May 16, 2013

If You Are in the Business of Exporting Toilet Paper, Good News


Venezuela really needs some:

To avoid getting caught with their pants down, Venezuelan officials say they will confront a toilet paper shortage by importing 50 million rolls to meet demand.

Toilet paper is just one of the basic goods and foodstuffs that have been disappearing from store shelves over the past few months, as the government and private companies blame each other for the scarcity.

Venezuelan Minister of Commerce Alejandro Fleming announced the toilet paper measure on Tuesday, the state-run AVN news agency reported.

Repeating the government's stance, he blamed the media for provoking fear in consumers, who in turn begin hoarding items.

Venezuelans use about 125 million rolls a month, Fleming said.

(AP Photo)

April 7, 2013

Venezuela's Acting President Using Sorcery on His Political Foes


Campaigning has always been a dirty business, but Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro has added an element of the surreal in his quest to succeed Hugo Chavez.

According to Reuters, Maduro invoked the 'Curse of Macarapana" on any Venezuelan who dared to vote against him (the curse refers to a "16th-century Battle of Macarapana when Spanish colonial fighters massacred local Indian forces").

“If anyone among the people votes against Nicolas Maduro, he is voting against himself, and the curse of Macarapana is falling on him,” he reportedly said.

When not summoning ancient evils, Maduro has raised more conventional specters, claiming that hit men hired by the U.S. had been attempting to kill him and sabotage the country's electrical grid.

Maduro holds a lead in the polls over opposition leader Henrique Capriles. The election will be held on April 14.

(AP Photo)

March 18, 2013

When in Political Trouble, Call the Pope


Everywhere you go, politicians are all the same. When times are good, they take the credit; when times are bad, they find a convenient boogeyman (often a straw man foreign threat) to distract the public for a while.

Populist Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner -- under whose auspices the nation has experienced a 26 percent inflation rate and riots in December -- is facing quite a bit of political trouble. Unsurprisingly, her approval rating has plummeted, from 69 percent over a year ago to 39 percent in January. True to form, she is taking a page from the global political playbook: She has decided to pick yet another fight with the UK over the Falkland Islands. And, this time, she has turned to a higher power: She called the Pope.

The Falkland Islands, a British territory referred to as Malvinas in Argentina, have been a sore spot for UK-Argentinian relations for several decades. Argentina claims the islands, and so the country invaded them in 1982, triggering a 74-day long war with the UK. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was the UK's Prime Minister, so you can probably guess who won the war. (Nobody messes with the Iron Lady.)

But that was over 30 years ago, and Argentina is feeling scrappy again. Because of this, the Falkland Islands held a referendum on their status as a British territory last week. The result wasn't particularly close. Of the 1518 votes cast, 1513 (99.8 percent) voted to remain in the UK. What about those other 5 votes? One was invalid, one was lost and presumably three were cast in favor of Argentina. (When was the last time 99.8 percent of Americans agreed on anything?)

So now you can see why President Kirchner needs some divine intervention. Going up against the wishes of nearly all Falkland Islanders, not to mention the British government, is a monumental task.

Kirchner hopes that Pope Francis, an Argentinian himself, will support her. In the past, he has voiced support for Argentina's claims to the islands. However, he and Kirchner aren't exactly good friends. The two of them butted heads over social issues while he was still a cardinal, and Kirchner referred to his beliefs as "medieval." Further, the idea that a newly installed pope would immediately insert himself into a controversial geopolitical debate is a bit far-fetched.

Kirchner may need to boost her political support by attacking some other foreign boogeyman. Perhaps the U.S. would make a tempting target.

( AP photo)

March 6, 2013

Hugo's Bad Luck and Big Mouth


There's not a whole lot worth saying about the passing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As one journalist friend of mine put it, "he's simply a caudillo; the region has seen plenty before." I think that's about as accurate and succinct an obit as you're likely to read this week.

Others, however, have had much more to say about Mr. Chavez and his legacy, and some of it I find to be a bit strange. I don't mean Sean Penn and Oliver Stone strange, as that level of denial and naivety should go without saying. What I'm referring to is the reaction from El Comandante's more ardent detractors. Here's Jeffrey Goldberg:

Goldberg is right to point out Chavez's human rights abuses, not to mention his history of repugnant anti-Semitic comments. But what exactly makes Chavez's record different from, for example, other serial human rights abusers that enjoy strategic, even warm, relations with the United States? After all, despite Chavez's bellicosity and anti-Americanism, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship remained a rather transactional one throughout much of Chavez's time in power.

No, Chavez's real problem was that he didn't have the good fortune of rising to power in a different hemisphere -- like somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps. When Chavez rigged elections he was called a dictator; when Jordan's King Abdullah II did it, he was called an innovator. When Chavez jailed dissidents, he earned scorn from Western media and policymakers. When the Kingdom of Bahrain did that, they got a weapons contract and a photo-op with the secretary of state. Same goes for those champions of tolerance and democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Hugo Chavez also failed to make himself of strategic value to the United States, and instead made it his business to thumb his nose at an American regional strategy still very much influenced by a Cold War frame of reference. He repeatedly touched -- nay, bear-hugged -- the third rail of U.S. Latin America policy, Cuba, and built a national identity around resisting so-called American imperialism. Though his boosters would have us believe that he was punished and isolated for "speaking truth to power" -- which, by the way, he most certainly did not -- his real crime was simply speaking in the first place. Had he stayed quiet and kept the oil spigot open, his economic mismanagement and undemocratic tendencies may have been overlooked by Washington.

Would-be demagogues and authoritarians, take note.

(AP Photo)

This Is the Last Tweet Hugo Chavez Ever Sent


Via Brian Merchant who notes that, among other things, Chavez was the second most followed world leader on Twitter. President Obama is number one.

February 28, 2013

Will Argentina Default (Again)?


Argentina is no stranger to defaulting on its international debt, having defaulted or restructured its loans four times since the 1980s. Today, though, it's at risk of default not because it's unable to pay its creditors but because, as Felix Salmon explains, it's unwilling to pay one in particular:

Argentina has both the willingness and the ability to pay its performing debt. It’s adamant, however, that it’s not going to pay $1.4 billion to Elliott Associates, a hedge fund which has been prosecuting a highly-aggressive litigation strategy against the country, based on the fact that it holds defaulted debt and refused to exchange that debt for performing bonds. Depending on where you sit, Argentina’s refusal to pay off Elliott is either noble or foolish. But after two and a half hours of highly contentious oral testimony in federal appeals court today, it’s pretty clear that the US courts aren’t going to allow Argentina to stay current on its performing debt — not unless the country also writes a ten-figure check to Elliott. Which means that we’re headed straight for default, with almost no realistic chance of avoiding it.

The case is being watched closely as it could have a significant impact on global debt markets.

(AP Photo)

July 19, 2012

Chavez Must Stop Helping Assad

By Joel Hirst

Few would dispute that Syria’s government has run afoul of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the new norm in international law that United Nations member states approved in 2005 to try and help prevent the worst “mass atrocity crimes” of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. These are the same crimes prosecutable under the International Criminal Court and are particularly heinous because they are crimes committed by governments against their own people. R2P allows for UN intervention in extreme cases.

Naturally, as most things go with the United Nations, what was signed enthusiastically by member states is quickly swept under the rug in the face of very real challenges. Countries that do not have a culture of respect for rule of law at home easily disregard international law. What today is Syria could very well be them tomorrow. While, like in Libya, authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia can often be brought in line with their R2P obligations, it will not ever be willingly. For them, weapons deals and energy relationships too often trump human freedom.

However there often emerges in international relations a regime that is so disdainful of human life and their international obligations that they cannot be swayed even as the world begins to turn against the oppressors. For Syria, this is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who is going out of his way to be a problem. As the violence against the Syrian people reaches such a crescendo that even the Russians are starting to distance themselves, Chavez stands firm as one of Bashar al Assad’s most important allies.

Since December 2011, Chavez has sent at least three diesel shipments to Assad to help fuel his war machine. In October of 2011 just as the violence was spinning out of control Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro led a delegation to Damascus of Foreign Ministers from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) to show support for the Assad regime. (The ALBA is President Chavez’s regional network of Anti-American governments. It includes Syria and Iran as observers.) And just this month, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a resolution calling for an international movement to “reject intervention” in Syria. As he did with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, President Chavez supports prolonging and preserving Assad and his undemocratic regime.

This is a tragedy. The vast majority of the Venezuelan people make common cause not with the Assad dictatorship but with those being shelled for their desire to live in a country free of tyranny. President Chavez would do well to remember this and begin to live up to his international obligations.
Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst. This post originally appeared on the Freedom Collection.

July 11, 2012

Obama vs. Rubio on the Threat (or Lack Thereof) from Hugo Chavez


It's silly season, sure, but this exchange between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio over the threat posed by Hugo Chavez is interesting. First to Obama:

"We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe. But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us," Obama said. "We have to vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs, and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."

Senator Marco Rubio is far more concerned:

Hugo Chavez is not only a threat to the Venezuelan people’s freedom and democratic aspirations, he has also supported Iran’s regime in its attempts to expand its intelligence network throughout the hemisphere, facilitated money laundering activities that finance state sponsors of terrorism and provided a safe haven for FARC narco-terrorists, among many other actions.

Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal detailed how Hugo Chavez circumvents U.S. and EU sanctions to help prop up the Assad regime in Syria. And even Obama’s own State Department belatedly but rightly expelled Chavez’s consul general in Miami for her ties to a plan to wage cyber-attacks on the U.S.

If you're Hugo Chavez - whose rhetoric do you prefer? One that makes you out to be an impressive figure challenging a superpower, or the other that dismisses you as ineffectual?

(AP Photo)

April 24, 2012

Bolivia: Venezuela Has Five Military Bases in the Country

Bolivian legislator Norma Piérola has denounced the existence of five Venezuelan military installations in the countryside. Piérola, member of the Convergencia Nacional (National Convergence party), asserted that the military bases have existed since at least 2010.

Piérola made the statement during a session of the Legislative Assembly, in the presence of Defense Minister Rubén Saavedra and Government Minister Carlos Romero. Saavedra denied the military bases' existence but declared that there are Venezuelan army personnel in Bolivia as part of an "educational exchange program" with friendly countries.

The Bolivian Constitution forbids any military installations from a foreign country.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

April 6, 2012

Chavez Medical Emergency?

Hugo Chavez may be en route to a Brazilian hospital with complications:

Brazilian media is reporting that ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will make an emergency trip to Brazil after allegedly suffering intestinal burns during his radiation treatment in Cuba.

Chávez, who in June of last year revealed that Cuban doctors had removed a cancerous tumor from his abdominal region, has been going back-and-forth from the island nation for treatment. The Associated Press reported earlier on Thursday that the Venezuelan leader had returned to his country on Wednesday night from radiation treatment in Cuba.

He may be headed to the hospital Sirio e Libanês in Sao Paulo, where Dilma Rouseff, Lula and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo have been treated for cancer.

Brazilian journalist Merval Pereira says that the emergency trip is being spun by the Venezuelan government as a visit to Lula. Pereira has spoken to doctors at the hospital who so far have made no preparations for Chavez's arrival, but allow that Chavez could be admitted for tests. Pereira also says that there is a big fight going on between chavistas as to whether Chavez should travel or not, due to security and secrecy issues.

Just yesterday Chavez was begging God to let him live longer in front of a very small audience:

“Dame tu corona, Cristo. Dámela que yo sangro, dame tu cruz, cien cruces, que yo la llevo, pero dame vida. No me lleves todavía, dame tus espinas, dame tu sangre, que yo estoy dispuesto a llevarla pero con vida, Cristo, mi señor. Amén."

Give me your crown, Christ. Give it to me as I bleed, a hundred crosses, that I carry it, but give me life. Don't take me away yet, give me your thorns, give me your blood, that I am willing to carry it, but with life, Christ, my lord. Amen.

(My translation. If you use it, please credit me and link to this post.)

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

December 7, 2011

Falklands Blockade Is an Act of War Toward Britain

By Nile Gardiner

Argentina’s launch of a naval blockade “to isolate the Falklands” is in clear violation of British sovereignty. It should be considered an act of war and must be met with the use of force by Great Britain if Argentina does not back off.

According to a report by The Telegraph’s Fergus MacErlean:

Argentine patrol vessels have boarded 12 Spanish boats, operating under fishing licences issued by the Falkland Islands, for operating “illegally” in disputed waters in recent weeks.

Argentine patrol commanders carrying out interceptions near the South American coast told Spanish captains they were in violation of Argentina’s “legal” blockade of sea channels to the Falklands.

The warning has been backed up in a letter to Aetinape, the Spanish fishing vessels association from the Argentine embassy in Madrid warning boats in the area that “Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and adjoining maritime spaces are an integral part of the Argentine territory.”

The Kirchner regime has for some time been threatening a blockade of the Falklands and is now beginning to implement it in an effort to strangle the Islands economically. London should respond forcefully to this provocation by dispatching a second destroyer to the South Atlantic, as well as further Typhoon fighter aircraft and an additional attack submarine, as a warning to Argentina. Britain should also prepare to deploy its contingency infantry battalion – the Spearhead Lead Element (SLE) – to the Falklands at short notice to reinforce the 1,200-strong British Forces Garrison based near Stanley.

A significant show of force by Britain, rather than a weak-kneed "official complaint" by the Foreign Office, is needed to emphatically demonstrate to Argentina that it is playing with fire.

The British government should make it categorically clear to Cristina Kirchner and her administration that its behavior over the Falklands is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Its blockade is not only a violation of international law: it is an aggressive, hostile act designed to intimidate foreign ships doing business with the Falkland Islands. Mrs. Kirchner has also threatened to cut off air links to the Islands that had been negotiated back in 1999 and has launched a series of tirades against Britain, including calling it "a crude colonial power in decline.”

This is not a moment for diplomatic niceties by the prime minister and the foreign secretary, but a time for firm leadership in the defense of over 3,000 overwhelmingly British Falkland Islanders threatened by a hostile power on the other side of the world.

For David Cameron, his handling of the Falklands issue may be a defining moment. He should not underestimate the gravity of the situation Britain faces today, or be unwilling to do what is necessary to defend British sovereignty. If Argentina persists with its blockade, it must face the consequences and be sharply reminded that any attempt to cut off the Falklands or invade it will end in heavy defeat for Buenos Aires.
Nile Gardiner is a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst and political commentator. He appears frequently on American and British television and radio, including Fox News Channel, CNN, BBC, Sky News, and NPR.

December 2, 2011

CELAC: Chavez's Latest "Alternative"

After creating the ALBA with Cuba 10 years ago, Hugo Chávez now is hosting the inaugural for the CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y del Caribe - Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).

ALBA is mostly dependent on Venezuelan oil, and its current members - Bolivia, Nicaragua, (Honduras dropped out), Ecuador, Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua - are not exactly the largest economies in the world. Another Chávez brainchild, the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur) has tanked, so far, due to liquidity issues and lack of reserves.

But Chávez knows how to get publicity, and he also knows that his fellow heads of state in Latin America love to travel all-expenses-paid-by-their citizenry to other countries since it gives the appearance of doing something; everybody gets to badmouth the USA; the local media (which he controls) will lap up the meeting; Mexico wanted to be included in something; and, who knows, there may even be slush fund opportunities in the bargain.

Voilá, CELAC was born, created in Mexico last year.

The spin is intense: CELAC is touted as "a new geopolitical structure," soon to replace the "old and worn out" OAS, with Caracas not only as its capital (of course!) but also the capital of the Americas, with growing economies; just take a look at the map:

Continue reading "CELAC: Chavez's Latest "Alternative"" »

September 29, 2011

How Sick Is Chavez?


After returning from his latest round of chemotherapy in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has reportedly been hospitalized with renal failure and medullary aplasia:

The UK's Telegraph reports that Hugo Chavez is in the hospital 'for kidney failure.'

El Nuevo Herald also reports that (my translation: if you use this translation please link to this post and credit me):

On the other hand, the source stated that Chavez suffered from medullary aplasia, the disappearance of blood-producing cells in the bone marrow, which complicated his medical state. According to doctors, medullary aplasia can be total, affecting the production of red and white blood cells, or partial, which affects the production of one type of blood cells.
(More information on aplasia here)

Of course, it didn't take long for Chavista officials to deny the Herald report:

Venezuela's Information Minister Andres Izarra appeared to deny the report in a posting on the micro-blogging website Twitter.

"Those who should be admitted are the journalists of the Nuevo Herald, except into a madhouse (instead of a hospital)," Izarra tweeted, without providing further details.

Chavez subsequently stated that he'd "be the first one to say if there was any difficulty in the process," in a telephone interview this morning.

He didn't, however, specify his whereabouts.

Ambassador Roger Noriega last week argued that "we must start thinking about, and preparing for, a world without Hugo Chavez."


Cross-posted at Fausta's blog

(AP Photo)

September 21, 2011

Union City Disinvites Ecuadorian President Correa

Rafael Correa's in the vicinity because he is attending the UN General Assembly, so he thought he would drop by Union City High School on Friday.

Not so, said the city's residents:

"It is evident that President Correa has associated with Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela," said Union City Mayor Brian Stack in a statement. "Even associating with such regimes sends a terrible message to the world and condones the many evils that have been imposed on the residents of those nations."

"For these reasons, I refuse to welcome President Correa to Union City."

The announcement by Stack comes a day after he met with Cuban exile leaders who were outraged after learning that Correa – who is in the New York/New Jersey region because of the United Nations General Assembly - was going to be featured at an Ecuadorian event at Union City High School on Friday.

The Cuban exiles pressed for Correa to be dis-invited because of what they denounced as his oppressive government in Ecuador and his support for the Communist regime in Cuba as well as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“The mayor said he was going to cancel the event,” said Sergio Gatria, an exile leader who was at the meeting, which was held at the headquarters of the Former Cuban Political Prisoners organization. “He said he had no idea that his was planned at the high school, and that as long as he’s mayor, no dictator, or sympathizer of dictators and terrorists, would be welcome to Union City.”

“Correa supports dictators, is an oppressive leader and hobnobs with [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This man is a sworn enemy of the United States. It is an affront to this community to roll out the red carpet for someone like that.”

In Ecuador, seven radio broadcasters face sanctions for airing freedom of expression debates. Earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders asked Correa to stop attacks on the press, and:
...that the Ecuadorean government address several facets of its media policy and the proposed communications law that would create a state media oligopoly and regulate the awarding and confiscation of radio and television broadcasting rights, and to cease making offensive statements about the press
Correa's visit to UCHS had been arranged by Ecuadorian officials.

August 12, 2011

Russia, China Shower Venezuela With Cash

Russia grants Venezuela $4 billion for military spending while China is lending Venezuela an additional $4 billion:

Venezuela is finalizing agreements for two separate credit lines of $4 billion each with Russia and China, with a portion of the financing earmarked for military equipment for the South American nation, according to Venezuelan state media.

With the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela needs a well equipped military to defend itself from foreign aggression, President Hugo Chavez said during a broadcast phone call reported by the Venezuelan News Agency.

Chavez had to call in the news from Havana, where he is undergoing chemotherapy.

Readers of this blog may recall that Russia has financed over $6 billion worth of military equipment from 2005-2010.

On the other hand, Venezuela is borrowing at least $24 billion from China:

last year, Venezuela received a $20 billion credit line from the China Development Bank for housing

The housing construction has not started, but Hugo's betting on oil futures, so to speak, in a very big way.

August 9, 2011

Americans Sour on Drug War

According to a new poll from Angus Reid:

Only nine per cent of respondents believe the “War on Drugs”—the efforts of the U.S. government to reduce the illegal drug trade—has been a success, while two thirds (67%) deem it a failure.
The poll also found that Americans are supportive of legalizing marijuana (55 percent) but very opposed to legalizing other drugs such as crystal meth or cocaine. You can read the full report here. (pdf)

June 1, 2011

Bolivia Invites, Then Disinvites, Accused Iranian Terrorist

Iran, whose embassy in Bolivia is the largest in our hemisphere, recently sent Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi to Bolivia at the Bolivian Defense Ministry's invitation.

While in Bolivia, Vahidi attended a ceremony with President Evo Morales:


The article does not touch on the nature of Vahidi's visit to the BDM. Argentinian officials apparently protested however, because Bolivia's foreign minister wrote a letter of apology to the Argentinian foreign minister, and Vahidi was sent out of the country. The apology claimed that:

The invitation . . . had been issued by the Bolivian defence ministry which did not know the background to the case and had not co-ordinated with other departments.

Vahidi, who was asked this week to leave the country, is wanted for being behind the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) bombing.

Argentina had previously protested Vahidi's appointment as Defense Minister, which Iran carefully ignored.

Vahidi is not the only Iranian accused of being connected to the AMIA bombing who travels to Latin America. As you may recall, Mohsen Rabbani, who is also wanted for the bombings, is believed to be recruiting in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Argentina continues to press the case on the 1994 AMIA and 1992 Israeli embassy bombings.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

May 17, 2011

Hispan TV: Iran-Cuba Joint Propaganda Effort

Via Latin American Thought:

The fight for hearts and minds reached a new level on May 3, when Cuba and Iran announced plans to increase media cooperation via Iranian-run Spanish language news network Hispan TV. Hispan TV was launched last week, eight months after a September 2010 announcement from Iranian state officials announcing the importance of increasing awareness of Iran’s “ideological legitimacy.”

But why in Spanish? The Guardian reports that Ezatollah Zarqami, the head of Iranian State TV, says because half of the world speaks Spanish.


The answer most likely has to do with the intended audience. Launching a Spanish language network clearly targets the Spanish speaking world, the majority of which resides in Latin America. It is an example of the type of soft power information campaigns that many governments are undertaking in efforts to promote policy, improve public diplomacy, and have a say in the information madhouse that exists today.

While the goal of this venture is supposedly "the reflection of first-hand, authentic news," Cuban Colada points out that:

Iran, Syria, Cuba, Russia and China are among the 10 worst repressors of the Internet, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists published on Monday. Click here for details.

Notice how the goal was stated as "the reflection," not the reporting.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

May 10, 2011

Venezuela Wanted FARC to Act as Hit Men

A new book by the International Institute for Strategic Studies confirms that the Venezuelan government's ties to the FARC involved not only weapons deals with other parties (including Belarus), support for the FARC's claims of political legitimacy, the use of Venezuelan territory, and offers of $300 million dollars, but that the Venezuelan government may have had the FARC act as hit men against political opponents. The book is titled The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of  'Raúl Reyes'.

Of course the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, already issued a press release rejecting the IISS allegations.

The BBC and others are covering the new book as well.

Continue reading "Venezuela Wanted FARC to Act as Hit Men" »

May 9, 2011

Iranian Training Camps in Latin America

In an article titled Kuwaitis Among Trainees In ‘Guards’ Latin Camp the Arab Times reports:

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is allegedly training a large number of Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and Saudis in a private training camp located in Waheera, a remote area near the borders of Venezuela and Columbia, and intends to use them to carry out terrorist activities within their respective countries and other areas across the world in case Iran is attacked militarily, Al-Seyassah daily quoted a reliable source as saying.

Since the reports come from Arab-language newspapers, I speculate that the location of Waheera is actually Guajira (whose phonetical pronunciation is the same as "Waheera") in this map:


The article continues:

The trainees are first sent to Venezuelan capital Caracas or Columbian capital Bogota via Damascus and from there, they are sent to the border region in cars, one of the militants who broke away from the Iranian group told the daily.

Reportedly, the training camp is run by some Iranian intelligence officers and others affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard in cooperation with Hezbollah and Hamas. The trainees were given courses in making bombs, carrying out assassinations, kidnapping people and transporting the hostages to other locations. [Emphasis added]

The operations are allegedly financed through the drug trade:

When asked about the financing of this militia, the source said the money Iran makes through drug trafficking and money laundering is equal to the budget of some countries. “For example, Dutch police, in cooperation with security authorities of seven other countries, arrested 17 drug smugglers in 2009 in Korasu and confiscated 2,000 kilos of cocaine from them. The huge quantity was smuggled through tankers from Venezuela to West Africa and then to Holland, Lebanon and Spain. Smugglers also transported cocaine by air from Korasu to Holland, Belgium, Spain and Jordan. The Dutch authorities had then announced that the smuggling network was linked to Hezbollah and Iran,” he added. [Emphasis added]

These reports have been surfacing recently (including Kuwaiti newspapers), but long-time readers of my blog know about the Iranian and Hezbollah presences in Latin America. Interestingly, now the reports are including Hamas.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

(h/t Vlad)

February 19, 2011

The Hunger Strike in Venezuela

While the U.S. goes broke and the Middle East bursts in riots, students have gone on hunger strike in Venezuela protesting human rights conditions in the country.

