VII Summit Of The Americas: The New York Times Versus Reality

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda

23 April 2015

Given the roasting the United States recently received by numerous Latin American presidents at the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama, it may have been no coincidence Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano passed away shortly after.

In his acclaimed book the Open Veins of Latin America (1971), which was banned by several US-backed dictatorships in South America during the 1970s and ‘80s, Galeano passionately denounced the history of Spanish and US imperialism south of the Rio Grande.

An icon of the political left in Latin America, and never holding back criticisms when he disagreed with friends or allies, from Galeano’s perspective: “History never really says goodbye. History says, see you later." And how history returned at the VII Summit of the Americas.

You would have never understood this though reading through the pages of the New York Times.

In an article published after the summit, the newspaper told its readers that the US was the new hit in Latin America based on the warming of relations between Washington and Havana. Written by Randal C. Archibold – New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean – and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, the article stated that the US: “Walked away with more salutes than swipes from a regional Summit of the Americas where the United States usually takes a drubbing.”

According to these journalists, the question now will be how will the US “spend the considerable political capital it has accrued in the region to address vexing issues such as corruption, impunity and the fragility of democracy or, in the case of Cuba, its glaring absence?”

The background developments which led to the historic meeting between Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the VII Summit are important to revisit.

For a start, while Obama’s new approach to Cuba was widely welcomed, Washington was actually placed in check on the issue of the island’s absence in 2012 at the VI Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia. There, with the exception of Canada, the entire region opposed Cuba’s continuing exclusion while many countries threatened to boycott the conference in Panama were Havana not invited. And after US Secret Service agents were entangled in a scandal involving local sex workers, which created a “major embarrassment for Washington”, Obama had to bring something new to the table in Panama.

Worse, since Brazil, Venezuela and China have been investing in Cuba in recent years, and Russia wrote off 90 per cent of the island’s debt in 2013, important sectors within Washington realised that business opportunities were being lost on the island due to the US economic blockade.

With US-Cuba relations beginning to thaw, the same cannot be said for US affairs with Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia who in recent years have expelled various US ambassadors.

In Venezuela, taking into consideration the critiques which can be made of the administration of Nicolas Maduro (2013 - ), and that of his predecessor Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), the core of the conflict has always revolved around the fact that a leftist administration has taken control of the country’s rich oil resources, engaged in significant social spending on the poor and challenged the country’s racist class structure.

Outside of its borders, Caracas has challenged US hegemony and promoted regional blocs like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

In April 2002, the Bush administration backed a brief coup against Chavez while financial support for key sections of the local opposition continue under Obama who recently issued an Executive Order declaring Venezuela a threat to US national security.

At the VII Summit of the Americas sparks were expected to fly regarding Obama’s decision. We were not disappointed.

In harsh diplomatic language almost every country in the hemisphere slammed Washington’s stance on Venezuela. Raul Castro stated that “Venezuela is not and could never be a threat to the national security of a superpower like the US.” Asking Obama to “repeal the Executive Order” and “lift unilateral sanctions”, he added that Cuba fully supported the “legitimate government” of Venezuela.

Similarly calls for Obama to revoke the Executive Order came from Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay while regional powers Argentina and Brazil did likewise. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina called the US decision “almost ridiculous” while Maduro informed Obama – who did not listen to his speech but nevertheless declared himself a “student of history” – that Venezuela was not “anti-American” but rather “anti-imperialist.”

The grilling the US received though did not stop with the issue of Venezuela. Fernandez observed that, while she believed those who claimed they wanted a fairer world, why then are the governments with “major accomplishments in human rights, social inclusion, health [and] education” attacked by NGOs aiming “at the destabilization of governments” in Latin America? 

For his part, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, noted Washington’s double standards on Cuba and Venezuela. “This summit should be celebratory”, he declared. “Obama should be received as the historic president who repaired relations with Latin America. But for that historical error, that absurd, arrogant, imperialist order, everything was lost”.

Taking aim at the region’s corporate press, Correa stated that it was “bad” and needed serious reform. “Bad press doesn’t critique us: it is the one which overthrew Allende, misinforms and conveniently practises censorship.”

At the end of the conference, only the US and Canada obstructed the approval of a final declaration calling for health to be considered a human right, technology to be transferred to developing countries, a cessation to electronic espionage, and for Obama to revoke his Executive Order.

All of these developments may have been the tipping point that took their toll on Galeano who had been battling cancer for several years. As for the New York Times reporters… they must have attended the wrong summit.

Posted on May 5, 2015 .

U.S.-Venezuela Relations Continue to Deteriorate

For those who follow events in Latin America, the major news recently has been president Barack Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela a national security threat to the United States. While laughable under any cursory examination – Venezuela has no serious offensive military weaponry – the objective appears to continue putting pressure on the administration of Nicolás Maduro who has been hit by declining oil prices, inflation and a continuing economic war by certain sections of the business community.  

According to Mark Weisbrot – co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington and president of Just Foreign Policy – there have been contradictory positions within Washington regarding Venezuela. He notes that when the Obama administration aimed to re-establish ambassadorial relations with Caracas in 2010, the U.S. president was “sabotaged by right-wing congressional offices and probably their allies in the State Department.” Last summer in fact, observes Weisbrot, the U.S. came very close to establishing “full diplomatic relations with Venezuela by receiving a Venezuelan chargé d’affaires – one step below ambassador – in Washington.”

Now relations are certainly heading towards a dangerous path and the ultra-right within Venezuelan and Washington can pat themselves on the back for having derailed the normalization of relations between the two countries. But these actors may have over stepped their mark.

For a start, the Maduro administration continues to be able to obtain credits from Beijing only recently securing a $10 billion loan as part of a bilateral financing deal which also aims to develop Venezuela’s oil fields. Also, as one observer noted based on a series of interviews with key experts on Venezuela, while there certainly are serious economic problems within the country, Venezuela is hardly about to default on its loans while it has taken some important steps to control inflation.

At a regional level both the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) unanimously passed resolutions in support of Caracas while strongly condemning Washington. With the exception of the U.S. and Canada, who are not part of these inter-American organizations, this means every country in the Americas has sided with Venezuela. Add to this a 10 day military exercise along-side visiting Russian troops and Maduro should certainly gain domestic political points.

But make no mistakes about it. Obama’s executive decree has now pushed U.S.-Venezuela relations into dangerous waters.

Posted on March 31, 2015 .

"Pepe" Mujica: Uruguay's philosopher president steps down

On March 1 the president of Uruguay José “Pepe” Mujica steps down from power. In his place we will see the return of Tabaré Vázquez who led the first leftist Broad Front government (2005-2010) and, as a consequence of coming to power in a region with new centre and radical left-wing governments, saw the term ‘pink tide’ popularized. While Vázquez is more of a party man (an oncologist by training), it is Mujica, or “Pepe” as he is popularly known, who leaves behind an interesting political legacy.

