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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.

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NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s “Open Letter to the People of Brazil” made headlines this week, with many U.S. and international media outlets characterizing it as a quid-pro-quo offer of help investigating NSA surveillance in Brazil in return for asylum. In an article about the letter, Folha de Sao Paulo – which also first published the letter -- stated, “US espionage whistleblower Edward Snowden has promised to cooperate with investigations into the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Brazil. In order to do so, he wants political asylum from Dilma Rousseff's government in return.”

“Snowden to Brazil: Swap you spying help for asylum,” read a USA Today headline for a story about the letter (even though the article stated midway-through that “It was not entirely clear from the letter whether Snowden was suggesting that the South American nation should grant him asylum in return for help in probing claims that the U.S. has spied on Brazil”). The Financial Times ran a similar headline: “Edward Snowden offers Brazil help on spying in return for asylum.” CNN reported that Snowden was offering “a deal”: “Help fighting NSA surveillance in exchange for political asylum.”

But in his letter, Snowden does not make his offer of assistance contingent on the asylum. He points out that the U.S. government has constrained his ability to travel, and will do so “[u]ntil a country grants permanent political asylum.”

It is also clear that Snowden is responding, in part, to requests from Brazilian senators for help in investigating U.S. spying in Brazil, which he says he is unable to do while in Russia. As Folha reported:

"Many Brazilian senators have asked my help with their investigations into suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens. I expressed my willingness to assist, where it is appropriate and legal, but unfortunately the US government has been working very hard to limit my ability to do so," said the letter.

Snowden was referring to an open [Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry] in the Senate to investigate the activities of the NSA in Brazil, which included monitoring the phone calls and emails of both Dilma and Petrobras.

President Obama traveled to Soweto, South Africa this week for the memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela. Over 60 heads of state also attended the services, but only five were invited to speak - among them Cuban president Raúl Castro, with whom Obama shook hands – the first such greeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba since President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in 2000. Obama’s handshake with Castro was condemned by a number of Republican members of Congress. Senator John McCain likened it to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler, while perennial Cuba-hater Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – who in the past has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination – called it “a propaganda coup for the tyrant [Castro].” Cruz made headlines for himself by walking out on Castro’s speech at the ceremony, with a spokesperson saying that “Sen. Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela.”

But while Republicans have received attention for their criticism of the handshake – just as they did when Obama similarly greeted democratically-elected then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez in 2009 – Obama’s speech at the event has been described by some as a rebuke of some foreign governments, including Cuba’s. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said without apparent irony, while in Singapore a U.S. delegation was concluding (unsuccessfully) the latest round of efforts to get other countries to agree to a variety of controversial and potentially harmful measures in a proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. As we have described in a research paper, most U.S. workers would lose out from the planned TPP in the form of reduced wages.

As many analysts, historians and observers have pointed out, the condemnation of the Obama-Castro handshake is also ironic considering Mandela’s long appreciation for the Cuban government and its unwavering opposition to apartheid and similar racist regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa. Most notably, Cuba provided 36,000 troops to beat back the efforts of the South African military to crush independence in Angola.

As the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas points out, while Cuba provided Mandela, the African National Congress and South Africa with inspiration, guidance, resources, training and doctors, “The U.S. government, on the other hand, reportedly played a role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and subsequently branded him a terrorist -- a designation they only rescinded in 2008. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.” Then there’s the small matter of U.S. and South African support for the counter-revolutionaries in Angola. As Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books including Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 said yesterday in an interview with "Democracy Now”: “…the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation."

Bali, Indonesia - Early the morning of December 7th, in the talks of the 9th Ministerial meeting of the WTO, a paragraph was removed from draft text – obviously at the demand of the United States – relating to the embargo/blockade against Cuba. Members are here negotiating a deal on “trade facilitation,” which would simplify customs and border procedures, but which also puts binding conditions on developing countries to ensure fast and efficient transit procedures (meaning that other members could file cases against them in the WTO for failure to comply).

Civil society organizations working here have sharply criticized the texts for putting binding rules on developing countries for further pro-corporate liberalization commitments that are not to their advantage, while not offering enough changes to existing WTO rules which limit developing – but not developed – countries from investing in farmers’ livelihoods and food security.