Noticias 24 reports that the students are dehydrated but in stable condition. The strike started on Jan. 31 at the OAS office with a dozen students but by now a total of 67 people are on hunger strike in several locations in 10 states across the country, including the Brazilian embassy in Caracas. The protesters are requesting that all political prisoners named in a list of 27 people be freed and given medical attention:

The protestors, mostly university students and youth activists, have been calling for the OAS to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela as well as for the release of jailed opposition figures they believe are political prisoners. OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza has said that he could not meet with the protesters in Caracas without an invitation from the Venezuelan government.

Maduro said the protest should be handled internally, without the intervention of the U.S. or international organizations. He also alleged that right-wing opponents of Venezuela's socialist government were operating from Miami and playing a part in orchestrating the hunger strike.

About a dozen students and activists began a fast Jan. 31 outside the local Caracas office of the OAS. Some news reports have stated that the protest has grown to include as many as 65 protesters.

The protesters have called for the release of several jailed opposition figures, including two jailed members of the national parliament. One of the officials faces corruption charges while the other has been found guilty of being complicit in a homicide.

Bryan Llenas writes, Venezuela Student Hunger Strike Gains Momentum, Gov. Worried About a "Virtual Egypt":

Continue reading "The Hunger Strike in Venezuela" »

December 9, 2010

Iranian Missiles in Venezuela?

I have been posting about the close ties between Iran and Venezuela for years now, and last month Welt Online published this report,
"Achse Caracas–Teheran
Iran plant Bau einer Raketenstellung in Venezuela"
("Caracas-Tehran Axis: Iran plans to build a missile base in Venezuela." You can read the Google translation here).

The article refers to an agreement signed on October 19 this year:

According to information received by Welt on Line, Iran's Supreme Security Council had proposed a joint military facility on Venezuelan soil to increase the deterrent power of Iran against the West. The cooperation would be a way for Iran to build a strategic base in South American - in the backyard of the United States.

Barack Obama, coincidentally, has already stated that a nuclear-powered Venezuela is fine by him.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci at Hudson New York has more on the Iran-Venezuela missile agreement,
Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.:

At a moment when NATO members found an agreement, in the recent Lisbon summit (19-20 November 2010), to develop a Missile Defence capability to protect NATO's populations and territories in Europe against ballistic missile attacks from the East (namely, Iran), Iran's counter-move consists in establishing a strategic base in the South American continent - in the United States's soft underbelly.

According to Die Welt, Venezuela has agreed to allow Iran to establish a military base manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Venezuelan missile officers. In addition, Iran has given permission for the missiles to be used in case of an "emergency". In return, the agreement states that Venezuela can use these facilities for "national needs" – radically increasing the threat to neighbors like Colombia. The German daily claims that according to the agreement, Iranian Shahab 3 (range 1300-1500 km), Scud-B (285-330 km) and Scud-C (300, 500 and 700 km) will be deployed in the proposed base. It says that Iran also pledged to help Venezuela in rocket technology expertise, including intensive training of officers.

Of course, considering the flights between Iran and Venezuela, Iranian personnel may be manning the technology in Venezuela.

Continue reading "Iranian Missiles in Venezuela?" »

November 22, 2010

FARC's Leader's Final Speech

Mono Jojoy, also known as Jorge Briceño, whose real name was Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, was the military commander and No. 2 man of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was killed on Sept. 21 by the Colombian military during a raid on his terrorist camp.

The Colombian authorities have released a video of Mono Jojoy addressing the FARC troops 20 days before his death at one of their main camps on the occasion of welcoming new initiates (h/t Shane). Here is the video:

My translation (if you use the translation, please credit me and link to this post):

"If the comrades Marulanda and Jacobo, for the political circumstances in this country, made the political decision to organize this guerrilla army, [it was] due to causes that justify the existence of this guerrilla.

"Because of that, being a guerrilla is the highest responsibility.

"What we do here is to shape, to improve the character, the thinking, of people coming from a capitalist society, a gossipy society. We, men and women who integrate this army, do it because we had no other opportunity, not because we are violent. We say, let's talk, but they don't pay attention. They want the peace of the kneeling, and that's not us.

"We respect ourselves to be respected. We're not going to spend 50 years to say that the armed struggle is useless.

"That's what I wanted to tell you today. Thank you comrades."

It is a very interesting speech, which casts a few revealing glimpses into the mind of a sociopath.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

November 1, 2010

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: GOP Powerbroker?


Last week, Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy published a top ten list of the new Republican powerbrokers in the wake of tomorrow's anticipated U.S. election. I could spend time quibbling with the list - many of the powerbrokers he lists are not new at all, and given that the U.S. Senate is unlikely to change hands, it is hard to see how Sens. Lugar, Kyl, or McCain have any different roles on Wednesday than they do today. But that's beside the point.

If there is one Republican on the list who stands out as someone who will actually, in Rogin's words, "stand between Obama and the world," it is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Ros-Lehtinen, who stands to take over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was born in Havana, and her views on Cuba mark a significant departure from the administration's approach. The Miami Herald thinks her rise to the chairmanship effectively ends any talk of easing in relations with the current Cuban regime, and they're likely right:

Her ascendancy could also spell doom for Berman's bill on foreign-aid reform. She argues often for more vetting of foreign aid in the hope of finding cuts, and she has also introduced legislation to cut U.S. funding for the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority. She is also highly skeptical of the civilian nuclear agreements that the Obama administration is negotiating with Vietnam and Jordan. A vocal critic of what she sees as the Obama team's cool approach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ros-Lehtinen could use the committee as a sounding board for those who want changes in the Obama administration's approach to Middle East peace.

Her actual voting and co-sponsorship record on a host of issues is quite moderate, even liberal by current Republican Party standards. But Ros-Lehtinen has already earned a reputation as a tough operator, and when it comes to clashes with the White House's views, I expect she'll prove to be the kind of politician who doesn't back away from public confrontation on the issues.

(AP Photo)

October 19, 2010

Global Broadband


According to the Broadband Forum, there are just shy of 500 million broadband subscribers worldwide:

China, the powerhouse of global broadband in the 21st century so far, was responsible for 43 percent of all net broadband lines added in Q2 and performed far better than the same quarter in 2009 (China includes Mainland China, Hong Kong & Macau). In Western Europe, many markets did better than the equivalent 2009 quarter. Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Turkey, amongst others, all reported strong numbers. Central and South American markets have cooled to an extent, but many are still reporting good quarterly growth (of 5-7 percent). However, the US and in particular Canada, broadband growth has significantly slowed, affected by the end of housing stimulus packages. In Canada's case, the market slowed to levels not seen for a decade.

Asia now accounts for 41 percent of broadband subscriptions, followed by Europe with 30 and the Americas with 26 percent. China alone accounts for 120.59 million or over 24 percent of the 500 million broadband subs worldwide. Check out the Gallup/RCW list of the Most Wired Countries for more on global connectivity.

(AP Photo)

October 12, 2010

Breaking: Livefeed to the Chilean miners' rescue

In Spanish at USTREAM:

In English on CNN here

September 28, 2010

Chavez Loses National Assembly Super-Majority

The results of Sunday’s National Assembly elections in Venezuela were not announced until well past midnight early Monday morning: The opposition won over 52% of the vote but did not win the majority in the National Assembly. However, the opposition won 60 seats, ending the two-thirds super-majority Hugo Chávez needed to slide his projects through.

Chávez was hoping for a crushing win that would propel him to a victory in next year’s presidential election. Instead, his party kept only 94 seats, in spite of extensive gerrymandering that favored candidates from Chávez’s party, Chávez’s unlimited use of state funds for their campaigns, and his constant television access.

By Tuesday morning, Chavez was claiming that his party beat the opposition by a slight margin in the overall vote, contradicting early reports. The Wall Street Journal points out,

The different interpretations of the nationwide vote count are likely explained by the fact that the opposition includes the political party PPT. The PPT, a leftist group that only won a couple of seats Sunday, has traditionally supported Chavez, but had a falling out recently.
With the economy in a deep recession, one of the highest inflation rates in the world (30% in the last year), soaring violent crime, and electricity shortages, voter turnout reached 66%. The opposition had sat out the prior National Assembly elections in 2005. This time they were able to gather the majority of the vote, if not the National Assembly seats. Currently holding barely 10% of the National Assembly seats, they now won over 33%.

The new congress will probably not rubber-stamp laws that increase Chávez’s power, but this does not mean Chávez will take it as a defeat. He has stripped of power the office of the mayor of Caracas when an opposition politician won two years ago and jailed the general who returned him to power after a coup; he still controls the courts and the majority of the states; he has nationalized private industries and the media; and the new National Assembly members won’t be seated until January, affording him time to push changes through.

Goldman Sach’s Alberto Ramos (link by subscription only) expects that Chávez “will probably resort to govern even more by decree which jointly with a friendly judiciary can contribute to debase the importance of the Assembly in the country’s institutional balance of power.”

Yet another factor is oil: Venezuela is the U.S.’s fifth-largest oil supplier. As its oil production continues to decline, Chávez may not have the financial muscle to back his thirst for power.

Will this strengthen the opposition and possibly lead to a more democratic outcome in the 2012 elections?

It is too soon to tell.

September 26, 2010

FARC's Military Leader: He Died With His Boots On


Colombian terrorist Mono Jojoy, military commander and No. 2 guy of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who also was believed to have been in charge of their cocaine-trafficking operations, was killed by the Colombian military last Tuesday, Sept. 21.

After evading justice for over a decade, the Colombian armed forces, with the help of American military training and technology, were able to locate Mono Jojoy through his boots. Jojoy, also known as Jorge Briceño, whose real name was Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, was diabetic and needed special shoes since the diabetes affected the circulation on his feet.

According the Colombian newspaper El Espectador (in Spanish), Colombian intelligence intercepted an order for Mono Jojoy’s boots and placed a GPS chip, which started transmitting his precise location on Monday.

The ensuing raid on his camp was an all-out military operation, code name Sodoma (Sodom), involving dozens of aircraft and three tons of explosives. Following the raid, the Colombian military found 15 laptops, 94 USB devices and 14 hard disks, which will yield vital intelligence on the FARC’s operations.

This is a huge coup for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian government and a most crippling blow against the FARC. Mono Jojoy was not only a symbol of the FARC, but also directly involved in the FARC’s military (allegedly in charge of of some 4,000-plus members), kidnapping and cocaine-trafficking operations, and left no clear successor.

Mono Jojoy’s body was identified through his fingerprints. He was wearing his Rolex and carried insulin in his pockets at the time of the raid.

Mono Jojoy had a prize on his head of U.S. $5million, and had been indicted in the U.S. for the murder of three U.S. citizens, drug trafficking and terrorist activities. Four people will share the reward.


After I posted this article, Spanish newspaper ABC reported that General Javier Flores, in charge of the military operation, asserts that Mono Jojoy was found from information provided by an undercover officer that infiltrated the FARC's high command. This is even worse news for the FARC.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

June 20, 2010

Colombia: Santos Wins in Landslide

This just in:

Uribe Heir Santos Wins Colombia Presidential Vote By Landslide Over Mockus

Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos won the country’s presidential runoff by a landslide, persuading voters with a pledge to continue Alvaro Uribe’s successes in beating back Marxist rebels.

With 92 percent of polling stations reporting, Santos has 69 percent to 28 percent for the Green Party’s Antanas Mockus. Santos will take over Aug. 7 from Uribe, who brought record growth and slashed by half the number of murders during eight years in office.

Today’s voting was marred by violence, after seven police officers were killed in a minefield laid by the National Liberation Army near the border with Venezuela. Three soldiers were also killed in a firefight with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest insurgency, in Meta province.

Colombia has made great strides towards improving the nation's security. Even with today's violence, today's election was the safest in four decades according to government sources.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

May 8, 2010

Venezuela: Baduel Sentenced to Eight Years

Hugo Chavez's former best buddy, Raul Baduel, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

In case you don't recall, Baduel was:

one of the officers who rose up against the short-lived Carmona government during the April 2002 coup d'etat, when he was chief of the 42nd Airborne Brigade of paratroopers.
Baduel is the general that organized Chavez's rescue from prison in the island of La Orchila following the 2002 coup which reinstated Chavez to power.

However, prior to the 2007 referendum, Baduel encouraged the Venezuelan people to vote - instead of staying home and abstaining - against the constitutional amendment that would allow Chavez to run for office indefinitely, and asked the military to allow the "NO" vote to stand. The people voted "NO." (The referendum was repeated last year and passed.)

Baduel was accused of "stealing funds of the armed forces, abuse of authority and crimes against military honor," he was jailed in April 2009, when Baduel issued a plea for democracy from his prison cell (video in Spanish), and has said that he was persecuted for joining the opposition:

He has now been found guilty of the charges. In addition to his prison sentence, Baduel is barred from running for office.

As the Wall Street Journal reminds us, "Mr. Chavez's government forbids citizens from making any incendiary comments that it deems threatening to peace and stability," even those who brought Chavez back to power.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

April 29, 2010

Chavez Tweets!

Hold on to your laptops, Hugo Chavez has given birth to his first tweet:


Loosely translated, it means,

How you doin'? Appeared as I said: at midnight. Headin' to Brazil. And very happy to work for Venezuela. We'll triumph!

Chavez's latest public relations effort is, according to his Minister of Public Works, Diosdado Cabello (whose name means God given hair), due to the opposition's active use of Twitter to protest and ridicule the Venezuelan president:

"The opposition thinks it owns the social networks. They think Twitter and Facebook are theirs. We are taking the battle to them, and we are 7 million militants that will take Twitter."

Of course, three months ago Chavez himself was declaring that

"using Twitter, the Internet (and) text messaging" to criticize or oppose his increasingly authoritarian regime "is terrorism."

Can't wait for the "seven million militants" to "take Twitter", now that Hugo's in.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

April 17, 2010

Flyin' High with Evo


Bolivian President Evo Morales is holding a star-studded climate change soiree in Cochabamba, which he claims:

will give a voice to the poorest people of the world and encourage governments to be far more ambitious following the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

So concerned is Evo with the plight of the poor that he's buying himself a jet built for the Manchester United team:

Bolivia's Treasury Minister Luis Arce says the government is negotiating to buy a French Falcon 900 jet built for the needs of Britain's Manchester United. The price: $38.7 million.

The British soccer team declined to purchase the jet after it was finished, so Morales rushed to buy it, according to Agence France Presse, which also reports that Morales will have another jet, a $40 million Antonov BJ financed through a military credit from Russia.

Morales has been busy this month. While tightening his grip over the country following local elections earlier this month, Morales had recently accepted the third donation of military equipment from China.

Perhaps Evo will fly his Chinese friends and his celebrity friends to the inauguration of the Bolivian Space Agency's new satellite: China and Bolivia are working on a $300 million joint satellite project:

According to Bolivian Public Works Minister Walter Delgadillo, the satellite has a maximum capacity of the DFH-4 model that will enable it to cover not only Bolivia but also the whole Latin America.

China had previously helped Venezuela launch a satellite in 2008.

(AP Photo)

March 4, 2010

Argentina's Angle


Today's Washington Post asks, what can Argentina gain from another Falklands dispute?

YOU KNOW that an Argentine leader must be in political trouble if the subject of the Falkland Islands has come up again. In this case the beleaguered president is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose populist administration in Buenos Aires has lost the support of most of the country. Hosting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Buenos Aires on Monday, Ms. Fernández de Kirchner requested that the United States mediate Argentina's dispute with Britain over the islands, which lie about 400 miles off Argentina's southern coast but have been governed from London since 1833.
So far so good; However, the WaPo editorial board makes a factual mistake in saying:
Ms. Clinton responded by urging the two sides to talk, while wisely sidestepping the mediation suggestion.
There was nothing wise, and there was no sidestepping. As I mentioned yesterday, Hillary played right into Cristina's hands by agreeing to the Argentinian president's position that Britain negotiate against the will of Falkland's citizens, and subject itself to the whim of UN resolutions and the Marxist-controlled decolonization committees.

The WaPo points out that:

Such studied neutrality is in keeping with traditional U.S. policy on the Falklands -- though it's worth remembering that mistaken interpretation of signals from Washington helped produce Argentina's disastrous 1982 invasion.
Hillary's "studied neutrality" may be opening that can of worms again in the region.

Hillary also arrived just in time to back the losing team: Yesterday the Kirchners officially lost the congressional majority they had had in Congress for the past seven years, when the opposition parties formed a coalition:

In this case, it's hard to see why the Obama administration should throw any lifelines to Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, who hasn't shrunk from playing to anti-American sentiment around the region.
The Obama administration's blunder on this issue has damaged the U.S.-Britain relationship by essentially selling them down the river:
Unfortunately there is no sign that the White House and the State Department understand that their reckless stance on the Falklands is significantly damaging the relationship with Great Britain. I hope they wake up before it’s too late, and realize that America has no truer friend than the British people, and that siding with Britain’s enemies is a spectacular miscalculation that is fundamentally against the U.S. national interest.
Don't hold your breath waiting that they do.

Fausta Wertz blogs at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

February 24, 2010

Video of the Day

If Hugo Chavez was not a virtual dictator of an important country in Latin America, I would say that he would be one of the funniest comedians in Latin America:

There is so much to chuckle about here, including addressing the Queen as if she controls British policy. Just in case you were wondering, though, the last time Argentina had any settlements in the Falklands was the 1830s. Now it is basically a huge sheep farm, with a population of about 3,000, all of whom speak English. So why care about the Falklands? You guessed it: Oil.

For more videos from around the world, check out the Real Clear World videos page.

February 23, 2010

Clash in Cancún


Tensions are flaring down south. Roger Noriega describes the scene:

In a private luncheon at a regional summit in Cancún yesterday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez to task for imposing a de facto embargo on Colombian trade and investment. The Venezuelan dictator—who is known for his own bombastic declarations and wild accusations against Colombia—took offense when Uribe compared Chávez’s hostile treatment of Colombia with the embargo on Cuba. Chávez accused Uribe of dispatching assassins to kill him, and he threatened to storm out of the summit. According to diplomats who witnessed the event, Uribe then shouted at Chávez, “Be a man! You’re brave at a distance, but a coward face-to-face.” The Venezuelan responded by telling Uribe, “Vete al carajo!” the most polite translation of which is, “Go to hell!”
Ironically, this confrontation came at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders intended to launch a “regional mechanism” that might serve as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS). Apparently, Latin and Caribbean diplomats think that a new forum—minus the United States and Canada—might advance their common interests more effectively. However, it is clear from the showdown in Cancún that Chávez is the problem.

(AP Photo)

January 29, 2010

Honduras: Zelaya Leaves


Following Pepe Lobo's inauguration yesterday, ousted president Mel Zelaya left the country and landed on the Dominican Republic.

Leaving his tin foil-lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya flew to the island with Dominican president Leonel Fernández. The Dominican Republic made available two airplanes for Zelaya, his family, and several of his associates.

Zelaya plans to move to Mexico and take part in the Central American parliament (Parlacen).

Before departing Honduras, he swore, "I shall return."

Noticias 24 has a timeline of events (in Spanish) after Zelaya's ousting.

January 25, 2010

CIA Factbook Draws Chavez's Ire


By David D. Sussman

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a fan of some books, and an opponent of others. In April of last year he made a very public presentation of Eduardo Galleano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, gifting it to President Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas. On the other hand, the annual CIA World Factbook is now a book that draws the Venezuelan leader’s ire.

Chávez criticized the latest addition of the World Factbook, focusing on its statement that his government “purports to alleviate social ills while at the same time attacking globalization and undermining regional stability." In his response he declared that indeed, his goal is to weaken the hegemonic influence of the United States in the region. Chávez considers the World Factbook’s comment a “declaration of war," once again drawing attention to the high level of tension in the region.

As an aside, the CIA World Factbook is published annually and provides detailed information about the people, economy and political situation of each country. Originally, it arose out of the National Intelligence Survey, a publication intended to systematize intelligence information following World War II. The Factbook was a summary published in classified form in 1962 and publicly in 1975. Interestingly, as evidence of the Cold War’s influence on the Factbook, until around 1990 there was a specific section among the country descriptions that focused on the status of the Communist party.

Speaking of books, the Venezuelan administration restricts imports of some foreign texts. It also established a series of government-sponsored bookstores that are known for their sale of left-leaning and revolutionary texts, and for their low prices. Upon entering one such store I found shelves covering Che Guevara and others dedicated to socialist principles. Alternative viewpoints did not exist – the bookstores appear to be yet another means of controlling information available to the general public.

Like this topic? Read more at FPA's Venezuela Blog.

(AP Photo)

January 21, 2010

Argentina: Cristina Against Everybody Else?


Having asked Central Bank director Martin Redrado to resign (which he didn't do, and then he appealed to the courts and congress), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is now picking a fight with vice-president and head of the Senate Julio Cobos

On Tuesday, the president said she has postponed a trip to China - one of her most important overseas visits this year - because she cannot trust the vice president to run the country while she's away.
She asked that a committee debate Redrado's decree, and that Cobos resign,
Cobos, who as head of the Senate cast a deciding vote against a Fernandez plan to change farm taxes in 2008, has said Congress should debate the decrees.

The former governor was picked by Fernandez from the opposition Radical Civic Union party in 2007 and has said he plans to run for president in 2011.

“He has the right to be a member of the opposition, to disagree with the policies of the executive branch, but not from the post of the vice president,” Fernandez said.

The Globe and Mail reports that it's all about the debt:

Argentine debt tiff shines light on rebel VP

The turmoil at the central bank has heightened political tensions in Latin America's No. 3 economy and raised doubts about the cash-strapped government's plan to launch a $20 billion debt swap in the coming weeks.

Ms. Fernandez hopes the swap of defaulted bonds will allow Argentina to return to international credit markets eight years after a massive default.

Mr. Cobos, a 54-year-old civil engineer from the wine-making region of Mendoza, is under pressure to resign as vice president from some opposition leaders, who question him for remaining in the government.

The dispute over the reserves plan is testing Ms. Fernandez just as politicians in the divided ruling Peronist party and the opposition jostle for position ahead of next year's election.

While asking to use $6 billion of foreign reserves to cover debt payments, Fernandez insists that this dispute with the Central Bank will have no effect on the upcoming swap of $20 billion in defaulted bonds.

January 13, 2010

Disastrous Earthquake in Haiti


Yesterday a category 7.0 earthquake, the most disastrous in Haiti's history, hit the country at 4:53 p.m. and was centered about 10 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The director of the Salvation Army's Disaster Services in Haiti gave this eyewitness account:

Words cannot begin to describe the devastation that has taken place in Port au Prince, Haiti.

I am the Director of Disaster Services for The Salvation Army in Haiti, and I am from the United States. My wife and I have been in PAP since April, and have fallen deeply in love with the country and its people.

When the earthquake struck, I was driving down the mountain from Petionville. Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings “pancaking” down, like I have never witnessed before.

Traffic, of course, came to a stand-still, while thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them. We piled as many bodies into the back of our truck, and took them down the hill with us, hoping to find medical attention. All of them were older, scared, bleeding, and terrified. It took about 2 hours to go less than 1 mile. Traffic was horrible, devastation was everywhere, and suffering humanity was front and center.

When we could drive no further, we left the truck parked on the side of the street, and walked the remaining 2 miles to get back to the Army compound. What I found was very sad! All of the security walls were down. The Children’s Home itself seems pretty intact, but our quarters, which is attached, are destroyed. Unliveable. The walls and ceiling are still standing – but so badly compromised that I wouldn’t even think of trying to stay there. All of the children, and hundreds of neighbors, are sleeping in our playground area tonight. Occasionally, there is another tremor – another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity. And when it comes, all of the people cry out and the children are terrified.

As I am sitting outside now, with most people trying to get a little sleep, I can hear the moans and crys of the neighbors. One of our staff went to a home in the neighborhood, to try to be of assistance to the woman who lived there. But she was too late.

The scene will be repeated over and over again. Tomorrow, we will begin the process of assessing damage, learning about casualties, and preparing for the future.
God bless Haiti.

Bob Poff
Divisional Director of Disaster Services in Haiti
The Salvation Army

This afternoon Le Monde reports (link in French) there are over 100,000 dead, in a country with a population of some 10 million people, and there are roughly 3 million people in need of aid.

The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are already doing relief work in the country. You can donate here:
Salvation Army:

The Salvation Army is accepting monetary donations to assist in the effort via:

• Their paypal account.
Online Credit Card Donations

• 1-800-SAL-ARMY

• postal mail at:

The Salvation Army World Service Office

International Disaster Relief Fund

PO Box 630728

Baltimore, MD 21263-0728

(*designate checks and money orders to ‘Haiti Earthquake’)
American Red Cross:
12:30am (1/13/2010) You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross relief for Haiti.

or through their International Response Fund.

Haiti is the poorest country in our hemisphere. They do not have the resources to bury 100,000 dead.

January 6, 2010

Cuban Democracy Promotion: Helping or Harming?