Originally a guerrilla leader in the 1960s with the MLN-Tupamaros movement, Mujica spent 14 years in prison (more than a decade in solitary confinement) under the brutal U.S.-back military regime that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985. With the restoration of parliamentary democracy, in 1994 Mujica was elected as a deputy and in the 1999 elections became a senator. In 2005 Vázquez appointed Mujica the Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries – an important post given the role played by agriculture in the country’s economy.

Throughout this period, as in the presidency, Mujica developed a role as a politician who shunned the privileges of power and often spoke his sharp mind candidly. At times he took radical steps like when in 2014 the personal use of cannabis was legalised. At times he also had unpopular policies such as in 2013 when his administration gave the green light to the Valentine’s Project, a $3 billion open-pit mine complex which Mujica defended as necessary so as to diversify the country’s economy. Occasionally of course there were several gaffes such as his famous comment that: “[t]his old hag is worse than the cross-eyed man” - a reference to Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández and her late husband president Néstor Kirchner with who Uruguay has had several trade disputes.

Like his predecessor though, Mujica continued to govern with a mixture of pro-business economic policies and robust welfare programs. In many ways, the Broad Front has been able to do this as it has faced far less challenges than that of other pink tide administrations (e.g. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Evo Morales in Bolivia). As a consequence the Broad Front has been able to decrease poverty, reduce unemployment and reignite the economy since the impact of the Argentine crash in the early 2000s. As one voter put it last year after the Broad Front won its third presidential election: “[t]he country has changed for the better, we are past the days when people were leaving or children had to eat grass”.

Leaving office Mujica will continue to occupy his humble farm house from which he lived while being president of the republic. Below are 15 quotes by Mujica which World.Mic published last year from a collection of different sources.  

1. On revolutions and revolts

“I’ve seen some springs that ended up being terrible winters. We human beings are gregarious. We can't live alone. For our lives to be possible, we depend on society. It’s one thing to overturn a government or block the streets. But it’s a different matter altogether to create and build a better society, one that needs organization, discipline and long-term work. Let’s not confuse the two of them. I want to make it clear: I feel sympathetic with that youthful energy, but I think it’s not going anywhere if it doesn’t become more mature.” (Source)

2. On legalizing marijuana

“It has always been like that with changes. In 1913, we established divorce as a right for women in Uruguay. You know what they were saying back then? That families would dissolve. That it was the end of good manners and society. There has always been a conservative and traditional opinion out there that’s afraid of change. When I was young and would go dancing at balls, we’d have to wear suits and ties. Otherwise they wouldn’t let us in. I don't think anyone dresses up for dancing parties nowadays.” (Source)

3. On materialism

“We have sacrificed the old immaterial gods, and now we are occupying the temple of the Market-God. He organizes our economy, our politics, our habits, our lives, and even provides us with rates and credit cards and gives us the appearance of happiness.

“It seems that we have been born only to consume and to consume, and when we can no longer consume, we have a feeling of frustration, and we suffer from poverty, and we are auto-marginalized.” (Source)

4. On global consumption

“We can almost recycle everything now. If we lived within our means, by being prudent, the 7 billion people in the world could have everything they needed. Global politics should be moving in that direction. But we think as people and countries, not as a species.” (Source)

5. On abortion and same-sex marriage

“We applied a very simple principle: Recognize the facts. Abortion is old as the world. Gay marriage, please — it’s older than the world. We had Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, please. To say it’s modern, come on, it’s older than we are. It’s an objective reality that it exists. For us, not legalizing it would be to torture people needlessly.” (Source)

6. On ending the conflict in Colombia  

“From afar, it seems like a war without a solution and like a long sacrifice for the entire country. So when a president appears who tries to open a path to peace, I think that deserves support, because there is a lot of pain, and if they try to settle scores, the war will never end. But there is an opportunity. I would feel selfish if I did not help in any way.

“Help does not mean to intervene. I will not meddle if I am not invited to do so. But if I can serve as a go-between with my experience, I will support the government's call for dialogue with the rebel forces who also have their problems, who also have their fears. I think all us Latin Americans have to help.” (Source)

7. On staying humble in office

“As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else.” Approximating the pomp and ceremony of high office to a feudal past Mujica said: “You need a palace, red carpet, a lot of people behind you saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ I think all of that is awful.” (Source)

8. On redistribution of wealth

“Businesses just want to increase their profits; it’s up to the government to make sure they distribute enough of those profits so workers have the money to buy the goods they produce.” Talking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Mujica added: “It’s no mystery — the less poverty, the more commerce. The most important investment we can make is in human resources.” (Source)

9. On age

“What’s sad is that an 80-year-old grandpa has to be the open-minded one. Old people aren’t old because of their age, but because of what’s in their heads. They are horrified at this, but they aren’t horrified at what's happening in the streets?” (Source)

10. On addiction

“Worse than drugs is drug trafficking. Much worse. Drugs are a disease, and I don’t think that there are good drugs or that marijuana is good. Nor cigarettes. No addiction is good. I include alcohol. The only good addiction is love. Forget everything else.” (Source)

11. On being called the world's poorest president

“I’m not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live. My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I’m the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress.” (Source)

12. On donating 90% of his salary to charity

“I have a way of life that I don’t change just because I am a president. I earn more than I need, even if it’s not enough for others. For me, it is no sacrifice, it’s a duty.” (Source)

13. On his goals for Uruguay

“My goal is to achieve a little less injustice in Uruguay, to help the most vulnerable and to leave behind a political way of thinking, a way of looking at the future that will be passed on and used to move forward. There’s nothing short-term, no victory around the corner. I will not achieve paradise or anything like that. What I want is to fight for the common good to progress. Life slips by. The way to prolong it is for others to continue your work.” (Source)

14. On being a president

“A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.” (Source)

15. On the secret to happiness

“To live in accordance with how one thinks. Be yourself and don't try to impose your criteria on the rest. I don't expect others to live like me. I want to respect people’s freedom, but I defend my freedom. And that comes with the courage to say what you think, even if sometimes others don’t share those views.” (Source)

Posted on February 28, 2015 .

Re-establishing ties with Cuba but putting the screws on Venezuela

The end of 2014 saw some major developments in Latin America. By the end of November electoral victories by centre-left administrations were obtained in Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay. With numerous and well deserved criticisms being made against the track record of the Workers Party government in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff’s victory was nevertheless of particular significance at a national level and to administrations like Nicolás Maduro’s in Venezuela.

Likewise, on a regional level, the continuity of the PT in Brazil will likely see a further consolidation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which earlier in December inaugurated its headquarters in Ecuador. Among these developments, UNASUR also ratified the creation of a South American passport and the establishment of a South American School of Defence so as to train military officers and civilians in matters of combat.

