South America: Can it Navigate the Changes Ahead?

By Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Latin america

Latin America / Google Images / Creative Commons

Venezuela is the latest example of how Latin America, especially South America, has missed an opportunity to demonstrate the sort of hemispheric leadership it has long striven for – and instead has ceded that role to the United States and even Russia and China.  Although the United States, and the rest of the hemisphere more generally, have been slow to realize it, economic drivers are making the world more multipolar.  In a recent article by two colleagues and myself, we analyze international financial statistics covering 180 countries from 1995 to 2013 that reveal the slow relative decline of the United States as the reigning financial hegemon.  U.S. influence, although still formidable by some margin, is eroding.

  • The Trump Administration’s activities in the larger world are also undermining Washington’s influence. Policies in the WTO and other trade actions writ large – such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and threatening and implementing trade sanctions with little apparent logic – have brushed even allies back. Positions on the Paris climate accord, at the United Nations, and in the President’s relations with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have left many around the world increasingly reluctant to follow the U.S. lead.

In this increasingly multipolar world, Latin America, especially South America, is going to find itself not so much freed of U.S. influence – as intellectuals in the region have often stated their wishes – as exposed to new pressures.  The change will be manifest mostly in the economic arena.  New research by McKinsey Global Institute suggests that global value chains are ever more concentrated within multinational corporation networks, which tie major markets (essentially the United States, Western Europe, China, and Japan) to geographically contiguous countries.  This is arguably good for closer neighbors, such as Central America and the Caribbean in our hemisphere, but potentially harmful to those left out – including Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly the Mideast, and South America.

South America has diversified its trade – generally a good thing – among the United States, EU, and East Asia, with the latter having become the major trading partner for a number of countries. Chile and others have been pushing hard to build the Pacific Alliance, as well as to institutionalize the alliance’s relationship with Mercosur. This strategy will be put to the test if, as early trends indicate, the world regionalizes and South America comes under great pressure to refocus on its relations with the United States. To protect and advance their interests in the future, South American countries probably will try to find the right balance between embracing and rejecting the declining yet still dominant hegemon to the north and, as in the case of Venezuela, developing their own strategic vision, forging unity among themselves, and putting some muscle behind an agenda that prepares them for the future.

March 18, 2019

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is an associate professor at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. She is the co-author, with Daniel C. Tirone (Louisiana State University) and Hyoung-kyu Chey (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo), of The Monetary and Financial Powers of States: Theory, Dataset, and Observations on the Trajectory of American Dominance.

From Washington to Brussels and Montevideo: No Common Plan for Venezuela

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Photograph of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs at the International Contact Group Meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay / EFE / Presidency of Uruguay / Creative Commons

A common feature of international efforts to deal with the years-long political crisis in Venezuela has been an inability to come up with a common approach – which, despite many countries’ agreement that it’s time for Nicolás Maduro to go, continues to hamper effective solutions. Three different and partly contradictory international approaches have emerged.

  • Regime change, supported by the United States, the Secretary General of the OAS, and the 13 Grupo de Lima states (without Mexico). It assumes that there is no exit from the political crisis without the immediate ousting of Maduro and his cronies. All international actions are “on the table,” including coercion through threatened military action, coercion through sanctions (implemented), international recognition of a parallel interim president (implemented), financial support to Maduro’s opposition (implemented), and delivery of humanitarian aid (being attempted).
  • Mediation with conditions, launched in Montevideo last Thursday by the Grupo de Contacto. Backed by member states of the EU, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, it proposes that the solution to the political crisis must be through peaceful means, namely national dialogue with international mediation. It imposes, though, a condition for dialogue and mediation to start: immediate presidential elections.
  • Mediation without conditions, sponsored by Mexico, Bolivia, Uruguay, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The so-called Montevideo Mechanism also assumes that the crisis can be overcome only through a national dialogue, with international mediation and monitoring, but it does not impose any conditions on any of the parties before undertaking the dialogue and mediation.