By Melissa Lockhart

After the detention in Cuba last month of a U.S. government contractor distributing cell phones and laptops, Congress has called new attention to the secretive pro-democracy program that ballooned under the George W. Bush administration and funded this contractor’s mission on the island. House Representative Howard Berman (D-California) and Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) in particular have brought the program under heat, calling for a review of its management and effectiveness.

Indeed, a full review is in order. The program budget increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2008, from $3.5 million to $45 million. Use of program funds has oftentimes been sketchy: audits have revealed questionable expenditures and even embezzlement. Under the Obama administration support has more than halved for the pro-democracy Cuba program, to $20 million in 2009 and 2010, but a better monitoring mechanism is needed for as long as funding continues.

The program’s effectiveness in achieving U.S. goals of democracy on the island is up for grabs. Although blogs, Twitter and other Internet resources are expanding their reach and having an effect (as the Washington Post put it, these are “cracking the Cuban government’s monopoly on information“), U.S. government support for bloggers and dissident groups can be the kiss of death for some. Cuban law states that collaborators with the program can be punished by up to 20 years in prison. Some scholars, like Ted Henken of Baruch College, point out that the program undermines U.S. efforts to build trust with the Cuban government while tainting opposition groups on the island. Instead of credible voices of opposition, they are seen as traitors, mercenaries… U.S. puppets. And as the detention of the still-unnamed U.S. contractor illustrates, pro-democracy work is dangerous both for those that carry it out and for those who receive assistance from it.

Last week, by the way, U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit and speak to the detained U.S. contractor in Cuba. His name has still not been provided, and it is not clear what the future holds for him. (Will he be unilaterally released? Will he be used as a negotiating tool? Will the United States use his detention as reason to turn its back again on Cuba? I tend to lean toward number two.)

Read more at the Foreign Policy Association's Cuba blog.

(AP Photo)

January 3, 2010

Hugo Chávez: Now It's Time to Annoy the Dutch

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen

Not satisfied with saying that the U.S. is going to invade Venezuela from Colombia, Chávez is now saying the Arubans are in on it, too:

Venezuela says U.S. drug-hunting flights violating airspace from Curacao

Venezuela's government said Thursday that U.S. military counter-drug flights from nearby Dutch islands are violating its airspace in preparation for an attack. A U.S. official denied the allegation.

A Venezuelan Foreign Ministry statement listed no examples of such violations, but it accused the United States of using "the colonial territories of Aruba and Curacao in preparation for a military aggression against Venezuela."

Chávez, while at the Copenhagen Climate conference claimed that the islands are in Venezuelan territorial waters, ignoring they are part of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands Rejects Venezuelan Accusations, and asked Chávez to explain the spying claims.

By the way, the U.S. has been using Aruba and Curacao for years as bases for unarmed drug surveillance flights. This is not a new development.

Expect more of the same nonsense out of Hugo as the Venezuelan economic situation worsens in 2010.

December 21, 2009


While ascribing some gushing praise to the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush in my most recent NY Daily News column, one word kept running over and over again through my head: Panama. More specifically, how does one reconcile this unilateral action with what I believe and argue was one of the more sensible and multilateral presidencies in American history?

Well apparently, according at least to Jordan Michael Smith over at Foreign Policy, Amb. Thomas Pickering has in retrospect expressed similar reservations over the precedent set by Panama:

Like Panama, Iraq was a war of choice. The light American footprint that had achieved results in the small Central American country convinced figures such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the same strategy would work in Iraq. Furthermore, the ability of the United States to depose Noriega and then swiftly withdraw from Panama contributed to the belief that nation-building was unnecessary in Iraq. "Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades," concluded Pickering. "After all, the defense secretary said we didn't want anybody else's help, we didn't need anybody's help -- we were going to do it all ourselves."

That sounds just like the strategy that worked in Panama, 20 years ago.

I find this argument a tad bit unpersuasive. While Washington's relationship with Noriega was certainly less than angelic or innocent, one of the primary justifications for the Panama invasion was to uphold the Torrijos-Carter treaties and maintain the blueprint for an eventual handover.

In other words, a timetable for an end to America's presence in the country had already been agreed upon prior to any military action. We went to war over an agreement, rather than agreeing to a war with no clear direction or endgame in mind. I believe the two to be different.

And we did, by the way--much to the chagrin of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher--stick to that timetable, as President Clinton handed over control of the canal in 1999. Contrast that with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the very mention of a timetable for withdrawal was considered tantamount to surrender.

December 18, 2009

Former Sinaloa Drug Lord Dead in Shootout

Mexican drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva, known as the Boss of Bosses, was killed Wednesday night after a two-hour grenade and gun fight with Mexican Navy forces. The Financial Times calls it:

one of the clearest victories for the government since it declared an all-out war against organised crime.

Last year Beltrán Leyva, known as "El Barbas" and his brothers had broken up with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, eader of the Federation (which combined the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels), in a bloody drug war. The Beltranes then joined forces with the Gulf Cartel and the cartel's enforcers, the Zetas.

Beltrán Leyva had consolidated a drug empire in the state of (warning: gruesome photo at the link) Morelos, where he controlled 15 of the 33 municipalities. Whole sections of Cuautla, Jojutla y Cuernavaca were under his control, while he was headquartered in Cuernavaca after his January 2008 break-up with Sinaloa.

Following last year's outbreak of violence, Beltrán Leyva's wide-ranging criminal activities had been under pressure by Mexican authorities. The Washington Post reports:

Mexican authorities had been closing in on Beltrán Leyva in recent months, capturing and killing his junior associates. They raided a lavish party in the colonial town of Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca, last week and killed three alleged Beltrán Leyva cartel members. Performing at the party was Ramón Ayala, a popular Texas-based singer, whose attorney denied that his client had any ties to organized crime. [On Thursday, a judge ordered Ayala jailed for up to 40 days pending investigation, the Associated Press reported.] In another near-miss, Beltrán Leyva associates were arrested after attending a baptism he hosted in Acapulco.

Beltrán Leyva was alleged to have masterminded a corruption racket involving high-level Mexican officials in the attorney general's office and federal police, including a former chief of the unit targeting organized crime, Noé Ramírez Mandujano. Ramírez is suspected to have taken almost $500,000 in bribes from Beltrán Leyva.

Mexican officials also hold Beltrán Leyva responsible for the assassination of federal police chief Edgar Eusebio Millán Gómez last year.

Mexican and U.S. drug officials had hinted for two months that authorities would soon capture some "big fish" in Mexico. The death of Beltrán Leyva follows a strategy pushed by officials on both sides of the border to go after his cartel's leadership.

The apartment where Beltrán Leyva was found was only one of several safe houses his cartel owned.

You can watch a Mexican TV news report (in Spanish) here.

Mexican authorities predict an increase in violence may be possible in the power struggle to take Beltrán Leyva's place.

Mexico's president Felipe Calderón praised the Mexican Navy's operation.

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive timeline of Mexico's war on drugs since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. Associated Press has a time line of arrests, deaths of Mexican druglords. Last January I posted on the Mexican drug wars, and included a link to the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, which provides an overview of Mexican drug cartels and their operations.

December 2, 2009

Brazil and That Coveted Security Council Seat


Both The Economist and Alvaro Vargas Llosa have looked at Brazil's desire to become a world-class diplomatic power and become a permanent member of the UN Security Council--and, how last week's visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played in this ambition.

Neither one is favorably impressed with the fact that Lula invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a state visit. One must emphasize that it was a state visit, not simply a visit by a delegation of 200 Iranian businessmen, and a state visit that was rescheduled after the initial outcry last May.

The Economist:

President Lula frequently talks about how important democracy is, and members of his government invoke their experience of exile or imprisonment at the hands of Brazil’s former military government. This sits awkwardly with reports that Iran’s government has sentenced to death five opposition activists since the protests that followed its disputed election.

Brazil risks overstepping the mark in its desire to be seen as an important country. Earlier this month, when Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was in Brasília, President Lula talked about Brazil helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His suggestion of a football match between Brazil and a mixed team of Israelis and Palestinians is nice enough. However, Brazil has failed to settle far simpler disputes between Argentina and Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia, and Honduras’s political rivals. It has little chance of succeeding where more powerful countries have failed for so long in the Middle East

Alvaro Vargas Llosa:
Brazil, a bewitching country, needs to take a deep breath. Its ambition ought to be focused on reforming its political system so prosperity can be something more than a combination of high revenue from commodities and some manufactured products, and social programs such as Bolsa Familia, a subsidy distributed to about 11 million poor families. The leaders need to tame their hubris before it pulls too far ahead of reality.
A question that perhaps Brazil's leadership ought to have asked is, how does a state visit from Ahmadinejad sit with the permanent members of the UN Security Council--China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK? Of the five, the only one that perhaps considers the state visit in a favorable light is Russia.

Combined with the misstep on Israeli-Palestinian relations, the hosting of deposed Honduran President Mel Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, and Iran's status as a state sponsoring terrorism along with its nuclear ambitions, one can only surmise that the country is not quite ready for that permanent Security Council seat.

November 30, 2009

Honduras: Pepe Lobo Wins


Porfirio Lobo Sosa, best known as Pepe Lobo, won yesterday's general election with a clear majority of 56 percent and over 60 percent of registered voters participating in the election.

Noticias 24 has a profile of Lobo (in Spanish): The 61-yr old father of eleven children (currently married to Rosa Elena Bonilla, mother of three of his children) and black belt in Karate is a seasoned politician who, as leader of the National Party, ran on an anti-crime platform in 2005 but was defeated apparently for his support of the death penalty. He served as president of the National Congress from 2002-2006.

Lobo owns large landholdings in Olancho, birthplace of deposed president Mel Zelaya, where he grows grains. He attended the University of Miami in Florida, where he studied business administration, and his political rivals say that he also studied in the Soviet Union--a charge Lobo has never denied but does not show on his CV.

Lobo is regarded by his supporters as conciliatory and open to dialogue. His campaign focused on reducing crime by strengthening institutions such as the National Police and the Public Ministry, promoting job creation and decreasing poverty by 10 percent.

Lobo appealed for unity during his acceptance speech,

"I am announcing a government of national unity, of reconciliation. There's no more time for divisions,"
while also asserting that he "will not allow [Hugo Chávez] or anyone to stick their noses in Honduras:
"Honduras is a free, independent and sovereign country... We will not allow anyone's interference nor political compromises that may create division."
Regarding deposed president Mel Zelaya, Lobo made clear that it's up to the National Congress to decide next Wednesday whether Zelaya is to be reinstated. Lobo is scheduled to be sworn in as president on January 27, 2010. Zelaya has already stated he will not accept being reinstated since that would lend legitimacy to the election.

Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, the German parliament and Japan will recognize yesterday's vote. The European Union is also expected to follow suit.

November 28, 2009

Honduras: Election Tomorrow, Zelaya Talking of Leaving

Noticias 24 and O Estado quote a source close to deposed President Mel Zelaya (who is still cooped up with his teddy bear in the tin-foil lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa) saying that Zelaya may seek asylum in Nicaragua by January 27, when his successor is scheduled to be inaugurated as president.

Tomorrow the country's holding the presidential election. The election was scheduled and the candidates chosen while Zelaya was still in office. The U.S. will recognize the election.

A traffic accident involving a truck from the Armed Forces carrying election materials killed four people, three soldiers and one civilian (link in Portuguese).

While Zelaya's been asking his followers to boycott the election, zelayista candidate César Ham is still running and is not promoting a boycott. Candidate Pepe Lobo is ahead in the opinion polls.

November 15, 2009

Zelaya: No Part of U.S. Brokered Deal


Staying in this tin foil-lined room at the Brazilian embassy in Honduras, deposed president Mel Zelaya has told President Obama that he's backing out of the agreement he signed two weeks ago:

Zelaya also rebuffed US efforts after the Honduran Congress failed to vote to reinstate him as president -- a crucial part of last month's US-backed deal to end the impasse.

Shortly after the coup the United States had demanded that Zelaya be reinstated before it would back an election, but Washington later shifted its position, saying it would support the outcome of elections even if Zelaya does not reclaim his post.

"We support the elections process there," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday.

Zelaya had made his intention to withdraw from the agreement clear on November 5 when he didn't submit a list of candidates for a unity government.

You can read Zelaya's rambling letter to Obama in English (rough translation), and in the original Spanish. He insists on being reinstated to power.

It remains for the US to insist that Zelaya abide by the accord he had agreed to and recognize the results of the November 29 elections as verified by international monitors.

November 12, 2009

Chavez Sort-of Backtracks on War Statements


Hugo Chavez craves attention, and what best to get everybody's attention than to announce to the military and civil militias to prepare for war with Colombia? Especially when it may distract from the power outages, water rationing, a recession, 30% inflation and a huge crime rate?

Chavez used his weekly marathon program, Aló Presidente - which has to be broadcast by all licensed TV and radio stations in the country - to make the announcement,

“Generals of the armed forces, the best way to avoid a war is to prepare for one,” Chavez said in comments on state television during his weekly “Alo Presidente” program. “Colombia handed over their country and is now another state of the union. Don’t make the mistake of attacking: Venezuela is willing to do anything.”
While he was at it, he ordered 15,000 troops to the Colombian border.

Chavez is upset about the US-Colombia agreement through which the US Air Force and Navy will have more access to Colombian military bases for U.S. drug surveillance flights. He says he believes the US is preparing to attack Venezuela, and that the thought is keeping him awake at night. Chavez buddy, Bolivian president Evo Morales, didn't take long to side with Chavez and talked about calling a meeting of countries allied to Chavez to discuss the matter:

Morales said the meeting would aim to advance military and security cooperation among Alba’s member countries, including Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Not quite what you could consider military powerhouses, even if you consider that Russia is helping Cuba modernize its military.

Tthe reaction in Venezuela was not agreeable to Chavez's statement. Venezuelans oppose a conflict with Colombia by a margin of 4 to1. Venezuelan journalist Marianella Salazar scorned Chavez's insomnia and advised him to get a teddy bear.

Today Chavez attempted to soften his earlier statement, and claims that he was misquoted by the media: "Us, the Venezuelan military, are pacifists, and we prepare for war to ensure peace, that's what I said on Sunday."

At least until the next time Chavez needs a distraction from the chaotic domestic situation he has created.

October 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Media in Honduras Crisis

Here's a chronology of the Honduran crisis, as summarized by Agence France Presse (AFP) and Noticias 24 (my translation, found at the Noticias 24 website).


From left to right, above:
28th: Coup d'etat, Zelaya removed from power.
Noticias 24:
28th: Zelaya attempts to carry a popular vote to call a referendum and change the Constitution.
200 troops enter his house in the early morning, capture him and expel him to Costa Rica.
Congress names its president, Roberto Micheletti, as new head of state.
The international community unanimously condemns the coup.
30th: UN General Assembly requests that Zelaya be restored to power.

7th: Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, starts as mediator.
24th: Zelaya briefly steps on Honduran soil, but returns to Nicaragua.
Noticias 24:
2d: European Union ambassadors leave Honduras.
3d: OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza arrives in Honduras.
4th: OAS suspends Honduran membership.
5th: Honduran army prevents Zelaya's jet from landing in Tegucigalpa.
7th: Costa Rican president Oscar Arias becomes the crisis mediator.
9th: Arias meets separately with Zelaya and Micheletti in San José, Costa Rica.
18th: Arias proposes the San José Accord, which supports Zelaya's reinstatement. Micheletti's delegation rejects it, Zelaya's delegation considers the dialogue ended.
20th: The EU freezes 65.5 million euros of aid to Honduras.
24th: Zelaya briefly steps on Honduran soil, but returns to Nicaragua.

31th: The electoral campaign starts for the November 29 elections.
Noticias 24:
25th: OAS mission to Honduras ends without Micheletti's support.

21st: Zelaya secretly returns to Honduras and seeks refuge at the Brazilian embassy.
27th: Micheletti restricts civil liberties and silences opposition media.
Noticias 24:
3rd: US suspends aid for $30+ million.
10th: US suspends the visas for Micheletti and dozens of Honduran coup-supporting officials and businessmen.
21st: Zelaya secretly returns to Honduras and seeks refuge at the Brazilian embassy.
27th Micheletti restricts civil liberties and silences opposition media.

5th: Micheletti admits the possibility of reinstating Zelaya; de facto government reinstates civil liberties, opening the possibility of dialogue.
7th: Zelaya's and Micheletti's delegates start a dialogue supervised by the OAS.
14th: They reach an agreement, which must be approved by both leaders.
Noticias 24:
7th: Zelaya's and Micheletti's delegates start a dialogue supervised by the OAS.
14th: They reach an agreement, which must be approved by both leaders.

September 8, 2009

Calderon Changes His Cabinet, Not His Policies

On Monday, President Felipe Calderon of Mexico replaced three of his cabinet members, including one of the top anti-drug fighting officials in the country, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora. The sacking of Medina Mora should not be seen as a change in course in Calderon’s war against the drug gangs. José Cárdenas of El Universal has pointed out that the replacement of Medina Mora has more to do with bureaucratic infighting and politics.

Furthermore, the news that Medina Mora is gone is not likely to come as a surprise to anyone in Mexico. It has been rumored for quite some time now that Calderon wanted to get rid of him (perhaps making him ambassador to Britain).

First, Medina Mora was a dead weight in the Calderon administration. The Attorney General was seen as responsible for the “suspicious tardiness” in bringing to justice those responsible for a childcare fire in the state of Sonora. Medina Mora also received a lot of bad publicity for the flimsy case made against three indigenous women accused of kidnapping six federal agents back in 2006. One of the women is just now set to be released this month after three years of sitting in a jail cell.

Second, and more importantly, Medina Mora has been at odds with Mexico’s top police official and a close ally of Calderon, Secretary of Public Safety Genaro Garcia Luna. The dispute goes back to when the two fought over what role the police would have in investigating federal crimes. According to Cárdenas, Garcia Luna did not believe that the Public Ministry under Medina Mora should have a monopoly on all investigations. Garcia Luna won the turf war this year when Calderon changed the structure of the federal police force, granting them more responsibilities. Medina Mora, on the other hand, simply never gained the respect from Calderon that Garcia Luna currently enjoys.

Whatever the case, Medina Mora was not dropped because of great ideological differences with his boss. Therefore, this cabinet change may not lead to many policy changes.

September 7, 2009

Sarko, Back in Brazil, Makes Jet Deal


Nicolas Sarkozy is back in Brazil, just in time to celebrate National Day in Brasilia. O Globo has a slide show of the celebration.

Sarko has a lot to celebrate. According to Bloomberg,

Brazil’s Senate last week approved a bank loan of 6.1 billion Euros ($3.3 billion) that the government will use to build five submarines and 50 helicopters in partnership with France.

The French will also be building a nuclear submarine for Brazil in the future. The total of that deal is estimated at $10 billion.

Additionally, the two countries signed a nuclear deal that would allow France's partially state-owned electric and gas utility, GDF Suez, to provide assistance to Electronuclear and Eletrobras to develop Brazil's nuclear power industry.

O Globo confirms today that France will be selling Brazil 36 Rafale fighter jets, which would be built by French aerospace company Dassault, for $2 billion. In exchange, France agreed to buy a dozen KC-390 military cargo planes, made by Brazil's Embraer. While Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen combat jets were also shortlisted for purchase, France, in addition to having agreed to the KC-390s purchase has also agreed to technology transfer and building the jets in Brazil.

A commenter at my blog contrasts the O Globo article with a report at Zero Hora which refers to the Rafale agreement as 'the intent of the Brazilian government to enter in negotiations to acquire" the jets.]

According to O Globo, as of 2020 Brazil will have the most powerful navy in Latin America, at the same time it develops its offshore oil resources.

As you may recall, Sarkozy has been cultivating business with Brazil for some time now. It's apparently starting to pay off.

Hugo and Mahmoud, Best Friends Forever!


Hugo Chávez, during his stop in Iran, held hands with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and declared Iran to be "a true strategic ally, a staunch ally" to Venezuela:

Speaking to Venezuelan state TV on the phone from Tehran, Chavez defended Iran's "sovereign right" to pursue a nuclear program, which the West fears masks nuclear arms making. Tehran, despite three rounds of U.N. sanctions over its failure to halt uranium enrichment, persists in the pursuit, insisting the program is only for peaceful purposes.

"There isn't any proof that anybody can show that Iran is building an atomic bomb," Chavez said. "We're certain that Iran won't give in to any blackmail."

He said that Venezuela will also likely face such accusations in the future, as it is looking to develop "nuclear energy so that the Venezuelan people can also count on this marvelous resource for peaceful purposes."

But Ahmadinejad is not his only friend. During Chavez's stop in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi awarded him a medal for his part in celebrating Gaddafi's 40th anniversary in power - the day before Gaddafi asked that Switzerland be abolished.

In Syria, Chávez called Israel's government "genocidal" during a two-hour speech that was televised in Venezuela. Israel condemned the statement.

Chávez issued a written statement (in Spanish) today where he even managed to insult Protestants,

"Libya, Algeria, Syria, Belarus, Russia: Countries that go against the Yankee current and integrate, in their own way, as we do, the "Axis of Evil," a name that exudes the smells of reactionary Protestantism."
Over in Venezuela, Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello announced the closing of 29 more radio stations, in addition to the 34 that were closed by the government last month. Cabello also announced that his department is starting an administrative procedure against beleaguered TV channel Globovisión,

Chávez continues his 11-day tour with stops in Belarus and Russia, after visiting Libya, Syria, Iran and Algeria.

September 4, 2009

U.S. Suspends Foreign Aid to Honduras


Following a meeting of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, the US State Department hardened its position on Honduras as it announced today it's terminating foreign aid to Honduras:

The Department of State announces the termination of a broad range of assistance to the government of Honduras as a result of the coup d’etat that took place on June 28. The Secretary already had suspended assistance shortly after the coup.

The Secretary of State has made the decision, consistent with U.S. legislation, recognizing the need for strong measures in light of the continued resistance to the adoption of the San Jose Accord by the de facto regime and continuing failure to restore democratic, constitutional rule to Honduras.

In addition to having temporarily suspended $35 million in aid after Zelaya was ousted, the State Department declared it's in the process of revoking the visas of "individual members and supporters of the de facto regime."

The question remains as to what will happen with $200 million in Millenium Challege funds. The board of the fund meets next week.

Very importantly, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly also announced during the briefing that "at this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections." The State Department says,

A presidential election is currently scheduled for November. That election must be undertaken in a free, fair and transparent manner. It must also be free of taint and open to all Hondurans to exercise their democratic franchise. At this moment, we would not be able to support the outcome of the scheduled elections. A positive conclusion of the Arias process would provide a sound basis for legitimate elections to proceed. We strongly urge all parties to the San Jose talks to move expeditiously to agreement.
The U.S. is insisting that Honduras accept in full the San José Accord, which was proposed by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias.

Arias’s seven-point proposal would have a deposed president reinstated even as he has been charged with “crimes against the form of government, treason, abuse of authority, against the public and the State of Honduras” and providing him amnesty; forming a government of unelected officials; transferring power unconstitutionally among the branches of government; and the formation of an extra-constitutional commission composed of foreign officials which would be in charge of “compliance of these agreements,” as if Hondurans themselves could not. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled that any political agreement derived from the San José Accord should be in compliance with Honduras's laws and constitution and the country's rule of law.

Last Thursday Honduran president Roberto Micheletti had offered to step down if Zelaya also renounced his claim to the presidency.

In response to the State Department's actions today, Roberto Micheletti regretted that "the U.S. has taken the side of Hugo Chavez."

After the Honduran courts and electoral board had declared Manuel Zelaya's proposed referendum unlawful and unconstitutional, he had the ballots printed and flown in from Caracas.

August 24, 2009

Honduras Rejects Zelaya Deal, Reasserts Sovereignty


The Honduran Supreme Court rejected on Friday the San José Accord, which was brokered by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The Supreme Court insisted that all accords are subject to the country's Constitution.

Arias's seven-point proposal had called for deposed president Manuel Zelaya's reinstatement and amnesty.

The Honduran Supreme Court's ruling lays out nine items that directly address Arias's proposal. Item number 2 specifically reminds Zelaya that he's accused of

crimes against the form of government, treason, abuse of authority, against the public and the State of Honduras
and would be facing charges upon his return.

Zelaya supporters in the country threw fire-bombs at a newspaper office last week and set fire to a fast-food restaurant. However, the supporters that had congregated at the Nicaraguan border are heading back to their homes. Last week Honduras ordered the expulsion of six Argentinian diplomats who back Zelaya, following Argentina's expulsion of the Honduran ambassador, who backs Zelaya. The Argentinian diplomats are confined to their embassy.