While these changes in UNASUR have been given little attention in the mainstream media, they are certainly not going unnoticed in Washington. Hence we come to the recent changes between U.S.-Cuba relations.

As I have previously noted on this blog, Brazil has become a large trading partner for Cuba. Due to the U.S. blockade, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. economy misses out on $1.2 to $3.6 billion annually from its possible trade with Cuba. Add to this the fact that, other than the support of Israel, Palau and the Marshal Island, the U.S. has been voted against at the U.N. General Assembly for years on the issue of the blockade, Washington’s policy towards Cuba has become completely isolated.

In Latin America this has particularly been the case with just about every country in the region having re-established ties with Havana. A few years ago at the Organization of American States (OAS) – a body with a long record of subservience to U.S. interests – the issue of the U.S. blockade became so divisive the OAS invited Cuba to return to its ranks to which Havana replied: thanks, but no thanks.

Writing on the shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba in the Americas Program (23/12/14), Wayne S. Smith – a senior fellow at the Centre for International Policy in Washington D.C. and former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-82 – recently commented that:

This change came at a critical moment. The Obama administration had to come to it or risk a further deterioration of relations with the rest of the hemisphere. There were questions in Latin America about our relations with Cuba and what that said about our policy in the hemisphere. Now those questions have been set aside and we can move forward to focus on improved relations with all.

But this may not necessarily be the case. While the Obama administration deserves credit for its new stance towards Havana, in the same month of December the U.S. Congress approved new sanctions against Venezuela. While Caracas already has sanctions which prohibit the sale of U.S. military technology (including that of third parties with any U.S. components), the new round of sanctions will see the denial of visas and freezing of assets of any Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of anti-government groups.

Interestingly, while the Obama administration and vast sections of the private media made much of the violent right-wing student protests against Maduro early last year, both UNASUR and the OAS saw things rather differently. With the exception of the U.S. and Panama, in March the Associated Press (09/03/14) noted that: 

The OAS approved a declaration that rejected violence and called for justice for the 21 people the government says have died in street protests since 12 February. The declaration offered ‘full support’ for a government peace initiative that the opposition has refused to join until dozens of jailed protesters and an opposition leader are freed. Twenty-nine countries voted in favor of the declaration after 15 hours of debate spread over two days.

For now though, with further sanctions against Venezuela, dwindling oil prices, and given that Saudi Arabia claims it’s not cutting back on oil production (even if the price drops to $20 per barrel), it looks like the U.S. has loosened the screws on Havana but tightened them on Caracas. Add to this the fact that the Maduro administration itself has been slow to get on top of the currency crisis, as recently noted by a key expert on Venezuela, Latin America in 2015 may be in for several surprises.

Posted on January 14, 2015 .

Pigs can fly: The Miami Herald’s op-ed supports a socialist candidate in Brazil

With President Evo Morales set to win another election in Bolivia this month given that his nearest rival is trailing by such a large margin (46 percentage points according to one latest poll), most eyes in the region have turned towards Brazil. After a series of protests over poor public services in transport and health care, while the state spent some $US15 billion to host the World Cup with an estimated 200,000 people being evicted to make way for construction projects, President Dilma Rousseff from the Workers Party (PT) has come under much criticism. Add to this the fact that the PT has been in power since 2003 and it is understandable that support for the incumbent government has waned, despite the fact that it has reduced poverty in half  (from 9.7% to 4.3%) according to the World Bank earlier this year.

Based on these developments, Marina Silva from the Socialist Party has been polling well hence receiving an endorsement from Roger Noriega, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the administration of George W. Bush (2001-2005). For those unfamiliar with Noriega, this is the man who co-authored the 1996 Helms-Burton Law that tightened the embargo on Cuba, in 2002 supported the short lived coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and, two years later in 2004, played a significant role in the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In his open-editorial for the Miami Herald, Noriega on the Brazilian elections wrote that:

If Silva were to win a surprise victory, she would have a mandate to liberalize the Brazilian economy, expand trade with the United States and Europe, and reform traditional politics. Last year, south Florida did over $20 billion in two-way trade with Brazil — a number that will likely increase if that South American giant can pull itself out of recession.

He adds:

The election in Brazil has become a choice between “more of the same” and a spirited challenge of “politics as usual.” Marina Silva has only a few more weeks to convince 140 million Brazilian voters that she can renew growth, unlock the country’s productivity and wealth, and clean up corruption and mismanagement.

Obviously Noriega is unaware how much his past contributions to democracy have been noted and unappreciated in Latin America and the Caribbean. An endorsement from him for a socialist candidate in Brazil speaks more on how Silva does not best represent the interests of common Brazilians. In contrast, the PT, with all its errors taken into account, has supported national industries, endorsed a more independent Latin American foreign policy and economic union, and as noted above, has reduced poverty in half. Such policies will never be supported by the most reactionary sectors of the U.S. of which Noriega represents hence, if a right-wing socialist candidate needs to be supported so as to overturn many of the PT’s achievements, then so be it. Pigs can fly.

Posted on October 5, 2014 .

Cuba: Shifts in the U.S. embargo and the Brazilian connection

One of the most important developments coming out of the Americas in the last few weeks has been the realisation within certain influential sectors in Washington that the U.S.’ 50 year plus economic blockade on Cuba is now working against its own economic interests and giving Brazil a considerable geostrategic advantage in the region. While punishing Cuba for carrying out a widely popular revolution in 1959 had its own logic so as to remind the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean that they best not even dream of challenging the U.S.-led Cold War status quo, the reality of the region is now remarkably different to the era when Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement overthrew the brutal U.S-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

With a wide range of left and centre-left governments in power in Latin America, within recent years the region has witness the creation of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA, 2004), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, 2008) and most recently the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC, 2011). When the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) – the key forum for inter-American discussions during the Cold War – permitted the readmission of Cuba into its ranks, Havana simply said thanks but no thanks.

While Venezuela under the late Hugo Chávez led the charge in the promotion of regional integration both on an ideological level and through its oil diplomacy, Brazil has also played a key role in flexing its new found economic might. From 2003 to 2010 Brazil invested over $10 billion in regional construction works in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela among others. Defying the U.S. economic blockade on Cuba, in the last 5 years the Portuguese speaking country has invested $957 million in the deep water Mariel port project.

U.S. business leaders and policy makers would obviously be aware of these developments. In a recent article in the conservative Americas Quarterly, the title of the piece summed up the situation accurately: ‘Brazil Sambas with Cuba, the U.S. Dances Alone’. Noting that one Cuban economist indicated that the island’s main benefactor was now Brazil and not Venezuela, the article went on to state that:

Sadly, the U.S. is bound up in a half-century-old policy toward the island and has been pushed to the sidelines. This is more than just economics; it has to do with political influence in the hemisphere. And on this, the U.S. is on the losing side of history.

