Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber
The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
On Saturday, March 1 the New York Times ran a graphic accompanying its article on Venezuela that showed an “implied inflation rate” of more than 300 percent.
This is a statistic that was manufactured by the Cato Institute. It is not a meaningful measure of inflation, and there are few economists who would accept it as such. I will explain below why the Times has violated both the standards of basic economics and also standard journalistic procedures with this decision, which as of today (March 6), the editors have refused to correct, despite being presented with explanations of why it is wrong. But first, a note on the significance of this kind of misreporting.
If this bogus statistic is picked up by Venezuela’s opposition media and becomes another “fact,” it could have a significant influence on the actual dynamic of inflation in Venezuela. To the extent that this statistic is believed, many Venezuelans would not want to hold domestic currency and would move their money into dollars or other assets, thus fueling both black market currency depreciation and inflation.
- Written by Nate Singham
Ecuadorians went to the voting polls last Sunday to participate in municipal and provincial elections for the second time since Rafael Correa was elected president. Early results indicate that 11,682,314 Ecuadorians voted which is equal to a 16.9 percent voter abstention rate; this is nearly 8 percentage points lower than in the previous municipal and provincial elections. Following the elections, UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) issued a statement congratulating the Ecuadorian people for what they called “transparent and normal” elections.
The preliminary election results reveal that governing AP (Alianza PAIS) party candidates won a larger share of mayoral (30 percent) and prefecture (43 percent) elections than any other party.[i] In addition, AP achieved a 4 percent gain in prefecture electoral victories compared to the previous election. Table 1a shows the prefectures where Alianza PAIS won the highest percentage of voter shares.
- Written by Jake Johnston
Members of Congress and the Obama administration have consistently placed the blame for the violence stemming from protests on the Venezuelan government, while overlooking or ignoring violent incidents by opposition protesters, including the decapitation of motorcycle riders, the burning of government buildings and metro stations, attacks against state media companies, and the killing of individuals seeking to dismantle barricades, including a National Guard officer. Officials have referred instead to “systematic” human rights abuses and government repression, without citing evidence.
Based on these assertions, momentum is building to implement sanctions on members of the Venezuelan government. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) told the press on Monday that, “There should be sanctions on individuals. ... The administration is looking at those.” Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, cited a “high-level” State Department official that she had recently spoken to.
That the administration is considering sanctions comes on the heels of demands from members of congress that the Obama administration go further in its application of pressure on the Venezuelan government. After introducing legislation “supporting the people of Venezuela as they protest peacefully for democracy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) stated that:
"But this resolution can only be the first step to hold Maduro and his fellow regime thugs accountable for their violent response and their abuses of the Venezuelan people's liberties and human rights. I have already begun circulating a letter amongst my colleagues in the House, addressed to President Obama, asking him to take immediate actions against Maduro and other Venezuelan officials who are responsible for violations of their people's human rights. We are calling for the President to enact immediate sanctions against these officials, under authorities granted to him under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), including denying them visas to enter the United States, blocking their property and freezing their assets in the U.S., as well as prohibiting them from making any financial transactions in the U.S.”
Ros-Lehtinen also plans to introduce a bill that would require the administration to take these steps. The moves from the House of Representatives have been echoed in the Senate, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) have introduced a resolution calling for sanctions. Menendez stated:
"Now is the time to pursue a course of targeted sanctions by denying and revoking visas, and freezing the assets of Venezuelan officials complicit in the deaths of peaceful protestors. Human rights violators should be held accountable for the crimes they committed and their presence should not be welcome in our nation. Venezuelans today are denied basic rights, freedoms, and the ability to peacefully protest the dire economic circumstances caused by President Maduro and his government. We stand with the Venezuelan people and the brave opposition leaders in their pursuit to build a more hopeful Venezuela that embraces a bright future while discarding a failed past."