Zelaya is still canvassing for support outside the country. During his trip to Mexico this month, where he was received with state honors, he made a speech criticizing Mexican president Felipe Calderón, who initially supported Zelaya's return to power. Zelaya said, "It's better to feel like the president than to be the president, and I say this to Lopez Obrador". López Obrador, Calderón's rival, refers to himself as Mexico's "legitimate president." Following the speech, Mexican authorities denied Zelaya access to any media and escorted him to the airport.

Friday's Honduran Supreme Court ruling concludes by asserting that any political agreement derived from the San José Accord should be in compliance with Honduras's laws and Constitution and the country's rule of law.

This morning Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, along with seven other foreign officials arrived in Honduras to continue negotiating. The countries represented are Argentina (Jorge Taiana), Canada (Peter Kenneth), Costa Rica (Bruno Stagno), Jamaica (Kenneth Baugh), México (Patricia Espinoza), Panamá (Juan Carlos Varela), and Dominican Republic (Carlos Morales).

August 22, 2009

Iran's New Defense Minister Wanted for Bombing

I mentioned in a post last January that Iran is holding several of its citizens from being tried in Argentina for planning the 1994 bombing of the Argentine AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

Ahamad%20Vahidi.jpgNow one of those people, Ahmad Vahidi, has been selected for Defense Minister of Iran: The Guardian has the story,
Ahmadinejad chooses wanted man for cabinet
Iran's new defence minister sought by Interpol for 1994 bombing of Jewish centre

A former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards has been nominated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, to head the country's defence ministry, despite being listed on Interpol's wanted register for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina.

Argentinian prosecutors joined Jewish groups last night in condemnation of Ahmadinejad's decision to propose Ahmad Vahidi for the senior cabinet post.

Vahidi has been on an Interpol "red notice" since November 2007, in connection with the car bomb attack on the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and injured 150 – the worst attack on a Jewish target outside Israel since the second world war.

Interpol's red notices are alerts to its 187 member nations. They are not arrest warrants but are sometimes interpreted as a request for apprehending a suspect.

At the time of the attack Vahidi, who is currently Iran's deputy defense minister, commanded a notorious unit of the Revolutionary Guards called the Quds Force. It is known for orchestrating Iran's overseas operations including working alongside Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which is accused of carrying out the Buenos Aires attack on the instigation of Iran.

Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman was not surprised with the appointment, considering Iran's record of sheltering terrorists:
Mr Nisman said that Mr Vahidi, who led a unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard known as the Quds Force at the time of the attack, was accused of "being a key participant in the planning and of having made the decision to go ahead with the attack" against the AMIA.

"It has been demonstrated that Vahidi participated in and approved of the decision to attack AMIA during the meeting in Iraq on 14 August 1993", the prosecutor said.

Argentinian daily Clarin reports that Argentina issued an official statement declaring Vahidi's nomination "an affront to Argentinian Justice and the victims of the brutal terrorist attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)", and demanded Iran's cooperation in the case. AMIA president Guillermo Borger called Vahidi's nomination "shameful and insulting."

Vahidi was deputy defense minister during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term in office.

August 19, 2009

Clinton on U.S. Bases in Colombia

Reports that the U.S. was planning a basing agreement with Colombia set off protests from the usual suspects.

Secretary Clinton addressed the issue with reporters yesterday after her meeting with Colombia's foreign minister :

The foreign minister and I also discussed the bilateral defense cooperation agreement that our governments hope to sign in the near future. This agreement ensures that appropriate protections are in place for our service members. It will allow us to continue working together to meet the challenges posed by narco-traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups in Colombia. These threats are real, and the United States is committed to supporting the Government of Colombia in its efforts to provide security for all of its citizens.

I want to be clear about what this agreement does and does not do. First, the agreement does not create U.S. bases in Colombia. It does provide the United States access to Colombian bases, but command and control, administration, and security will be Colombia’s responsibility, and any U.S. activity will have to be mutually agreed upon in advance. The United States does not have and does not seek bases inside Colombia.

Second, there will be no significant permanent increase in the U.S. military presence in Colombia. The congressionally mandated cap on the number of U.S. service members and contractors will remain and will be respected.

And third, this agreement does not pertain to other countries. This is about the bilateral cooperation between the United States and Colombia regarding security matters within Colombia.

Full text of the statements, plus a Q&A with reporters, here.

August 16, 2009

Venezuelans Protest Journalist Beatings

On Thursday, Chavez Supporters Attacked Venezuela's Journalists

Twelve Venezuelan journalists handing out leaflets in favor of press freedom were injured on Thursday by supporters of leftist President Hugo Chavez.

Marcos Ruiz, a reporter for Caracas daily Ultimas Noticias, was punched and beaten with clubs by at least four assailants, colleague Gledys Pastrana told Efe.

She said Ruiz was taken to the emergency room.

All of the journalists who were handing out leaflets to motorists and pedestrians on a busy street in the capital are employees of the Cadena Capriles group, one of Venezuela’s biggest media companies.

Besides Ultimas Noticias, Capriles publishes two business newspapers: El Mundo Economia and Negocios, and the sports daily Lider.

The Chavez partisans arrived on the scene shouting “revolution” and “this street belongs to the people” and then pounced on the journalists, Pastrana said.

Noticias 24 has photos of the beatings of the journalists, including this one:


The beaten journalists were handing out flyers opposing the new education law that has a provision outlawing reports that "produce terror" among children or incite hate (a provision similar to the Special Law Project Against Media Crimes). The education law was approved on Friday morning among protests: The Ley Orgánica de Educación (Organic Education Law) was strongly opposed and demonstrators on both sides had gathered in front of the National Assembly building. Police fired tear gas into the crowd (BBC News video here).

After the National Assembly's approval of the law, Hugo Chávez condemned the violence against the journalists and declared that "the law will allow us to speed up and deepen the revolutionary process,"

"This law opens the way for the liberation education. There are many chains to break, the ones of colonialism and cultural backwardness, for the deep revolution, the creation of the new man and new woman, the socialist revolution."
He signed the law in a public ceremony. The law becomes effective following its publication in the National Gazette

On Friday, journalists demonstrated in support of the beaten journalists:

In turn, the state prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, refused to meet with the journalists who came to protest the beatings, claiming that "they behaved more as political spokesmen than as journalists, for which they should resign their jobs as journalists."

On Saturday, a suspect was arrested and charged for the Thursday beatings.

July 31, 2009

Venezuela: Chávez's War Against Free Speech


Having decreed the closing of RCTV in May 2007 and theatened to close Globovision, Hugo Chávez is now pushing through laws that would limit broadcasting rights and make them subject to mandatory jail terms through a Projecto de Ley Especial Contra Delitos Mediáticos (Special Law Project Against Media Crimes).

The proposed law, which you can read here in Spanish (pdf file), includes all media and applies to not only owners and publishers but also reporters, freelancers and anyone making a statement that could be interpreted as (my translation) "any person who manipulates or distorts the news, creating a false perception of facts... as long as there is damage to social peace, national security, public order, or the mental health or public morals."

The charge carries a compulsory 2-4 year prison sentence.

Things are getting tough enough that even the UN is complaining. They specifically referred to the Globovision case:

An independent United Nations human rights expert today described the situation of justice in Venezuela as “worrying,” citing political interference with the work of judges and prosecutors in the South American nation.

Leandro Despouy, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, expressed particular concern over the removal of some provisional judges and prosecutors, without cause, without procedure and without effective judicial recourse.

“The right of every person to justice should include the existence of independent and impartial judges, and for this, the stability of judges is an essential element,” Mr. Despouy said in a news release.

He cited the case of Judge Alicia Torres, who says she was pressured by a superior to prohibit the head of the Globovisión television channel, Guillermo Zuloaga Núñez, from leaving the country and was dismissed after she refused to do so.

According to media reports, prosecutors have accused Mr. Zuloaga of usury and conspiracy to commit a crime – accusations stemming from the recent seizure of 24 new vehicles on his property. Mr. Zuloaga denies any wrongdoing, saying the accusations are politically motivated, and that President Hugo Chavez is using prosecutors and judges to bring trumped-up charges against prominent opponents.

Don't expect Chávez to lose sleep over Mr. Despouy's statement.

The Projecto de Ley Especial Contra Delitos Mediáticos (Special Law Project Against Media Crimes) was presented to the National Assembly this morning by Venezuela's General Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz. It is expected to pass.

July 29, 2009

Rocket Launchers Sold to Venezuela Went to FARC


Rocket launchers sold to Venezuela went to FARC

Swedish-made anti-tank rocket launchers sold to Venezuela years ago were obtained by Colombia's main rebel group, and Sweden said Monday it was demanding an explanation.

Colombia said its military found the weapons in a captured rebel arms cache and that Sweden had recently confirmed they originally were sold to Venezuela's military.

The confirmation strengthens Colombian allegations that Hugo Chavez's government has aided the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and exacerbated tensions between the neighboring nations over an imminent agreement to expand the U.S. military's use of Colombian air and naval bases.

But the news was supposed to be kept quiet,
President Alvaro Uribe complained over the weekend that if Colombia had kept quiet about the weapons "they'll fire them and obtain more and no one in the international community will halt their sale.
Of course Chavez (again) recalled the Venezuelan ambassador from Bogota and threatened to halt Colombian imports after Colombia made this information public.

Now Colombia has announced that it's seeking to replace its business ties with Venezuela and Ecuador with new markets in Central America and the Caribbean countries, and

Además de los mercados de Centroamérica y el Caribe, los exportadores colombianos también buscarán nuevos socios en mercados como el de Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea y Canadá.

My Translation: In addition to the Central American and Caribbean markets, Colombian exporters will seek new partners in US, European Union and Canadian markets.

Right now would be an excellent time for Congress to finalize and approve the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, wouldn't it?

July 20, 2009

Nicaragua: Look Who Wants A Referendum?

A Chavez buddy has plans, and this time it's not Zelaya:


Nicaraguan leader seeks referendum for reelection

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega announced Sunday, on the 30th anniversary of the leftist Sandinista revolution he led, that he would seek a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to seek reelection.

Following in the footsteps of elected regional allies, Ortega told thousands of supporters here that he would seek a referendum to let "the people say if they want to reward or punish" their leaders with reelection.

His close leftist allies who have had rules changed enabling them to remain in power include presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

In the last month President Manuel Zelaya in neighboring Honduras was ousted in a coup by his own military after seeking similar action.

The BBC has a video report.

However, disaffected Sandinistas say Daniel Ortega has become a dictator, accusing Ortega of abandoning the revolution while advancing personal power.

Now Ortega wants a referendum to extend his term. Call it the electoral wash-rinse-repeat cycle.

July 16, 2009

Venezuela and Cocaine

Corruption at the Venezuelan National Guard, which controls "Venezuela's airports, borders and ports" and answers only to Chávez, among the reasons why Venezuelan cocaine trans-shipments have soared more than fourfold from 2003 to 2007:


U.S. Slams Caracas on Drugs

Venezuela is fast becoming a major hub for cocaine trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, according to a report written by the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. The report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office is sure to raise tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. at a delicate moment in the two countries' often testy relations. ...

"A high level of corruption within the Venezuelan government, military and other law enforcement and security forces contributes to the permissive environment," says the report, scheduled to be released this month. Many of the drug shipments come from Colombian "illegal armed groups" such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the report says, which the Venezuelan government provides with "a lifeline" of support and a haven within Venezuela. FARC is a communist guerrilla group.

Regular readers of The Compass blog may remember that I have posted in the past on how Chávez offers sanctuary to FARC leaders.

In addition,

The biggest problem: corruption of Venezuelan officials at all levels, according to the report. Corruption within the Venezuelan National Guard "poses the most significant threat," the report says, because the "Guard reports directly to President Chávez and controls Venezuela's airports, borders and ports." In some cases, the report says, drugs captured by the National Guard and Venezuela's Investigative Police, who are often themselves involved in drug trafficking, aren't destroyed, but are taken by the officials or returned to drug traffickers.
As you may recall last March I posted on the Venezuelan military takeover of the country's major airport and maritime hubs.

The WSJ article also points out Chávez's involvement in Honduran politics and his support of ousted president Mel Zelaya, adding,

In the past few years, drug trafficking through Honduras has risen sharply, with many shipments of cocaine arriving in flights from Venezuela on their way to Mexico and the U.S., say officials in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
Back in 2006 I was saying
Hugo [Chávez] needs money for financing his “Bolivarian Revolution”, i.e., his desire to control all of Latin America’s politics. For that he needs money. A huge amount of money. The drug trade is one source.
And he's not going to stop.

You can read the GAO report here.

July 1, 2009

Mrs. Fernandez Goes to Honduras

Several sources have indicated that Argentina President Christina Fernandez Kirchner will be among the international delegation that will accompany ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s planned return to Honduras on Thursday. Interim President Roberto Micheletti has promised to arrest Zelaya should he try to return to his country.

The international community has been highly critical of the arrest and deportation of Zelaya by the military. For Fernandez, accompanying Zelaya gives her a chance to play a popular role in world politics that might offer a distraction from her own political problems at home.

** Her Peronist party suffered a huge setback this past week, losing a majority in both houses of congress.
** Her husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, lost a congressional seat in Buenos Aires to a rival in the same party. This places him as a long shot to return to the presidency in 2011.
** Kirchner’s loss also forced him to resign as head of the Peronist party.
** Fernandez’ approval rating has dropped to 29 percent in recent weeks.
** Argentina has been hit hard by the world recession. Most critics of the administration believe that Fernandez moved up the recent elections four months early in an attempt to solidify power before the economy gets worse.
** The Kirchner brand, which once was highly popular during Nestor Kirchner’s term (2003-2007), has now lost its shine. The Kirchners are now seen as autocratic and unwilling to compromise with rivals.

A trip to Honduras may be a step in the right direction for Fernandez to regain the Kirchner magic. However, with a failing economy and an antagonistic congress, Fernandez may simply be out of luck.

June 29, 2009

Was It a Legal Coup in Honduras?

The expulsion of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduras military has sparked a lively debate over whether or not the takeover should be called a "coup". The reason for the debate is simple enough -- "coup" conjures images of a military junta seizing power by extralegal force and repressing all opposition akin to Argentina in the early 1980s. Defenders of the Honduran military action point out that this action was not extralegal and was, in fact, authorized by the legislature and the courts in response to Zelaya's own illegal attempt to extend his power in an imitation of his international mentor, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Critics, however, believe that this is just a rhetorical shill to cover up some kind of bias against Zelaya's leftist politics.

What both sides miss is that a "coup" isn't always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.

Civil-military relations in the United States are founded on assumptions both inside and outside the military that derive from the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Under Huntington's ideal of "objective civilian control," the military is granted substantial autonomy over a professional sphere of managing the application of violence, but is given no political role. Various forms of "subjective civilian control" where the military becomes embroiled in civilian political struggles are argued by Huntington to be militarily deficient and presumed by most westerners to be morally deficient as well. Americans frequently assume that this ideal is universally shared as an intrinsic component of a democracy.

But this American presumption is more a pretension than an objective description of how societies organize themselves politically. While it is true that American and European consultants make a priority of encouraging developing democracies to adopt Huntingtonian ideals (NATO's "Partnership for Peace" is a notable example, as is the reformed curriculum of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly-known and still-protested as the "School of Americas"), some countries explicitly endow their military with a role in maintaining democratic governance. For example, in Turkey, the military is constitutionally empowered to act as a check on the potential for Islamic parties to undermine the secular foundations. In 1962 and 1980, the Turkish military undertook coups that were not only seen as legal, but mandatory and necessary. This military influence has continued to function in less aggressive forms during more recent political crises involving the banning of Islamic parties and the selection of the head-of-state.

Like the Turkish military, Latin American armies have a long tradition of political involvement. While in some cases, most notably Argentina, this tradition has been intentionally deconstructed (the disaster of the "dirty war" and defeat in the Falklands War provided a strong impetus for change), officers have continued to hold a widely-accepted political role in other countries. It is worth remembering, for example, that in spite of his pretensions of outrage over this coup in Honduras, Venezualan dictator Hugo Chavez was himself the leader of a coup attempt in 1992.

As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if the Honduran military was specifically authorized by a court order to arrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact that the American military would never be so authorized should not distract us from the possibility that legal authorizations for military interventions into politics might exist in other countries' constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, in fact, a legal coup.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His dissertation forces on variations in the political and policy-making roles of the U.S. military.

(Cross-posted at PoliGazette)

June 28, 2009

Chavez: United States to Blame for Honduras Crisis

Today Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has stated that the “North American empire and the extreme right" are behind the arrest of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

And again,

Behind these soldiers is the Honduran bourgeoisie, the rich that convert Honduras into a banana republic, and into a political and military base for the North American empire (my translation).

Yeah, that’s it. With chaos in Iran, American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear North Korea, and a faltering economy, US interests include destabilizing a poor Central American country for military and political purposes.

The official response of the United States has been one of condemnation, albeit a lighter tone than heard around the world. Reuters has reported on the reaction from foreign governments. Let’s just say, the coup plotters aren’t getting a lot of love.

Honduras Coup: President Zelaya Arrested


Honduran troops have arrested president Manuel Zelaya, who then was taken to an air base outside of Tegucigalpa.

AP reports

President Manuel Zelaya's private secretary told the AP that Zelaya was arrested and brought to a base on the outskirts of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

An AP reporter saw dozens of green-helmeted soldiers surround the president's house Sunday morning and then later jump in trucks and drive away, according to the report. About 60 police continue to guard the house, it said, adding that the president did not appear.

Zelaya was arrested right before the voting on the referendum was scheduled to start.

Noticias24 reports that four units of 200 soldiers stormed the presidential residence at 6 a.m.

Electricity has been cut off in the capital, and it is rumored that Zelaya has been flown out of the country.

Honduran daily La Prensa reports that Zelaya is now in Costa Rica. The Honduran Congress will be holding an emergency session today.

June 27, 2009

Honduras in Turmoil


In today's Wall Street Journal,

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's push to rewrite the constitution, and pave the way for his potential re-election, has plunged one of Latin America's poorest countries into a potentially violent political crisis.

A day after Mr. Zelaya fired the head of the country's armed forces, hundreds of troops on Thursday deployed around the Congress, presidential palace and airport in Tegucigalpa, the country's capital. It wasn't clear whether the troops were responding to orders from Mr. Zelaya, or Honduras' other civilian and military powers, all of which oppose the president.

Zelaya wants a referendum to be held this Sunday that would allow voters in the upcoming presidential elections in November to also vote on rewriting the constitution. Zelaya's term is scheduled to end in January.

Most recently, rewriting the Constitution is one of the trademarks of Chavista-style regimes like Ecuador and Bolivia, but the maneuver is not limited to them.

There is strong opposition to the referendum:
* When the armed forces refused to distribute the ballots, Zelaya fired the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, and the defense minister, the head of the army and the air force resigned in protest.
* Yesterday the Supreme Court ordered by a 5-0 vote that Vásquez be reinstated.
* Honduras's Supreme Electoral Tribunal ordered authorities to pick up all the ballots and electoral material, which were held by the country's air force.
* The country's Attorney General requested yesterday that Congress oust Zelaya.
* The courts have declared the referendum unlawful. Last Tuesday the Congress passed a law preventing the holding of referendums or plebiscites 180 days before or after general elections. Congress has also named a commission to investigate Zelaya.

Zelaya insists on holding the referendum and refers to these actions as "a technical coup". UN General Assembly president Miguel D'Escoto - the same guy who declared Fidel Castro "the closest thing we have to a saint" - denounced Zelaya's opposition as staging a coup d'etat against Zelaya, a sentiment voiced also by Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. Hugo Chavez declared that "we are not going to watch with our arms crossed the goings-on in Honduras," and insisted "we will do what we will have to do so the sovereignty of the Honduran people will be respected."

Now the Honduran Congress requested that the Organization of American States withdraw its election observers sent for the Sunday referendum, since their presence would legitimize a vote declared illegal by the Supreme Court.

All the same, Zelaya insists, "Sunday's referendum will not be stopped."

June 25, 2009

More Weenie Diplomacy: Now with Venezuela and Syria

The first version of weenie diplomacy wasn't going down too well, so the July 4 invites to Iranian diplomats were rescinded. Now, not surprisingly, the administration is trying the next best thing:

US and Venezuela to restore ties (h/t Gateway Pundit)

The normalisation of diplomatic ties "will take place in the coming days, and as soon as the ambassadors have resumed their functions we will move forward to a more fluid communication," Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan foreign minister, said on Wednesday.
At the same time, Obama sending ambassador to Syria after years
President Barack Obama plans to return an ambassador to Syria, filling a post that has been vacant for four years and marking an acceleration of Washington's engagement with the Arab world, the White House said on Wednesday.
When I say "the next best thing" to weenie diplomacy with Iran, I mean that Iran, Syria and Venezuela have ever-closer ties:

* Direct IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, with stops in Damascus, which started in March, 2007.
* The December 2008 report from Italian daily La Stampa on how Iran is using Venezuela do duck UN sanctions by using aircraft from Venezuelan airline Conviasa to transport computers and engine components to Syria for use in missiles.
* Hezbollah's increased presence in Venezuela.
* Hezbollah adopting Chavez as a hero.
* Reports of Venezuela and Bolivia providing Iran with uranium (see prior post).

And, of course, Chavez's unflinching support for Ahmadinejad, while showing great disrespect for President Obama.

Can't have the Iranian diplomats over for hot dogs? Then kiss and make up with their friends.

June 22, 2009

Chavez Reaffirms His Support for Ahmadinejad

During his Sunday Aló Presidente show, which by law has to be broadcast on all of the licensed TV and radio stations in the country, Hugo Chávez reaffirmed his support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he refers to as " Iran's great president,"saying:

"We send a greeting to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran't great president, to Ayatollah Ali Hamenei, and to the Iranian people. We ask the world to respect Iran because they are trying to undermine the Iranian revolution's strength."
Chávez then insisted,
"We ask the world for respect. Ahmadinejad's triumph is a victory in full order. They're trying to stain Ahmadinejad's victory, and by doing so they aim to weaken the government and the Islamic revolution. I know they won't be able to do it."
You can watch him here (video in Spanish):

He also claims to have congratulated Ahmadinejad over the phone last week, and his government issued a statement rejecting "the ferocious and unfounded campaign of discredit that was activated by foreign powers against Iranian institutions."

He did not specify who "they", or who those "foreign powers" are.

June 21, 2009

Peru-Bolivia: Hanging by a Thread

Peru-Bolivia relations are hanging by a thread, opined one Peruvian senator this past week. Although neither country is threatening to cut diplomatic ties with the other, the causes of the conflict are ideological and are unlikely to subside in the near future.

First there is the back and forth over the Bagua incident, where at least 34 Peruvians were killed in a showdown between the police and a group of Amazonian Indians. The latter were blockading a road that leads into the Amazon region which President Garcia would like to open up to foreign investors. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has called the government crackdown “genocide.”Morales is also fundamentally against opening up the Amazon. In a letter to indigenous leaders, Morales states that “free trade agreements break up harmonious human relationships with nature; they commodify natural resources and national cultures; they privatise basic services; they try to patent life itself."

Peru responded to the genocide comment by recalling its ambassador to Bolivia back to Lima for consultation. The government has stated that there is no excuse for Morales to refer to the Bagua incident as genocide since a United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and the fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples declared this past week that no genocide has occurred. The Garcia government sees the Morales administration as meddling into Peruvian sovereignty and has even implied that Bolivia has manipulated the Peruvian indigenous groups in order to stir them to action.

Despite the outcry, the Garcia administration was forced to repeal the two decrees that were the cause of the crisis in the first place. On Thursday, Congress passed the bill repealing the decrees by a total of 84-12. President Garcia even admitted that it was a mistake not to consult the heads of the indigenous groups prior to implementing the decrees. This may signify that the political elite in Peru are coming to terms with the fact that indigenous groups in Peru are much better organized politically than they were in the past.

Garcia and Morales have never been on good terms since both came to power in 2006. Garcia was highly offended when Morales openly sympathized with Garcia’s main opponent, Ollanta Humala, in the 2006 elections. Humala, who comes from Incan descent, beat Garcia in the first round of voting but was knocked out in the second round when corruption allegations surfaced right before the elections.

Garcia and Morales have also knocked heads on granting political asylum to each others’ nationals. This past May, Peru granted political asylum to three former Bolivian cabinet officials accused of involvement in the killing of 63 protestors in the Andean city of El Alto in 2003 during the Sanchez de Lozada administration. The protestors (mostly Aymara Indians) were frequently blocking access to the airport as well as to oil and gas supplies. After Morales (who is also an Aymara Indian) came to power in 2006, Bolivia indicted 17 former government officials for the 2003 incident. Former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the United States, was tried in absentia in May.

In 2007, Bolivia granted political asylum to Walter Chavez, a former member of the Peruvian revolutionary group Tupac. Chavez was facing charges of terrorism by the Peruvian government. At the time, he was working as a political aide for Morales.

