Is Chairman Menendez the Right U.S. Signal for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, Professors of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

Fresh and credible allegations about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s bullying of Latin American governments and influence-peddling for political cronies raise further doubts about what Washington is signaling to the region – and the implications for U.S. relevance in the second Obama Administration.  Secretary of State Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is now a major architect of U.S. policy, and his activities and policies are an indication of U.S. intentions around the world, especially in Latin America, which has been the focus of much of the Senator’s attention.

Media reports have documented well how Menendez persistently intervened on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor to pressure the government of the Dominican Republic to institute port security programs over legitimate objections of local authorities.  When Dominican officials appropriately exercised their duties and pointed out that the donor lacked expertise for the exorbitantly priced contract, Menendez only turned up the heat.  This was consistent with an ongoing pattern of behavior.  In 2011, according to reliable sources, Menendez demanded a U.S. policy of forcing the government of El Salvador to fire a cabinet minister he did not like, clearing the way for the military to capture the position.  Earlier, when the OAS opened discussions on whether to lay out conditions for Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric body, he threatened to cut all of its U.S. funding.  A self-proclaimed champion of “democracy promotion” and “accountability” in Latin America, the New Jersey Democrat never missed a chance to criticize centrist or left-leaning governments.  Governments in the region are not the sole targets of his interventions:  Menendez has used his influence to intimidate bureaucrats throughout the U.S. foreign policy community into either supporting his initiatives or, at least, turning a blind eye to them.

Latin American opinion-makers grew accustomed to Menendez’s ways during his tenure (2010‑12) as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on the western hemisphere, but his ascension to the chair of the full committee from within Obama’s own party makes his voice – and style – much more important.  His influence-peddling for his buddies’ business interests – at the expense of other U.S. government and foreign partners’ priorities – can only fuel greater cynicism about U.S. preachiness on anticorruption and “democracy promotion.”  It also further risks U.S. relevance at a time that many in the region remain hopeful of a revival of President Obama’s short-lived emphasis on “partnership” in the “neighborhood.”  The investigations into Menendez’s activities may run into serious obstacles – many bureaucrats fear his ire, and will be reluctant to talk – but it’s already clear that his bullying and influence-peddling make him the wrong person for a leadership role in U.S. policy toward Latin America. 

Cumbritis and Prospects for Latin American Regionalism

By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

UNASUR Cumbre by  Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

UNASUR Cumbre by Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.

The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.

The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe.  Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.

Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.

And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.

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.

Mercosur, Unasur Holding Firm on Democracy in Paraguay

Photo by Christian Van Der Henst S. via Flickr , http://www.flickr.com/photos/cvander/5215442086/

As Paraguay marked the one-month anniversary of the summary removal of President Lugo from office, the distance between South America and the rest of the hemisphere on how to deal with the “constitutional coup” remains great and is perhaps growing.  OAS Secretary General Insulza announced last week that the regional organization’s Permanent Council decided to take no further action, except to send a “support mission” to Asunción.  The Obama Administration’s inaction further indicates that the United States is prepared to allow things to stand unchallenged and even unexamined.

Mercosur, Unasur, Spain and, more predictably, ALBA have all been tougher.  Mercosur last week announced that the new Paraguayan government, led by President Federico Franco, is still barred from participating in the organization’s activities, although the government to be elected in April 2013 will be welcome.  Unasur made clear that Paraguay’s participation will be suspended “until democratic order is reestablished.”  ALBA countries have minced no words in condemning Lugo’s ouster.  Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo suggested publicly last week that Paraguay’s participation in the Ibero-American Summit in November may not be appropriate.

This division among hemispheric players is reminiscent of the tensions following the coup that removed democratically elected President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago.  Whereas the United States quickly softened its stance on the value of isolating the golpista government of Roberto Micheletti in 2009 and later became Tegucigalpa’s most ardent advocate for speedy readmission to the OAS – while Brazil and most South Americans remained committed to seeking a more democratic outcome – Washington is now showing patience with the right-wing factions that ousted Lugo.  Mercosur’s formula for welcoming the government to be elected next year helps avoid the sort of crisis for the incoming leadership that hindered Honduran President Lobo’s efforts to push back against his country’s golpistas, who to this day are undermining his administration.