Given the topic of the negotiations, facilitating trade, it must have appeared reasonable to Cuba to insert a paragraph setting down a binding rule against discriminatory measures on goods in transit. However, when negotiators convened on the last night of the conference at 9 p.m., after a long week of negotiations focused on other issues, and the Chair of the Ministerial distributed the draft text for final approval, Cuba noticed that its paragraph[1] had been removed. After repeated efforts to gain the floor, the Cuban Ambassador, Nancy Madrigal, appears to have been treated rather brusquely by the chair, Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan of Indonesia, who did not even let her speak.

Upon reconvening the meeting, Ambassador Madrigal sought clarification of how the negotiations on the pending issues would continue, given that Cuba’s text had been removed without even the slightest consultations. The chair, however, did not offer a path to further negotiations, and instead was clearly expecting everyone to simply affirm their agreement. At that point Ambassador Madrigal read a statement on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) countries of Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela, rejecting the entire text.

What we have before us remain unbalanced and we will do everything within our reach and power so that the WTO does not continue to be used for neoliberal globalization. What we see is a perpetuation of subsidies and support policies used by developed countries that remain untouchable. It is inconceivable that an organization that [is accepting a deal on trade facilitation] is incapable of adopting one paragraph against discrimination on goods in transit. [paraphrased excerpt]

In El Paraíso, a city of 14,000 that sits right near Honduras’ border with Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party secured an impressive 81.4 percent of the vote. In second place, with 7.2 percent of the vote, was “invalid.”

Last week the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), declared that Hernandez had been elected president of Honduras with 35 percent of the vote, compared to 27.4 percent for Xiomara Castro, of the newly formed LIBRE party. Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a 2009 military coup. Alleging fraud, LIBRE has yet to recognize the results and is reportedly in discussions with the TSE to begin a recount process.

But no matter the outcome of the recount, if it ever occurs, there were numerous other irregularities on election day, including a number of reports of voter intimidation as well as other, perhaps more nefarious, means of voter manipulation. Although it is generally difficult to directly link election results to acts of voter intimidation, the case of El Paraíso provides an interesting example.

El Paraíso, in the Copan department[i] of Honduras, is located directly on what is known as the “road of death.” The road is a well-known drug trafficking route which travels through Honduras and on to Guatemala. The presence, and influence, of Mexican drug cartels has steadily been rising in the area. 

The mayor of El Paraíso, Alexander Ardón, who has referred to himself as “the king of the people”, is a member of the ruling National Party. A 2011 report from the Wilson Center states that, “Ardón works with the Sinaloa Cartel,” according to “Honduran police intelligence.” The report continues:

Ardón has built a town hall that resembles the White House, complete with a heliport on the roof, and travels with 40 heavily armed bodyguards. Cameras monitor the roads leading in and out of the town, intelligence services say. And there are reports that the mayor often closes the city to outsiders for big parties that include norteña music groups flown in from Mexico.

The 2013 Elections

In the weeks prior to the election on Sunday, November 24, rights groups in Honduras began to hear about possible fraud in El Paraíso. Prior to election day, with few local observers willing to go to polling places, a number of monitors were bussed in from other cities. The human rights group COFADEH released a statement on election day (see here for testimony from an electoral observer there), reporting that:

Also this day in the town of El Paraíso in the department of Copan, about 50 people who have been designated to monitor the election tables were locked in a hotel by over 100 armed men who threatened to burn them if they left the hotel to go to the voting centers.

Another group heading to 10 voting centers succeeded in making it through the obstacles at first, but on the way there the road was blocked by two Prado SUVs with heavily armed men who proceeded to stab their vehicles' tires with knives and threatened to kill anyone who continued toward their destination.

The intimidation seems to have its desired effect. In the two elections (2001 and 2005) prior to the 2009 military coup, El Paraíso had a voter turnout of 63 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In 2013, turnout was reported to be 85 percent. According to the official results from the TSE, the National Party took 81.4 percent of the vote. Looking deeper, the results are even stranger. There were 16,135 voting tables in Honduras; the ten which showed the highest number of votes for Hernandez were all located in El Paraíso. The 81.4 percent that went to the National Party was over 11 percentage points higher than in any other city in the entire country.