Marco Rubio even made the case for sanctions on NBC News’ “Meet The Press,” telling host David Gregory that, “I would like to see specific U.S. sanctions against individuals in the Maduro government that are systematically participating in the violation of human rights and anti-democratic actions.” Florida Governor Rick Scott has also called for sanctions. Although neither the House nor the Senate have passed these resolutions calling for sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters last week that, “with respect to Venezuela, Congress has urged sanctions.”
- Written by Miguel Tinker Salas (guest post)
On February 12th, (Venezuelan Youth Day and the commemoration of the independence battle of La Victoria) some university students and traditional conservative opposition groups took to the streets in Venezuela. In Caracas students and others attacked a government building, burned cars and damaged the entrance to a metro station. The demonstrations extended for several days, as it quickly became obvious that the principal purpose of the protests was to destabilize the government and seek the ouster of the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro faced a hotly contested presidential election shortly after the death of Hugo Chávez, in which he narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles. To gain support, Capriles promised to continue social programs initiated by the late president becoming what some called a “Chávez lite” candidate. The hard line elements of the opposition, including Capriles refused to accept the results of the elections and street violence generated by conservative forces left close to a dozen people dead.
Last December, Venezuela held municipal elections that the opposition purposely turned into a referendum on the Maduro presidency. Despite the opposition’s winning of several important areas in Caracas and the city of Maracaibo the government sponsored coalition (Polo Patriotico) won over 70% of the country’s municipalities. The election results revealed that the opposition had not won over the majority despite the country’s serious economic problems and the loss of the charismatic Hugo Chávez as leader of the left.
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
Roger Cohen, what a disappointment. He is not Tom Friedman or David Brooks, and shouldn’t be insulting an entire nation based a clump of tired old clichés and a lack of information. Argentina is “the child among nations that never grew up” he writes, and “not a whole lot has changed” since he was there 25 years ago. OK, let’s see what we can do to clean up this mess with a shovel and broom made of data.
For Cohen, Argentina since the government defaulted on its debt has been an economic failure. Tens of millions of Argentines might beg to differ.
For the vast majority of people in Argentina, as in most countries, being able to find a job is very important. According to the database of SEDLAC (which works in partnership with the World Bank), employment as a percentage of the labor force hit peak levels in 2012, and has remained close to there since. This is shown in Figure 1.
Argentina: Employment Rate, Percent of Total Population
Source: SEDLAC (2014).
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
The Wall Street Journal today published a report trashing Argentina based on an economic mistake which renders the article meaningless. The headline:
Devaluation Hurts Argentina's Regional Standing: Colombia Has Likely Overtaken Argentina as Latin America's Third-Largest Economy
The article is laden with gloating and derogatory language such as the opening sentence: “Following Argentina's humbling currency devaluation, the country is suffering another economic embarrassment …” and “’This is symptomatic of a broader trend that is seeing Argentina's economic model unravel..’”
Actually, it’s not symptomatic of anything, including the relative living standards in Argentina and Colombia or the rest of Latin America. When the peso is devalued against the dollar, the size of the Argentine economy measured in dollars is smaller. This does not mean that the living standards of Argentines have fallen.
If the U.S. dollar falls against the euro, Americans who travel in Europe will find it more expensive. But most Americans get their income in dollars and spend it in dollars, and will only be affected negatively by the exchange rate to the extent that some imports become more expensive. (In fact, there is a very strong argument that most Americans would be better off with a significantly lower dollar, as we would reduce our trade deficit, increase employment and therefore wage growth, and cease to be dependent on asset bubbles for growth as we have in the past two decades.) U.S. GDP measured in euros will be smaller, but who cares?
- Written by Stephan Lefebvre
On Wednesday, Brazilian ex-president Lula Da Silva spoke out regarding recent events in Venezuela:
I think that in the first place, Venezuela needs peace and tranquility, so that it can recover all its potential insofar as creating wealth and well-being for its people. All Venezuelans, both pro-government and opposition supporters, should understand that a country can only grow and develop with a lot of peace, with a lot of dialogue. [President Nicolás] Maduro has the best intentions; he wants to give his best for Venezuela.
