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. 

Impasse in U.S.-Cuba Relations Enters 54th Year

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the bilateral relationship.

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón.  By: Luiza Leite "Luiza" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón. By: Luiza Leite “Luiza” | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. and Cuban experts at a conference in Havana in December observed that, despite important areas of mutual interest, the Obama Administration has so far shown little inclination to accept a dialogue.  Some experts opined that the imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross has become a convenient excuse for Obama to avoid any serious engagement.

Other key points:

  • There is no effective political channel for resolving bilateral problems – indeed, no contacts at all at political levels.  The Interests Sections in each other’s capitals handle routine matters, but Washington has rejected Cuban requests to continue semi-annual migration talks.  Cuba gave the United States a proposal for resolving the Gross situation, which the State Department has not even acknowledged receiving.
  • In addition to reiterating longstanding frustration that U.S. policy is stuck in the regime-change mode forged by President George W. Bush, Cuban experts lamented that many Americans latch onto every challenge Cuba faces – such as whether the passing of Venezuelan President Chávez will lead to reductions in oil supplies – as evidence that the Cuban government will “collapse” and therefore that dialogue with it would be foolish.
  • Cuban rhetoric espousing the swap of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross has fueled powerful political expectations in Cuba, but Havana’s bottom line on the elements of a humanitarian release is far from clear.  Experts from both countries are perplexed that Washington will not have a dialogue at any level to discuss whether a deal is possible.
  • Many Cuban and American experts believe that one incentive for the United States to improve relations is to rebuild its image in Latin America.  But they note – ruefully – that Latin American does not seem to be a priority for the Obama Administration anyway.

The Gross situation is merely the most recent of a long string of issues blamed for the dysfunctional relationship.  The real causes of the impasse at this point are whether Washington can shift away from policies and well-funded programs fashioned to achieve regime change in Cuba, and whether the two governments can manage the influence that both have given ultra-conservatives unprepared to broach compromise – be it Cubans opposed to releasing Alan Gross while four of the “Cuban Five” remain in U.S. jail, or Cuban-Americans benefiting from the sort of regime-change operations that Gross was conducting.  The lack of a reliable channel for political leaders above both bureaucracies to talk creates the risk of manageable problems spinning out of control, to the detriment of both countries’ interests.

A Nicaraguan Model for the Drug War?

Daniel Ortega | Photo by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador | Flickr | Creative Commons

Bilateral tensions going back to the Cold War have obscured the value of counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and one of its least-favorite governments in Latin America – that of former Sandinista guerrilla and three-term Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.  The man who battled U.S.-funded proxies, the Contras, in the 1980s is now the most effective soldier against the drug trade in Central America, although Washington appears loathe to admit it and to imbue the cooperation with political good will.  However, while closer U.S. allies such as Honduras and El Salvador have seen levels of violence climb, Nicaragua remains relatively safe.  According to U.S. government estimates, Honduras (with vastly greater assistance) interdicted more cocaine than did Nicaragua in 2011 (22 v. 9 metric tons), seized one-tenth as much heroin (8 v. 86 kilograms) and arrested only half as many drug-related criminals (84 v. 168) – but had a homicide rate six times greater than Nicaragua.

Managua has achieved its relative success with an approach quite different from its neighbors’ –less costly in both dollars and bloodshed.  Compared to the flow of allegations about human rights violations committed by the Mexican security forces, Nicaragua’s record appears clean and citizens feel relatively confident providing information to the police.  Its armed forces have been involved in drug interdiction, focusing on coastal seizures, often in cooperation with the U.S. Navy.  But the backbone of Nicaragua’s strategy has been a series of local initiatives such as community policing.  These programs focus on “juvenile delinquency, education, and reintegration into society by gang members and other young offenders,” scholars noted in a recent special issue of the journal Policing and Society.  Nicaragua’s geography may be a factor as well.  The cartels’ main routes to Mexico are through the northern tier of the isthmus, and Nicaragua does not have the same sort of migration patterns that shaped Salvadoran gangs, as Insight Crime noted last year.