Overall, in Copan, the National Party took over 47 percent of the vote, one of their highest rates in the country.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has highlighted a slowing of progress in poverty reduction in Latin America, citing “rising food costs and weaker economic growth” as contributing factors:

Poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean is now easing at a slower pace, the UN's regional economic body said on Thursday, calling on governments to make policy changes that encourage growth while reducing the huge gap between the rich and poor.

UN economists based in Santiago said about 164 million people, or 28 percent of the region's population, are still considered poor. That is nearly unchanged from last year. Out of those, 68 million of them are in extreme poverty.

But there are bright spots. ECLAC’s new “Social Panorama of Latin America” report [PDF] notes that Venezuela and Ecuador led the region in decreasing poverty in 2012:

Six of the 11 countries with information available in 2012 recorded falling poverty levels (see table 1). The largest drop was in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, where poverty fell by 5.6 percentage points (from 29.5% to 23.9%) and extreme poverty by 2.0 percentage points (from 11.7% to 9.7%). In Ecuador, poverty was down by 3.1 percentage points (from 35.3% to 32.2%) and indigence by 0.9 percentage points (from 13.8% to 12.9%).

This 5.6 percentage point decrease in Venezuela translates into a 19 percent decline in poverty overall last year, which CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot noted last month “is almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas for 2012, and one of the largest – if not the largest – in the world.” 

This dramatic decrease in poverty is likely due to the impact of two new misiones (social programmes), the Gran Misión En Amor Mayor Venezuela and the Gran Misión Hijos de Venezuela, which were, by January 2013, benefitting more than 1,400,000 people.

Monday November 25

8:30 P.M. EST: The National Lawyers Guild International Committee has released the following statement:

The National Lawyers Guild, with a delegation of 17 members who observed Sunday's elections in Honduras, will be issuing a press statement tomorrow.   In advance of that statement, the NLG International Committee wants to alert our members and other interested parties that US media and government reports of a free, fair and transparent election in Honduras are premature and inappropriate.  Such unsupported claims will only exacerbate tensions in a country that recently suffered a coup, followed by massive attacks on human rights defenders, opposition party candidates and activists that continue to this moment.  

Honduras has a flawed electoral system with many deficiencies including control of the process by political parties, unregulated and undisclosed campaign financing, and inadequate resources, training and voting facilities that disadvantage poor communities.  In addition Honduran electoral law provides for no run-off election. Without a runoff election in which a majority of voters choose leadership, the electoral aspirations of two-thirds of Honduran voters who voted for change, are frustrated, and the winner of a mere plurality is denied a real mandate.

The NLG will issue a press statement tomorrow to be followed by the delegation’s comprehensive report.

 

6:56 P.M. EST: Although the TSE has yet to announce the final results of the election, current Honduran president Porfirio Lobo has congratulated Juan Orlando Hernández on his election, reports La Prensa.

6:30 P.M. EST: The TSE continues to update their website with partial results, however a few discrepancies have emerged. The main page of the TSE website shows 61.77 percent of voting tables as having been counted, however on the results by department page, the TSE reports 57.99 percent of voting tables as having been counted. On the main page, the TSE reports a total of 15,147 voting tables while on the results by department page, the TSE reports a total of 16,135 voting tables.

The results by department page, which includes both null and blank votes, shows a total of 2,009,101 votes as having been processed. However if one adds up all the votes for each candidate as well as null and blank votes, the total is 1,928,450, a discrepancy of over 80,000 votes.

The TSE has yet to make any formal announcement today with updated results, but check the TSE website periodically for updates.

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a major address at the Organization of American States on U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he continued to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America as a partnership between “equal partners.” Kerry did not reveal any new policy changes, and his talk contained few specifics, but we can still take time to appreciate some of the contradictions in his statements.

First of all, it seems abundantly clear that the U.S. does not treat any country as its equal, especially not any Latin American country. This has been proven recently by the Obama administration’s disregard for “collateral damage” in the war on drugs and its support for the Cuba embargo despite opposition from all of the countries in Latin America, indeed all the world’s countries except Israel recently voted against the embargo at the U.N. Other examples are not hard to find.