In a recent open letter sent to President Barack Obama, a group of 44 former high-ranking U.S diplomats, civil servants, military officers and Cuban-American businessmen led by former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte (a former Cold War warrior who had a fondness for death squads in Central America in the 1980s) noted that: “The U.S. is finding itself increasingly isolated internationally in its Cuba policy”. In a further development Thomas Donohue – president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – travelled to Havana last week and met the island’s leader Raúl Castro. According to this body the U.S. embargo on Cuba results in a financial loss to the U.S. economy from $1.2 to $3.6 billion annually.

Returning Cuban-Brazilian relations, according to Domingo Amuchastegui – a former Cuban government defector now turned analysis – while Brazil’s national oil company Petrobras originally invested in deep offshore oil drilling in Cuba, and then withdrew after some initial setbacks, the Brazilians have returned in force to the island – in particular to the Special Development Zone of Mariel (ZEDM). Amuchastegui writes that:

Since last year, various high-level Cuban delegations have criss-crossed the Brazilian financial triangle (Rio de Janeiro- São Paulo-Porto Alegre) explaining the potentials and incentives of the ZEDM. Partly as a result of these investments, trade with Brazil has crossed the half-billion dollar bar. Knowing perfectly well how Brazilian corporations have successfully expanded abroad over the past 40 years, it’s rather difficult to imagine that the Brazilian government may be throwing away big money in Cuba, just for the sake of being nice and friendly, or out of past political affinities. I could speculate over Brazil’s strategic reasons for investing in Cuba — the island nation’s reinsertion in the Interamerican system and the Revolution’s appeal among Latin Americans, the European Union’s rapprochement to Cuba, the reforms and changes taking place in Cuba, the economic potentials of Cuba within the Caribbean region, the close relationship of Cuba with some of Brazil’s most important partners (China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, South Africa, Angola, Russia, India), not to mention special Brazilian domestic considerations.

But the fact remains that between the Petrobras withdrawal and the support of Mariel, a significant change in Brazilian policies toward Cuba has taken place.

Moreover — as Rousseff gets ready for her reelection campaign — Brazilian authorities took the most unexpected decision of all: A massive call for thousands of Cuban doctors to assist the healthcare needs of Brazil’s poor, at an estimated cost of $520 million and up per year and the political price of Brazilian physician guilds’ wrath. This is a step that not even Lula had dared to implement in his two mandates.

Finally, discussing Brazilian foreign policy, Amuchastegui observes that:

Brazilian officials are now talking tough. Rousseff advisor Garcia recently stated that “sympathy for Cuba (…) runs deep in Brazil and other Latin American countries that reject the U.S. trade embargo.” And in regards to internal issues of Cuba, he did stress that, “We will not tell [the Cubans] what to do.” This is an explicit and most unusual statement, contrary to the United States’ and European Union’s policy of interference in domestic affairs of Cuba.

With Brazil and several Latin American countries on Cuba’s side, it looks like the Washington will sooner rather than later have to come to grips with the new regional political and economic landscape and lift its harsh economic blockade on the island.

Fidel Castro may yet score one more victory against U.S. imperialism.  

Posted on June 2, 2014 .

The Labyrinth of Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

The death of the Colombian fictional writer Gabriel García Márquez was long expected given his deteriorating health over the last few years. Márquez was suffering from dementia and while his own autobiography Living to Tell the Tale (2002) saw a return of his literary flare, his last novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) was a disappointment and rightly received mixed reviews. But by this stage of course the Colombian had already consolidated himself as a literary giant in the pantheon of Latin American literature with works such as No One Writes to the Colonel (1961), Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), The General in His Labyrinth (1989) and his magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

As foreseen, both the presidents of Colombia and Mexico attended Márquez funeral although his own leftist politics were well known, as was his longstanding friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. While Chile’s Isabel Allende recently commented that the Colombian had contributed enormously to giving Latin Americans back their history, novelist Mona Simpson perhaps best summarized Márquez’s fascinating life by noting that:

The story of García Márquez's life and career is as beautifully shaped and fabular as one of his own stories. Born in 1927 in the small town of Aracataca, Colombia, he was raised there by his grandparents for eight years. Aracataca was a "Wild West boom town" and his grandparents' house was full of people – "his grandparents, aunts, transient guests, servants, Indians". García Márquez based his fictional homeland on Aracataca and named it Macondo – after a dusty sign he once passed on a train in rural Colombia. The sign heralded no visible town.

His grandfather was a colonel and a liberal veteran of the thousand days war, who refused to remain silent about the banana massacres that took place the year García Márquez was born. As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the colonel taught the young García Márquez lessons from the dictionary, took him to the circus every year and introduced him to the miracle of ice, which he first witnessed at the American Fruit Company. The fact that the US was – for García Márquez and his grandfather – the enemy added to the experience. His ideology was shaped by his grandfather, who told him, "You can't imagine how much a dead man weighs", a line that worked its way into the fiction. "Instead of telling me fairytales," García Márquez said, "he would regale me with horrifying accounts of the last civil war that free-thinkers and anti-clerics waged against the conservative government". If García Márquez (known affectionately as "Gabo" in Latin America) gleaned his politics through his grandfather, his grandmother bequeathed him his aesthetic stance. She "treated the extraordinary as something perfectly natural". The household was full of ghost stories, premonitions, omens, portents, superstitions, and magic (all of which could function as a working description of Catholicism). His grandfather ignored his wife's supernatural views, and she relayed them in a deadpan style.

Commenting further on One Hundred Years of Solitude, Simpson wrote that:

There are few modern works of genius that feel as unlaboured as One Hundred Years of Solitude. And yet, in his Paris Review interview, Gabo says, "Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved."

The appeal of Márquez’s major work of course will continue to have resonance with millions of Latin Americans for many decades if not centuries. Travel to Latin America and you will find thousands of Macondo’s where the human spirit endures the complexities of poverty, family, power and the battle to control ones destiny in the face of few and difficult options.

Posted on April 30, 2014 .

Don't write off Maduro: why Venezuela is not another Ukraine

By Dr Luis Fernando Angosto Ferrández and Dr Rodrigo Acuña

The Conversation

24 March 2014

A wave of street protests, some violent, has been sweeping Venezuela. These attracted international media coverage, which often presented protests as the expression of a national crisis that anticipated the fall of president Nicolas Maduro and the collapse of his leftist Bolivarian project.

Several analysts rushed to draw parallels between Venezuela and Ukraine. They suggested the turbulent ousting of Víktor Yanukóvich in the latter foretold that Maduro’s days as head of state were numbered. This comparison was misguided.

So far, 34 people have died and more than 460 people have been wounded. These figures include bystanders and anti- and pro-government supporters.

Maduro’s government originally did instruct security forces not to use firearms under any circumstances and not to confront protesters. When these orders were disobeyed, the head of the country’s intelligence agency was dismissed. Fourteen members of the security forces were arrested and charged after evidence of misconduct.