The divide between Garcia and Morales is deep. Morales opposes Garcia’s push for a regional trade pact with the European Union and also criticizes Peru’s free trade agreement with the United States. Garcia is an economic liberal, while Morales is a Bolivarian leftist. If Peru’s large indigenous population continues to mobilize, then right-of-center parties may not last long in Peru. In the meantime, however, it is hard to see how Peru-Bolivia relations improve.

June 18, 2009

Chavez "helping out" Ahmadinejad?


Today James Tarranto posts,

'Those Palestinian Animals'
The Jerusalem Post reports that some Iranian dissidents claim the Tehran regime has imported Palestinian terrorists to help crush the opposition:
"The most important thing that I believe people outside of Iran should be aware of," the young man went on, "is the participation of Palestinian forces in these riots."

Another protester, who spoke as he carried a kitchen knife in one hand and a stone in the other, also cited the presence of Hamas in Teheran.

On Monday, he said, "my brother had his ribs beaten in by those Palestinian animals. Taking our people's money is not enough, they are thirsty for our blood too."

It was ironic, this man said, that the victorious Ahmadinejad "tells us to pray for the young Palestinians, suffering at the hands of Israel." His hope, he added, was that Israel would "come to its senses" and ruthlessly deal with the Palestinians.

The Post includes an apposite disclaimer: "Amid the violence, confusion and government restrictions on communication, the accuracy of conflicting accounts is hard to ascertain." But certainly these claims are no less credible than Roger Cohen's "reports" about happy Iranian Jews.
In the past few days I have received questions from several people asking about the rumors that Hugo Chavez is sending some of his thugs to "help out" Ahmadinejad. This rumor has also been mentioned in a couple of Spanish-language cable TV shows, particularly in view of the frequent direct flights between Caracas and Tehran.

I have not been able to find any actual evidence to confirm these rumors. The ties between Iran and Venezuela are many, and strong as ever. However, evidence of Chavez's backers in Iran is yet to be found.

As to the issue of future Venezuela-Iran relations: I expect that Iran will continue to expand its influence in the hemisphere, regardless of any electoral outcome.

June 7, 2009

Guatemala: The Next Mexico

There is wide speculation that Mexican drug traffickers may be setting up shop in Guatemala in light of President Calderon’s war against organized crime. A recent article in the LA Times, “Drug Violence Spilling Into Guatemala,” highlighted the increasing presence that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are having with the crime-ridden Central American country. The transfer, however, may be more indicative of the adaptable nature of drug trafficking than of any real success of Calderon.

Since 2008, there have been at least 30 members of the Zetas arrested in Guatemala. The Zetas, former Mexican special forces turned drug traffickers, have been working with members of Guatemala’s special forces, the Kaibiles. In a recent raid that left five anti-drug agents dead, Guatemalan forces retrieved eight anti-personnel mines, 11 M60 machine guns, bullet proof vests and two armored cars that investigators say belong to the Zetas. There were 3,800 bullets and 563 grenades recovered that defense officials say once belonged to the Guatemalan military.

Guatemala seems like a logical choice for drug traffickers wanting to escape the heat of President Calderon’s war. It has all the characteristics of a country where drug lords can hide with impunity. High corruption and weak institutions have ravaged Guatemala since it ended a 36-year civil war in 1996 between the military and leftist political groups. Poverty is rampant; less than 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land. This means that rich drug lords will find no shortage of peasants (and government officials) willing to help out for a few extra bucks.

Criminals and gangs already operate within Guatemala with impunity. Most Guatemalans have no faith in the police to end crime. According to the UN, fewer than 5 percent of all crimes even go to trial. Guatemala has a paltry police force of only 20,000 officers. In last year alone, there were over 6,000 homicides in Guatemala which experts say were mostly drug-related.

Furthermore, Guatemala is going through a political crisis right now that could possibly end in an all-too-familiar military coup. On May 10th, Rodrigo Rosenburg, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was gunned down while bicycling on a busy avenue. Fours days before his murder he made a video in which he began by saying, “If you are watching this message it is probably because I have been murdered by President Álvaro Colom…” Rosenburg claims that the Guatemalan president has been funneling drug money through some of the social organizations that his wife runs. President Colom, who in 2007 became the first leftist to win the Guatemalan presidency since the CIA ousted Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, must defend himself against these charges as well as involvement in the murder if he wishes to stay in power. Guatemala is already approaching failed statehood. Any political crisis may only hasten its decline.

The United States government has apportioned $10.6 million of the multiyear $1.4 billion Merida Initiative to go to Central American countries. Guatemala has already received its first installment of $10.6 million. However, some of the same arguments that were made against sending money to Mexico can be more accurately made against Guatemala. First, with so much corruption, how can the United States be sure that the money is being used properly? Second, will a militarized approach that has been the focus of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative be successful in ending drug trafficking in Guatemala?

Calderon’s crackdown in Mexico has no doubt led traffickers to find different routes to the United States. However, the United States and Latin American countries have been successful in shutting routes before (the Caribbean route through Miami in the 1980s). With so much money to be made, traffickers have shown the ingenuity to simply find different ways to get to the United States. The latest interest in Guatemala among drug lords is only in keeping with the adaptable nature of the business.

Meanwhile, Guatemala teeters towards becoming the next Mexico.

June 2, 2009

America's Shifting Approach Toward Central America

Yesterday, Mauricio Funes broke the twenty-year dominance of right-wing power in El Salvador by becoming the first candidate from the former Marxist guerrilla group, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), to win the presidency. On hand at the inauguration was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has indicated that the Obama administration is committed to “a new approach to the region.”

This is no small change. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was committed to financially supporting the Salvadoran military who was fighting a brutal insurgency led by the FMLN. After 12 years of fighting over 75,000 people were left dead and a quarter of the population fled the country. This is why today Salvadorans represent the second largest Latino group in Southern California (second to Mexicans).

After a peace agreement was signed in 1992, the FMLN moderated and became a legitimate political party. However, they could never beat the conservative Arena Party (National Republican Alliance), who up until now has been in power since 1989.

This past March, 46 Republican congressman signed a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, stating that “an electoral victory of the FMLN could bring about links between El Salvador and the regimes in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and other states that promote terrorism.” During the Bush administration, senior officials often voiced their opinions about politics in Central America. Under the Obama administration, the United States seems to be charting a new path. The press in El Salvador recognizes this. One article in recent days about Hillary Clinton’s views of Funes is titled “No Queremos Imponer Ideas, Queremos Aprender (We do not want to impose ideas, we want to understand).”

It is too early to tell how Funes will govern. He has tried to divert Arena criticism that he will align with leftists Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. He often compares himself, instead, with Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In fact, both Chavez and Ortega were noticeably absent from Funes’ inauguration.

More interesting will be how American policy adapts if Funes does align with Chavez and Ortega. Republicans have criticized President Obama for conducting a “listening tour” to try to win back American favor with the rest of the world. El Salvador could be a test for American policy.

May 22, 2009

Third Terms: No in Brazil, Maybe in Colombia


Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced today that he has no intention of running for a third term in next year's election.

Brazil's Constitution states that presidents can only hold office for two consecutive terms, but Lula's popularity, and the health of his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff had generated speculation. Rousseff, the most likely candidate for Lula's Worker's Party, is currently undergoing chemotherapy at Sao Paolo's Syrian-Lebanese hospital for lymphoma.

Lula, who is visiting Turkey, expressed confidence in Rousseff's recovery and encouraged her to not stop working.


In Colombia, however, this week the Colombian Senate approved a referendum that would amend the Constitution to allow president Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. Like Brazil, Colombia's constitution limits presidential terms to two consecutive terms. The 62-to-5 vote was missing 26 opposition senators who walked out in protest.

Supporters of a third term collected 5 million signatures last year, and the lower house approved a measure that would require Uribe to sit out a term before being able to run again in 2014; the uppor house measure approved yesterday would allow him to run again next year. The constitutional change would require a minimum turnout of at least 70 percent of Colombia's eligible voters, but first both measures would have to be reconciled, and then approved by the Constitutional Court before there is any referendum. Even with a 70% turnout, Uribe would need "50% plus one" votes.

While Uribe is very popular and is credited for defeating the narco-terrorists, there are many arguments against his running for a third term, particularly since he would be perceived as yet another democratically-elected Latin American head of state who stayed on to undermine the country's institutions.

Adding to the controversy, one of the sponsors of the signature drive was David Murcia Guzmán, allegedly a mafia money launderer, who is currently in jail.

Uribe has not announced publicly whether he would run again. Will he? Time will tell.

May 13, 2009

The Strange Case of Rodrigo Rosenberg

On Sunday, May 10, Rodrigo Rosenberg set out to ride his bicycle in Guatemala City and was shot and killed by unknown gunmen.


He was scheduled to be the guest of journalist Mario David García's radio show, Hablando Claro, on Monday to talk about the murder of Rosenberg's clients Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie.

Musa, a prominent businessman, and his daughter were killed last March. No one has been charged on those two murders.

Rodrigo Rosenberg claimed that Musa, his client, had been murdered because he had refused to participate in corrupt business deals at Banrural, one of Guatemala's largest banks, after Musa had been named to the bank's board by Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom.

During Rosenberg's funeral, the media received a statement - first as an audio, later a video - where Rosenberg blames Colom, Colom's wife Sandra, Colom's private secretary Gustavo Alejos, and businessman Gregorio Valdez for his own murder. The Wall Street Journal has the part of the video with subtitles, which starts with Rodrigo Rosenberg saying,

"If you are hearing or seeing this message it's because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with the help of Mr. Gustavo Alejos and Mr. Gregorio Valdez."

Along with the video, a letter allegedly signed by Rosenberg lists the accusations against Colom.

Mario David García says he filmed the video with Rosenberg, and said he is now worried about his own life.

So far there is no evidence to support Rosenberg's allegations.

President Colom has vehemently denied any links to the murder. While there are calls for his resignation, Colom will not step down, and stated he has requested the help of the FBI and UN agency International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala). The CICIG was created in 2007 to fight widespread corruption in the country.

May 6, 2009

Venezuela Offers Sanctuary to FARC


According to this report at Spanish daily El País, Venezuela is now serving as sanctuary for the FARC's top leaders.

The article states that the Colombian Minister of Defense has pointed out that the top FARC leaders are not in Colombia, which makes their arrest difficult. The Colombian MoD did not speculate further as to their whereabouts.

However, El País does speculate that FARC Secratariat members 'Iván Márquez', 'Timochenko' and 'Joaquín Gómez', plus 'Grannobles', another FARC leader, are hiding in Venezuela (my translation, bold print from original article):

With nearly 200,000 kilometers of common border, most of it jungle or wilderness, it is nearly impossible to combat the guerrilla without joint action from both armies. But there is not only ideological affinity between the [Venezuelan] Bolivarians and the FARCs: there's rampant corruption. The Venezuelan military and police gave into the temptation of enriching themselves with narcotraffic money. Narcos and the FARC buy their wills in order to cover up their cocaine exports. It's no wonder that Venezuela has become a key stopover for the Colombian drug on its way to the United States and Europe.
The article quotes military analyst Alfredo Rangel, who stated that following the release of the information gathered from the FARC computers found last year, while Chavez has distanced himself from the FARC and is not providing as much money and weapons and does not give the FARC the diplomatic cover he used to, he continues to passively support them.

The article from El País came up after Colombian president Alvaro Uribe urged Chavez to help destroy the FARC. Chavez flat-out refused, saying that it's not his war.

Just last Thursday the Venezuelan Foreign Minister had vowed to collaborate with Colombian authorities in the search for members of the FARC that killed eight Colombian soldiers and then allegedly fled to Venezuela last week.

Earlier this week Chavez had blamed Colombia for a helicopter crash that killed 18 members of the Venezuelan army. During his 'Alo Presidente TV program Chavez accused both Colombia and the US for the accident:

"¿Cuántas vidas nos ha costado patrullar la frontera? Vean ustedes lo que nos cuesta el conflicto interno de Colombia, que es alimentado, y hay que decirlo, por las corrientes guerreristas de EEUU, por los perros de la guerra que andan inventando guerras y conflictos para vender armas, alimentado por el narcotráfico."

(my translation:)
"How many lives will patrolling the border cost us? See for yourselves what Colombia's internal conflict is costing us, which is fed, it must be said, by the US warmongering, by the dogs of war that go around inventing wars and conflicts in order to sell weapons, fed by the drug traffic."
How's that "mending fences with Chavez" going, folks?

May 5, 2009

Ahmadinejad Cancels Trip to Brazil


On Monday JTA and Terra reported that Iranian news agency IRNA announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had canceled his upcoming state visit to Brazil, which was scheduled for May 6 at President Lula’s invitation.

Bloomberg News also reported that Iran’s Ahmadinejad Postpones Latin American Trip Indefinitely.

Terra's article stated that following up on the IRNA announcement, Terra contacted the Brazilian President's office, the Foreign Minister and the Iranian Embassy, all of which did not know of the cancellation. Indeed, by mid-afternoon O Globo quoted Ambassador Roberto Jaguaribe: "We continue to prepare normally for the visit." O Globo also reports that Hassan Qashqavi, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, confirmed the visit and added, "we seek active cultural, economic and political relationships with Latin American countries."

However, by late afternoon O Globo's top headline was that Brazil's Foreign Office confirmed that Ahmadinejad's visit scheduled for this week had indeed been canceled, and that Ahmadinejad had requested that it be postponed until after the Iranian elections in June. No reason was given for the cancellation.

Ahmadinejad was scheduled to be traveling with 110 representatives from 65 Iranian companies.

On Sunday thousands of demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo from Jewish, Christian, human rights, gay, and women's organizations protested Lula's invitation to Ahmadinejad.

The photo above was taken by Brazilian blogger David Bor during yesterday's demonstration in Rio. The large banners read, "Mr. President, explain your invitation," while the smaller ones denounce Iran's homophobia, lack of freedom of the press, women's oppression and racism.

April 28, 2009

Bolivia: Evo, the Marxist-Leninist


Evo Morales has declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, during an interview with Argentinian daily Clarín saying that that is no reason for a country to be expelled from the Organization of American States, as Cuba was:

“No se puede entender que por motivos ideológicos alguien sea expulsado de la OEA. Yo también soy marxista-leninista ¿y qué, me van a expulsar?”, subrayó Morales al diario Clarín, de Buenos Aires.
(my translation:) "One can not understand that anyone would be expelled from the OAS for ideological reasons. I am a Marxist-Leninist, too, so what? Are they going to expel me?"
Cuba was suspended from participation in the OAS in 1962. Through the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the OAS has repeatedly condemned the human rights situation in Cuba, urging the release of political prisoners.

April 26, 2009

Paraguay's Prolific Padre

The Latin American front page story on the international media last week? Fernando Lugo's paternity suits.

Every news outlet, from Le Monde to O Globo carried the story: Lugo publicly asked for forgiveness in having sired a child with Viviana Carrillo, age 26. The child is now nearly two years old. Following her suit, Lugo accepted paternity and the child now bears his last name.

According to court records, the affair with Carrillo started when she was sixteen years old and he was bishop of San Pedro while he sometimes stayed at the home of her godmother, where she lived. Bishop Ignacio Gogorza of Encarnación revealed that Lugo had administered the sacrament of Confirmation to Carrillo. The court papers state their relationship was already in progress.

In his apology, Lugo stated (my translation),

"I am a human being, and therefore nothing human is alien to me."
Whether Lugo was trying to be erudite or inadvertently humorous I am not sure, since it is almost a direct quote from Terence (ca. 190-160 BC),
Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
Humorous because in Spanish a puto can mean a very promiscuous man. He probably doesn't expect that many would be in on the pun, after all, how many people can recognize a quote in Latin, aside from high-level Catholic clergy, and those, as Hans Gruber said, with the benefits of a Classical education?

Promiscuous? That appears to be the case with Lugo, who until last year was still subject to a vow of chastity, which he clearly ignored.

Continue reading "Paraguay's Prolific Padre" »

April 24, 2009

Banging the Embargo Drums

The public relations campaign towards easing the Cuban embargo continues to build up.

We've had the Lugar report, the Congressional Black Caucus trip to Cuba and their adorational attitude towards Fidel Castro, and an endless number of polls.

Here's the latest:
Americans Steady in Backing Friendlier U.S.-Cuba Relations

Overall, Gallup Polls regarding U.S. relations with Cuba find Americans generally accepting of the U.S. taking a friendlier stance toward the island nation, as has been true over the past decade. However, Americans do distinguish between different specific policies toward Cuba. The fact that a solid majority support re-establishing U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba -- and have consistently done so for the past decade -- suggests that Obama's first step in this direction was likely well-received by the American public. Moves toward making it easier for all Americans to travel to Cuba will likely find majority support among the American public as well. Ending the trade embargo will be a tougher sell and likely a partisan battle.
And let's not forget emotional pleas from the Kennedys: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, came out today with My Father's Stand on Cuba Travel
My father's principal argument for lifting the ban was simply that restricting Americans' right to travel went against the freedoms that he had sworn to protect as attorney general. Lifting the ban, he argued, would be "more consistent with our views as a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and Communist controls on such travel."
Here's my prediction: the Obama administration will continue to water down the embargo as to rendering it meaningless by year's end.

April 22, 2009

Hugo Persecutes the Opposition


As I have mentioned before, Hugo Chávez is consolidating power around himself. He is now persecuting the opposition.

Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo - an elected position - is seeking political asylum in Peru. Rosales, the best-known opposition leader in the country, is a member of the 'Un Nuevo Tiempo' (A New Time) Party and was governor of the state of Zulia prior to his election as mayor of Maracaibo. He is accused of illicit enrichment. As the Washington Post reminds us, last October Chávez stated "I have decided to make Manuel Rosales a prisoner," after which the investigations against Rosales started. Chávez has sworn, "I will crush him."

Why did Rosales have to leave the country? The Washington Post, again,

Asdrúbal Quintero, a legal adviser to Rosales, said by telephone from Maracaibo that Rosales had considered showing up at a pretrial hearing Monday to argue that the money in question was earned legally through his agricultural business.

But Quintero said the opposition leader decided to flee after Ismael García, an anti-Chávez lawmaker in the National Assembly, announced that he had obtained a draft of a sentencing document against him. The document, García said, showed that Rosales was to be sentenced to a 30-year prison term.

Venezuelan bloggers speculate whether Rosales's exile means the end of his political career.

Rosales is not alone.

Retired General Raúl Baduel, who brought Chávez to power following the 2002 attempted coup and later was instrumental in defeating Chávez's constitutional referendum in 2007, was arrested at gunpoint on April 7, pending corruption charges. He issued from prison a plea for Venezuelans “to save democracy,” which was recorded by his son, Raúl Emilio Baduel, with his cell phone. You can watch the video (in Spanish) here.

Raúl Emilio Baduel was detained in Trinidad and later released, "because of information they had received about him" by unnamed sources. Upon returning to Venezuela, Raúl Emilio was strip-searched at Maiquetía airport. Authorities also went through his laptop.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of the state of Miranda, is also prosecuted after government legislator and Chávez supporter Darío Vivas called for him to be investigated on corruption charges. Capriles has been opposed to the new Capital District Law enacted by Chávez last month.

Henrique Salas Feo, governor of the state of Carabobo, is being investigated for "promoting secession" after speaking of organizing a movement to defend regional autonomy.

César Pérez Vivas, governor of the state of Táchira, may have his victory annulled and a new election might be held.

All these governors have opposed the takeover of the transportation hubs.

Meanwhile, in Caracas, Mayor Antonio Ledezma has been ousted from his office by squatters and Chávez has created a "vice president for Caracas." Chávez created a new Capital District, effectively removing the city’s most populous borough from Ledezma’s jurisdiction. Former Minister for the Environment and staunch Chavista Jacqueline Faría, upon accepting the post, stated that Caracas is the seat of public powers and that it would be "uncomfortable" for the head of state to be surrounded by governors who oppose him. Daniel Duquenal quotes Faría describing her job as,

will have to care and supervise all services so that the capital inhabitants have a better quality of life, the new socialist life.
This Washington Post editorial points out that government-controlled councils are set up to undermine trade unions, and a new law will block foreign funding of human rights groups.

Journalist and author Teodoro Petkoff, former Communist and ex-guerilla, who is the editor of newspaper Tal Cual, is also under investigation for allegedly failing to report taxes on his mother's estate in 1974.

The list keeps growing.

April 21, 2009

Obama Among the Loudmouths

Mitt Romney is apparently not a fan of Obama's "wasn't me" doctrine:

At last week’s Summit of the Americas, President Obama acquiesced to a 50-minute attack on America as terroristic, expansionist, and interventionist from Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. His response to Ortega’s denunciation of our effort to free Cuba from Castro’s dictatorship was that he shouldn’t be blamed “for things that happened when I was three months old.” Blamed? Hundreds of men, including Americans, bravely fought and died for Cuba’s freedom, heeding the call from newly elected president John F. Kennedy. But last week, even as American soldiers sacrificed blood in Afghanistan and Iraq to defend liberty, President Obama shrank from defending liberty here in the Americas.

Let's imagine you're Alex Rodriquez stuck at a wedding party with some overweight, drunken loudmouth who berates you about how you're a lousy baseball player because you struck out a few times in the clutch. Now, you could stand up and knock the guy out, cause a huge scene, alienate the guests and get sued. You could argue with the guy that you're in fact a great baseball player and a few strike outs can't outweigh that fact (he'll argue back, of course, and it will devolve into a shouting match). Or you can smile and nod and let the blowhard run his mouth and continue making millions of dollars and living the life that everyone envies.

All three scenarios end with A-Rod being a great baseball player. One ends with him in some hot water and some legal bills, one ends with his reputation slightly diminished, the other is forgotten ten minutes after it happens.

And just to bring this back to some policy grounds. President Bush spoke frequently about freedom (it's being on the march, it being the mission of the U.S. to spread). In his tenure, according to Freedom House, the number of nations classified as free rose from 85 to 89. During the tenure of President Clinton, whom, I will assume, Mitt Romney does not consider a paragon of foreign policy leadership, the number of nations classified as free rose from 75 to 85.

So there is little correlation in the data between a willingness to talk a great game and the ability to birth new democracies.

April 19, 2009

The Festivus Summit of the Americas


Viewers familiar with Seinfeld remember Festivus, the ceremonial airing of grievances. Wikipedia reminds us,

The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him or her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is actually pinned.
Those of us watching the news from the Summit of the Americas have been regaled with news story after news story on the weekend Festivus.

Preliminary to this year's Festivus was President Obama's brief stop in Mexico. Pres. Obama carefully avoided pointing out that Mexico's decades, perhaps centuries' long corruption and disregard for the rule of law had much to do with the thriving drug cartels, and his administration stands by the "90% fallacy," which and others have looked into and found lacking. There is consistent evidence that the drug cartels are purchasing weapons and military-grade armaments from Central America and the international weapons trade; ignoring this will not improve the drug wars. Additionally, the US has served as the pressure valve for Mexico, since millions of Mexicans who want to live and work in peace move here. Little, if any, credit was given to the US for that during Pres. Obama's visit.

The Festivus, however, didn't get rolling until Pres. Obama arrived in Trinidad. There was a slight difference from the classical Festivus: the airing of grievances went only in one direction.

First Pres. Obama walked across a hotel meeting room to meet Hugo Chavez, who just last month was calling the US a "genocidal, murderous empire" and was telling Obama to go wash his rear end. Chavez, who is cracking down on his political opposition at home and callls for the end of the American "empire" abroad every chance he gets, told Pres. Obama, "I want to be your friend," while government-owned Venezuelan media immediately spread the photos of the handshake.

The Festivus airing of grievances continued with Daniel Ortega's fifty-minute long inflammatory diatribe where Ortega complained about the US's "terroristic aggression in Central America." In the spirit of Festivus, Obama joked,

"I'm very grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was 3 months old."
No Festivus is complete without a gift, and what better gift than the old classic, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, by Uruguayan Marxist writer Eduardo Galeano, which blames everything that has gone wrong in Latin America for the past 500 years on Europe, and - you guessed it - the United States. Chavez presented the gift to Obama, unwrapped and in the Spanish edition, since after all, what better way to make the point of how Qué ignorante eres, than to give the book in the original language.

Having pinned the head of state to the ground, the rest of the Summit coasted right along. Indeed, a Festivus festivity like no other.

Chavez, upon returning from the Summit of the Americas, reviewed Venezuela’s new anti-aerial weaponry received from Russia, and declared the Summit “one of Venezuela’s greatest victories” (Video 2) , all to the Cuban Communist salute, “Homeland, socialism or death, we shall win!”

April 16, 2009

Obama in Mexico, and on to the Summit

Amid heavy security, President Obama arrived in Mexico where he will hold a press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderón; then head to Trinidad and the Summit of the Americas. This will be Obama's first trip ever to Latin America.