Second, Kerry continued the U.S.’s half-acknowledgement of espionage targeting foreign citizens, leaders and companies. He incorrectly placed Latin American countries on the same side as the U.S. when he referred to “understandable concerns around the surveillance disclosures.” Actually, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have received praise for their work around U.S. government transparency – their disclosures are credited with having brought to light an issue of vital importance for international trade, sovereignty and human rights. The “understandable concerns” are about the surveillance itself. The postponement of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit was only the culmination of a long series of failures on the part of the U.S. government to offer an acceptable explanation or apology.

With Honduras’ presidential and legislative elections just around the corner (November 24), members of the U.S. Congress continue to weigh in, expressing concern over whether the process will be “free and fair,” and also decrying ongoing human rights violations. A letter from Senator Tim Kaine’s (D – VA) office, also signed by another 12 senators, warns that

Fragile institutions and a besieged judiciary have done little to punish the perpetrators of the violence, encouraging a climate of impunity and undermining citizens’ confidence that their political, civil and human rights will be protected.  Moreover, Honduran journalists are regularly the targets of violence and threats, and political candidates have been killed as a result of running for office. These challenges raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections. The United States must press the Government of Honduras to ensure the right of all its citizens to peacefully assemble, campaign and vote.

In a press release announcing the letter, Senator Kaine was quoted as saying:

“I’m very concerned by the ongoing violence in Honduras and the impact on the November 24 elections,“ said Kaine, who served as a missionary in Honduras in 1980. “We are receiving reports of threats against journalists and even assassinations of candidates.”

Emphasizing that the United States has no preferred outcome other than clean elections that win the confidence of the Honduran people, Kaine said, “only a legitimate Honduran government can work to stem the systemic violence, end criminal impunity, and create opportunities for Honduran youth.”

As we have previously noted, some 18 members of the LIBRE opposition party of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya – including candidates – have been murdered since May last year, at least as many as from all the other major political parties combined, according to a recent Rights Action report [PDF] that mostly cites Honduran media sources and human rights organizations.

A new CEPR report examines Honduras’ economy and finds that much of the economic and social progress experienced from 2006 – 2009 has been reversed in the years since. The paper shows that economic inequality in Honduras has increased dramatically since 2010, while poverty has worsened, unemployment has increased and underemployment has risen sharply, with many more workers receiving less than the minimum wage. While some of the decline was initially due to the global recession that began in 2008, much of it is a result of policy choices, including a decrease in social spending.

honduras-inequality-one-pager

Click for a larger image or check out the report, "Honduras Since the Coup: Economic and Social Indicators."

The deployment of a new military police force, an initiative first proposed by National Party candidate, and president of the National Congress Juan Orlando Hernández, has emerged as an important contextual issue in U.S. media and analysis of Honduras’ fast-approaching presidential elections. Catherine Cheney, for example, wrote recently for World Politics Review:

Last week, in the midst of a political campaign that has focused heavily on public security, authorities in Honduras deployed 1,000 military police as part of an effort to address drug violence and organized crime in this Central American country, home to the highest homicide rate in the world.

The new police force is a demonstration of a central Hernández political campaign position in response to one of the biggest issues in the elections: soaring crime rates, and Honduras’ now infamous status as the “murder capital of the world.” As Henry Tricks wrote for The Economist:

…Mr Hernández has made security the central issue, even though polls show that the economy is just as much of a concern for most citizens. In relentless publicity slots, he accuses [LIBRE presidential candidate Xiomara] Castro of wanting to demilitarise the fight against crime (she denies this, saying she wants to use the military to secure the borders against drug traffickers). In contrast, he has put his weight behind the creation of a 5,000-strong military-police force, 1,000 of which have been deployed on city streets during the campaign.

Cheney cites experts who see the militarized police force as both poorly-trained and having a misplaced focus:

[Mark Ungar, a Latin America expert and professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center] said militarizing the police is harmful to both security and human rights, and diverts attention from reforming the police. “They’re not trained for security. They don’t know how to do criminal investigation or community policing. They’re trained to shoot,” Ungar said of the military police.

