Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.

Mexico Elections: Change Ahead in Cooperation with the U.S.?

Photo by: World Economic Forum via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.

News media are generally predicting a relatively comfortable margin of victory for PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto over PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the ruling party PAN’s candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota in Presidential elections next Sunday.  Polls give the PRI candidate (44 percent) a big lead over the PRD (28 percent) and the PAN (25 percent.)

Compared to the weight of Mexico’s problems, the campaign has been light on issues.  Both the PAN and PRI have made vague pledges of continued cooperation with the United States in efforts against the drug cartels.  While current President Calderón’s approach to drug-related violence has resulted in no discernible improvement in security – indeed, some 60,000 people have died since he launched his military-intensive strategy – both Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota have pledged to triple the Federal police (Vázquez) and create a paramilitary gendarmerie of 40,000 (Peña).  López Obrador has focused on jobs, services, and social issues.

Whoever wins the election, Mexico-U.S. relations do not appear likely to return to the mutual suspicion and tension of years past.  Neither of the three main parties seems overly dependent on nationalism – and anti-gringoism – for political support.  But the bloom is certainly off the much-vaunted U.S.-Mexico “co-responsibility” in the struggle against the cartels, and the next Mexican president almost surely is going to press for an end to the bad deal Mexico gets in the relationship  – the U.S. provides guns and intelligence, and tens of thousands of Mexicans die as drugs flow to eager American consumers.  Calderón’s successor probably will press Washington to prosecute the “war on drugs” in the United States, where the cartels’ footprint is huge, their operations are audacious, and they freely buy thousands of weapons smuggled southbound to kill Mexicans.  Whichever candidate is elected to the U.S. Presidency in November, next year will be a watershed during which the U.S. can either demonstrate a consequential commitment to co-responsibility – by pursuing the cartels in the United States and stanching the flow of guns and bulk cash into Mexico – or Calderon’s successor will unilaterally curtail cooperation.

The Demise of Partnership?

Graphic: Summit of the Americas organization; public domain.

The real news at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April was the dissonance between the Obama administration – with its sincere but content-free rhetoric of partnership – and Latin American leaders across the political spectrum, even among the friendliest.  This was in sharp contrast to the Summit in 2009, when the region was palpably excited about the new American President.  This year, press reports portrayed President Obama as unaware that the hemisphere is changing, and noted that he oddly said that criticism of U.S. policy was reminiscent of the Cold War, while he put himself out on the fragile limb of defending a Cuba policy rooted in, precisely, the Cold War.

Most observers in the region judge that the main takeaway from Cartagena is that while Washington offers little and listens less, Latin America is moving away.  Over the past decade South America has sustained rates of economic growth higher than any since before the oil shock of 1973, and the U.S. is hardly an unchallenged source of trade and investment.  (Chinese and EU trade with South America has surpassed that with the United States.)  Chavez’s aid to Cuba and Nicaragua far exceeds Washington’s meager offerings to even best friends like El Salvador.  The Brazilian National Development Bank, BNDES, provides more loans in the region than the World Bank and Inter-American Bank combined.

Americans’ fascination with the Cartagena prostitutes dwarfs interest in the lessons of the serious regional dynamics that played out in the Summit.  Whether U.S. political leaders and pundits acknowledge it or not, failure to dialogue seriously with neighbors about the 50-year effort to change the Cuban regime or the failure of the 40-year “War on Drugs” will have consequences for the United States.  Washington rejects the region’s efforts to re-think issues, such as the wisdom of the current approach to narcotics, at its peril.  Central America was an unhappy front-page story in the 1980s and now threatens to reemerge as a major headache because of domestic crime (fueled by U.S. deportations) and the drug trade – while Washington fiddles with time-worn formulas and programs.  The Obama Administration still has time to make good on its pledge of “partnership” and get serious about listening to and working with our neighbors.