All three strategies entail problems and challenges, although the first sets a precedent that by far is the most problematic. It establishes regime-change, including military intervention by internal or foreign forces, as a legitimate international action to solve political crises. In contrast to what OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has held in conferences at think-tanks, most experts assess that regime-change violates international law and, in particular, Inter-American Law. From an international perspective, such an action might be justifiable only under the strict observation of the criteria put forward by the UN Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which do not apply to the Venezuelan crisis as severe as it may be. The UN Secretary General has expressed his concern with the regime-change strategy, and some governments at the Lima Group also showed uneasiness with the military option at a summit in Ottawa on February 4. A main criticism is that it endangers civilians’ lives by making them potential targets in a confrontation, and it curtails any other alternative course of diplomatic action.

  • The second and third strategies could be the way forward, but they compete with each other, nullifying their potential leverage over the parties in conflict. The “Montevideo Mechanism” was launched by Mexico and Uruguay less than 24 hours before European representatives landed in Montevideo to discuss the Contact Group’s mission. That timing and Twitter politics suggest a leadership struggle between Mexico and the EU that undermines what should have been a common alternative plan. The apparent split has allowed Maduro to reject the EU-sponsored Contact Group and hold out for the “Montevideo Mechanism”. Guaidó has rejected both and suggested that the states supporting national dialogue and mediation are not “on the right side of history.”

International actors’ inability to agree on a common plan severely hampers diplomatic efforts – and plays into the U.S.-led push for regime change by non-diplomatic means. For the Venezuela crisis to have a resolution that sets positive precedents, international actors will need to abide by common international norms, including Inter-American Law, and set aside political interests and ideological visions that preclude the emergence of a unified, effective front that forces Venezuelans to get serious about ending a crisis.  Failing that, the opposition’s preference for military-style regime change and Maduro’s preference for buying time through unconditional negotiations allow them to suck international actors into their family feud – and only delay an end to the crisis.

February 12, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Venezuela: A Test of U.S. Hegemony in Latin America

By Eric Hershberg

Lima Group members standing at a podium

Lima Group members in Torre Tagle in Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The showdown in Venezuela reflects an extraordinary attempt by the United States government to resurrect hegemonic power in Latin America.  From the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 21st, it was common for Washington to directly overthrow Latin American governments or to bolster clients seeking transitions to dictatorship or democracy.  But recent years had witnessed a clear decline in U.S. hegemony.  As Latin America appeared to have escaped Washington’s imperial reach, many of us were persuaded of the finality of the Obama administration’s recognition that the era of the Monroe Doctrine had ended.  We were dismissive, perhaps excessively, of the assertion of Trump administration officials and advisors that the infamous Doctrine could somehow be revived.

Yet the dynamics of the Venezuelan confrontation result from an unprecedented, Washington-forged hemispheric coalition – of the genuinely willing – trying to force a regime transition.  Traditionally, Washington conducted such interventions on its own, opposed by most of Latin America.  Yet today not only the 12 members of the Lima Group but also Canada and several EU governments are on board with the administration’s boldly assertive intervention in Venezuela’s political crisis.  Russia’s and China’s support for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro underscores that what is at stake is the enduring relevance of the Monroe Doctrine, which almost two hundred years ago unilaterally established an American veto over extra-regional engagement with nominally sovereign countries “in its own backyard.”

For champions of the Trump administration’s policy, asserting hegemony – after the Obama administration had declared it “dead” – is an end in itself.  Rejecting the Monroe Doctrine did not provoke a crescendo of acceptance from much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and abandoning that stance has been a core aspiration of right-wing foreign policy networks that have taken over the Executive Branch.  Countless statements over the years by the presumed architect of the present intervention – de facto Secretary of State for Latin America Senator Marco Rubio – reflect how an enduring hatred for the Cuban Revolution, and movements inspired by it such as Chavismo and the ALBA alliance, fuels antagonism toward intra- or extra-regional engagement that call into question U.S. authority.  Russian and Chinese interest in sustaining Chavismo thus reinforce Washington’s determination to eradicate it.