On Monday, October 21, the AULA blog published by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University had a post describing “[t]he dire state of the economy” in Venezuela that contained several errors:

  1. The authors state that “The opposition estimates an annual inflation rate of 49.4 percent.”  This is actually the official inflation rate for September 2012-September 2013, from the Venezuelan Central Bank – not an opposition estimate.  It’s also a sign that the authors are not familiar with the basic economic statistics of the country that they are writing about – in this case, one that was reported in all of the major news outlets in the Western Hemisphere a couple of weeks ago.
  2. Much worse, they assert that Venezuela had “a 29.9 percent increase in the poverty rate last year.”  In fact, Venezuela’s household poverty rate declined by 20 percent last year, almost certainly the largest decline in poverty in the Americas.  (The authors cite the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, but ECLAC does not have figures for last year, and ECLAC uses the same household survey data as the Venezuelan government, so it will show the same result in poverty when it analyzes this data. The World Bank has already posted the 2012 poverty data for Venezuela, showing the sharp decline in poverty for the year.)

Since the main analysis at the beginning of the article, about an alleged struggle between “pragmatists” and “ideologues” within the government, contains no links, references, or sources, the reader is left to wonder if this narrative is also fictional.  The piece ends with speculation about a possible military coup.

It’s true that most major media outlets have reached the point where there are practically no standards for reporting on Venezuela.  But this is a blog published by a university department, so we would expect higher standards than those of, e.g. Fox News.  There are plenty of haters around; in fact the vast majority of people who write about Venezuela hate the government.  It is surprising that this blog cannot find people who are better informed to express these views, or at least hire a student as fact-checker.

Members of the U.S. Congress are keeping a close watch on Honduras’ upcoming general elections.  In June of this year, 24 U.S Senators signed a letter expressing concern about the human rights situation in Honduras and requesting that Secretary of State John Kerry “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ upcoming November 2013 elections are free, fair and peaceful.”  On October 15th three members of the House of Representatives chimed in with their own letter to Kerry stating that:

the freedom and fairness of [the November 24] election is very much at risk, as human rights abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties, opposition candidates do not enjoy a level playing field, and state security forces are taking on an increasingly central, and ominous role in context of the election.

The House letter, signed by Representatives Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Mike Honda (D-CA), noted that the U.S. Embassy in Honduras “had not spoken forcefully about the militarization of the police under the impetus of one of the candidates [or] expressed concern with the National Party’s concentration of institutional power through illegal means.”  The letter focused in particular on “the acts of violence and intimidation against leaders of opposition parties, especially members of LIBRE”, a new left-leaning political party that sprung from the movement of resistance against Honduras’ 2009 coup.  Grijalva and his three colleagues requested that the Department of State “speak forcefully” against these attacks and noted that:

According to COFADEH, Honduras' leading human rights group, at least sixteen activists and candidates from LIBRE have been assassinated since June of 2012. Furthermore, it has been brought to our attention that the Honduras government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.

A few days later Agence France Presse (AFP) published an article that included an initial, albeit anonymous, U.S. government reaction to the Grijalva letter.  Unnamed State Department officials told AFP that they were also concerned about the police militarization taking place in Honduras, in the form of the new Military Police, launched with great fanfare by National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández, in his capacity as president of the Honduran Congress.  The Military Police actually appears as one of Hernández’s five key electoral proposals on his campaign web page.  “In our view”, said one of the anonymous officials, “the creation of a military police distracts attention from civilian police reform efforts and strains limited resources.”  The State Department stated that it was not providing assistance of any kind to the new force.

The imminent Honduran presidential elections have been met with polls published by a surfeit of different polling firms. Unfortunately, however, these are notably inconsistent and show significant differences in their results. While the majority project Xiomara Castro, wife of the deposed President Zelaya, as the winner, there is a notable divergence in the size of the lead. In the scant coverage that they have given, the international press has paid almost exclusive attention to the polls conducted by the noted U.S. polling company, CID-Gallup.

Gallup has a lofty reputation in the U.S. as the first modern pollster. It accurately predicted the result of the 1936 presidential election by using modern sampling methods, and in the process destroyed the reputation of the Literary Digest poll, which had previously been considered the most accurate because of its much larger sample. This demonstrated the importance of representative sampling in order to reliably predict voting intentions. However, in Honduras, Gallup’s polling data has been divergent from actual electoral results, suggesting a bias towards the (right-wing) National Party.