These remarks come just a day after two other statements from Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff commented on Venezuela’s “advances …in terms of education and health for its people” and a representative of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said that he sees the situation as one in which “the principle of non-interference must be respected.”
As we have noted, Brazil has not been the only country in the region to make statements in support of President Maduro, but there remains the question of which multilateral forum would most effectively allow for a fair and representative consideration of the situation in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government itself has, in statements made by Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, indicated its support for UNASUR over the OAS. The Venezuela representative there, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, has blocked, for the time being, a special request by Panama’s representative to the OAS who had called for a meeting on Venezuela while the president of the Permanent Council was absent.
Uruguay’s foreign minister Luis Almagro said in a press conference that his government agrees with Venezuela that UNASUR would be the preferred forum: “UNASUR has been the natural arena for addressing these regional issues. If we have the possibility of a request [for discussion] at UNASUR, for us that would be fine.” Most of the region, especially South America, recognizes that the United States has too much power in the OAS, because of its disproportionate funding and control over the bureaucracy, as well as a few allied right-wing governments. That is one of the reasons that Latin America created CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), which excludes the U.S. and Canada, and also UNASUR, in recent years.
- Written by Nate Singham
In light of the recent political demonstrations that have swept the country, Venezuela has received considerable attention from both the US State Department and mainstream media. In recent days, President Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and several others have issued numerous statements regarding the protests. In the US major media, The New York Times has published articles nearly every day since the protests began. Extensive reporting can also be found in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.
It is worth comparing the extent of this coverage to protests of similar importance next door to Venezuela. In August of last year, Colombian farmers launched large-scale demonstrations in opposition to Colombian trade policies that are strongly supported by the U.S. government.
Unlike the protests in Venezuela, the Colombian protests received very little coverage from mainstream media, as CEPR pointed out at the time. The graph below compares the amount of coverage, in total number of articles published, that four of the United States’ most influential newspapers to the protests and violence in Colombia and Venezuela. The difference ranges from more than two times to 14 times as many articles devoted to the Venezuelan protests as compared with Colombia, despite the fact that the period covered for Colombia is twice as long.
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
Kudos to the New York Times for correcting its error regarding TV media in Venezuela. I had written about this error here on Monday (Feb 24). It was an important mistake--the Times had led its Friday report with this statement:
“The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The Times’ correction reads:
Correction: February 26, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Globovision. Before its sale last year, it broadcast more voices critical of the Venezuelan government than any other TV station, but it was not the only one to regularly feature government critics.
It sure wasn’t, and it still isn’t during the current protests, as documented here. This is important because the opposition leadership is trying to say that they are living under a dictatorship, and they are justifying their demands for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on this basis.
Many other news outlets have made the same error in reporting on the TV media in Venezuela. Hopefully they will be more accurate in the future.
Many thanks to Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy and the nearly 13,000 people who quickly signed a petition to the New York Times asking for this correction.
People often ask what they can do to change U.S. foreign policy, and one important thing that almost anyone with an internet connection can do is hold the media accountable for these kinds of misrepresentations. On the one hand, the mass media can play a huge role in legitimating terrible crimes, as in the run-up to the Iraq War, which cost more than a million lives and probably wouldn’t have happened if the media had done its job. On the other hand, there are thousands of reporters and editors who are trying to do their job and adhere to basic journalistic standards of accuracy and balance. Readers and listeners can help them do this.
Now, what about the Committee to Protect Journalists? Their statement was more outrageously false than the one corrected by the Times: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."
Will they correct it? Ask them.
- Written by Jake Johnston
Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that a meeting of the Permanent Council, would take place Thursday morning at 9:30 EST. It now appears that the meeting has been postponed, or that it may not occur at all, as a result of objections presented by Venezuela based on the OAS’ internal directives. The meeting would “consider the request of Panama to convene a Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs to consider the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” It would take 18 votes in favor of Panama’s request for the extraordinary session to move forward.