  • Venezuela today is an ideal target for a US-sponsored intervention to bring about regime change and reassert American hegemony in Latin America. The dictatorship is increasingly vicious, and Maduro’s claim to legitimacy is entirely fraudulent.  Moreover, Maduro’s government has so wrecked the economy that desperate millions are fleeing the country, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis that overwhelms neighboring countries already unable to provide for the basic needs of their own populations, making them more amenable to an interventionist exit.
  • Venezuela’s opposition has been long hindered by incompetence and racked by competing personal ambitions. With its most assertive leaders imprisoned, under house arrest, or in exile, it has proven incapable on its own of bringing about Maduro’s removal, either peacefully through his rigged institutions or through uprisings in the streets.  Absent an internal path toward regime transition, conditions were ripe for Washington to coax regional partners to back a daring strategy of intervention.  To have any prospects for success, the venture required that the domestic opposition finally unify – or at least acquiesce in –the anointment as Interim President of Juan Guaidó, a young political unknown whose ties with right-wing patrons are not as well known.  That unification, presumably, was made possible by recognition that only with external support could internal resistance succeed, and only with a unified or quiescent opposition would the international partners take the aggressive stance that they did.

Just as the opening to Cuba was the signature achievement of the Obama administration with regard to Latin America, the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government appears destined to be the signature act of the Trump administration.  The support of almost all of Latin America for it will have consequences far beyond the fate of the incompetent dictator clinging to power in Caracas.  If their gambit succeeds, Senator Rubio and National Security Advisor John Bolton could move on next to Nicaragua and then perhaps to the king’s crown in Havana. 

  • Those tempted to attribute this to abhorrence of violators of democratic norms would do well to consider the administration’s supportive stance toward increasingly authoritarian regimes in Honduras and Guatemala. Those cases, and the recognition that much of the opposition leadership wants to restore Venezuela to “what it used to be” (i.e., before Chavez tried with considerable popular support to forever end what Venezuela used to be), underscore the ideological drivers of U.S. policy today.  While Washington may have embarked on a course that can finally extricate Venezuela from Chavista misrule, the history of American influence over the region does not bode well for what a return to U.S. hegemony in Latin America could bring.  Surely that point is not lost on leaders of countries such as Mexico and Uruguay.  If the coming weeks bring a continuing stalemate between the Venezuelan regime and opposition, perhaps their good offices could catalyze a negotiated path to free elections and to a resulting regime that would not be Made in USA.

 

January 31, 2019

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (far right) meets with members of the National Assembly in October 2018. / Diego Cevallos / Asamblea Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno begins the post-honeymoon phase of his presidency, he appears firmly committed to positioning himself as a judicious voice and centrist in a region where ideological moderation and restrained oratory are the exception rather than the norm.  This might be unexpected given his political background and four years as vice president under leftist firebrand Rafael Correa (2007-17), but it makes sense given the country’s challenging economic situation and political constraints.  As previously noted, Moreno had two choices when taking office: remain loyal to his socialist roots, govern through his Alianza PAIS legislative bloc, and double down on Correa’s (fiscally unsustainable) “Citizens’ Revolution;” or move towards the political center, splinter his legislative majority, and abandon Correa and many of his policies.  He has decisively opted for the latter, attempting to navigate a middle ground between the left and the right.

  • No issue depicts the thin line Moreno walks more than Ecuador’s foreign policy, and no foreign policy issue reflects that tug-of-war better than his handling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assangeto whom Correa granted asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Londonis now a costly and increasingly undesirable houseguest.  He is a liability in Moreno’s quest for technical assistance, international loans, and greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States, which is still seeking justice for Wikileaks’s publication of U.S. classified material.  Although Moreno has called Assange “more than a nuisance” and “an inherited problem,” the president has been reluctant to push him out over concern for his human rights.  In July, Moreno suggested Ecuador was seeking guarantees that Assange would not face the death penalty.  Maintaining its delicate dance, however, in October, the government broke from its longstanding dialogue with British authorities over Assange’s situation and announced that it will no longer pay for his food and medical care.
  • Ecuador is also seeking closer relations with its right-of-center neighbors, beginning to distance itself from the region’s leftist governments, and attempting to rebuild ties with the United States. Since June, Moreno has attended the inauguration of Colombian President Iván Duque, met with Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, welcomed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Quito, and launched a security agreement with Washington.  Moreno has also changed his tone with regards to Venezuela.  Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, he spoke of the burden caused by arrival of more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day and called for a national dialogue in that country, provoking an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two capitals that culminated in the Ecuadorian government tweeting that “corrupt, murderous, and lying socialism of the 21st century is still alive in Venezuela and producing the most massive migration in the country’s history.”

