Maduro Cites Security to Suspend Rights on the Border

By Michael M. McCarthy*

Photo Credit: Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Maduro government’s closure of a key border crossing into Colombia and declaration of a state of emergency in nearby towns mark not only a low in relations with Colombia but also in efforts to manipulate the playing field ahead of legislative elections slated for December 6.  President Maduro blamed Colombian “paramilitaries” for an August 19 firefight in which three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded.  He announced the deployment in the area of the “Operations for the Liberation and Protection of the People” (OLP), which are heavily armed military and police units specially created to force out alleged paramilitaries, and security forces swept through the area forcibly deporting more than a thousand undocumented Colombians.  Last week, the pro-government coalition of the Venezuelan National Assembly called for expanding the emergency measures to two other important border states.  The two countries’ foreign ministers met on August 26 for what Colombian Minister Holguin called a “positive, frank and realistic” exchange, but there was no agreement to reopen the border.

Maduro’s objectives seem to go far beyond stemming border violence.  Two reputable polls put his popularity in the lower 20s and project the opposition as likely to win a Congressional majority in the December 6 legislative elections.  His Chavista political movement is bleeding supporters amid a mounting economic crisis. Skyrocketing inflation and acute shortages of basic goods and services have created daily hardships for the popular sectors that once served as Chavismo’s base.  The opposition coalition Mesa de Unidad Democrática called the state of emergency a diversionary tactic – “to cause a situation of intense conflict and internal confusion” – and claimed that the maneuvering shows Maduro fears the election and may suspend it.  The state of emergency in Táchira, which is a renewable in 60 days, restricts the right to public assembly and gives Maduro powers to seize assets and limit the sale of basic goods and services.  The value of the annual illegal border trade is estimated to have grown to roughly $5 billion.  The order may become a mechanism for intensifying government controls over industry, which Maduro regularly accuses of waging war against the government.

Maduro’s political objectives in declaring the state of exception are obvious to reset the political agenda in line with a government narrative of external threats.  This security rationale appears greatly exaggerated, suggesting he’s more interested in scapegoating Colombia for the sorry state of affairs in Táchira than in sparking a diversionary armed conflict.  He also recently escalated an historic border dispute on his eastern flank with Guyana after Exxon discovered oil in Guyanese territory claimed by Venezuela.  So far, Maduros actions have not seemed to threaten the soft truce between Washington and Caracas, which has led to a toning down of mutual recriminations.  Over the weekend, the U.S. State Department issued a mild statement that noted “continuing concern about the situation along the border between Venezuela and Colombia,” although Washington did take him to task for the deportations.  The real implications of the emergency decree are internal to Venezuela. Maduro’s state of emergency not only raises human rights concerns in the affected territories; it suggests the specter that the government will resort to increasingly desperate measures to maintain control as its credibility, like the economy, collapses.

August 31, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Snowden’s Revelations Rile Latin America

"Snowden Day in Brasilia, Brazil" Photo credit: midianinja / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

“Snowden Day in Brasilia, Brazil” Photo credit: midianinja / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Allegations by former U.S. intelligence officer Edward Snowden about U.S. operations in Latin America have stirred further recriminations toward Washington.  According to press reports, Snowden revealed that U.S. agencies monitored internet traffic, especially in Colombia (with a special focus on the FARC guerrillas), Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.  The National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly spied on military procurement and the oil industry in Venezuela, as well as the energy sector and political affairs in Mexico.  The Huffington Post reported that almost every Latin American country was targeted to one degree or other.

Regional reaction has been strong:

  • O Globo (Brazil) columnists, claiming that Brazil was the most spied upon country in Latin America, called the surveillance a genuine invasion of privacy that undermines both Brazilian authorities and citizens.  Former President Cardoso said, “If such activities existed, if they were done, as with all espionage, it was outside the law.”  The Senate has already “invited” Cabinet ministers to testify – and they have pledged to investigate.  (It also invited U.S. Ambassador Tom Shannon, but he is under no obligation to appear before the Brazilian Congress.)
  • El Espectador (Colombia) said the U.S. spying was an attack on Colombian sovereignty.  It quoted various senators as saying that “one does not spy on one’s friends and even less when they’ve been political allies in big decisions between states” and demanding that the government limit such activities.  Foreign Minister Holguín sent a delegation to Washington to seek explanations.
  • Mexican President Peña Nieto called the U.S. spying “totally unacceptable,” and the opposition PRD has accused the government of being “too soft” in its response to the alleged espionage.
  • The ALBA countries have been strident.  Venezuelan President Maduro has demanded “answers and explanations, [and] more than explanations, apologies.”  Ecuadoran President Correa said “we will put up with no more abuses, arbitrariness, disrespect for human rights.”

The extent of U.S. intelligence operations will not be known for decades.  It took experts 30 years, for example, to pry loose information about the CIA’s role in the coup that brought Chilean strongman Pinochet to power.  But the tensions such allegations create do not fade rapidly.  Even accounting for hyperbole in political rhetoric, these protestations cannot be helpful to U.S. short-term efforts to win Latin American help in capturing Snowden, nor in long-term efforts to revive the Obama Administration’s stated goal of building “partnership” in the region.  Continued threats – thinly veiled – from unnamed senior U.S. officials also run counter to that goal of building partnership and the related objective of minimizing fallout from accusations of spying.

ICJ Decision on Colombia-Nicaragua Dispute Settles Little

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados "orianauta" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados “orianauta” | Flickr | Creative Commons

The decision announced last month by the International Court of Justice on a three-decade maritime dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia has pleased Managua and angered Colombia.  The court confirmed Colombia’s sovereignty over seven islets known as San Andrés and Providencia, but it extended Nicaragua’s sovereignty over 200 nautical miles.  The ruling means that, although Colombian jurisdiction includes a 12-mile radius around the islands, Nicaragua will control a much bigger area of the Caribbean – and greater access to fishing grounds and potential underwater oil deposits.

Colombia has rejected the ICJ verdict; refused to withdraw its navy from the contested waters; and withdrawn from the Pact of Bogotá, which recognizes ICJ jurisdiction.  Foreign Minister Holguín said Colombia wants to protect itself from future challenges to Colombian territory.  This position has implications for its neighbors.  Colombia’s withdrawal leaves a pending case brought against it by Ecuador regarding harm caused by herbicides from aerial fumigation near its border.  It also shifts back into bilateral renegotiations Colombia’s dispute with Venezuela over the Gulf of Venezuela, which Colombia had often proposed taking to the ICJ.  According to press reports, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras did not see themselves affected by the ICJ decision.

While ICJ decisions are final and cannot be appealed, the Court lacks the means to enforce them.  Colombia’s rejection of the ruling suggests it will take advantage of that, setting itself and Nicaragua on a collision course that will undoubtedly raise tensions in the region.  (Non-enforcement is an old problem.  The United States got the UN Security Council to support it in rejecting an ICJ decision in the 1980s that Nicaragua was entitled to reparations for U.S. support of the Contras.)  Even if the countries don’t come to blows, the dispute puts regional cooperation in crucial areas, such as counternarcotics, at risk.  It also raises questions about the willingness of countries to work with multilateral institutions.  The ALBA countries support ICJ jurisdiction now, but Colombia’s position probably will embolden them to reject it if inconvenient in the future.  Maritime disputes appear to be increasing worldwide, and Central America promises to be no different.