Ahead of the planned meeting, a spokesperson for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry told EFE that “Brazil understands that the principle of non-interference must be respected.” The official added that Brazil “perceived” willingness for dialogue on the part of the Venezuelan government, citing President Maduro’s calls for a “Peace Conference” today. It remains to be seen if opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who chose not to attend a meeting with the government on Monday will attend the meeting with the Venezuelan president today. Bloomberg reported that “Maduro called on a cross-section of Venezuelan society, including union workers, intellectuals, clergy, students and governors to come to Caracas today and sign an agreement condemning violence.”
The Brazilian official also referred to statements made by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff earlier this week, in which she stated, “for Brazil, it is very important that we always look at Venezuela from the point of view of the advances that the country has achieved, during this entire process, in terms of education and health for its people.”
- Written by Brian Mier (Guest post)
On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.
The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.
Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.
The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.
- Written by Alexander Main
On the night of February 22nd, a bizarre incident took place in the Venezuela media-sphere. At around 4:00 pm Venezuela time, a number of the country’s private media outlets posted a release from a protest group identified only as the “student movement.” The rhetoric and tone of the statement matches the positions often expressed by extreme rightwing factions within Venezuela’s opposition over the last 14 years. Venezuela, it alleges, is in the grip of Cuban communists:
Foreign forces have laid a military siege on Venezuela. Their mercenaries attack us in a vile and savage manner. Their goal is to enslave us and be the masters of our existence, dishonoring the flags that we have held up in the street and that we will defend with our lives.
We want our Freedom. To protect it it's vital to defend the Sovereignty of the Nation, expelling the Cuban communists that are here usurping the government and the Armed Forces.
The release demands that “the usurper [Venezuelan president] Nicolas Maduro and all of his cabinet be deposed” and states that the protests will continue until this and other demands are met. The statement also calls for defensive action against state security:
The regime has declared war on any civilian who doesn't accept its marxist ideology. Our call is for defense: to not allow the invaders profane your street, your avenue, your property. Prevent their access so that they don't shoot up your neighborhood, don't destroy your properties, don't hurt your loved ones and, above all, so that they know that here there are battle-seasoned Venezuelans, who won't allow themselves to be enslaved through the use of force.
The rhetoric found in this release is reminiscent of the language used by the promoters of the “guarimba” protests in 2004 which – similarly to many of the protests that have been occurring in Venezuela over the last two weeks – involved protesters blocking major roads with bonfires and barricades and damaging public property. The explicit goal of the 2004 guarimba protests was to create enormous chaos in city streets thereby forcing the government to either step down or engage in mass repression. Or, in the words of Luis Alonso, the main promoter of the guarimba ten years ago:
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
The New York Times begins its news report on Friday from Venezuela with “The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year and the new owners have softened its news coverage.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote last week: "Nearly all TV stations in Venezuela are either controlled or allied with the government of Nicolás Maduro and have ignored the nationwide protests."
Before surrendering to authorities for arrest last Tuesday (February 18), opposition leader Leopoldo López said, “we no longer have any free media to express ourselves in Venezuela.”
Are these statements true or false? Similar statements are made repeatedly in the major international news outlets covering Venezuela, and are generally accepted as true. However this should be a factual question, independent of whether one is sympathetic to the opposition or the government, or to neither.
As it turns out, data published by the Carter Center for the media coverage during the campaign for the last presidential election, in April of last year, indicate that the two candidates were fairly evenly represented in television coverage.
We will return to the Carter Center report, but first a quick fact check based on recent events and coverage. We can look at the recent broadcasts of the largest television stations in the country. The biggest broadcast television station is Venevisión, owned by the billionaire media mogul Gustavo Cisneros. According to the Carter Center, it has about 35 percent of the news-watching audience during “recent key newsworthy events.” If we look at their coverage of the events since the protests started on February 12, we can find plenty of programming where “voices critical of the government,” and in fact opposition leaders are “regularly broadcast.” For example, here is an interview on Venevisión news with Tomás Guanipa, leader of the opposition Primero Justicia (Justice First) party and a representative in the National Assembly. He defends the protests and accuses the government of having tortured students.