Andrea Mitchell interviewed Calderón:

During the Mitchell interview, Calderón again talked about American blame for drug trafficking. Let's hope that during this afternoon's visit, Calderón, who wants more American money and resources to combat the drug cartels, understands that America did not cause Mexico's decades-long problems of corruption and disrespect for the rule of law which fostered the present situation.

MSNBC speculates on the trip:

As for the rest of the trip after today -- the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad -- look for three story lines to emerge: One is Cuba. Just how hard will the other Latin American leaders criticize the president for what they believe is not much change in Washington's Cuba stance?

Second is anti-Americanism. Many of the emerging political leaders in the region attained power by bashing the U.S. Will the President confront this issue like he did in Europe? Anti-Americanism has always been stronger in Latin America than anywhere else.

And thirdly, there's Hugo Chavez.

Here's what I expect:

Obama will ease further restrictions on Cuba. How far will he go on this trip remains to be seen, but I fully expect that he will effectively end the embargo by year's end with the help of Congress.

When it comes to anti-Americanism, he will embark on the Apology Tour Version 2.0, in very much the same vein as he did in Europe. I agree with Ray Walser that the President must make clear that

the US remains committed to the tenets of liberal democracy, competitive markets, free trade, and the rule of law.
However, judging from the less challenging European trip and from the president's own rhetoric, I have no reason to believe that Obama will take any route other than that of an apologetic listening tour. Let's hope I am wrong.

As for Chavez, Obama will avoid photo ops of any sort where Obama is not the center of attention; Chavez or anyone else included.

It will be an interesting trip, for sure.

April 12, 2009

Cuba: U.S. Embargo to End?

The Fifth Summit of the Americas is coming up next week, on April 17-19 in Trinidad-Tobago. The Summit's theme is “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability.” It will be interesting to watch what the Obama administration has planned for the Summit regarding Cuba.

As readers may recall, last February the Lugar Report concluded that "progress could be attained by replacing conditionality with sequenced engagement, beginning with narrow areas of consensus that develop trust," and recommended changing US policy towards Cuba. Following the report, in March the omnibus spending bill changed travel restrictions on American citizens with family in Cuba to once a year, and last week the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama plans to lift U.S. restrictions on Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like and to send them unlimited funds.


This week the Congressional Black Caucus visited Cuba and reportedly met with Raul and Fidel Castro, who they lavishly praised. As with the Lugar delegation, members of the CBC did not meet any dissidents or any members of Cuba's pro-democracy movement. However, CBC recommended that the embargo be lifted.

Following the CBC's return, CNN released poll results stating that two-thirds of Americans surveyed think the U.S. should lift its travel ban and 71 percent of those polled said that the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

On Thursday the Cuban American National Foundation released a report advocating change in the US's relations with Cuba, a drastic change from their prior hardline stance. The

Since the end of the Cold War our policy toward Cuba has remained static, reactive and focused on responding to developments following the demise of Fidel Castro. That policy, in our opinion, does not advance or promote the best interests of the United States or of the Cuban people; it relegates the U.S.’s role to that of passive observer rather than active supporter of the process of democratization for one of our closest hemispheric neighbors.

The recommendations listed herein chart a new direction for U.S.-Cuba policy, one that is guided by a deep understanding of the Cuban people, the impact of five decades of totalitarian rule, and a firm belief that the tides of change are swept in by the grass roots efforts of common people who have acquired confidence in their abilities and feel empowered in their responsibilities. Our recommendations are a break from the past because they seek to adapt to the realities of the present, which require a measured and incremental path that allows for adjustments along the way based on empirical evidence and evolving dynamics on the ground in Cuba.

The report also stresses the input of the Cuban people and the fostering of a Cuban civic society towards the aim of a successful transition to democracy.

Clearly, American attitudes towards relations with Cuba have changed.

In the island, however, the European Union's decision last year to lift sanctions against Cuba,

Cuban dissidents also vehemently opposed the lifting of the sanctions, believing that this action would “punish” the Cuban people and allow Havana to continue violating human rights. According to the leaders of the dissident group Agenda for Transition, any action taken by the EU to normalize relations with Cuba would be understood by Cuban authorities as affording legitimacy to the government’s recent actions and would “[punish] those who fight for democracy.”
What is in store for the Summit of the Americas? Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. official heading preparations, stressed that Pres. Obama seeks a "new beginning" with Latin American countries, focusing on the economic crisis, energy, and security threats during the Summit.

While stating that it would be counterproductive for the summit to focus on Cuba, Davidow said that Obama may announce the easing of travel restrictions and remittances. How will that be different from the April 4 announcement remains to be seen.

Mexico: Drug Armies vs. Calderon's Army

When Felipe Calderon became President in December 2006, he immediately declared war on the drug lords. He has staked his presidency (as well as the congressional elections coming up in June) on the government’s ability to return a sense of security to Mexico. Presently, there are over 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police deployed to hot spots around Mexico. This past week Calderon’s army was hard at work, taking down some tough characters.

The problem is that Calderon is not the only commander-in-chief of an army in Mexico. All of the major drug trafficking organizations have at their disposal sicarios, or enforcers. This trend started when Osiel Cardenas, the former head of the Gulf cartel (presently sitting in a Houston prison), convinced several members of Mexico’s special forces to quit the army and help the Gulf cartel solidify territory. When Cardenas was arrested and subsequently extradited to the United States in 2007, the Zetas started flying solo. Their expertise of special operations has made them a formidable foe of the Army regulars.

This past week the military was able to kill a Zeta boss in Zacatecas. Israel Nava Cortes was responsible for establishing Zeta control in several states in Central Mexico. It was rumored that Nava Cortes was Guatemalan. However, representatives from the federal police dispelled this rumor, stating that Nava Cortes was Mexican.

The confusion over Nava Cortes’ nationality comes after reports suggest that the Zetas have been working closely with the Guatemalan special forces (known as kaibiles). The reports suggest that the Zetas, as well as the Sinaloa cartel, have been trying to establish alternate routes from Colombia through Central America. Mexican and U.S. maritime operations have put intense pressure on the drug cartels at Mexico’s coasts.

The Zetas are not the only sicarios in Mexico. This past week also saw the arrest of 21 enforcers for drug trafficker “El Teo” Garcia. They were arrested while trying to pull off murders of two federal police agents in Baja California. Reports indicate that the weapons confiscated during the arrest had been used in no less than eight other homicides in Mexico.

Garcia used to be a lieutenant in the Tijuana cartel. However, in early 2008 he had a falling out with one of the heads of the Tijuana cartel, Fernando Sanchez Arellano (“the Engineer”). Sanchez believed that Garcia had caused too much attention to be drawn to the Tijuana cartel due to Garcia’s penchant for kidnapping physicians. Garcia supposedly fled the city in April, but is rumored to have returned in August, since the high violence levels have returned this fall. He is now unofficially aligned with the Sinaloa cartel in an effort to destroy his former comrades.

Despite the successes in Baja California, the bloodshed continued in Chihuahua. There was at least eight “narco-executions” this past week. The tortured body of a man was found in a center for drug rehabilitation in Ciudad Juarez. There was also between 15 and 20 federal agents that were accused of abuse of power and complicity in the drug trade. Chihuahua continues to lead the country in drug deaths with 590 in 2009 alone.

Meanwhile, in Congress the Chamber of Deputies will begin discussion Monday on whether to decriminalize small time marijuana use. The forum will bring together experts from around the government and private sector. The forum is being called mainly because of the belief of many experts in Mexico that the prohibitionist policies have not produced the desired effects.

April 8, 2009

Peru's Fujimori: Guilty


Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori has been found guilty of ordering killings and kidnappings during the war with "Shinning Path" Maoist guerrillas, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Fujimori is the first democratically-elected Latin American president to be found guilty of human rights crimes in his own country.

Fujimori was tried for ordering the 1991 killings at the Barrios Altos area of Lima, where 15 people died, and the killings at La Cantuta University in 1992, along with the kidnappings of journalist Gustavo Gorriti, a correspondent for Spanish daily El País, and businessman Samuel Dyer, who were abducted to the basement of the army's Intelligence Service.

Perú (h/t A Colombo-Americana) has a video of the judge reading the verdict while Fujimori takes notes. The judge stated that all charges were proved beyond reasonable doubt.

The Perú21 website's article states that Fujimori's sentence was read at 9 a.m. amid intense security. The prior night there were vigils and demonstrations by both Fujimori supporters and the families of the victims. Two thousand policemen were on duty in the area of the Diroes (Dirección de Operaciones Especiales, or Special Opreration Director) building.

The trial lasted 16 months. He had fled to Japan in 2000 while he was still president when his administration collapsed from corruption charges, and went to Chile in 2005, where he was arrested by Chilean police and extradited to Peru in 2007.

Fujimori was in power from 1990 to 2000. He dissolved congress in 1992 and reinstated it in 1995, winning re-election in 1995 and 2000. During his presidency

He cut the inflation rate from 7,650 percent in 1990 to 3.5 percent in 1999, according to Peru’s National Statistics Institute, by eliminating subsidies and price controls, floating the currency and selling off money-losing state companies in the early 1990s
In December 1996 fourteen MRTA terrorists (Emerretistas) seized the Japanese ambassador's residence and held 400 guests hostage. After releasing all but 72, they remained in a standoff until April 22, 1997, when military commandos raided the building and freed the hostages. Fujimori crushed the Shinning Path terrorists, which had killed an estimated 69,000 Peruvians. Fujimorismo remains a popular political movement.

Fujimori, whose daughter is a member of Peru's congress, announced he will appeal the sentence.

April 5, 2009

Mexico: Time for a Plan B

Mexico has longed complained about the ease with which drug lords can obtain high-powered weapons from the United States. Understanding the domestic political restraints to stricter gun control laws in the United States (Mexico’s gun laws are much stricter), Mexican and American officials seem to be opting for plan B: better monitoring at the border.

Following a high-profile visit from Hillary Clinton last week, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano both went to Mexico to meet with their counterparts and to discuss arms control and anti-narcotics cooperation. Sec. Napolitano announced plans to spend more than $400 million to enhance surveillance equipment and entry ports along the border. Mexico, for its part, will expand a pilot program launched in Matamoros that calls for greater inspections for trucks entering into Mexico. Sec. Holder tried to assure his Mexican counterparts that the loose American gun laws would not impede the United States from attacking the illegal trafficking of arms.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said that Mexico and the United States have decided to share information and to work together to investigate and fight arms smuggling. However, President Felipe Calderon, from the G-20 summit in London, emphatically rejected the possibility of any joint military operations with the United States. Mexicans remain highly suspicious of the American military, a view that goes back to the Mexican-American war from 1846-48.

Secs. Holder and Napolitano were greeted in Mexico on Thursday with the news that Mexican authorities had captured one of the top drug lords for the Juarez Cartel. Vicente Carrillo Leyva, 32, was captured while exercising in a park near his home in Mexico City. He is the son of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the former leader of the Juarez Cartel who died in 1997 during plastic surgery. Despite the success of Carrillo’s capture, Mexico’s message remains the same. If the United States continues to arm drug traffickers, then Mexico’s efforts will be in vain.

Ecuador Backs U.S. Dollar

Bloomberg's headline, Correa Threatens Jail for Spreading Rumors on Ecuador Currency, points to the story-behind-the-story:

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said that people spreading rumors about the introduction of a new currency instead of the U.S. Dollar will be jailed.

Rumors of a new currency threaten to destabilize the economy, Correa told reporters today at the presidential palace in Quito. In December, he denied rumors of a forced closure of banks.

“This president guarantees to you that there is no plan whatsoever to exit dollarization,” he said. “It’s another vile calumny by eternal opponents who hope to win a few votes in the next elections.”

When you click on the link to "vile calumny" it takes you to an article Ecuadorian journalist Rómulo López Sabando wrote last week.

April 4, 2009

U.S to Lift Some Cuba Travel Curbs

Following up on the Lugar Report recommendations,

Today the Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama plans to lift U.S. restrictions on Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like and to send them unlimited funds.

The $410 billion omnibus spending bill that Congress approved last month changed travel restrictions to once a year. That bill was followed by a controversial letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Sens. Menendez, Nelson and Martinez involving agricultural travel restrictions.

Aside from saying in today's announcement that President Obama "plans to lift restrictions" to allow Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like, the timing is interesting, too:

The timing of the announcement is unclear, but several Cuba experts have speculated that it could come ahead of this month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
The announcement did not specify whether the President would issue a signing statement or executive order. The embargo is law and as such would have to be lifted by an act of Congress.

I was talking to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) last Wednesday. He specified the conditions for lifting the embargo: I quote his words directly,

“If the Cuban government were to release all political prisoners, allow freedom of expression, and allow a true electoral process, then we could see lifting the embargo.”
Last month the Cuban government ruled out any preconditions on improving relations.

On the island, the news of the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba by Americans has been greeted warmly. The Cuban media, however, remained silent.

April 1, 2009

Doha Brief: Chávez Invites Bashir to Venezuela


Hugo Chávez is visiting Doha, along with 11 other South American leaders, who, and 22 leaders of the Arab League seek to find common ground ahead of the G20 summit that starts on Thursday. While the Doha meeting is held in Qatar, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab League country that will be present at the G20.

As he has previously stated, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is pushing for the reform of international organizations. Chile's Michelle Bachelet called for the Arab and South American nations to show that "we are walking together." Hugo Chávez called for "the final fall of the American empire," as he usually does.

Chávez joined the Arab League in rejecting the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Even though Venezuela is a signatory to the ICC since 1998, Chávez insists that the ICC “has no power to make a decision against a sitting president, but does so because it is an African country, the third world.”

Not one to demure, Chávez then went further, and invited al-Bashir to Caracas (my translation):

"Today I talked to al-Bashir and I asked him what risks does he run when he travels around here. I invited him to Caracas but told him, 'I hope you don't have any problems over there'."

His speech, which was the only speech applauded before it started, also called for the ICC to prosecute former U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli President Shimon Peres.


I played the audio of Chávez speech in Spanish and translated it to English during my morning podcast. You can listen to it here.

March 28, 2009

Lula's 'White People with Blue Eyes' Spices Up G20


Gordon Brown was visiting Brazil when, during a joint press conference with Lula, the Brazilian president came out and blamed "white people with blue eyes" for the world financial crisis. According to SkyNews, Downing Street says the remarks were meant for "domestic consumption", but I must respectfully disagree.

Brown was visiting Brazil in preparation for next week's G20 meeting to be held in London, which Brown will chair.

By morning, the Financial Times, The Independent and The Times are quoting Lula's words. The Times:

“This was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by the irrational behaviour of people who were white and blue-eyed, who before the crisis they looked like they knew everything about economics, but now have demonstrated they know nothing about economics,” he said, mocking the “gods of wisdom” who had had to be bailed out. “The part of humanity that is responsible should be the part that pays for the crisis,” he added.
The Independent,
“This is a crisis that was caused by people, white with blue eyes. And before the crisis they looked as if they knew everything about economics,” he said. “Once again the great part of the poor in the world that were still not yet [getting] their share of development that was caused by globalisation, they were the first ones to suffer.

“Since I am not acquainted with any black bankers, I can only say that this part of humanity that is the major victim of the world crisis, these people should pay for the crisis? I cannot accept that. If the G20 becomes a meeting just to set another meeting, we’ll be discredited and the crisis can deepen.”

Lula didn't rise from abject poverty by indulging in gaffes. Indeed, Lula's objective of Brazil becoming a world leader (not a far-fetched dream considering that Brazil is the world's ninth-largest economy, an oil producing country, a nuclear country, and the world's eighth most populous country) is first and foremost in ensuring that Brazil is, as Moisés Naím puts it,
in the debates concerning the rules governing international trade, energy, the environment, and the redesign of the international financial system.
For decades, Lula has also been driving home a message that the world's poor are victims of the rich countries' irresponsible mistakes.

Bearing in mind that the G20 is about to start next week, and Lula is pushing for the the world’s biggest economies to provide $100 billion to boost global trade, in addition to greater regulation of financial markets and an anti-protectionism message, Lula's words are not words meant exclusively for domestic consumption. Instead, they are meant to drive the message that the world's poor people should not be forced to pay for the global financial crisis. Witness his words,

His colourful language served as a reminder of the diplomatic challenge Mr Brown faces to forge agreement among the 20 largest economies. “Our meeting in London has to be spicy, it has to have a bit of heat,” said the Brazilian leader — in stark contrast to Mr Brown’s repeated claims of an emerging international consensus.
It's going to be a spicy G20, indeed.

March 26, 2009

Venezuelan Military Takes Control of Transportation Hubs


In another move to further consolidate power around Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan military took control of major airport and maritime hubs and occupied facilities that were previously controlled by the states. Some of the states are governed by the opposition. The decree signed last week by Hugo Chavez also transferred control over major highways.

Late last week the government had ordered the arrest of opposition leader Manuel Rosales, mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city where the largest port is located.

Rosales will be tried on charges of "illegal enrichment" in Caracas, not in his hometown, where thousands of his supporters staged a huge rally during the weekend.


Today the military presence increased at La Fría and San Antonio airports. Noticias 24 reports that when announcing the takeover, Chavez declared that "we have begun the reversal process over everything that meant the dismemberment of national unity, the territory, and sovereignty, because prior governments fractured the country into pieces." Of course he had to blame the US, "the empire's divide-and-conquer strategy, carried by the pettiyankees" (Chavez's word for Venezuelans who favor the US) "that expropriated the people" has plummeted "with this reversal, which is part of the unification process which will strengthen the nation."

Also today, Chavez ordered the creation of a state company to manage the country's seaports and another for its airports. The new companies, called the Bolivariana de Puertos and Bolivariana de Aeropuertos and which will be part of the Infrastructure and Housing Ministry, "have to work under socialist guidelines and seek the development of the regions in which their respective seaports and airports operate," as decreed by Chavez. The decrees will become law once they are published in the Official Gazette.

Critics say the move will limit the powers of state governors, who previously collected revenue from tariffs they imposed at airports and seaports under their administration.
Later in the day, while speaking to a meeting of regional officers, Chavez expressed the goal of his Bolivarian revolution achieving the same solidity as the Cuban revolution: "Our revolution must some day reach that level of maturity, of consolidation, but this requires a gigantic effort, both individually and collectively."

March 22, 2009

Puerto Rico: Acevedo Declared Not Guilty

Former governor of Puerto Rico Aníbal Acevedo Vilá has been declared not guilty on all nine counts of corruption after a trial where the defense did not call any witnesses and 10 people indicted with Acevedo had plead guilty before the case went to court.

Here are copies of the original indictment (PDF files) and the second indictment.

Puerto Rico Ex-Governor Is Acquitted of Graft

The former governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, along with 12 associates, had been charged with participating in an elaborate scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts going back to 2000. The criminal indictment made public last March also accused Mr. Acevedo of using campaign money to pay for several family vacations and for $57,000 worth of “high end” clothing.

The trial lasted a month, and though prosecutors called about 30 witnesses and the defense called none, the jury made its decision quickly and unanimously.

Manuel Ernesto Rivera, writing for AP, reports,
Authorities last year accused Acevedo and 12 associates of participating in an illegal scheme to pay off more than $500,000 in campaign debts.

One by one the associates began to plead guilty, leaving only Acevedo and Inclan to stand trial. One co-defendant agreed to testify against Acevedo in exchange for having charges against her dropped.

Prosecutors presented some 30 witnesses, while defense attorneys surprised the courtroom earlier this week when they rested their case without calling a single person to testify. Acevedo's lawyers urged the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

In November, Acevedo lost to Fortuno in his bid for a second term. A month later, Barbadoro dismissed 15 of 24 charges against Acevedo, ruling that U.S. federal prosecutors improperly interpreted election laws.

The AP has a list of Key events in the case against Puerto Rico's ex-governor.

Acevedo, a Democrat, is the only governor to have faced federal charges since the island became a Commonwealth. He lost his bid for re-election last November in a landslide to Luis Fortuño, a Republican who was the island's Resident Commissioner in the US Congress.

March 20, 2009

Nicaragua to US: Gimme, Gimme


Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega is back in the news.

The first item has to do with 1,051 SA-7 air defense missiles left over from the Sandinista-Contra war of the 1980s. The National Assembly had blocked former President Enrique Bolaños from making good on his promise to destroy the missiles. Ortega insists the missiles are still fire-ready after nearly thirty years, but will reopen talks with the US to destroy 651 of them in exchange for US medical supplies, should the U.S. create the proper "conditions.'" Nicaragua will "keep 400 missiles for our aerial defense.” said Ortega.

The second item has to do with last November's municipal elections. Watchdog group Ethics and Transparency found electoral fraud and violations to 10 articles of Nicaragua's Electoral Code, while the ruling party claimed "an overwhelming victory." Riding in this dispute is $62 million in frozen U.S. development aid:

Business leaders worry that if Washington decides to permanently cut its aid under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), other European countries and international lending institutions would follow, spelling disaster for the hemisphere's second-poorest nation behind Haiti.

The MCC, which has already contracted more than $90 million of the original $175 million compact awarded to Nicaragua in 2005, will meet in June to make its final decision on the remaining $62 million yet to be allocated for infrastructure and landtitling programs.

The Ortega government says the subject is not open to discussion, "not even with historians," insisting that Nicaraguans and the world "forget about the elections," and accuses the US of "taking bread from the poor."

The third item was clearly meant for domestic consumption but made it to the international news, via Venezuela's Noticias 24 (my translation): Ortega calls the US "cheapskate" over aid to fight drug trafficking: During a speech for 254 officers of the National Police, Ortega stated that last year the National Police had seized $370 millions' worth of drugs originating from Colombia and destined to the US, plus 12,000 weapons. Remarking that the US only provides Nicaragua with $1.4 million to fight drug traffic, Ortega requested that the US send Nicaragua half of the $370 million.

As if.

But that's not what has Nicaragua's neighbors worried: Ortega announced that the country is open to all and any tourist visitors from any country, without requiring visas. Costa Rica is concerned that international trafficking groups can now move people to other countries like Costa Rica and the US. Inside Costa Rica mentions Chinese and Russians, but readers of this blog know that Iranians are already heading to Nicaragua.

March 13, 2009

Sarko and Bruni's Excellent Mexican Adventure


Having been to Rio last December, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni are now in Mexico.

The visit, which started last Friday, has generated a fair amount of controversy since the couple started their stay in Mexico with two nights at a mansion in the exclusive resort of El Tamarindo. The mansion is owned by a friend of Mexican president Felipe Calderon. The UK's Mail estimates the cost of the stay at £45,000. As they did in Brazil, two naval vessels carried out patrols in the ocean, while helicopters flew overhead.

On Sunday, before the start of the official state visit, the couple toured Aztec ruins in Teotihuacán with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife Margarita Zavala. Mexico's El Universal described the occasion as Calderón-Sarkozy: a meeting in the land of the gods, which contrasts with other tourists' annoyance at having the archeological site closed two hours ahead of schedule for the dignataries' photo-op.

The big story in both countries was the Florence Cassez case: Cassez was sentenced to sixty years in prison after having been arrested at her Mexican boyfriend's house. She claimed not to know that he was the leader of the Zodiacs kidnapping gang and that there were three hostages in the house. During Sarkozy's state visit on Monday the two governments announced that they would create a commission to study the case and make a report and recommendations in three weeks. This is a very sensitive case in Mexico because of increased public pressure to halt what is perceived as impunity by criminals in a country with the highest kidnapping rate in the world.

The trip was not simply a photo-op and an agreement on a legal issue. Sarkozy seeks to boost access of French companies to the region. During the state visit he addressed the Mexican Senate.

On the business front, Forbes and Bloomberg report

France’s security and defense company Thales will sign today a contract with Mexico City to develop a video-surveillance network aimed at curbing gang violence. Thales will jointly build the close-circuit television (CCTV) system with billionaire Carlos Slim’s Telmex Internacional SAB, according to French newspaper Le Monde.
France offered support in the fight against crime,
"We are ready to receive Mexican equipment in French police laboratories. We are willing to send equipment to Mexico.

"We would like to help Mexico resolve this problem which causes so much distress such as insecurity."

Additionally, EADS will open a helicopter plant in Mexico. Six helicopters will also be used on the battle against drug traffic, but the plant's market will be other countries in the hemisphere.

The main subject of the discussion during the state visit was the upcoming G20 summit and the countries' response to the global economic crisis.

As the US apparently rethinks its NAFTA commitments, Mexico and France are not sitting still and are finding common ground. Mexico clearly wants to diversify its trade, 80% of which currently is with the US.

In other French news: Thursday Sarkozy announced that France is to return to NATO's military command.

March 11, 2009

Congress Lifts Restrictions on Cuba, or Not?