This is important as Gallup is the most prolific, widely quoted and one of the longest standing pollsters in Honduras. In 2005, the last relatively free election in Honduras,1 Gallup in two separate polls predicted poll leads of 8 percent and 16 percent respectively in favor of the National Party candidate, Porfirio Lobo. These polls, coming just weeks before2 the actual election, were remarkably divergent from the actual result that Manuel Zelaya won with 45.6 percent of the vote to Lobo’s 42.2. This raises questions about the reliability of the recent poll by Gallup, paid for by the National Party controlled Congress, ahead of the coming election showing Xiomara Castro de Zelaya with a lead —within the margin of error— of just 2 percent.

On August 15, Horacio Cartes, a millionaire, businessman, and alleged drug-trafficker assumed the presidency in Paraguay, leading the Colorado Party back into power after a four-year interruption from its 61-year rule by Fernando Lugo, who was deposed last year in a “parliamentary coup.” Cartes has been investigated by the U.S. government for money laundering and drug trafficking, according to this 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

Since Cartes started his term eight weeks ago, several announcements have been made regarding Paraguay’s social and economic policy that are worth noting.

Militarization

Only a week after having taken office, Paraguay’s Congress –in which the Colorado Party has a majority in both houses– granted the president the power to deploy the military within the country to carry out policing activities. Despite opposition from human rights organizations who fear a return to dictatorship-era military operations, three days later Cartes ordered 400 military personnel to areas in which disputes over land tenure are ongoing. On August 28th the military entered an elementary school with demands to interview children on the whereabouts of suspected rebels and arrested several land rights activists and peasant leaders in the area.

The military powers granted to Cartes are especially alarming in a country that spent most of the 20th century either in political turmoil or under brutal dictatorship. The increased militarization of the Cartes regime is occurring in a context of growing discontent over public sector layoffs and privatization plans.

Nearly 17 months ago, dozens of heavily-armed Honduran and U.S. police agents carried out a pre-dawn drug interdiction operation along the Patuca River that left two women, a teenager and a young man dead and several others injured.  There is no evidence that the dead victims or the 12 other individuals traveling on the same boat – six of whom were women and six of whom were children ranging in age from two to fourteen – had any ties to drug trafficking.  The tragic incident – which Rights Action and CEPR analyzed extensively in the report “Collateral Damage of a Drug War” – left over half a dozen orphans in its wake and deeply scarred the tightly knit indigenous community of Ahuas, where the shootings took place. 

As we noted in a recent follow-up report – “Still Waiting for Justice” – the judicial investigation of the incident remains woefully incomplete and neither the injured victims nor the relatives of the deceased victims have received any sort of compensation.  Particularly troubling is the fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which played a leading role in the May 11, 2012 operation, has failed to cooperate with Honduran investigators who have sought to question the DEA agents who participated in the mission and perform forensic exams on their firearms. 

In January of this year, 58 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern about the Ahuas killings and asking for a U.S. investigation of the incident to be carried out.  A full six months later, the DEA sent the 58 members a response which made no reference to the request for an investigation and provided a description of the DEA’s role in the incident which contains significant inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims. 

CEPR has obtained a copy of this letter and is making it available online [PDF].  Here is the complete text of the paragraph of the letter that addresses the Ahuas killings:  

On May 11, 2012, the Honduran TRT, supported by DEA FAST, were recovering over 400 kilograms of cocaine when there was an exchange of gunfire between suspected drug traffickers and Honduran TRT members.  Although no injuries were confirmed nor injured persons identified immediately after the shooting, media reports and a report subsequently issued by the GOH stated that two men and two women were killed on May 11, 2012.  The GOH report also determined that neither of the female decedents was pregnant, and that no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident.  According to the DEA’s Office of Inspections’ internal review, no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident.  Contrary to media reports referenced in your letter, all operations conducted under Operation Anvil were led by the GOH, with support from DEA and DOS.  All operations are planned, coordinated and executed with input and agreement from DOS, DEA and the GOH. 

Let’s now take a closer look at the assertions that the DEA makes in this paragraph:

A new report [PDF] from Rights Action examines the conflict in Río Blanco, Honduras, where the indigenous Lenca community has been involved in a stand-off against security forces and a major development company (Desarollos Energéticos, SA, or DESA) in order to prevent the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River. The report’s release comes just a few weeks after a court ordered the arrest of one of the most prominent figures opposing the dams, Berta Cáceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), on weapons and other charges that are widely seen as bogus. Two of Berta’s colleagues, Tomás Gómez and Aureliano Molina also face charges under accusations that they “had instigated the protests” that have blocked access to the project site for over 185 days, and Amnesty International has declared that “If they are imprisoned,” the organization “will consider them prisoners of conscience.”

