, or  to provide reassurances that he will not be extradited to the United States.  British officials at one point even threatened to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, a flagrant violation of well-established principles of international law.

Correa’s ancillary agendas notwithstanding, the asylum decision would have been difficult for almost any country.  There is no evidence that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States or that he would face the sort of abuse and torture that Bradley Manning – the alleged American source of the Wikileaks documents – has faced.  But the American silence on the charges Assange might face, the rhetoric tarring him as a terrorist and the lack of U.S. accountability for past abuses – the Obama Administration last week announced yet another decision to forego prosecution of U.S. officials involved in alleged torture – makes the absence of a pledge regarding extradition to the United States politically sensitive.  Ironically, the U.S., British and Swedish position risks thrusting them into the same ironic contradiction as Correa finds himself:  claiming to protect human rights, they may open the door to prosecution of a man who published leaked information – and who by any reasonable standard is an indiscriminate whistle blower but hardly an agent of espionage.  If their pursuit of Assange were to result in his exposure to U.S. prosecution related to the Wikileaks matter, these democracies would potentially risk being parties to a serious violation of fundamental principles of free expression.

Unanswered Questions about Cuban Dissident’s Activities and Death

Libertad y noviolencia para Cuba

Photo by dumplife (Mihai Romanciuc) via Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/62585343@N00/429146557/

Three weeks after the death of Cuban activist Osvaldo Payá, the questions that remain unanswered are not so much about the circumstances of the car accident that killed him – it appears to have been a tragic accident – but rather about the activities in which he and his European companions were engaged.  His family continues to claim that the vehicle was rammed off the road by state security agents.  According to Cuban authorities, the rental car veered off an unpaved stretch of road, and the driver, Angel Carromero, an activist from Spain’s conservative Partido Popular, has been charged with vehicular manslaughter.  At a Havana press conference, both Carromero and the other survivor, Jens Aron Modig of Sweden, confirmed the official version of the incident and asked the international community not to use the tragedy for political ends.  Since returning to Sweden, Modig, who admitted entering Cuba to deliver funds to Payá’s organization, has not disavowed the official account.  Nonetheless, the deluge of media coverage quick to frame the accident as a sinister government plot has not been corrected.

Though perhaps the most effective dissident to challenge the Cuban government, Payá was among the most tolerated.  His international celebrity – he won the EU Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 – his opposition to the U.S. embargo and Helms-Burton regime-change programs, and his commitment to peaceful change on the island made him an unlikely target for a political assassination.

The project that put Payá on the road to Santiago has many of the markings of the secret operations carried out under “democracy promotion” programs run by the U.S. State Department and USAID.  These programs are shrouded in such secrecy that not even the Congressional oversight committees are briefed on them, so ascertaining the truth of who was directing the Carromero-Modig mission and the information campaign accusing the Cuban government of murder after the accident is practically impossible.  But strong circumstantial evidence has emerged.  In video testimony, Modig revealed that he met in Tbilisi with two major USAID grantees involved in such operations – the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) – just before traveling to Cuba.  It is unclear whether Payá – known for eschewing foreign financial aid – was aware that Carromero and Modig’s primary objective on the trip was to hand out money to antigovernment activists.  It is conceivable that he chose not to know the details.  Regardless, his death represents a significant blow to Cuban activists seeking peaceful, democratic change without heavy foreign direction. 

Cuban National Assembly Takes Modest Steps on Reforms

Photo by Nathan Laurell via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/nglklm/7146331353

Speaking to the two-day semi-annual session, President Raúl Castro reiterated the leadership’s commitment to undertaking the reforms outlined in the Sixth Party Congress last year.  He didn’t explicitly address concerns reported in international media that implementation of the reforms has been halting, but he announced several concrete steps to be undertaken this year.  Among them is the creation of non-agricultural cooperatives – allowing a new form of private enterprise in 222 business areas and announcing government loans for them – and greater decision-making autonomy for state enterprises.  The Assembly passed a new tax law, details of which have not yet been published.

Castro was a little defensive about the lack of an “updating of migration policy” – widely understood to include lifting the requirement for exit visas – while “ratifying the will of the Party and State leadership to carry out the reformulation.”

From the beginning of the current round of reforms, Raúl Castro and the Communist Party have cautioned that the changes will be introduced gradually and adjusted during implementation.  The credible reports of frustration with the pace of change notwithstanding, the National Assembly appears to have validated that getting the reforms “right” is more important than doing them fast.  The government probably calculates that the new cooperatives and tax law are important elements of an infrastructure for change, but slow or partial implementation will undermine them.  The perennial question remains whether the government’s concern with control discourages important energy among the individuals it is counting on building the new limited private sector.