Yesterday the Senate approved the $410 billlion omnibus spending bill to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of the year:

In an important policy shift, the bill includes a loosening of restrictions on travel to and imports from Cuba that the Bush administration imposed. The issue proved explosive among supporters of the trade embargo. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the leader of the group, voiced strong objections last week on the chamber floor and withdrew his support for the underlying legislation, forcing Reid to delay a final vote from Thursday until last night.

But Menendez, along with Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R), who are both from Florida, said they were reassured by a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pledging that the Cuba provision would be interpreted narrowly, and the two Democrats supported the final bill.

Americans will be allowed to travel to Cuba once a year, even when that remains illegal, and send more money to relatives on the island. Remittances are a huge source of revenue to people in Cuba, where the average salary is $20 a month and access to better medical care is paid for in US dollars.

The Miami Herald explains,

The budget bill, which already passed the House, creates a general travel license for Americans who want to travel to Cuba to cut agricultural and medical sales deals with the communist government. It also lets Cuba pay for goods on arrival -- instead of before the products leave U.S. ports -- and removes funding for enforcement of family travel restrictions enacted by former President George W. Bush.

Geithner wrote that the agricultural travel license would be limited to ''only a narrow class of businesses,'' which would have to report back on their trips. By law, he said, Cuba would still have to pay up front.

Left intact in the bill, which expires in October, is a measure that suspends enforcement of rules that say Cuban Americans can only visit immediate relatives once every three years. Travel to the island would still be illegal, but the department wouldn't be allowed to spend money trying to catch anyone doing it.

Geithner's letter is controversial:

* Senators Menendez, Nelson and Martinez were assured by Geithner that the new law will be interpreted so strictly as to be ineffective. If so, why pass it?

* Travel to Cuba by Americans will still be illegal but the government won't be trying to enforce the law. Then why the assurance that the new law will be strictly interpreted?

* According to the Miami Herald, when asked about the Geithner letter, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: ``It's like a presidential signing statement, except it's not the president, and it's not a signing statement.''

* In view of that, why would the Treasury Department pay any attention to Geithner's letter in six months from now?

* Another question: why didn't Pres. Obama issue his own executive order?

Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who wrote the Cuba amendments in the bill, promised a "showdown", and warned that the law is not open to "creative interpretation."

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Cuban Official Rules Out Any Obama Preconditions for Improved Relations.

Stay tuned.

March 7, 2009

The Cuban Cosmetic Change


Readers may recall that last Tuesday I wrote about Raúl Castro's House Cleaning. Raúl Castro replaced ten high-level posts in the Cuban government.

As I pointed out in that article, the changes came shortly after the release of the Lugar Report on Changing Cuba Policy, after French envoy Jack Lange's visit, and on the same week as the US Senate votes on the $450 billion omnibus bill

In 2003 the European Union imposed sanctions on Cuba following the arrest of 75 Cuban dissidents, of which 55 remain imprisoned. Without any concession on Cuba's part, the EU voted last June to lift the sanctions and restore aid, even when according to the BBC the sanctions did not restrict trade or investment.

Since this is the first time so many Cuban government officials had been replaced at once, the story has been covered by the international media:

Continue reading "The Cuban Cosmetic Change" »

Brazil's Lula to Visit Obama


In his first meeting with a South American leader since his inauguration, President Obama will be meeting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva next Saturday, March 14, in Washington. The leaders are expected to discuss

ways to respond to the global financial breakdown in connection with the G-20 meeting in Britain next month.
Market Watch points out,
The meeting comes before Obama travels to London for the Group of 20 economic summit in London on April 2, and to Trinidad for the Summit of Americas in April, set for April 17 through 19.

Brazil is becoming a leader in Latin American diplomacy, and Lula has distanced himself from from Hugo Chávez's highly inflammatory style of politics. Lula has repeatedly asserted in the past that
"it's been a privilege to have been among the presidents who are building good relationships with the United States."

Not one to miss a chance to insert himself into the headlines, Chávez in turn came out saying that he has given Lula permission to discuss Venezuela with Barack Obama during the meeting.

March 3, 2009

Raúl Castro's House Cleaning


Raúl Castro is replacing the top echelons of the Cuban government, including Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, and possibly as many as 10 government posts.

Cuban government undergoes massive restructuring in the Miami Herald:

Lage, 57, was one of five vice presidents below Raúl Castro and had served as a de-facto prime minister. He was credited with helping save Cuba's economy by designing modest economic reforms after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Pérez Roque, 43, was previously personal secretary to Fidel Castro and a former leader of the Communist Party youth organization. He had been foreign minister for almost a decade.

Other ousted officials include Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, Finance Minister Georgina Barreiro Fajardo and Labour Minister Alfredo Morales Cartaya.

Four ministries were merged in the reshuffle.

Lage was replaced by General José Amado Ricardo Guerra. Interestingly, Lage keeps his post as vice-president of the Council of State.

Pérez Roque was replaced by vice-chancellor Bruno Rodríguez.

Both Lage and Pérez Roque were considered close to Fidel Castro, and had been seen as possible presidential candidates.

While Raúl Castro had announced when he came to power almost exactly a year ago that he planned to restructure the government, this is the first time so many government officials had been replaced at once.

Recent Cuban news point to stresses between the Fidel and Raúl factions. According to Chilean newspaper La Tercera's editor Cristián Bofill, the brothers don't agree on Cuba's foreign policy. During Michelle Bachelet's visit to Havana last month, Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist party, published an article by Fidel stating that Chile should grant Bolivia access to the Pacific. Bachelet was displeased, but Pérez Roque insisted that there would be no retraction over Fidel's article, even when Fidel is a retired head of state.

All of this, of course, makes the news ripe for speculation, particularly coming after last week's Lugar report on changing US policy on Cuba and the visit of French envoy Jack Lange to Havana. In the wake of Lange's visit, Pierre Rigoulot, director of the Institute for Social Studies had predicted big changes in Cuba.

In other, rather odd news, Hugo Chávez claimed that Fidel Castro had gone for a stroll in Havana. The Prensa Latina article (via Cuban Colada) explains that Chávez had seen photos of Castro's stroll while Chávez visited Havana last weekend.

February 25, 2009

Venezuela's Interior Minister: "Cuba's Not Running Venezuela's Sigepol"

Last Saturday Ludmila Vinogradoff, writing from Caracas for Spain's El País, reported that

More than 40,000 Cubans are living in Venezuela, of which 30,000 are supposed "doctors", or more accurately, "paramedics that graduated after three years of training". The government in Havana bills Caracas for $18,000/month for each of them but pays the medics $500/month at the most, according to Venezuelan media.

Chávez has delivered the juiciest contracts to Cuban authorities. For the past two years Cubans manage all the registries for issuing IDs, property registries and document notarizing.

Never in Venezuela has a foreign country had as much access to so much national information. And now Chávez is having them supervise the police, that is, Cuba is creating the General Police System (Sistema General Policial), Sigepol, which will store all the records on all police functionaries."

Sigepol will go into use next April, starting with a dozen police districts. The story on Cuba's role in developing the Sigepol was first reported at El Universal and was picked up by international news services in Spain and Latin America.

On Tuesday Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek el Aissami held a press conference denying that Cubans would be in charge of Sigepol. Assimi called the story a fabrication, "media manipulation...aimed at discrediting the excellent relationship between the two countries." The Miami Herald and Noticias 24 quoted el Aissami, who asserted that "Cuba's role was on a strictly technical and technological basis," and "the system will be developed only with Venezuelan personnel," while stating that Cuba was chosen because it has a police system

ranked by several international agencies as one of the most efficient in the continent.
The new police system was created last year by presidential decree in reaction to the 101,140 violent deaths of the past 10 years, 20% of which took place in the Caracas metropolitan area.

The Miami Herald states that

This is a crucial issue since the system will be used in regions controlled by the opposition, for official police business, whose police chiefs are required to comply with the approval of the Chavista government.
Here in the US, the Lugar report expects that
"Given current economic challenges, any revenue gained from economic engagement with the United States would likely be used for internal economic priorities, not international activism."
However, Cuba continues to play a high-profile role in international politics.

The Sigepol project is only the most recent example.

February 24, 2009

The Lugar Report on Changing Cuba Policy

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, states in the Changing Cuba Policy - In the United States National Interest (pdf file) report dated February 23, 2009:

Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa. After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people," while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population. The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. We must recognize, nevertheless, the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.

The report, which I highly recommend you read, contains these findings:

  • * The Cuban regime is institutionalized.
  • * Positive developments are occurring in Cuba but they should not be mistaken for structural reform.
  • * Popular dissatisfaction with Cuba's economic situation is the regime's vulnerability.
  • * The regime appears to be open to some bilateral dialogue and co-operation.

The conclusion is that "progress could be attained by replacing conditionality with sequenced engagement, beginning with narrow areas of consensus that develop trust."

Here are the Recommendations, whose purpose would be "increased dialogue through appropriate channels, coupled with looser trade terms":

  • * "As an initial unilateral step, staff recommends fulfilling President Obama's campaign promise to repeal all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances before the Summit of the Americas" [in April], and "lifting travel restrictions on Cuban Interest Section personnel in Washington."
  • * The resumption of bilateral talks on drug interdiction and migration, and "undertake comprehensive counter-narcotics cooperation with Cuba, including the provision of needed equipment and technical assistance."
  • * Investments in alternative energy, where U.S. technology "could help ensure environmentally-sustainable development of Cuba's energy sector."
  • * Lifting agricultural trade requirements that cash payment be received by U.S. sellers prior to the shipment of goods.
  • * Reviewing the viability of authorizing private financing for medical sales, a review of the current "proper end-use monitoring" (which ensures that medical items be used for their intended purpose), and permit pharmaceutic imports from Cuba's biotechnology industry

Also in the Recommendations section, in the medium term, "reviewing dropping opposition to Cuban participation in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank", in the expectation that Cuba's membership in those institutions "would increase the government of Cuba's accountability to the international community and encourage free-market reforms consistent with U.S. commercial interests." If Cuba were to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter, it might even become eligible for membership in the Organization of American States.

A number of issues arise when reading this report:

Continue reading "The Lugar Report on Changing Cuba Policy " »

February 19, 2009

Missing Stanford and His Destructive Path


Allen Stanford is missing.

The Texas-born banker, formerly No. 205 in Forbes's list of 400 Richest Americans, managed to scam hundreds of investors while keeping a very high profile. The resident of St. Croix and holder of dual US-Antigua citizenships supported cricket, golf and tennis tournaments and even managed to get knighted by the government of Antigua while reportedly being investigated for fifteen years by American authorities. In spite of those investigations, it wasn't until yesterday that a US District judge signed a temporary restraining order in Dallas federal court freezing the Stanford companies’ assets and property.

Bloomberg reports,

Stanford said on his company’s Web site that his firm was started more than 70 years ago by his grandfather. U.S. court records show that his offshore bank was formed in 1985 on the Caribbean island of Montserrat and moved to Antigua in 1990.

In 1999, Stanford Financial tried to take over Antiguan International Business Corp., which regulated offshore companies on the island, said Jonathan Winer, then a deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state.

State Department cables sent from the U.S. Embassy and provided to Bloomberg described a “power grab” and criticized the Stanford’s company’s hiring of U.S. consultants to revise Antigua’s offshore-banking rules.

Continue reading "Missing Stanford and His Destructive Path" »

February 16, 2009

Chavez, Now and Forever?


The results of yesterday's referendum on the Venzuelan constitution came as no surprise: 54.36% voted "Yes", eliminating term limits for all elected officials. Venezuela now becomes the only country in South America with no limits on re-election.

In the 24-hour period preceding the referendum, the government had expelled from the country EU parliament member Luis Herrero. The European Union parliament stated the expulsion “shows a lack of respect for democratic institutions.” People were lining up at the polls before dawn on Sunday. The polls opened at 6 a.m.. College students, who are the leading opposition groups, watched the polling places. Venezuelan bloggers liveblogged throughout the day.

Celebrating his victory from the balcony of the presidential palace, Hugo Chavez cried out, "Long live the Venezuelan revolution, long live Bolivarian socialism", broke into song, and read a letter from Fidel Castro saying "this is a victory of immeasurable magnitude." Chavez, who recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in power, also said it will take him another 10 years to fully bring about his Bolivarian revolution.

While the results mean that Chavez apparently wins indefinite re-elections, the disorganized and underfunded opposition managed to gather over 5 million votes. Al-Jazeera's Marianna Sanchez reported Chavez supporters as reluctant to have "a king" but still support him.

This morning Venezuelan government bonds dropped in reaction to the news. A Reuters analysis article (link in Spanish) forecasts further troubles in the economy due to the low price of oil, nationalization of private industry, and a possible official currency devaluation.

However, a collapse of the economy does not necessarily mean that Chavez will not be able to remain in power. This latest referendum's results, in the middle of an economic crisis, tell us that Chavez continues to consolidate power around himself.

February 14, 2009

Venezuela: At a Crossroads


While Venezuela prepares for another Constitutional referendum, the country is in turmoil.

Back in December 2007 Hugo Chavez held a referendum to change the Venezuelan constitution. The 69 amendments would have ended presidential term limits and centralized Chavez’s power, even when he already controlled the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, almost every state government and the entire federal bureaucracy. The changes were rejected by 51% of the voters. However, Chavez didn’t give up on his power consolidation goal. Last year he enacted 26 new laws by announcing initially only their title, not their content, and continued to push for ending presidential term limits. This Sunday, the country votes again on term limits.

In the period since the 2007 referendum, Chavez has continued to nationalize the private sector, including food production and distribution, steelmaking, cement companies, and the Banco de Venezuela. Oil revenues are mismanaged: A computer belonging to FARC members proved that Chavez had sent hundreds of millions of oil dollars to the Colombian terrorists, with which he had made common cause. The oil industry, on which the Venezuelan economy is more dependent now than when Chavez first took office, is behind on billions of dollars in payments to private oil contractors from Oklahoma to Belarus.

The business environment has been rated by The Economist as the world’s second-worst. The country’s official inflation rate of 31% is the highest out of the 82 world currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

During his years in office Chavez has forged increasingly strong ties with Iran. Last December Italian newspaper La Stampa (link in Italian) reported that Iran is going through Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria. La Stampa reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transports computers and engine components from the Iranian industrial group Shahid Bagheri, which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile program. Iran Air initiated direct air service between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas at Chavez’s invitation. Western anti-terrorism officials are concerned that Hezbollah may be using Venezuela as a base for operations. Hezbollah activities may include kidnappings, extortion and drug trade.

Internally, the political opposition has few resources and no unified leadership (link in Spanish). Student demonstrators have been tear-gassed and fired at with rubber bullets by police. Chavez banned Lech Walesa from visiting the country and meeting with student leaders on Thursday. However, the opposition managed a large demonstration against the constitutional amendment last weekend, and met on Friday with EU delegates who are in Venezuela to observe the electoral process even when the delegates have not been granted official observer status.

The government’s propaganda for a YES vote is constant and everywhere as the referendum nears.

Continue reading "Venezuela: At a Crossroads" »

February 11, 2009

Hugo Chavez Bans Lech Walesa


On Tuesday Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa gave an interview to Noticias 24 where he spoke about his upcoming visit to Venezuela. My translation (emphasis added. If you use this translation, please link to this post. Thank you):

Q: In a few days you'll travel to Caracas at the invitation of Venezuelan civil society groups, who met you in Warsaw to discuss the failures of the State's rights and democracy in the South American country. What do you expect from this trip?

LW: During Poland's Communist era, when I traveled around the world to meet heads of state, presidents, royalty, no one could believe in the possibility of a peaceful transition in communist countries in a few years' time. And we managed to shed the Communist yoke without bloodshed. I believe that this spirit of freedom, with the same methods, will spread throughout the world. No one has invented a better system than democracy. And that is my message to the people I'll be meeting in Venezuela. I'm very interested in meeting students and NGO members. In Venezuela's case one can not talk about a democratic system administered by the [ruling] power. Venezuela's opposition is weak and divided internally, without powerful arguments with which to confront President Chavez. It needs our support.

Q. You tried to visit the country last year, but Caracas informed you that they could not guarantee your safety. In diplomatic terms that meant you were not welcome. Do you think the government will forbid your visit this time?

LW: The government explained that it was a security matter. I interpreted it as a lack of goodwill, since the message I would bring to Venezuela would not be convenient to Venezuelan authorities. At that time I said I would again try to visit Venezuela, and I hope this time I'll be able to meet with the Venezuelan youth and don't think that this time the Venezuelan government will put up the same lack of goodwill.

Unfortunately Walesa was wrong. Just this morning the headlines announced that Hugo Chavez banned Walesa from entering the country:
Chavez instructed authorities on Tuesday to ensure that Walesa does not enter Venezuela, which is preparing for a Feb. 15 referendum on a proposal to lift term limits for all elected officials.

Chavez made the comment after an interviewer suggested that Walesa had received a new invitation.

Chavez made his statement during an interview on state television:
"We have the obligation of making sure Venezuela's dignity is respected. (Walesa) can say that, wherever he feels like beyond Venezuela's borders, but here, within Venezuela, no, no," Chavez insisted.
He then instructed chancellor Nicolas Maduro to make sure Walesa does not enter Venezuela.

The Constitutional referendum on abolishing presidential term limits is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 15.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

February 8, 2009

Of Beef and Money in Uruguay

uruguaybeef1.jpgLast week I came across two interesting articles which at first sight only appear to have in common that they talk about Uruguay. Both relayed some promising news.

The first one, at The Economist, talks about how Uruguayan banks welcomed a 41% increase in deposits by non-residents in 2008.

As I mentioned in my January 11 post, when the pension nationalization law passed in Argentina last year ten bank-owned pension funds - worth over $26 billion in total - were taken over by the government. The reaction from the Argentinean people was felt immediately. Those who could took their money out of the country, and capital outflows reached 7% of GDP in 2008. A lot of that money came from Argentina.

The other article, on Uruguayan beef, was from Bloomberg. In 2006, Argentinean farmers turned away from beef, both in response to the rise in soybean and other commodity prices, but also because of export caps imposed as an anti-inflationary measure by then-president Nestor Kirchner - the current president's husband. However, not all farmers switched crops. Some farmers sold their holdings in Argentina and moved to Uruguay in search of lower taxes.

Like export-destined Argentinian cattle, Uruguayan cattle are raised free of antibiotics, grass fed high-quality grasses, alfalfa, lotus, and clovers, and are free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).

This report from the US Department of Agriculture contrasts Uruguay's reaction to that of Argentina during the 1999-2001 recession, explaining how the Uruguayan government allowed market conditions to drive the recovery of the beef sector. Uruguay also instituted a comprehensive national animal identification program aimed at animal disease control, quality beef production and marketing. This ensures that ranchers and producers were complying with sanitary requirements and also fights illegal smuggling.

As a result, Uruguay is now aggressively targeting foreign markets for their beef exports. Because of this, the beef farmers are poised to benefit from a drop in demand and new Korean government restrictions on US beef. It's not only the Koreans who want Uruguayan beef. According to Bloomberg, Uruguay is the only South American country allowed to export fresh beef to the US after the US banned fresh beef exports from Argentina and Brazil due to sanitary issues. Uruguayan beef is also in demand in Russia and the EU.

In contrast to the wave of recent nationalizations in Argentina, Venezuela and other countries, Uruguay now allows a third of its agricultural property to be owned by foreigners.

Foreign investors are buying: Brazil's Marfrig Frigorificos & Comercio de Alimentos SA, the world's fourth-biggest meat packer, bought four Uruguayan slaughterhouses last year. PGG Wrightson Ltd. of New Zealand and George Soros's Buenos Aires-based Adecoagro have bought prime land near Uruguay's western border with Argentina.

The competitive advantage over Argentina is based on a flat 25% tax on farmers' incomes, quality products, lack of price controls, policies that encourage foreign investment and no tariffs on farm exports. Uruguay's bureaucracy is small enough that, as Uruguayan farmer Alberto Gramont put it, "if you want to speak to a minister you just ring him up."

In prior years Uruguay renegotiated its foreign debt and avoided default, another factor in its favor. The government has no desire to take over private banking funds, pension or otherwise, either.

As such, the Uruguayan economy is better placed to weather the world economic downturn.

That is good news for the region.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

February 4, 2009

Chavez's 10th


Hugo Chavez celebrated the tenth anniversary of his rise to power by holding a summit of fellow-minded heads of state, and declaring a national holiday.

For the summit he played host to four presidents - Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Honduras's Rafael Zelaya, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Dominica's Roosevelt Skerrit and Cuban vice-president Jose Ramon Machado. It was officially a meeting of the Castro-Chavez ALBA, Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which is meant to counter the US's economic influence in the region while advancing regional integration. The ALBA is an integral part of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution and is funded mainly through Venezuela's oil revenues. Of course, there was a big outdoor rally at the tomb of Simon Bolivar.

The holiday was declared at a moment's notice, leaving many questioning its legality since the law requires that advance notice be published in the government gazette. Private firms who didn't comply with the holiday would be subject to fines.

While the celebration on Monday commemorated the day Chavez was sworn in for his first term, the celebration didn't end there. Yesterday Chavez celebrated the 17th anniversary of his failed 1992 coup.

The Jungle Hut has a collection of first-hand accounts of the 1992 coup, and some thoughts on the frail nature of liberty.

Chavez's current term runs until the end of 2012. He may not take "no" on the upcoming referendum on extending his term in office indefinitely.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog

February 3, 2009

A Tale of Two Forums

Last week the World Financial Forum was held in Davos, Switzerland, and the World Social Forum was held in Benem, Brazil.

As expected, both forums are the opposite of each other, not only in the setting - the snowy Swiss setting stands in stark contrast with the humid, Amazonian setting of Belem - but in ideology as well.

The Latin American presidents attending Davos, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of Mexico, took the opportunity to promote their countries at the World Financial Forum. Both Uribe and Calderon lead countries that are fighting drug wars, and which are striving to diversify their economies by attracting foreign investors. Davos is the perfect setting for that. Additionally, policymakers from around the world meet there to exchange ideas, which, like it or not, affect the smaller countries' economies. It behooves the leaders of growing economies like Colombia and Mexico to be there, even in a year when the WFF was decidedly somber.

Both Uribe and Calderón highlighted their countries' aggressively implemented reforms that have significantly boosted foreign investment. Both Uribe and Calderón realize that their countries' economic future lies in world trade.

For the first time in three years, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva opted to attend the World Social Forum. Brazil spent $35 million in hosting the event, which was titled "Another World Is Possible," and because of its location near the mouth of the Amazon River had an ecological theme, in addition to the anti-globalization theme on which it was founded in 2001.


Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez joined Lula in a panel, "Dialogue on popular integration in our America," an anti-globalization discussion. The intentionally placed word "our," included in the title of the most publicized panel of the event, is a subtle reminder that this event is a public-relations junket for the world's Left. Chavez, as usual, vied for attention over Lula, the host.

The economies of Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela combined do not match the size of the Brazilian economy. Of course the forum provided them the opportunity to berate the US.

Lula, as head of the world's tenth largest economy, might have wanted to give a symbolic "slap at the bankers" and score points with his base constituency at home and with fellow Latin American socialists. However, his absence at Davos was a missed opportunity, in the words of Nick Chamie, global head of emerging-markets research at RBC Capital Markets,

to raise the profile of Brazil and its companies as they seek to refinance $64 billion in maturing foreign debt this year.
The end of the commodity boom adds more strain on the Brazilian economy which has come to a standstill.

In a nervous world financial environment, Lula's shunning of Davos was not a wise move.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

February 1, 2009

Venezuela: More Anti-Semitism

The End of Venezuela as I Know It posts,

I'm putting as a picture, a poster made by the White Hand (Student) movement for the campaign against the Amendment that it could allow Chavez or any other to be re-elected as president indefinitely. It says "They offer us living in peace but they can't control the violence of their groups?" I'm not publishing this poster today because of the NO campaign. I'm doing it because last night, a group of armed men entered a synagogue causing damages and leaving hate messages on the walls of the temple. I often feel confused about the ways the Revolution defines itself, specially when it comes to define the enemies.
Here's the poster:


The poster asks,

They offer us to live in peace, but they can't control their sympathizer's violence?
Indefinite re-election... Better NOT
The End of Venezuela's point is that the revolution needs new enemies, and the Jewish community is now becoming a scapegoat.

Noticias24 has photos of the vandalized synagogue:



Out. Die now.

YNet reports that the synagogue was vandalized late Friday night by armed assailants. Noticias 24 says that it was a group of as many as fifteen people who vandalized the synagogue. On January 21 and 22 the exterior of the synagogue had already been vandalized with graffiti.

It wasn't the first anti-Semitic graffitti to appear in Caracas.

Jews assassins terrorists

Jews I sh*t on your star

Last July I translated at my blog an anti-Israel ad that apparently was paid for by the governor’s office of the State of Anzoategui.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

January 27, 2009

Gates: Iran's "Subversive" Role in Latin America

Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, today expressed concern over Iranian activity in the region:

"I'm concerned about the level of frankly subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America," Gates said in response to a question from Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican.