 

Paraguay Coup: Setback to Democracy Even if Technically Constitutional

 

Photo by: Juan Alberto Pérez Doldán, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/38384810@N02/3531158719/

President Fernando Lugo, struggling to consolidate power since taking office in 2008 in Paraguay’s first meaningful transfer of power in 60 years, was removed from office on Friday by the same elites who had resisted him all along.  In a series of lightning actions, the Senate convened an impeachment process – giving him only two hours to prepare a defense – and voted him out of office.  Opposition leaders cited the government’s mishandling of a squatter protest earlier this month, resulting in 17 dead, but they had been undermining him from day one of his administration.  By Friday afternoon, Lugo accepted his removal and left the Presidential residence.  His vice president, Federico Franco, was sworn in and subsequently declared, “The country is calm. … Activity is normal and there is no protest.”

International reaction was slow at first, as the region focused on an environmental summit in Brazil.  But Brazil, Argentina and the ALBA nations condemned Lugo’s ouster and threatened sanctions.  President Dilma Rousseff urged immediate suspension of Paraguay in Mercosur and UNASUR, and Brasilia and others have withdrawn their ambassadors.  The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” at first and then urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles.”  The OAS held an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council and sent a fact-finding mission to Asunción.

As President Lugo said, the action was as much against “Paraguay’s history, its democracy” as it was against him.  Like the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago, the action was intended to stop a popular president and influence elections scheduled in coming months, but Zelaya was removed and exiled by the military, and the Congressional documents sanctioning it were fabricated after the fact.  The events in Paraguay pose an important challenge to the democracy clauses of the various regional charters (Mercosur, UNASUR, OAS) as well as the leadership of the region’s biggest democracies, including Brazil and United States.  At this early point, the Paraguayan elites probably judge that they can weather the storm because the U.S. and Brazil – with the diplomatic tensions about the Honduran coup, elections and reaccession to the OAS still fresh – have few options for restoring Lugo to presidency.  Insofar as entrenched elites sense that Washington will react mildly to the removal of democratically elected presidents they can cast as “leftist,” coups like those that have taken place in Honduras and Paraguay will continue.

Whither the OAS?

 

Photo by: Photo by: Jose Miguel Insulza via http://www.flickr.com/photos/insulza/2561669250/

The OAS General Assembly in Bolivia this week underscored, yet again,the Organization of American States’s struggle for relevance in the hemisphere.  Only Presidents Correa and host President Morales showed up.  Secretary Clinton skipped the summit, and U.S. Assistant Secretary Jacobson didn’t even stay to deliver her own speech.  The ALBA countries, led by Venezuela, attacked two of the OAS’s defining initiatives, while the other members stood by.  Alleging the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was biased in favor of the U.S. agenda, ALBA won a vote to discuss reform in the future.  Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua also announced their withdrawal from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.  Known as the Rio Treaty, the pact has enshrined the principle of mutual defense in hemispheric relations since 1947.

ALBA’s complaints about the OAS are not new, and neither are Washington’s.  The House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to zero out U.S. funding for the OAS in July 2011, when several Congressman called the OAS “an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security” and claimed it was “bent on destroying democracy in Latin America.”  The Obama Administration did not come to the organization’s defense, and, as in the past, the OAS appeared passive, apparently calculating that the storms would blow over.

The South Americans will be happy to fill the void with their counter to the OAS – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which explicitly excludes the United States and Canada.  But CELAC lacks infrastructure and funding and, so far, has mostly been a forum for speeches.  Brazil’s position will be key.  Although probably bemused by the decline in U.S. and OAS influence in the region, Brazil may nonetheless see advantage in reviving – and reforming – the OAS as a buffer for working out north-south and even south-south differences.

Click here for additional information from CLALS’s “Hemisphere in Flux” initiative, an ongoing research program on the future of Inter-American affairs, conducted in partnership with Brazil’s Institute Nacional de Estudos dos Estados Unidos (INEU) and the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales (CRIES) .