Scaling up Nicaragua’s local solutions to fit Mexico would be an immense challenge because of the disparity between the countries’ size and history.  But elements of Managua’s approach could be tried and adapted in neighboring countries, particularly its emphasis on community policing and anticorruption efforts that help gain citizens’ confidence.  Within Nicaragua itself, some observers argue that the government should do more to integrate its Afro-descendant Creole population into these supportive measures.  Currently, these Creole coastal communities bear much of the effect of military-oriented U.S.-Nicaraguan counternarcotics cooperation, without the social assistance to deal with the underlying problems in the region.  As the costs – and limits on effectiveness – of the full-frontal assault on cartels become ever clearer, Nicaragua’s relative success stands as an important reminder that other paths are possible.

Colombia Peace Talks in Havana: Peace on the Horizon?

Photo by: “medea_material” | Flickr | Creatives Commons

The Colombian government and its old adversary, the FARC, are taking tentative steps toward peace.  After a brief delay, the two sides initiated negotiations on a five-point agenda in Havana this week and quickly showed signs of progress.  The FARC declared a unilateral, two-month truce – a step beyond what they granted the last time talks were held from 1999-2001 – without assurance that the Colombian government would reciprocate.  President Juan Manuel Santos, already criticized for the talks, has rejected a cease-fire so far and appears reluctant to double-down on his political bet.  If the truce holds, it would create a much improved environment for the talks.

Most commentators have stressed that the Colombian government is in a much better position now than a decade ago because the FARC has been beaten back militarily.  What has received less attention is how President Santos has put himself in a better position through important non-military reforms.  He has pressed through important measures such as the ley de víctimas, compensating those who have suffered from the conflict; the creation of a more independent judiciary; and agrarian reform measures intended to improve life in the countryside.  Santos is not about to adopt the FARC’s anti-capitalist line, but his policies have addressed some of the problems the guerrillas claim to be fighting to redress.  At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the Colombian people support the talks, according to a Gallup Colombia poll.

Stronger rhetorical support from the Obama Administration – even as it properly remains on the sidelines of the actual talks – would enhance the peace process.  Even an implicit U.S. guarantee of support for implementation of any accord would be a powerful boost to President Santos and help him face down criticism from ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his political allies.  It would also be a clear signal to Latin America that Washington supports social and economic reforms to attain peace and stability, not just military programs.  The Cuban government, accused of fomenting unrest in the past, has shown that it favors peace and undertaken this initiative apparently without expecting any quid pro quo from Colombia’s primary backer, the United States.  Chile and Venezuela have shown support as observers.  For the United States to hesitate, apparently in response to bombastic comments from the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, undermines U.S. influence and leadership on an important issue with hemispheric implications.

U.S. Marijuana Vote Unlikely to Impact Mexico in Short Term

The following is excerpted from an article by InSight Crime* analyst Elyssa Pachico

Photo by: Editor B | Flickr | Creative Commons

Approval last week in Colorado and Washington state of measures allowing the recreational use of marijuana has fueled debate on whether legalization will reduce drug traffickers’ profits and the violence surrounding the illicit narcotics trade.  In both states, ballots passed with comfortable margins of 53 percent (Colorado) and 55 percent (Washington).  The measures legalize personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow the drug to be legally sold (and taxed) in licensed stores.  A similar initiative failed to pass in Oregon, gaining less than 45 percent of the vote.

A recent study by a Mexican think tank, the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness (IMCO), and Alejandro Hope (an InSight Crime contributor) found that passage of the initiatives in all three states would reduce the revenue of Mexican drug trafficking organizations by as much as 30 percent.  Hope has pointed out on Animal Político, a popular Mexican news site, that the impact will depend on the U.S. federal government’s response.  Attorney General Eric Holder strongly opposed such measures in 2010 when California residents voted on Proposition 19, but he did not issue strong statements this year.  The government’s response to last week’s votes has been muted; according to Reuters, the US Justice Department reacted to the measures by stating that its drug enforcement policy had not changed.

Mexico, a major supplier of marijuana, is unlikely to feel the impact of these measures for a while.  Parts of the Colorado measure will come into effect after 30 days, but the Washington measure will not take effect for a year.  But, over the long term, the votes indicate shifting attitudes towards marijuana prohibition in the United States – on the heels of similar shifts in Latin American countries eager to find alternatives to the current war on drugs.  The presidents of Guatemala, Mexico, and Colombia have emphasized the need for discussions, and Uruguay and Chile have considered their own marijuana legalization bills.  InSight Crime cautions, however, that the drug organizations have proved to be very adaptable in finding new sources of revenue – including methamphetamines, migrant smuggling, and even illegal mining.