- Written by Jake Johnston
[3/12: This post is no longer being updated. For a updated list, please click here.]
The morning of February 22, Venezuela Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz stated that so far eight deaths and 137 injuries had occurred during the protests that have taken place over the last ten days. Díaz added that “the investigations [into the killings] are advanced.” Many press and NGOs have simply reported that “demonstrators” were killed. For example the International Crisis Group states in its February 21 report: “confrontation in Venezuela has turned violent in the past few days with the killing of six demonstrators.” However, a closer look at the individuals identified as having been killed reveals that the political allegiances of the victims and their causes of death are varied.
Since Díaz’s announcement more deaths related to the protests have been reported in the media. Here, first, are details regarding seven of the deaths that Díaz referred to in her statements:
- Bassil Alejandro Da Costa, an opposition demonstrator was shot, reportedly in the head, and killed in Caracas during the opposition protest that took place on February 12. The Attorney General announced Friday that an investigation into the killing is close to finished and will be made public in the coming days. An analysis of amateur video and images by the Venezuelan newspaper Últimas Noticias alleges that uniformed and plainclothes members of the Venezuelan intelligence service (SEBIN) were responsible. The video images show what appear to be SEBIN agents in uniform as well as individuals in plain-clothes firing handguns toward the demonstration after demonstrators had charged at them while throwing rocks. President Maduro later stated that SEBIN agents weren’t authorized to be present at the protest and replaced the head of SEBIN. At least one of the SEBIN officers seen discharging his weapon has reportedly been arrested and, according to Venezuelan media, authorities are engaged in a manhunt to apprehend the other individuals observed firing their handguns. [Update 2/25: According to Attorney General Díaz, three SEBIN officers have been arrested in relation to the killing of Da Costa and Montoya, see below for more.] [Update 3/4: On February 26, the Attorney General announced additional arrests in relation to the deaths of Da Costa and Montoya. In total, at least 8 individuals have been arrested.]
- Juan Montoya, a pro-government community activist, was reportedly shot in both the head and chest and died. Montoya’s body was found a short distance from the body of Da Costa. It remains unclear how he was killed but Maduro stated that the same gun killed both Montoya and Da Costa.
- Written by Jake Johnston
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López has been thrust onto the international stage during the past week of protests in Venezuela and his arrest on February 21. López is mentioned at least 77 times in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Many of the cables focus on internal disputes within the opposition, with Lopez often in conflict with others both within his party and others in the opposition. Given this history, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the current protests that he has been leading, calling for “la salida” – the exit – of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro have also caused internal divisions within the opposition. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America wrote last week:
While Capriles shook hands with Maduro in January, signifying not only a more conciliatory stance but tacitly recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado have both taken a harder line and are working outside of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD).
Without a doubt, in immediate political terms the biggest beneficiary of yesterday’s [Feb.12] violence was López.
This week, Smilde added in a quote to USA Today, "Before this happened, Lopez was playing second fiddle to Capriles… I think his goal is to try and leapfrog over Capriles. The student protests have put him in the spotlight."
The Wikileaks Cables show an interesting history of Lopez’s rise to leadership and also show some of the divisions within the opposition. Below, one party leader is quoted as saying that “for the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez, joking that ‘the only difference between the two is that Lopez is a lot better looking.’” And also, “During a party event December 6, Primero Justicia (PJ) Secretary-General Tomas Guanipa called on Lopez to respect the unity table and its agreements and consensus. Guanipa urged Lopez to ‘not continue dividing us, we should not go through life like crashing cars, fighting with the whole world.’”