According to Venezuela’s attorney-general Luisa Ortega Díaz, by February 28 the government had detained 1044 people, of whom 418 were students. While most have since been released, by mid-March authorities in the state of Carabobo detained three paramilitary groups – some with C4 explosives and military-grade firearms.

This was a reminder of the government’s claims that it faces violent destabilisation plans from certain sectors of the opposition. Nevertheless, in response to criticisms of heavy-handedness, the Maduro administration has created a commission where people can report human rights violations by authorities.

Maduro has electoral legitimacy

Forecasters of Maduro’s political swansong ignored three key elements to understand where Venezuela is right now: the source of the president’s legitimacy; the high support he retains; and a weak opposition incapable of democratically channelling existing discontent.

In April 2013, Maduro was elected with 50.61% of the vote, only 1.49% ahead of opposition leader Henrique Capriles. These results were disappointing for the opposition bloc. After Hugo Chávez’s death a month earlier, they had considered their political rivals mortally wounded in electoral terms.

Ignoring the reports of national and international observers who backed the transparency of the election, the opposition was reluctant to recognise Maduro’s legitimacy. They requested an audit, which confirmed the initial result. The opposition validated the result by turning to preparations for the municipal elections in December 2013.

The economy was weakening after years of extraordinary growth. Inflation, nearing 50% in a country chronically affected by this problem, brought extra burdens on the popular classes. Despite these circumstances and rising concerns about corruption within sectors of the government, pro-government candidates won a sweeping victory in the municipal elections.

Voters opted for candidates associated with a project that, warts and all, has demonstrated a commitment to redistributive policies and social rights. The opposition lacked a clear alternative project.

Opposition has dubious record

The opposition remains fragmented. This is largely due to a weak leadership, which over the past 15 years has ambiguously oscillated between electorally competing with the government and supporting extra-institutional adventures to oust elected presidents.

The opposition did the latter when it supported a military coup against Chávez in 2002 and an oil industry lockout in 2003. In 2005, it disbanded before the National Assembly elections. The opposition has repeatedly questioned electoral results not in its favour.

To add to its dilemma, the opposition has often turned towards the United States for guidance and financial assistance. This move has reinforced government legitimacy due to strong nationalist sentiments in the country.

In the past few weeks, the opposition leadership fell into an old trap by not clearly disassociating itself from violent protesters. Government buildings, private property, public transport and police vehicles were destroyed. Actions such as the blocking of roads not only angered commuters, but also indirectly contributed to the country’s death toll by obstructing people’s access to medical treatment.

On a couple of occasions, snipers assassinated citizens who tried to clear the barricades to facilitate transit. These actions seriously alienated sectors of the opposition base that do not support violent practices.

A large challenge for the Maduro administration will come now from the trial of Leopoldo López, the hard right-wing opposition leader at the centre of the protests. Calling on people to “show their rage” against the government, his main message was that protests must continue until Maduro resigns. Whether the attorney-general can put together a compelling case connecting López to the violence remains to be seen.

For now, support for the Venezuelan government remains high. Its repeated calls for peaceful dialogue with the opposition were not attended by a disoriented opposition leadership.

The lack of dialogue is a pity, since it could have contributed to stopping the violence that affected Venezuela over the past few weeks, saving lives. But it is also a pity for a country that deserves a democratic opposition.

Posted on March 31, 2014 .

The opposition in Venezuela and the strategy behind its violence

In the last few months Venezuela has witnessed growing inflation and economic turmoil. Led by the most extreme elements of the political right, now violent protests have erupted which have left 13 people dead. While corruption within the Maduro government is a real problem, since last year powerful elements of the private sector and the opposition have stepped up their pressure on the administration. Their calculation is simple. Since Nicolas Maduro won last year’s elections by a slim margin of 1.6 per cent, he, unlike the late President Hugo Chávez, is weak and can be forced to resign through violence.

Speculating with dollars and hording consumer products like cornflour, cooking oil, coffee and milk, real necessities have been created amongst average Venezuelans. In a detailed article for the U.S. magazine Counter Punch, Venezuelan sociologist María Páez Victor has written on this economic war which is receiving next to no coverage in the mainstream press. The objectives of such tactics – known as low-intensity warfare in military literature – are aimed at exhausting popular support for a government. They were used successfully by local reactionaries and the Republicans in Washington against the Popular Unity government in Chile (1970-1973), and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (1979-1990). Today these tactics are being used in Venezuela.

While some sections of the opposition have genuine grievances towards the government which need to be addressed, key segments within them also continue turning towards the United States for funding and political direction. The Obama administration in this regard has been extremely disappointing despite the U.S. President’s symbolic handshakes with Chávez in 2009, and Cuban President Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial late last year.

Writing for the Latin American Bureau in London, Julia Buxton professor of Comparative Politics in the School of Public Policy, CEU, Budapest – notes that in 2008:

the US-based Cato Institute awarded the US$500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty to student leader Yon Goicoechea for his role in mobilising protests against the suspension of private broadcaster RCTV’s licence. At the same time, a sizeable amount of the US$45 million in funding provided annually by US institutions to Venezuelan opposition groups was channelled to ‘youth outreach’ programmes.

With financial support and media training, Venezuela’s student and opposition-aligned Juventud Activa Venezuela Unida (JAVU) became vociferous and mobilised, focusing after 2010 on the alleged censorship by the state of private sector broadcasters and on government legislation intended to democratise the administration of the universities. The latter was portrayed as a threat to university autonomy and some public institutions, such as the Universidad Central de Venezuela, were driven into the opposition camp.

According to another analyst, Washington this year alone has provided the Venezuelan opposition with $5 million from the U.S. federal budget – the ‘tip of the iceberg’, in addition to the millions channelled to them in the last 15 years.

Emboldened by their improved performance in the April 2013 presidential elections with their front man Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Venezuelan opposition expected to make further gains in last December’s municipal voting. They did not and instead Maduro managed to win three-fourths of the country’s municipalities with a margin of 49 to 43 per cent.

Now divided since Capriles shook Maduro’s hand at an anti-crime meeting with local governors earlier this year, Leopoldo López has decided that he should lead the opposition’s bloc Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD).

Using violent protests, and receiving favourable private media coverage, López has called on street marches until the government resigns. It’s a simple strategy and non-democratic. And despite Washington’s support, the majority of South American countries have rejected it.

Providing us with some final thoughts on the internal politics of the opposition Buxton writes that:

Capriles has been steering the opposition down the electoral path in recognition of the fact that ordinary voters are alienated by violent protest and disorder. It has been widely acknowledged that such a strategy will take time to produce results, but it allows the MUD to build an electoral base and credibility as a political alternative. This hard work will be undone by a return to unconstitutional activities. The students and MUD radicals offer no governance plan, with ‘salida’ serving as a hash tag, not a strategy, according to one opposition blogger.