Insight Crime is affiliated with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, which produces AULABLOG.   Click here for the full text and additional links. 

Argentina Foreign Policy – National Pride or Domestic Consumption?

Photo by Jonathan Huston

The stridency of Argentina’s foreign policy over the past two years suggests an effort by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to capitalize on elements of authentic nationalism and harness them into a durable political tool at home.  Buenos Aires has dialed up the pressure on the Falklands-Malvinas dispute with the United Kingdom by seeking regional support and calling for a boycott.  The nationalization of the holdings of Spain-based oil giant Repsol has also soured relations with several European states.  Recently, the Argentine government has assailed the impounding of an historical frigate, the Libertad, in Ghana by agents of an investment fund that owns defaulted Argentine sovereign debt, labeling them “vultures.”  Argentina has ramped up criticism of U.S. restrictions on its agricultural exports, as the two countries trade accusations in the World Trade Organization.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that President Fernández de Kirchner is picking fights abroad to distract attention from economic and political problems at home.  Following its record $100 billion default in 2001, Argentina remains locked out of most international financial markets despite deals to discount and reschedule much of that debt.  Inflation is high and capital flight is so serious that the government has imposed strict controls on sending dollars out of the country – a measure unpopular with the middle and upper classes.  These problems have taken a toll on the president’s popularity, as have intimations that she might change the Constitution to permit her to run for a third term.

The view from Washington misses a couple key points.  Many of these nationalist moves have been wildly popular – above all the Repsol decision.  To attribute them to President Fernández de Kirchner alone ignores deep feelings in Argentina that the country deserves greater respect than it gets, as well as the fact that since the peso crisis, rejection of the sort of “carnal relations” that President Carlos Menem had with Washington (in his own words) in the 1990s has grown strong.  The current foreign policy orientation harkens to a much longer tradition, from Peronism and beyond.  There is little chance that issues such as the Malvinas or the Libertad are going to make Argentines forget about everyday economic challenges.  Rather, they are a manifestation of an Argentine narrative in which the country is denied its rightful place in international politics and trade – and in which it is being held unfairly in the penalty box for the peso crisis.  The United States support for the billionaire investors and hedge fund managers who bought deeply discounted bonds but are demanding full payment, and Washington’s subsequent vote against loans Buenos Aires needs from international financial institutions, are playing into nationalist themes.  Fernández de Kirchner’s foreign policy rhetoric taps into resentment; she is hardly responsible for creating it.

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.

El Salvador’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photo by: rosaamarilla via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/3395160591/

A months-long political feud over the Supreme Court in El Salvador has blossomed into what observers are calling a constitutional crisis.  The first shot was fired in April when legislators from the FMLN engineered a “legislative decree” to replace five court Magistrates, the outgoing Assembly’s second shot at choosing justices during its three-year term.  The court’s Constitutional Chamber in June declared the decree unconstitutional – because each Legislature gets to vote only once for Magistrates.  At the same time, the Chamber invalidated a similar move by the opposition ARENA party affecting Magistrates chosen in 2006.

The theater came to a head this month when two feuding Supreme Courts met in different wings of the same building and claimed legitimacy – one with five members elected in 2009 and the other with the 10 invalidated members.  The rightwing ARENA party and its allies in Washington are claiming the crisis represents a shift against democracy by the FMLN.  Two Cuban-American members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Obama Administration to impose sanctions – principally suspending negotiations on a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if the crisis is not ended quickly and in the manner they wish.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for prompt resolution, and the U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador and the State Department have expressed “concern.”  A Washington Post editorial this week lambasted the FMLN for shifting toward Chávez-style authoritarianism and President Funes for failing to stop it.

This episode reflects maneuvering within the FMLN – fueled by frustration that President Funes’s soft line toward ARENA has only weakened the party’s influence – and poor judgment among activists on where and how to pick the fight.  The legislators rushed the decree because they anticipated correctly that they were about to lose control of the Assembly in elections several weeks later.  The crisis falls into a much more ominous pattern, however, in that – like the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) – the right wing and its coreligionists in Washington exploit events to challenge the democratic credentials of a democratically elected reformist government to rationalize weakening it, while the Obama Administration responds timidly.  ARENA is again demonstrating its superior lobbying skills in Washington, which have already severely disadvantaged President Funes on issues such as relations between his security cabinet and its U.S. counterparts – resulting in a serious erosion of his own influence over security issues.  If the current political impasse is not resolved to the satisfaction of U.S. conservatives, Washington’s threats – ironically directed against the Administration’s “best friend” in Central America – will likely continue and relations will be strained, further persuading hardliners around Funes that moderation pays no dividends.