The U.S. government has been funding the Venezuelan opposition for at least 12 years, including, as the State Department has acknowledged, some of the people and organizations involved in the 2002 military coup. Their goal has always been to get rid of the Chávez government and replace it with something more to their liking. However, their funding is probably not their most important contribution in Venezuela, since the Venezuelan opposition has most of the wealth and income of the country. A more important role is the outside pressure for unity, which, as these cables and the history of the past 15 years show, has been a serious problem for the Venezuelan opposition. The cables also show that this is a serious concern for the U.S. government.
Below are relevant cables, in chronological order:
- Written by Jake Johnston
Carl Meacham, the former Republican senior advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared last night on PBS’ Newshour. When asked by host Gwen Ifill what “is really behind all of this right now?” Meacham responded by questioning the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Venezuela:
Let’s remember this has been probably — it’s been a year since Mr. Maduro — roughly a year since Mr. Maduro was elected — some people say that he won, some people say that he didn’t win — to office.
A statistical analysis shows just how unlikely it was that, as Meachem says “he didn’t win.” In Venezuela’s elections, the electoral authority conducts a rapid recount of 53 percent of the voting machines, selected at random. The probability of getting the audit result, if in fact the opposition candidate had received the majority of the votes, was found to be less than 1 in 25 thousand trillion.
While Meacham is correct in stating that “some people say that he didn’t win”, it is also true that “some people,” – in fact many people – say that President Obama is a Muslim who is holding office illegally because he was not born in the United States. The statement from Meacham is revealing because it is indicative of his close ties to prominent right-wing Venezuelan politicians.
It is unfortunate that PBS did not offer its listeners anything other than a far-right point of view in this broadcast.
- Written by Mark Weisbrot
Greg Weeks, a professor who specializes in Latin America at UNC Charlotte, did not seem to understand my column yesterday in the Guardian. He dismissed the recent statements from the U.S. government about Venezuela as meaningless. Since he is Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, perhaps there were others who did not understand these statements as well. So I wrote some further explanation for him and posted it on his blog. Today, of course, U.S. statements got even more hostile, after Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats. But as explained below, these are not just unfriendly comments by administration officials, but words chosen carefully and deliberately to encourage certain actions by Venezuela’s opposition. Below is what I wrote yesterday:
Greg, maybe this will help your readers to understand what these statements mean. I wanted to include the White House statement on the Honduran coup for comparison but didn't have room.
You can find it here:
The White House statement on the day of the coup did not condemn it, merely calling on “all political and social actors in Honduras” to respect democracy.
This diplomatic language is very important. As any diplomat in this town will testify, this is one way in which governments communicate their positions and alliances. Everybody I know realized immediately from the White House statement after the Honduran coup that Washington supported the coup, and there were no surprises for us in what the Obama administration did in the months and years that followed.
So you see, these statements from Kerry and the State Department are not just random “vanilla” comments on the state of democracy or the economy in Venezuela or concern about arrests. (Maybe you didn’t read the piece very carefully, but my point on the arrests was that in other countries, if protesters are arrested for violent acts, the U.S. does not call for their immediate release.) These are carefully worded statements, like the White House statement on the coup in Honduras, that communicate their position without putting the U.S. government in the position of saying that they support a military coup in Honduras or a strategy of “regime change” in Venezuela, but making it clear to their allies and adversaries that they actually do. They have enormous impact, as you can understand. When Kerry changed his position on the April elections, he didn’t have to say “these elections were free and fair and the opposition should give up its attempt to pretend that they were stolen.” He just implicitly recognized the result and that was the end of the opposition’s campaign, since U.S. allies Spain and José Miguel Insulza at the OAS had already given up, so the Obama administration was the last ally that the Venezuelan opposition had holding out for non-recognition of the election results.
I hope this makes it clearer for you and your readers.