Moreno’s strategy to confront the country’s fiscal deficit, which was 5.5 percent of GDP in 2017, is an even greater departure from his predecessor’s approach.  Whereas Correa pursued financing primarily through oil-for-loan deals from China after Ecuador’s selective default in 2008, Moreno has turned to other global lenders such as the World Bank and Japan.  He has also pursued new commercial relationships and market-friendly policies, including a free trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association, beginning accession talks with the pro-market Pacific Alliance, and continuing to encourage foreign investment in Ecuador’s hydrocarbon industry.  However, Moreno has not fully committed to Washington consensus-style reforms: the government announced measures in August to reduce its $60 billion debt, but it also authorized over $1.2 billion in loans to the housing sector, agriculture, and small and medium-sized business to reactivate the domestic economy.

Although not an ideological rightist like Chilean President Sebastián Piñera or Colombian President Iván Duque, Lenín Moreno has reoriented many of Rafael Correa’s domestic and foreign policies out of necessity as he confronts Ecuador’s difficult economic situation.  Given that the country’s fiscal deficit and outstanding debt are strategic challenges, it seems likely that he will continue to judiciously tread this middle path.  Although fiscal austerity measures have lowered Moreno’s approval rating and provoked protests from the Correista left, it would be a mistake to bet against him.  Moreno has not only upended expectations but also proven far more resourceful and politically sophisticated than his critics—and probably even his admirers—expected.  He may also send Julian Assange at some point an eviction notice.

November 6, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.  The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Venezuela: Maduro’s Ploy Backfires

By Michael McCarthy*

Maduro and the Venezuelan flag

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. / President of Russia / Flickr / Creative Commons

Almost a month after Nicolás Maduro held a snap presidential vote to strengthen his political power, the ploy appears to have largely backfired and left him weaker.  The dynamics underlying the years-long crisis have not fundamentally shifted, but the deepening impact of the economic implosion on the oil industry poses a threat to vital state interests and regime stability.  Maduro’s crisis management will face another major stress test.

  • Even the government’s own dubious figures on voter turnout – 46 percent – were too low to give the election credibility, limiting Maduro’s ability to claim a strong mandate. Criticism of the government’s efforts to sway voters by distributing food, medications, and other necessities at polling places was intense.  All but a few loyal friends in the international community have been reluctant to congratulate Maduro.  China and Russia accepted the vote count, but Beijing appeared particularly cooler than in the past, while Ecuador and Uruguay issued statements aimed at depolarizing the situation.  The OAS General Assembly lacked the 24-vote threshold necessary to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Venezuela’s participation in the regional body, but the Dominican Republic’s shift away from its previous support for Maduro must have been a blow.
  • Maduro’s victory is further overshadowed by the fact that as much as 85 percent of the pro-government vote went to the party of Diosdado Cabello, who leads a competing faction under the flag of the Partido Socialista Unido (PSUV), while Maduro’s Movimiento Somos Venezuela got only 5 percent. Longtime observers argue that a battle between Maduro and Cabello, an original member of the Chávez 4F movement that staged a failed coup in 1992, is heating up.  The PSUV will hold a party congress on July 28 – Chávez’s birthday – that promises to serve as venue for Cabello to pursue his leadership ambitions.

Maduro’s weakness appears to have motivated several actions he’s taken since the election.  Most observers believe that he directed a raft of prisoner releases to improve his sagging image, pacify the situation, and set the stage for dialogue.  He reportedly wanted to reshuffle his cabinet to shore up unity, but internal political difficulties apparently have delayed it temporarily.

  • He also released a U.S. national, Joshua Holt, who had been under arrest since 2016 on trumped up charges of espionage and conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Maduro’s goal may have been to disarm U.S. criticism and open a line of communication, but the day after the election he also expelled the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires and his deputy.  The U.S. State Department wasted no time in reciprocating by expelling two Venezuelan diplomats, and later, in the wake of the Holt release, it underlined that policy toward Venezuela “remains unchanged.”