Just as in 2002, radicals have forgotten that the people they must convince are Venezuelan voters, not international opinion. There can be no short cut to replacing a movement and government that is genuinely popular. Attempting to induce regime overthrow is unnecessary when the option of a recall referendum is available, and it is irresponsible when the outcome of violent change will only be a cycle of violent revenge.

Posted on February 25, 2014 .

CELAC holds second summit in Havana but who’s reporting on this important gathering?

This month the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC for its initials in Spanish) is being held in Havana, Cuba. As expected, most of the mainstream English speaking media is giving little attention to this summit, despite 33 countries from the Americas belonging to this organization. Launched in late 2011 with the strong support of Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez, this bloc has consciously excluded the participation of Canada and United States given Washington’s long record of manipulating the Organization of American States (OAS) – the hemisphere’s dominant inter-American body – to suit its own interests. To the credit of the Washington Post, this influential paper today ran a short piece from the Associated Press which elaborated on the gathering stating that:

The summit’s main theme is fighting poverty, inequality and hunger. According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 28 percent of the region’s inhabitants live in poverty and 11 percent in extreme poverty.

Tuesday’s session of heads of CELAC states began with one minute of silence to remember the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer last March.

Chavez, an outspoken U.S. foe, was a driving force behind CELAC’s creation in 2011. It was conceived as an alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States, which suspended Cuba’s membership in 1962 shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Proponents argued the OAS has historically served Washington’s interests rather than those of the region, and even Latin American allies of the United States have participated enthusiastically in CELAC.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza attended the summit Tuesday as an observer, believed to be the first visit by a secretary-general to Cuba since its founding in 1948.

“The integration of Latin America is a strategic project. ... CELAC does not impede bilateral relations within and outside of the region. On the contrary, it strengthens them,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said in an evening address.

In his wide-ranging speech, Castro touched on the risk that global climate change poses to the region, especially low-lying Caribbean islands. He expressed solidarity for Argentina’s claim to the British-controlled Falkland Islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas; for Puerto Rican independence; and for Ecuador in its legal battle with U.S. oil company Chevron.

He also criticized the 52-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba as well as American surveillance targeting the communications of foreign heads of state, companies and individuals. The threats of outside interference, military invasion and coups remain present, Castro said.


Posted on January 29, 2014 .

New book on Venezuela by Routledge, chapter on Petrocaribe by Rodrigo Acuña

This month Routledge has published a new book on Venezuela titled Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America: Venezuela and the International Politics of Discontent. Edited by Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández (Sydney University), I have contributed a chapter on Petrocaribe, the Caribbean and Central American oil alliance established under the government of Hugo Chávez. As a part of its Routledge Studies in Latin American Politics series, this work is a product from a conference originally held at Sydney University in late 2012. Daniel Hellinger from Webster University writes:

Among the many books on Venezuela, this one is unique and to be praised for offering a clear-eyed, balanced assessment of the impact of Hugo Chávez Frías on hemispheric and global relations. It wrestles with thorny issues about the limits and possibilities of revolution in the current geopolitical context, benefitting from fine research on Latin America being undertaken in Australasia.

According to Steve Ellner from Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, and a respected long time observer of Venezuelan politics and history:  

This volume represents a unique effort to explore the tie-in between struggles within Venezuela in favor of justice and democratic consolidation, on the one hand, and international relations, on the other. Editor Luis Angosto-Ferrández uses a post-structuralist approach to relate symbols and discourse to the initiatives promoting Latin American unity undertaken by President Hugo Chávez. In addition to examining government actions to create a Latin American bloc and the unity of third world countries, several chapters in the book focus on the Venezuelan Indigenous movement and its transnational networks. All eight of the book’s chapters provide a wealth of useful information that illuminates Venezuelan developments as well as continental and North-South relations. The reader may or may not be in agreement with all the authors’ arguments and viewpoints, but will undoubtedly find his/her grasp of the complex transformations currently underway in Venezuela and Latin America significantly enhanced.

For more information about this book, just visit the following webpage Routledge has created.

Posted on November 22, 2013 .

Overthrow of the Allende government and the Australian connection

While thousands of Chileans took to the streets of Santiago to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government on September 11, 1973, outside the region Chile, and the legacy of General Pinochet's dictatorship, has also attracted attention. In the Nation magazine Peter Kornbluh ― director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project and author of ‘The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability’ ― has written how a Chilean judge is attempting to have Capt. Ray Davis ― former head of the U.S. Military Group in Chile ―extradited from Florida for his alleged involvement in the murder of U.S. citizens Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi under the military. In Australia, journalist Florencia Melgar and writer Sarah Gilbert have published a report for the broadcaster SBS titled ‘The Other 9/11’ discussing Canberra’s role back in the 1970s. They write:

After a formal request from the United States, two officers from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, or ASIS, were stationed in Santiago. By 1972, the officers had agreed to manage three agents on the CIA’s behalf and to relay information to Washington.

“The idea of taking over for one of the allies in Chile wasn’t a new thing – it was the pattern of helpful smaller ally being given pieces of work,” says Nicky Heger, author and journalist specialised in intelligence.

In 1972, Labor’s Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, bringing progressive politics to Canberra after more than two decades of conservative government. One of the things set to change was foreign policy.

Bill Robertson, then head of Australia’s Secret Service, had the unhappy task of informing Mr Whitlam that his spies were helping the CIA to undermine a fellow progressive, left-wing government in South America.

There are different accounts of what came next. Whitlam has said he was appalled at the news, and ordered the officers to be pulled out right away. But Robertson tells a different story. In a memo that he published to clear his name after Whitlam unceremoniously sacked him in 1975, Robertson refers to an “ASIS station in another country.” Expert commentators have concluded that he meant Chile. 

The memo says Whitlam “agonised” over the decision to remove the ASIS agents, worrying that the US might “react adversely.” It says the Prime Minister declined to immediately sign the order to remove the ASIS agents, which Robertson presented when he first told Whitlam about their activities, and it was a couple of months before Whitlam acted.

The mere fact of Australia’s involvement in Chile only became public in 1977 when a Royal Commission, set up by Gough Whitlam to thoroughly investigate Australia’s security services, made its report.

Posted on September 11, 2013 .