- Written by Dan Beeton
Venezuela’s latest round of violent protests appears to fit a pattern, and represents the tug-and-pull nature of the country’s divided opposition. Several times over the past 15 years since the late, former president Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the political opposition has launched violent protests aimed at forcing the current president out of office. Most notably, such protests were a part of the April 2002 coup that temporarily deposed Chávez, and then accompanied the 2002/2003 oil strike. In February of 2004, a particularly radical sector of the opposition unleashed the “Guarimba”: violent riots by small groups who paralyzed much of the east of Caracas for several days with the declared goal of creating a state of chaos. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has explained, then – as now – the strategy is clear: a sector of the opposition seeks to overturn the results of democratic elections. An important difference this time of course is that Venezuela has its first post-Chávez president, and a key part of the opposition’s strategy overall has been to depict Nicolás Maduro as a pale imitation of his predecessor and a president ill-equipped to deal with the country’s problems (many of which are exaggerated in the Venezuelan private media, which is still largely opposition-owned, as well as the international media).
Following Maduro’s electoral victory in April last year (with much of the opposition crying “fraud” despite there being no reasonable doubts about the validity of the results), the opposition looked to the December municipal elections as a referendum on Maduro’s government, vowing to defeat governing party PSUV and allied candidates. The outcome, which left the pro-Maduro parties with a 10 point margin of victory, was a stunning defeat for the opposition, and this time they did not even bother claiming the elections were rigged. According to the opposition’s own pre-election analysis, support for Maduro had apparently grown over the months preceding the election. As we have pointed out, this may be due in part to the large reduction in poverty in 2012 and other economic and social gains that preceded the more recent economic problems.
Defeated at the polls, the anti-democratic faction of the opposition prepared for a new attempt at destabilizing the elected government, and promoted relatively small, but often violent student protests in early February. They then called for a massive protest on February 12, Venezuela’s Youth Day in the center of Caracas. The demonstrations have been accompanied by a social media campaign that has spread misinformation in an attempt to depict the Maduro administration as a violent dictatorship instead of a popular elected government. Images of police violence from other countries and past protests – some several years old – have been presented on social media as having occurred in recent days in Venezuela. A YouTube video that has been watched by almost 2 million viewers presents a one-sided portrayal of the situation and falsely states that the Venezuelan government controls all radio and television in the country, among other distortions. Similar disinformation occurred in April 2002 and in other past incidents in Venezuela, most notably when manipulated video footage was used to provide political justification for the coup d’etat.
- Written by Dan Beeton
The Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released its “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” [PDF] for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today. The assessment takes what is probably a much more realistic and beneficial stance (for both the people of the U.S. and of Latin America) on Latin America than previously. In contrast to last year’s assessment, which fretted over perceived political instability in Venezuela, the only South American threat noted this year – and mentioned only in passing – is “cocaine from source countries in South America.” (This is in the context of “[d]omestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups” operating in Central America.)
On Honduras, the assessment states:
Central America’s northern tier countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—will likely struggle to overcome the economic and security problems that plague the region. All three countries are facing debt crises and falling government revenues because of slow economic growth, widespread tax evasion, and large informal economies. Entrenched political, economic, and public-sector interests resist reforms. Domestic criminal gangs and transnational organized crime groups, as well as Central America’s status as a major transit area for cocaine from source countries in South America, are fueling record levels of violence in the region. Regional governments have worked to improve citizen security but with little-to-moderate success.
The homicide rate in Honduras remains the highest in the world. New Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez will likely prioritize security policy and seek to build a coalition within the divided legislature to push his economic reform agenda. However, weak governance, widespread corruption, and debt problems will limit prospects for a turnaround.