Washington Politics: Fast and Very Furious

Photo by Ryan J. Reilly via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license

The operation codenamed “Fast and Furious” remains a hot topic in Washington two years after it went awry.  Conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the operation was intended to monitor the flow of weapons – through a “controlled delivery” – from Arizona gun dealers into the illegal channels by which tens of thousands of arms clandestinely enter Mexico each year.  Tracking the arms would allow the U.S. Government to disrupt the network.  However, ATF lost track of the weapons – and they reached their intended buyers.  The failure was made worse when traces showed that two of the weapons were used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the Mexican border in December 2010.

While both political parties in Washington have expressed disappointment, the Republicans have made the failed operation the centerpiece of efforts to weaken Attorney General Eric Holder (ATF is an agency of the Department of Justice, over which the Attorney General presides) and to discredit President Obama, according to numerous press reports.  The vote in the House of Representatives last week [[June 28]]to find Holder “in contempt” – for not handing over all of ATF’s internal documents on Fast and Furious that the Republicans demanded – was a party-line vote.  Many Democrats walked out of the chamber.

The political maneuvering around Fast and Furious has nothing to do with foreign policy, but the weakening of ATF undermines what modest efforts were under way to stanch the flow of illicit arms into Mexico and Central America.  “Controlled deliveries” are a standard operation for intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and every agency involved in border issues has suffered similar mistakes.  ATF is the smallest such agency (2,500 special agents compared to FBI’s 13,400 and DEA’s 5,500) and is therefore more vulnerable to the internecine backstabbing.  In addition, ATF’s enforcement of laws relating to the use, manufacture, and possession of firearms often puts it at odds with American politicians who feel the agency threatens their interpretation of the gun rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The attacks on the ATF appear intended to weaken enforcement of U.S. law and embarrass the Attorney General and the President.  The obstacles to a sound policy of limiting the flow of weapons into Latin America are evidenced by the virulence of the debate over Fast and Furious.

Nicaragua: Government-Private Sector Tactical Cooperation

Leaders of Nicaragua’s private sector and political opposition have teamed up with the government to press Washington not to go overboard with sanctions in response to flawed elections last November.  Their traditional allies in Congress, including the Cuban-Americans who dominate the Obama Administration policy toward Latin America, are pressing for suspension of two waivers to U.S. laws that suspend bilateral and multilateral aid to Nicaragua.  One waiver depends on progress on fiscal “transparency,” and the other on the resolution of property disputes from the 1980s.  The former, which would affect several million US dollars in bilateral aid (apparently for an AIDS program), is doomed, according to insiders.  But a decision on the property waiver – suspension of which would require the United States to oppose Nicaraguan loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and IMF worth more than $200 million in 2011 – has not yet been made.

In public and private appearances, leaders of the Nicaraguan business community and political opposition, including Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance standard-bearer and Presidential Candidate Eduardo Montealegre, have forcefully stated their differences with the government of President Daniel Ortega, particularly regarding the conduct of elections and the lack of “institutionality” – i.e., the politicization of government institutions.  But the business community has pleaded for U.S. flexibility.  They estimate that suspension of the property waiver would threaten $1.4 billion in development assistance, deal a serious blow to their own prospects, and thrust Nicaragua into deep crisis.  Montealagre said he would lobby “neither for nor against” the waiver, but his participation in the delegation signaled a clear preference for Washington to be cautious.  Ortega’s personal emissary for foreign investment, Alvaro Baltodano, has emphasized the growing commercial links between the two countries and the benefit it provides directly to the Nicaraguan people.

The private sector and opposition are in the odd position of trying to persuade their own friends in Washington to be practical – not to be more anti-Sandinista than they.  Suspension of the property waiver would not only hurt them in the pocketbook; it would give a propaganda boost to President Daniel Ortega and make the population even more dependent on his social programs, heavily subsidized by Venezuela.  All of the U.S. aid and most of the multilateral aid provides direct benefit to the Nicaraguan people.  Ortega’s opponents do not want U.S. sanctions to close the business and political operating space they have enjoyed in recent years, despite Ortega’s excesses.