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.

 

 

Transgender Rights: Signs of Progress in Latin America

By Emily McGranachan

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Social and structural discrimination limit the economic, health, and social prospects of transgender individuals, often leading to precarious lives fraught with human rights violations.  According to Argentine psychologist Graciela Balestra, transgender people around the world have an average life expectancy of only 30 years.  In Latin America, they have the highest rate of HIV infection (35 percent) and frequently face violence and insecurity.  According to the 2012 Trans Murder Monitoring Project report, of the total reported murders of transgender people in the world between 2008 and 2011, 79 percent took place in Latin America.  International HIV/AIDS Alliance and Red Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Personas Trans (REDLACTRANS) published similarly startling statistics in a 2012 report titled “The Night is Another Country.”  While the report focused on the experiences of transgender women, it also reveals that transgender men also experience high rates of discrimination and violence throughout Latin America.  Of the transgender women interviewed in the study, about 80 percent reported experiencing violence or threats by police and other officials.  Throughout Latin America the prevalence of transphobia – defined as the fear or hatred of transgender people – has led to impunity for violence and discrimination against transgender people, and these crimes, including murder, are seldom prosecuted.  The transgender community also faces challenges of social discrimination and the lack of access to health care and jobs, marginalizing transgendered people in society.

While the current situation is stark, some societies have shown greater openness to transgender people.  Whereas Brazil and Colombia allow identity card changes only after surgery and board evaluation, Argentina in 2012 became the first country in Latin America to pass a progressive law easing the rules with regard to gender identity and identification.  Now a person in Argentina can change the name and sex on their identity card without having to go through the long and discriminatory process of sex reassignment surgery or going before a judicial review board.  In 2009, Uruguay slightly loosened its controls when it began requiring only board approval for identity card changes.  Government initiatives, like that of Argentina, have direct impacts on the lives of transgender people, who are able to access jobs and other securities, according to Balestra.  Greater inclusion in society and stronger legal protections by the government can signify or signal a change in social values within the broader society.

The Obama Administration has been a vocal supporter of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights as part of a broader human rights agenda in international diplomacy.  Among its initiatives are the Global Equality Fund to support local LGBT organizations and advocates, a greater recognition of refugee rights for LGBT people, and a general promotion of rights abroad through working with NGOs and states.  Recognizing the situation in Latin America, the State Department highlights its work trying to establish a special rapporteur for LGBT human rights within the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.  As some aspects of LGBT rights progress in the United States (the U.S. still has a high rate of violence against transgender people as well), it is expanding its understanding and definition of human rights.  While the right to security, health care, employment and dignity have long been international human rights, only recently has the discrimination and violence transgender people face become an important part of the human rights platform.  The incorporation of LGBT human rights into U.S. foreign policy, backed by a strong U.S. example of justice and security for transgender citizens, will encourage other countries to follow suit.