In this case the assessment seems to be overstating the extent of Honduras’ “debt crisis.” As we noted ahead of the November elections last year, “the country's debt burden is still relatively low, with interest payments on the debt totaling less than 1.7 percent, and much of the debt is internal and denominated in domestic currency.” This means that the new government “will have ample room to pursue expansionary fiscal policies, increase employment, and invest in infrastructure, education and development” if it chooses to do so. But economics does not seem to be the DNI’s strong suit. Last year’s assessment described an “increasingly deteriorating business environment and growing macroeconomic imbalances” in Venezuela and warned that “[d]ebt obligations will consume a growing share of Venezuela’s oil revenues, even if oil prices remain high.” But as CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a November column for The Guardian:
- Written by Dan Beeton
On Thursday, the Brookings Institution issued a memo to President Obama titled “Venezuela Breaks Down in Violence.” As might be expected from the title, the memo (and an accompanying video) depicts an alarming situation where
Venezuela is experiencing declining export revenues, accelerating inflation and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods. At the same time, the Maduro administration has foreclosed peaceful options for Venezuelans to bring about a change in its current policies.
But, contrary to the alarmist title, the violence is only a possibility in the future: “Economic mismanagement in Venezuela has reached such a level that it risks inciting a violent popular reaction,” and further on the reader learns that actually “[t]he risk of a violent outcome may still be low…”
The possibility of such chaos is troubling to the author, Harold Trinkunas since “it is in the U.S. interest that Venezuela remain a reliable source of oil,” while “[p]opular unrest in a country with multiple armed actors, including the military, the militia, organized crime and pro-government gangs, is a recipe for unwelcome chaos and risks an interruption of oil production.”
Trinkunas, who “previously served as an associate professor and chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California” urges the Obama administration to take action. At the top of his recommendations is for the U.S. to enlist Brazil – “whose interests are also at risk” - in an attempt “to convince the Maduro administration to shift course.”
Trinkunas makes clear what course he wants the U.S. government to take should a crisis result in Maduro being removed from power. While one might think that such a hypothetical scenario would indeed be one when the Inter-American Democratic Charter should be invoked (Trinkunas suggests that it be used against Maduro now), that would be naïve. Instead:
…we should also begin quiet conversations with others in the hemisphere on what steps to take should Venezuela experience a violent breakdown of political order. Such an event could potentially fracture the regional consensus on democracy on a scale much greater than that of the Honduran coup in 2009. Maduro’s allies in the region would most likely push for his immediate restoration, but in the absence of functioning democratic institutions, this would only compound Venezuela’s internal crisis. The United States would need to work with key states in the region—Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia—on a regional consensus in favor of rebuilding democracy in Venezuela.
- Written by Dan Beeton and Alexander Main
The new budget appropriations bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, and set to be taken up by the Senate in the coming days, includes several passages that are relevant for Honduras, including stronger restrictions on U.S. assistance for the police and military. It also includes language opposing involvement by international financial institutions like the World Bank and IADB in the financing of large dam projects, such as those planned in Rio Blanco, and other language that could help victims of the May 2012 DEA operation in Ahuas -- that resulted in four villagers killed and several others injured -- finally receive compensation.
Under the "Honduras" section, the bill [PDF] reads:
- Of the funds appropriated by this Act under the headings ‘‘International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement’’ and ‘‘Foreign Military Financing Program’’, 35 percent may not be made available for assistance for the Honduran military and police except in accordance with the procedures and requirements specified under section 7045 in the explanatory statement described in section 4 (in the matter preceding division A of this consolidated Act).
- The restriction in paragraph (1) shall not apply to assistance to promote transparency, anti-corruption, border security, and the rule of law within the military and police.
This 35 percent is a significant increase from the 20 percent previously withheld over concerns about human rights violations by Honduran security forces.
The “procedures and requirements” appear under the section (Division J) titled “Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014”:
Honduras. - The agreement modifies language in the Senate bill regarding Honduras in subsection (e). There is concern with the security challenges facing Honduras, which has become a transit hub for illicit drugs from South America. The assistance provided by this Act is intended to help stem the trafficking and address related violence, corruption, and impunity. The agreement recognizes the need for fundamental reform of Honduran law enforcement and judicial systems. In accordance with section 7045(e) of this Act, 35 percent of funds that are available for assistance for the Honduran military and police may be obligated only if the Secretary of State certifies that-