"They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries," Gates said, without elaborating.

Gates has plenty of reason to be concerned.

Just last month Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that Iran is going through Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria. La Stampa reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transports computers and engine components from the Iranian industrial group Shahid Bagheri, which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile program.

On January 6, Turkey was holding a suspicious shipment bound for Venezuela from Iran because it contained lab equipment capable of producing explosives. Over the past few years Chavez has allowed the opening in Venezuela of an Iranian ammunition factory, a car assembly plant, a cement factory, and Iran Air has direct air service between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas.

Bolivia's Evo Morales has raised visa restrictions on Iranian citizens, while Iran promised a $1 billion investment in the oil and gas industry.

Iran is holding several of its citizens from being tried in Argentina for planning the 1994 bombing of the Argentine AIMA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

In Nicaragua's Caribbean shore, Iran - along with Venezuela - is helping to finance a $350 million deep-water port at Monkey Point, and they're also building a "dry canal" of pipelines, highways and rails to the Pacific shore. Iran recently opened an embassy in Managua.

Iran is lending Ecuador $200 million to finance trade, technology transfer "and many other things," according to Pres. Rafael Correa.

As Greg Scoblete was asking here, we would do well to ask what are Iran's national interests, and additionally, Iran's interest in our hemisphere.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at Fausta's Blog

January 25, 2009

Mexico's Ominous Drug Wars


Two weeks ago the U.S. Joint Forces Command published its "Joint Operating Environment (JOE 2008)" report, which projects global threats and potential next wars. The report stated that Mexico and Pakistan are two countries that "bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse,"

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

While Mexico's collapse may not be imminent, the report underlines the seriousness of the current drug wars in Mexico, which represent an urgent problem to the US.

This is not a new problem: Last May Stratfor had posed the question, Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State? in one of its Geopolitical Intelligence Reports that expressed the similar concerns to that of the JOE report. Stratfor also points out state failures in Mexico's past.

The most reliable and concise background study on the seriousness of the problem is the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, which provides an overview of Mexican drug cartels and their operations, their ties to gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and Mexican cartel presence and their drug production in the US. The cartels - Juárez, Sinaloa, Gulf, Nuevo Laredo, Guerrero. Valencia and Michoacán - form alliances and work together (like Sinaloa-Juárez-Valencia Federation), but remain independent organizations, which operate throughout Mexico and branch into the United States.

Police corruption and the emergence of multiple, well-armed groups further complicate the problem.

Yesterday's AP article on the arrest of a dozen high-ranking officials with alleged ties to the Sinaloa Cartel (currently the most powerful of the cartels) illustrates the corruption problem :

Over the last five months, officials from the Mexican Attorney General's office, the federal police and even Mexico's representatives to Interpol have been detained on suspicion of acting as spies for Sinaloa or its one-time ally, the Beltran Leyva gang. An officer who served in Calderon's presidential guard was detained in December on suspicion of spying for Beltran Leyva.

Gerardo Garay, formerly the acting federal police chief, is accused of protecting the Beltran Leyva brothers and stealing money from a mansion during an October drug raid. Former drug czar Noe Ramirez, who was supposed to serve as point man in Calderon's anti-drug fight, is accused of taking $450,000 from Sinaloa.

Most of such tips are coming from a Mexican federal agent who infiltrated the U.S. embassy for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. No such infiltrators have been found for the Gulf cartel, which controls most drug shipments in eastern Mexico and Central America. Sinaloa controls Pacific and western routes.

A year into the Calderon goverment's crackdown on the cartels, the Mexican government continues to increase its efforts against the cartels - for instance, sending 2,000 troops to Juárez this month - but the extent of the violence ravaging the country is immense.

El Universal has a webpage of drug war related articles; there have been 312 deaths in 2009 so far. This article from El Universal lists 34 killings in one day, all related to the drug wars. El Universal and the BBC report the arrest on Friday of Santiago Meza López, a.k.a. "Teo's wellman", No. 20 in the FBI's most-wanted list, who allegedly decomposed in acid 300 bodies of people murdered by the Sinaloa Cartel and Teodoro Eduardo García Simental, alias “El Teo”.

The cartels are waging war on journalists, too, including an attack on Televisa's affiliate in Monterrey on January 6.

The New York Times last Friday wrote about Juárez, Mexico and El Paso,Texas. In Juárez

the killings have become more frequent, more brazen and more gruesome. One body was beheaded and hung from a bridge.
In contrast, the article describes
El Paso... is made up mostly of new immigrants or their children, who tend to be cautious, law-abiding and respectful of authority.
Many Mexicans who previously lived in small villages near the American border had to leave for the US or be killed. Another big difference between the two cities is that the Mexican military and police are understaffed and untrained, while in Texas Fort Bliss and the heavy police presence continue to make El Paso safe.

Presidents Obama and Calderón met prior to Obama's inauguration and, while the American media described the meeting in general terms, Calderón stated in a press conference after the meeting that Obama offered help in fighting the narcos. The NY Times article also reports that

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Bush administration had laid plans to send a surge of federal agents and soldiers to trouble spots if the violence spilled over.
According to TIME,
Anti-drug officials believe the uptick in clashes between the police and gunmen of the cartels is a sign that Mexico's long-running drug violence has entered a new phase. Until recently, most fighting had involved rival traffickers battling over turf, but today most of the violence is between the federal government and the gangsters. The year-long government crackdown has seriously rattled the cartels, the officials say, and they are making an orchestrated attempt to get the government to back off.

The scenario in which a breakdown of institutions where the state becomes an instrument of criminals in Mexico would bring millions of war refugees into the US, and neighboring Central American countries would also collapse. Mexico, the world's 14th largest economy, has over 100 million people.

The JOE 08 report, along with the 2007 CRS Report for Congress on Mexico’s Drug Cartels, should be the starting point for the discussion of what we need to do here in the US: Strenghthening the Merida Initiative (whose purpose is to train and professionalize Mexico's military and civil forces), paying special attention to immigration and drug enforcement in the border states, increasing the National Guard, making other defense contingency plans in the US, and educating the public on the level of threat are a few suggestions.

Mexico's descent into chaos, while not imminent, is a real possibility.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 21, 2009

Latin America Headlines on the Inaugural

A quick roundup of Tuesday evening's headlines from Latin America:

Brazil's O Globo: Bovespa drops 4,01% with investors frustrated with Obama's speech. The article states that Obama's speech did not save the day in the stock markets. Investors were not encouraged by Obama's statement that the challenges we face are serious and many, and

"They will not be met easily or in a short span of time."
The article said that expectations were high but the speech was too vague on the economy.
O Globo's top story today is Obama orders Guantanamo trials suspended for 120 days.

Venezuela's El Universal: Today's headline - US Chargé d'Affaires advocates respectful dialogue with Venezuela: Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Caracas John Caulfield said he was optimistic of the upcoming relationship

The student demonstrations in Caracas were El Universal's top stories yesterday and this morning.

Also from Venezuela, Noticias 24 carried articles on the inauguration but their website changes the top story as news arise. Their headline read, "Barack Obama sworn in, is now President of the United States", which earlier in the day read, "Barack Obama makes history as US's first black President."

Puerto Rico's El Vocero: The Obama era starts

A new era has started for the United States and for the world: Barack Obama is now the North American country's 44th President to be sworn in at the Washington Capitol building in front of a huge crowd of people filled with emotion, excitement and hope.

Mexico's El Universal: Obama arrives at the White House
The sun, which had been hiding during lunchtime, shone brightly again during the [Obamas'] trajectory celebrating the swearing in of the 44th President of the United States; sometimes he rode in his car, sometimes he walked.

Argentina's Clarín: Obama sworn in as US President: "Hope won over fear"
This afternoon Barack Obama became the United States' first black President. And he did it in front of a crowd convening at the Capitol to witness the historic event. In a speech that was directed as much to the country as it was to the rest of the world, he talked about the challenges his country faces, which he said, "is ready to return to leadership." And insisted that his electoral victory was the triumph of "hope over fear."
Today's top headline at Clarin: Europe supports Obama's decision suspending the Guantanamo trials. showing a photo of Obama replacing Bush's:


The story's headline was later changed to "After Obama's request, one Guantánamo trial suspended."

Please note all translations are my own. Corrections and comments welcome.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 20, 2009

Left Looking Up in El Salvador

While the world welcomes a new American President, Central American political observers also await the results from the first round of historic elections in El Salvador.

This is the first time since 1994 that Salvadorenos go to the polls to elect a new assembly, new mayors and a new president during the same year. Polls have varyingly shown the candidate of the leftist FMLN party, Mauricio Funes, with a steady and sometimes large lead.

Last week, the country went to the polls for municipal and legislative elections. With 75% of the votes counted, the results so far show FMLN moving into the lead in the assembly with 35 seats to ARENA’s 32 - which would essentially flip the current balance of power - leaving the right-wing PCN as kingmakers again. ARENA also expects to lose 30 mayoral seats in sum, although they scored the major headline of the day by retaking San Salvador, where Funes had campaigned last week in support of the FMLN.

The small Central American nation, and one-time Cold War flash point, has been ruled by the right-wing ARENA party since 1992 peace accords ended a 12-year civil war between the U.S.-backed dictatorship and leftist guerrillas. The war featured some of the most brutal and infamous episodes in recent history. Since ’92, though, the country has remained peaceful and ARENA has mostly dominated the country’s politics; maintaining power over a series of legitimate elections.

Electing a left-wing government for the first time would be a sign of political maturity for a young democracy, as the ruling party hands over power for the first time (although the threat to the party, it should be mentioned, stems largely from concerns about corruption and a steep rise in crime). Funes, who is going up against Rodrigo Avila, represents the moderate wing of FMLN. He is a former CNN freelancer, and he has no connection to the party's old days as a Marxist guerrilla group.

The potential for change has also had the predictable effect of placing El Salvador in the spotlight as possibly the latest in a block of Latin American countries to move away from alignment with the United States; opting instead to elect a leftist leadership. Funes has said he plans to keep market-friendly policies and close contacts with Washington, but the right-wing has not shied away from fear-based campaigning, in particular trying to tie FMLN to Hugo Chavez.

Take, for instance, this ad run by ARENA ally Fuerza Solidaria:

The ad begins with an image of President Obama. The narrator tells viewers that, while FMLN claims to be his "friend," "this man - Obama foreign policy advisor Dan Restrepo - says otherwise."

Restrepo: "Obama is very worried about the anti-American rhetoric and broken policies of Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela...or other places, like El Salvador."

Restrepo never explicitly mentions the local political context. But that's politics.

January 19, 2009

Brazil: Lula Invites Bush for Fishing Trip


A small bit of news that probably has gone unnoticed today:
Brazil's Silva invites Bush for fishing trip

The spokesman for Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva says the Brazilian leader has invited Bush to come fishing.

Marcelo Baumbach says Bush made a farewell call to Silva on Monday and received the invitation. Bush also invited Silva to visit him in Texas.

Aside from being sociable and friendly, Lula, by publicly issuing this invitation, is further distancing himself from Hugo Chavez's highly inflammatory brand of politics. Just last week Chavez was saying that Obama has the "stench" of Bush; Lula is very much aware of Chavez's position.

To further drive his point, O Globo quotes Lula as saying that "it's been a privilege to have been among the presidents who are building good relationships with the United States."

Now what would be really interesting is if the UN nuclear inspectors were invited.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 15, 2009

Venezuela: Can't Take "No" for an Answer

Following up on this post, news on Venezuela: Hugo Chávez held a constitutional referendum on December 2007 that would have allowed him to remain in power without having to run for office.

That referendum was defeated.

However, since Chávez controls the National Assembly, he has never given up on his quest for permanence, and yesterday the National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment to remove term limits for all elected officials. The amendment is scheduled to go to the board of elections, which is also controlled by Chávez, and they'll probably schedule yet another referendum next month.

Not that this comes as any surprise; Chávez was talking about a February 2008 referendum last December.

In other Venezuela news which also involve Bolivia, and also following up on a prior post, Venezuela, Bolivia break diplomatic ties with Israel:

Venezuela and Bolivia broke diplomatic ties with Israel over its deadly military offensive in the Gaza Strip and refusal to comply with international calls for a ceasefire, their leftist governments said.
Worthy of note is this,
[Evo] Morales' diplomatic announcement on Israel came shortly after he received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking him to support an international agreement to resolve the Gaza crisis.

Iranian Cooperation Minister Mohammad Abbasi disclosed to reporters the contents of Ahmadinejad's letter after he met with the Bolivian president.

Iran's largest embassy in our hemisphere is located in La Paz, Bolivia.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 13, 2009

Venezuela: Currency Depreciation Through Back Door

Caribbean Net News had the story on Jan. 2, and today Bloomberg has it: Venezuela Begins Stealth Devaluation After Oil Price Plunge: In a move to preserve foreign currency reserves, Venezuela's government reduced by half the amount of of dollars it will let people spend when traveling abroad to $2,500. The Venezuelan Foreign Exchange Administration Commission, known as Cadivi, reduced the amount of cash at the fixed exchange rate that Venezuelans can withdraw from foreign banks by half, from $500 to $250 a month. The new rules require that travelers have airplane, bus or ship ticket abroad; new Cadivi cardholders can't get Cadivi dollars for six months.

Since Venezuelans need government permission to purchase dollars at the official rate, which was established in 2005, and the government is cutting down on its sales of dollars, Venezuelans increasingly are buying dollars in a a parallel, unofficial market where the US dollar trades at a 61% premium.

Call it a de facto devaluation.

The price of oil peaked at $147/barrel last July. As of the writing of this post, it is trading at $37.70. Venezuelan oil, which is of lesser quality, has dropped below $30 a barrel.

According to The Economist,

Venezuela is more dependent on oil now than it was when Mr Chávez took power. Oil brought in 92% of export revenues in the first nine months of 2008, compared with 64% in 1998.
Compounding the problem is the decrease in world oil demand, and Venezuela's decreasing oil production.

Because of this, the government cannot subsidize cheap dollars.

Adding to the economic ills is the rampant inflation, which last year reached 31.9% for consumer prices. Venezuela has the highest inflation out of the 82 world currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

There is talk of reducing the amount of dollars allotted to importers by limiting foreign currency to food, medicine and machinery, and other "priority goods". That would have the effect of cutting imports.

While to the foreign observer devaluation appears to be inevitable, rest assured that Chavez will struggle to avoid it, at least in the near future, since he's pushing for another constitutional referendum to remove the limit on further presidential terms.

Back in the early 1980s Venezuela's economy crashed after the oil boom of the 1970s. Sadly, it may happen again.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 11, 2009

Argentina's Outlook: Bleak

After overcoming a severe financial crisis right and foreign debt default at the start of the decade, Argentina is again in the midst of a financial crisis.

A week doesn't go by without news like this, from Goldman Sachs Global ECS Emerging Markets Research:

Government to Update Public Transportation Tariffs on Monday

Public transportation tariffs (buses, trains, and subway) will rise by 20%-25% on Monday.

The measure is driven by the government’s desire to lower costly budget subsides as government revenue is staring to erode on the back of lower commodity prices and the overall sharp deceleration of economic activity.

This is the second tariff increase in six years; the measure is expected to save the government ARS800 million.

Over the last few years Argentina's neighbor, Chile, used the windfall in copper revenues towards a $21 billion special fund that can bankroll future budgets for nearly a decade. Instead, Argentina used the money from high commodity and agricultural export prices (including soybeans) to increase government spending. Both Néstor Kirchner (president from 2003 to 2007) and his wife, Cristina Fernández (president since December 2007) have vowed to reverse free-market policies, and the economy reflects their approach.

Argentina's economy last year was best summarized in this paragraph:

Argentina also embarked on market-unfriendly moves, boosting government revenue by taking control of private pension funds and raising taxes on agricultural exports. Protesting farmers blocked highways throughout the year. Argentinians began withdrawing money from private bank accounts, fearing government seizure.
The farmers were protesting a proposed sliding-scale taxation system for agricultural exports which eventually didn't pass. A pension nationalization law did pass and was made into law on December 2008. Ten bank-owned pension funds worth over $26 billion were taken over by the government, in an attempt to bolster its finances and prevent a second default in a decade.

The Fernández administration denies that motive, claming instead that the pension funds were mismanaged, and that the global financial crisis made it necessary for the government to step in to protect investors.

The country's investors responded with

a mini-flight of capital to neighbouring Uruguay on fears that the government, in emulation of predecessors, would nationalise bank deposits.

A US district court froze $200 million in Argentinian pension fund assets in the US last month,
Judge Thomas Griesa said the assets should not be transferred abroad because they are now Argentine state property following the government's takeover of the private pension system.

He said the assets are subject to US creditors seeking to recover billions of dollars because their administrator is a government entity.

Investors have lost faith as the
Credit-default-swap spreads on its government debt have surged to horrifying levels, signalling that investors see a high risk of default.
The specter of a default has not vanished, in spite of the pension takeover, since its $21bn in debt-servicing obligations is due this year. Jittery investors are also worried that Ecuador's voluntary default on its debt last month might embolden Fernández to follow Ecuador's precedent.

This Stratfor report spells out the fears:

Setting aside the emotional and financial impact to Argentine workers as they contemplate their futures, the government has ensnared itself in an accounting dilemma. If spending continues in the face of falling revenue and limited credit, Buenos Aires eventually will hit a wall. And so far, its only recourse has been to liquidate what few financial assets remain in-country. Although there could yet be a grand scheme that will compensate for this problem, the government has shown no evidence thus far that one exists. The odds of an outright debt default and a return to the economic crisis of 2002 are growing.

The country's economic disarray has even brought about a small-change shortage.

It comes as no surprise, then that even when bond yields might look attractive, "institutional investors remain reticent about having too many holdings in local bonds."

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 6, 2009

Bolivia Launches State-Run Media

The headline reads, Morales says Bolivia to launch state newspaper, and a TV station, both bankrolled by Iran and Venezuela.

Noticias 24 also had the news, and quoted Evo Morales (my translation),

"We will have our own television channel, that's also a lot of money that we have to invest, and this channel wil serve to incorporate the state network to inform and educate."
Evo also said the paper will counterbalance the local media, even when the Bolivian government already runs
a news agency, a television station, a weekly paper and a network of radio stations.
Morales, who visited Iran last September, decided last month to no longer hold press conferences for the local media. which he considers "biased".

Iranian and Venezuelan financing, however, meets his criteria.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

January 4, 2009

Cuba: A Photograph as Metaphor

Cuba celebrated fifty years of its Communist Revolution the other day. It was a subdued celebration, as befits a celebration where the locals were not invited, and where the anniversary is marked by grief.

I was doing a roundup of posts for my blog's Monday Carnival of Latin America and the Caribbean when I came across this image:


The rusted wrought-iron balconies and fading handcrafted doors look back to an older era of artisanship and pride of ownership, now gone. Paint colors from decades ago, stucco coming apart from the wall, graffiti and mold, signal decay and pain.

Hope has bypassed that wall.

The photograph is in an article about Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, Che, but it is emblematic of today's Cuba: the only recent paint that building has seen is the iconic figure of Che (most prominently the Korda photo), whose myth and fiction override the reality of the hundreds of people he killed:

But a glance beneath the surface glamour of Alberto Korda's 1960 beret-and-curls photograph of Guevara is enough to expose the less-than-romantic reality. At the time he posed for Korda's camera, Guevara was jailer and executioner-in-chief of Castro's dictatorship. As boss of the notorious La Cabaña prison in Havana, he supervised the detention, interrogation, summary trials and executions of hundreds of "class enemies".

We know from Ernest Hemingway – then a Cuban resident – what Che was up to. Hemingway, who had looked kindly on leftist revolutions since the Spanish civil war, invited his friend George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review, to witness the shooting of prisoners condemned by the tribunals under Guevara's control. They watched as the men were trucked in, unloaded, shot, and taken away. As a result, Plimpton later refused to publish Guevara's memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries.

There have been some 16,000 such executions since the Castro brothers, Guevara and their merry men swept into Havana in January 1959. About 100,000 Cubans who have fallen foul of the regime have been jailed. Two million others have succeeded in escaping Castro's socialist paradise, while an estimated 30,000 have died in the attempt.

The building it's painted on, like hundreds of other buildings in Cuba, won't be restored, or for that matter, brought back to minimum standards because it's not a tourist destination or owned by a Communist Party big-shot. Since in Cuba only the state has the right to sell property, and the average wage is $20 a month, the only way that building got new paint was a picture of Che. Like the Revolución, even that image is showing cracks.

The woman in front of the building looks at the contents of a small shopping bag, where she may be carrying the meager rations that Fidel Castro introduced in the country in 1962, rations that compare to that which Cuban slaves received in the 1840s.

A month's rations would fit in that bag.

Of course there's a propaganda aspect, and the Cuban government places the blame for nearly everything on the USA and the embargo, el bloqueo, even when the US is Cuba's #5 trading partner according to the Cuban government's own figures:

Trade data for 2007 posted on the website of Cuba's National Statistics Office placed the U.S. fifth at $582 million, compared with $484 million in 2006, including shipping costs.
By the way, food and medicine were never subject to the embargo.

The huge painting of the Che image is on a wall that has been decaying for decades, as the Revolución that brought it.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at

December 21, 2008

Latin America: Summits and Crisis

Leaders of Latin American countries met last Tuesday and Wednesday for the first Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development. Like political junkets everywhere, the leaders congregated at a resort area, this time at Costa do Sauípe in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Thirty-three countries, including Cuba, participated.

Latin American leaders hold a series of summits on various subjects throughout the year. In fact, Brazilian diplomat Marcos Azambuja expressed concern that “While the summit comes at a good time, it multiplies the already large number of integration schemes and exacerbates the proliferation of processes and summits. … Brazil is playing on too many fronts and it should simplify and concentrate its efforts.”

Like the Foro de Sao Paolo, the meeting didn’t include the US. Joshua Goodman of Bloomberg News examined the increasing influence of Russia and China in the region, especially when it comes to armaments. However, there are a number of things to bear in mind:

1. The participating countries used the forum to discuss regional issues affecting the numerous subregional blocs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

2. The region continues to meet in order to bring about bilateral free-trade agreements, a trend that has continued after the collapse of the Doha talks.

3. The region continues to be dependent on the export of natural resources, such as oil, which prices have plummeted. This was one of the issues discussed on the summit.

4. The meeting took place a day after Ecuador voluntarily defaulted on its debt. Part of that debt was contracted under the Reciprocal Payments and Credit System of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI). Last month Brazil recalled its Ambassador to Ecuador when Ecuador said it was not going to pay $460 million owed to Brazil's national development bank, the BNDES. Relations between Brazil and Ecuador were strained also because of Ecuador’s lawsuit against Petrobras planned sale of a 40% stake in Block 18 to Inpex unit Teikoku Oil Ecuador. Ecuador dropped the suit the day the summit started.

5. Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, explained that

had discussed with Brazil and Mexico ways the meeting’s agenda could be used during the U.S.-backed Summit of the Americas, in April in Trinidad and Tobago.

6. Last but not least, the summit highlights the emergence of Brazil’s diplomatic leadership and influence in the region.

Mayra Pertossi, writing about the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development at Venezuela’s Noticias24, reports that this global financial crisis found Latin America in relatively strong shape, because of the prior boon on oil prices and commodities. However, due to the plummeting prices the region braces itself for a rough 2009. Brazil and Mexico, the region’s strongest economies, won’t remain unaffected, but Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador will probably be the hardest hit. Argentina faces $200 million in debt due in 2009.

Pertossi states that Chile is the only economy in the region positioned to initiate countercyclical measures. Due to the boom in copper prices, which accounts for 40% of the country’s exports, the Chilean government has set aside a $21 billion special fund, which according to Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Velasco, will finance the budget for the next ten years.

Mexico’s El Universal reported that Felipe Calderón proposed the creation of a regional alliance that would exclude the US, “an OAS without the USA.” Calderón rejected the creation of a multinational force to fight organized crime and the drug trade.

Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, also called for the creation of Organization of Latin American and Caribbean States.

France 24 highlighted Evo Morales’s ultimatum to the US demanding an end to the Cuba embargo, but

The summit's host, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, distanced himself from Morales's call.
Lula kept a more conciliatory tone and asked for “prudence and political diplomacy," and to wait until Obama is president.

The summit. while being one of many regional summits, foreshadows a number of challenges to the Obama presidency:

The demand to end the Cuban embargo;

Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela's stance on the war on drugs, which is tied to terrorism and crime, along with an arms buildup;

The possibility that Ecuador's default may signal a trend of defaults in the region;
And the impact of the financial downturn in Latin American economies.

In addition, Russia and China continue to increase their presence - Russian ships have landed in Cuba for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

We shall find out in April's Summit of the Americas how the Obama administration will start to face these challenges.

Fausta Wertz also blogs at