Mexico and the war on drugs: Problems and solutions

The recent detention of Mario Ramirez Treviño ― head of the Cártel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel) and better known as X-20 ― in Mexico brought renewed attention to the war on drugs. However, in a critical paper published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Pamela F. Izaguirre called Ramirez Treviño's arrest as “nothing more than superficial achievements for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s eight-month-old administration.” After providing some much needed background to the current crisis in Mexico, Izaguirre wrote:

The central issue, however, appears to be that past presidents have failed to hit at the heart of the drug trafficking organizations. According to Edgardo Buscaglia, Special Advisor to the United Nations in organized crime, by not attacking the nature of their patrimony, the most fundamental solution is not implemented, allowing these organizations to continue to thrive. In other words, DTO’s [drug traffic organizations] are determined to expand their patrimony, which is undoubtably derived from illegal activities. Their biggest achievement is to hide themselves in the legal economy through the formalization of the resources they obtain from committing crimes. Sending the military and the police force to take back the streets is only going to work if at the same time the government dismantles the patrimony of  millions, and often billions, of dollars into the hands of Mexican criminal groups. When the DTO’s start to worry that their funds and businesses might be sought after by government authorities, they will no longer be able to finance more corruption and violence.

Furthermore, Buscaglia asserts that in order for DTO’s to stay in business, they need to be protected by a three-pillar formula consisting of powerful businesses, tainted politicians, and public officials. Together, these three act as a shield of steel that keeps them untouchable and enables them to continuously grow. In her book Los Señores del Narco (The Narco Lords), brilliant Mexican reporter Anabel Hernández identifies not the kingpins, but Mexico’s powerful businessman and politicians as being the original  masters of the narco-business, who through their networks have developed thriving enterprises with absolute impunity. The problem is not that Mexico does not possess the intelligence or institutional means to stop organized crime from growing; it is that these elite groups have managed to block them.

Posted on August 31, 2013 .

Edward Snowden and the diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales' aeroplane in Europe

Last week’s diplomatic incident in Vienna continues to spark anger in Latin America. In Austria, the Bolivian President Evo Morales’ aeroplane was grounded amid allegations the NSA informer Edward Snowden was on board after Morales left Moscow during a state visit. Recently, the Organization of American States (OAS) met and issued a resolution, “to condemn actions that violated basic rules and principles of international law such as the inviolability of Heads of State.” It added that it would: “strongly call upon the governments of France, Portugal, Italy and Spain to provide the necessary explanations and apologies about the events involving the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales, as well as the corresponding apologies”.

A few days earlier, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) issued a similar statement. They declared that what took place was a “flagrant violation of international treaties that rule the peaceful coexistence, solidarity and cooperation between the States.” Arguing the act was “an illegal action that affected the liberty of transit and movement of a Chief of State and his official delegation”, UNASUR added that: “[t]he unacceptable restriction to Morales´ liberty, turned him into a virtual hostage, was a violation of rights, not only to the Bolivian people but against all the countries and people of Latin America as well.”

With the incident quickly moving to the back pages of the international press, the Australian journalist John Pilger in the Guardian best summarized the episode as follows:

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on "suspicion" that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the "international community", as the governments of the west call themselves. To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism. Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

The forcing down of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane – denied airspace by France, Spain and Portugal, followed by his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to "inspect" his aircraft for the "fugitive" Edward Snowden – was an act of air piracy and state terrorism. It was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name.

Posted on July 12, 2013 .

Mass demonstrations in Brazil continue in lead up to 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games

As Brazil continues to be rocked by the largest street demonstrations the country has witnessed in 20 years, some of the harsh social realities many Brazilians deal with have begun to make their way into the mainstream media. The New York Times recently ran a piece and even the Economist – the great champion of free market economics – claimed Brazilians unfairly pay first-world taxes for third-world services. Mike Davis – author of Planet of Slums – has also provided an interesting article on the government’s fight against crime and the setbacks it has witnessed since the days Lula da Silva was in office. Davis writes:

To help convince the International Olympic Committee that Rio would be a safe as well as beautiful site for the 2016 games, first the government had to capture and hold the morros. The trial run in 2008 targeted Dona Marta, a famous cliff-dwelling favela in the south zone, which boasts some of the best samba and funk in Rio. A year later the police pacification unit (UPP) entered Cidade de Deus in the west zone. In each case there was less opposition from gangs than expected and the government invoked early ‘successes’.

Then, just two weeks after huge crowds celebrated the award of the games to Rio, gang members firing a 50-caliber machine-gun brought down a police helicopter over the favela of Morro dos Macacos. Amateur video relayed across the world showed the helicopter’s fiery crash into a local soccer field, killing three policemen and badly burning two others.

Davis goes on to add: 

Jose Mariano Beltrame, police chief and secretary of security for the state of Rio, called it ‘our 9/11’, while the US consul, in emails released by Wikileaks, worried that gang violence had escalated into ‘a full-bore internal armed conflict’ and that Washington had underestimated the extent to which the ‘favelas have been outside state authority’. State governor Sergio Cabral again asked Lula for help from the army, and the army, in turn, volunteered to apply the ‘clear and hold’ tactics it had learned in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it has been leading the UN stabilisation mission since 2004.

After many months of skirmishes and the establishment of more UPP beachheads, the full might of the Brazilian state was again unleashed against the Red Command in Complexo do Alemao. On ‘D Day,’ 25 November 2010, Marines and BOPE stormed the satellite favela of Vila Cruzeiro, killing 31 people, but the narco-revolutionaries simply retreated deeper into their labyrinth. Army paratroopers were brought in and the authorities broadcast a ‘surrender or die’ ultimatum. The Red Command defiantly replied with bus burnings and assaults across the city. Two days later, 3,000 troops with tanks and helicopter gunships overwhelmed the district. They seized truckloads of drugs and guns, but most gang members slipped away again.

Lula, in his last month in office, tried to put a brave face on military frustration: ‘The important thing is we have taken the first step. We went in, we are inside Complexo do Alemao.’ He described the assault as just the beginning of the campaign to take back the favelas (in fact it was already four years old) and promised ‘we will win this war’.

Posted on June 23, 2013 .

Brazil's growing power in South America

In a recent article in Le Monde diplomatic, Renaud Lambert discussed the growing power and contradiction of Brazil’s new economic and political clout in South America. Noting how trade between Brazil and Venezuela has increased 800% since 1999 when Hugo Chávez took office, Lambert interviewed Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães ― former minister of the secretariat of strategic affairs under President Lula da Silva (2003-2010) ― and wrote that:

At 74, he has become a straight talker: “What advantage do you see for France or Germany in integrating with a country such as Malta?” he asked. “None at all. Except perhaps that it’s a sovereign country, and therefore has a vote in international institutions.” With other major blocs forming around the world, Brazil must create its “own” region, based not on Latin America, since Mexico and Central America “vote with Washington”, but on South America, which should become “the central axis of our strategy of rejection of all subservience to US interests.”