More U.S. sanctions may be imposed, but Maduro’s self-destructive rule is doing his government even more harm.  A combination of increasing hyperinflation and a potential record drop in month-to-month oil production from May-June suggest a rapidly worsening economy.  Press reports suggest state oil company PDVSA will soon announce that it cannot honor its monthly production obligations with a number of key partners – a major blow for a government dependent on oil for 95 percent of its income.  After calling for a boycott of the May 20 vote, the traditional opposition breathed a collective sigh of relief that a majority of voters stayed home, but this does not give them the win they need to regain public trust.  Continually bleak prognoses once again stir speculation that the military will step in.  Yet it is not so simple.  The military seems to operate more according to informal networks and personality-driven hierarchies, creating divisions that make it hard for groups to credibly act in the name of the armed forces.  So far, senior officials seem to have determined that loyalties to a dysfunctional regime do not yet sufficiently threaten business and institutional interests for them to take action.

 June 14, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Colombia: Is the Peace Process Failing?

By Christian Wlaschütz*

A man stands on the right side of the frame with a large rifle

Members of the FARC in Tumaco, Colombia waiting to be disarmed last January. / Andrés Gómez Tarazona / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Colombia prepares for its presidential elections, the peace process with the FARC is already seriously jeopardized by shortcomings in its implementation —and it stands to worsen considerably.

  • The strong showing in polls of Iván Duque – nominee of Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democrático (CD), which has consistently opposed the peace agreement – bodes poorly for implementation in the future. Former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras is polling poorly, but his Cambio Radical’s antagonism toward the peace agreement enjoys support.  Leftist candidate and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, second in the polls, supports the accord, but he faces a steep uphill battle.  Centrist candidates Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia, and Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator with the FARC, have not been able to gain ground.  The polls do not enjoy much credibility but are influencing public perceptions on the peace process and other key policies.
  • The peace talks between the government and the country’s other main guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), have been in a limbo since Ecuador withdrew as host and guarantor of the negotiations two weeks ago. Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno made the announcement apparently in anger over the assassination of two Ecuadoran journalists by FARC “dissidents” (those rejecting the accords) and over the increasing criticism among locals of the worsening security situation in the border region with Colombia.  It was a big blow to Colombian President Santos’s hopes to conclude an agreement with the ELN during his mandate.  The peace talks have been suspended several times in the past due to bombings and kidnappings, but most observers believe it will be very difficult for talks to resume without Ecuador’s facilitation.

A serious challenge to political consensus to push ahead with the peace process is the dramatic decline in security in several Colombian regions, most notably Catatumbo (near the Venezuelan border) and Tumaco (on the Pacific Coast).  As experts had foreseen, the vacuum left by the FARC’s demobilization was quickly filled by the ELN and criminal organizations linked to the drug trade.  In Catatumbo, a hitherto irrelevant force, the “dissidents” of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (that is, those who did not demobilize with EPL in 1991), have taken advantage of the opportunity to conduct a deadly war against the ELN.  According to the weekly Semana, the dissidents may be supported by the Mexican Clan del Golfo cartel that wants control of strategic corridors for the drug trade.  Armed actors are sowing fear by declaring and suspending curfews at random; the state seems completely absent.  In Tumaco, bloody battles between FARC dissidents, other criminal groups, and state security forces are terrorizing the civilian population.  In these and other regions, threats against community leaders and assassinations are increasing.

  • Deficient implementation of reintegration programs for former FARC combatants is a major concern. Most former combatants are in a limbo regarding their judicial, economic, and social situation.  Lessons learned from the demobilization of paramilitary fighters some 14 years ago have not been applied, and lagging reintegration is tempting fighters to join other illegal actors.  The possible extradition of FARC leader Jesús Santrich to the United States on drug-related charges is also undermining demobilized combatants’ confidence that they’ll get a fair deal.  Santrich has started a hunger strike and claims to prefer dying than being extradited.

Most worrying in the long run is the polarization demonstrated by the inappropriate behavior of most of the presidential candidates.  Instead of offering programs to lead the country into a different future, personal attacks and the settling of accounts are at the core of the campaigns so far.  Colombian society’s contract to integrate into national life an unarmed FARC, free to pursue change through peaceful, democratic means, has never been strong.  But a surge in opposition to the peace process and the former guerrillas – led by politicians without a viable alternative policy – could easily translate into irreversible blows for peace and democratic inclusion.  Colombia is at a risky and decisive crossroad.  The possibility to relapse into former times is real.

May 4, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.