The anti-imperialism of the most progressive among Brazil’s senior civil servants is like Pomar’s. He thinks that, irrespective of the political convictions of its backers, a movement founded on this anti-US rhetoric could spur social change: “Every attempt to build a socialist bloc in Latin America has run into two obstacles: the power of the Latin American bourgeoisie, and that of the White House. Brazil’s integration initiative will not eliminate outside interference, but will reduce its impact, and give national politics greater autonomy.” The tough stance of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) — founded in 2008 — probably helped to foil Bolivian and Ecuadorian coups in 2008 and 2010. When the Venezuelan opposition and the US challenged the validity of the election of Nicolas Maduro, Unasur supported Hugo Chávez’s designated heir. “In the past, issues of that kind were settled by the Organisation of American States — that means by the White House,” said Pinheiro Guimarães. Secretary of State John Kerry recently referred to Latin America as the “backyard” of the US.

Posted on June 8, 2013 .

Obama continues Cold War policy by failing to remove Cuba from State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism

During the 1980s, many would argue the current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry played a positive role in inter-American affairs. At one point the Democratic Senator travelled to Nicaragua and met with Sandinista leaders in order to promote peace in Central America. Kerry declared: “Our foreign policy should represent the democratic values that have made our country great, not subvert those values by funding terrorism to overthrow governments of other countries.” Kerry's current decision to continue to label Cuba as a state that supports terrorism is therefore regrettable and rather hypocritical given that the Caribbean island itself has long been on the receiving end of covert operations from right-wing Cubans in Miami. Keith Bolender in the Guardian recently explained more:   

The long-awaited annual report on international terrorism from the State Department was released Thursday, and confirmed what officials had already indicated – that Cuba is staying on the list along with Iran, Sudan and Syria. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell confirmed the administration "has no current plans to remove Cuba". The decision came as a disappointment for those who were expecting new Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time critic of America's counter-productive policy against the Castro government, might recommend Cuba's removal. The fact he hasn't demonstrates how difficult it is to change the dynamics of the antagonistic relationship between these two ideological adversaries.

Cuba was originally included on the list in 1982, replacing a then-friendly Iraq. The designation levies comprehensive economic punishments against Havana as part of the overall strategy of regime change that includes a decades-long economic embargo, unrelenting propaganda, extra-territorial application of American laws.

For it's part, Cuba calls its continued inclusion on the list "shameful" and pandering to a small community of former Cuban citizens who now live in Florida. Cuba also asserts that the US has actually undertaken actions on the island that have resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.

An official of the country's foreign relations department, MINREX, who asked to remain anonymous, complained:

"It is ridiculous that the United States continues to include Cuba on an arbitrary list of states that sponsor terrorism, while it is Cuba that has suffered so much from terrorism – originating from the United States."

The so-called terrorism against Cuba began shortly after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. In the early 1960s a covert CIA program known as Operation Mongoose led to the killing of teachers, farmers, government officials and the destruction of agricultural and non-military industrial targets. Other incidents involved attacks on villages, biological terrorism including the introduction of Dengue 2 that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 children in 1981, and a 1997 bombing campaign against tourist facilities in Havana and Varadero that killed Canadian-Italian tourist Fabio Di Celmo and injured dozens.

The most infamous act of terrorism occurred with the bombing of Cubana Airlines in 1976, killing all 72 on board. One of the two recognized masterminds, former CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles, has a long history of suspected terrorist activities against his former homeland; at one point bragging to the New York Times of his involvement in the hotel bombings. Posada continues to live a quiet life in Miami, considered a hero among many of the first generation exiles whose anti-revolutionary fervor has yet to diminish. The other architect of the Cubana Airlines bombing, Orlando Bosch, died peacefully in Miami a few years ago. As a result of these terrorist activities, the Cuban government sent intelligence officers to Florida in the 1990s to infiltrate Cuban-American organizations in an effort to thwart further acts. The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were uncovered by the FBI and are serving long prison terms.

Posted on June 5, 2013 .

Colombia seeks NATO membership

Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos seeks NATO membership in a move that has provoked strong opposition from several countries in Latin America. This report from the Argentina Independent states that:

Bolivia’s president Evo Morales described Colombia’s aspirations to join as, a “threat to our continent”. He then went on to denounce it as an act of “aggression, provocation and conspiracy” towards the “anti-imperialist” governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.

Earlier this afternoon it surfaced that Morales had requested an emergency meeting of the Security Council of the Union of South American Nations as regards the matter.

Nicaragua responded similarly. President Daniel Ortega lamented Colombia’s decision to engage with NATO, describing it as a “military organisation… that doesn’t serve any purpose” and whose only achievements have been “bombings, assassinations, and destruction”.

All eyes will soon turn towards what Brazil has to say on the matter.

Posted on June 4, 2013 .

Progress in negotiations to end the civil war in Colombia between the government and leftist rebels

A breakthrough has recently taken place in the peace negotiations being held in Havana between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor:   

Six months after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government first sat down to try and negotiate an end to the country's half-century-long conflict, many citizens felt their hopes deflate. The talks were beginning to appear to be just another failed attempt at peace, and critics' voices were growing louder.

But on Sunday came a major breakthrough. The FARC and the government made a joint announcement stating that they had reached an agreement for "radical transformations" in the Colombian countryside. Land rights have been a flash point of the conflict, and the FARC claim they are the reason they rose up against the state 49 years ago today. Over half of the farmland in this South American nation is held by 1 percent of landowners. The new agreement “seeks to reverse the causes of the conflict,” according to a joint statement read in Havana, Cuba, where the negotiations are taking place.

Posted on May 30, 2013 .

Moving beyond the spin on the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez

A few years ago the journalist Bart Jones wrote one of the best biographies in the English language on the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, Jones recently reflected on Chávez’s legacy stating that:  

The image of Chávez as crazed dictator is more cartoon caricature than realistic portrait. His government, like any, had its flaws. It didn’t do enough to combat crime, corruption and bureaucracy. It was too centered on “El Comandante” as a one-man show. And Chávez didn’t just debate or defeat opponents. He insulted them and sought to verbally annihilate them.

The surprisingly poor showing of his less charismatic anointed successor, Nicholas Maduro, who won the April 14 election to replace him by less than 2 percentage points, underscored the weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution, and where it needs to improve.

But Chávez also did some positive things rarely noted. For the first time in Venezuela’s history, he redirected its vast oil wealth to the poor majority. He sent thousands of Cuban doctors into slums, where they lived and provided free, 24-hour basic medical care. He launched a massive literacy and free education program, giving maids a shot at a high school diploma and others a college degree. Poverty was cut in half.

Above all, he gave the poor hope.

His supporters would argue that these and other initiatives amounted to fulfilling the social justice teachings of the Roman Catholic church.

In pre-Chávez Venezuela, a tiny elite controlled the oil wealth. They lived in gated mansions and flew off to Europe while the majority lived in tin shacks and struggled to eat.

It was an unsustainable social structure, not to mention -- Chávez and his supporters would say -- un-Christian. It was bound to collapse someday and easily led to the rise of a firebrand like Chávez who turned the established order upside down.

Posted on May 30, 2013 .