The case has attracted international support for COPINH, the persecuted activists, and the Lenca community of Río Blanco, with over 11,000 people having signed a MoveOn.org petition urging the U.S. government to tell the Honduran authorities to drop the bogus charges. Protests have been held in several cities in the U.S. and various Latin American countries in support of Cáceres, Gómez and Molina and the Río Blanco community. "In Honduras it is increasingly clear that those who oppose a government plan may be imprisoned," Ana Marcia Aguiluz of the Center for Justice and International Law told the Associated Press.

The Rights Action report addresses the charges against Cáceres and her colleagues, concluding that:

The public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary have aggressively and tendentiously prosecuted accusations against Lenca community members, and the human rights activists who support them.  The state has subjected human rights defenders to penal processes for actions which are simply the legitimate defense of the rights of indigenous communities.  This has led to the impending imprisonment of one of Honduras’ most recognized indigenous rights activists, Berta Caceres.

Last week, former CIA director David Petraeus coauthored a column with the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon hailing U.S. policy in Colombia as “one of the best stories on the national security front of the 21st century to date.” That same day, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stood before the United Nations in New York and recalled the more than 220,000 people who have been killed in the conflict over the past 50 years, emphasizing the “harsh and ugly reality of a conflict that [is] unfortunately, still in force.”

The juxtaposition of the two leaders’ statements points toward the U.S.’s ongoing focus on a militarized approach to the war on drugs, despite overwhelming evidence that suggests that Plan Colombia has been, according to Amnesty International, “a failure in every respect.”

Petraeus, a key driver of U.S. efforts to increase drone operations in the Middle East, touts Plan Colombia as a “success story” because of the massive increase in the size of Colombia’s armed forces and influx of new intelligence and targeting technology. Such measures for Colombia’s success remain predictably superficial, and are, moreover, divorced from the program’s stated aims to reduce cultivation and drug-related violence. While there has indeed been an increase in military presence since Plan Colombia’s inception in 2000, it has by no means been a victory for U.S. “security assistance.”

La Silla Vacía, a Colombian news and opinion website, has been publishing top ten lists with profiles and full explanations on various topics to map the “most powerful” individuals and organizations in Colombia.  For example, there have been lists describing who has the most influence in congress, in negotiating land reform and rural land rights, and in shaping public opinion (hint: the top spot goes to a former president).  Yesterday, they profiled the most influential actors in Colombia’s NGOs and civil society networks.  Topping of that list was U.S. federal government agency USAID.* 

According to foreignassistance.gov, the U.S. government is spending about $354 million this year in foreign assistance to Colombia, of which about 98 percent comes from USAID and the State Department.  This amounts to a lot of influence on public policy mainly through funding dozens of NGOs, as the article from La Silla Vacía explains.  Of course, the term “NGO” is notoriously flexible.  As we can see common conventions dictate that organizations primarily funded by foreign governments –namely the U.S. government—are be labeled NGOs. 

From interviews with six directors or former directors of NGOs and two former ministers, Juan Esteban Lewin, the piece’s author, was able to get a sense for how USAID shifts public policy discussion in Colombia.  The amount of financial resources available through USAID affects which issues Colombian NGOs work on.  As they compete with each other for funding, the NGOs end up shifting their focus to more closely match USAID’s four main working areas (three of which are related to post-conflict peace).  On the other hand, since a good part of the funds actually end up in the hands of USAID subcontractors—the article names Olgoonik Technical Services, Management Systems International and Chemonics—the money flowing into Colombian nonprofits from the U.S. government agency isn’t as large as it first appears. 

The author quotes one interviewee as saying that international funders “call the shots” and “dole out prominence to local NGOs” (“tienen la sartén por el mango y le dosifican el protagonismo a las ONG locales”).

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington last week and made a strong statement yesterday by using her speech at the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the U.S. for its illegal espionage activities in Brazil.  Currently, the U.S. government maintains that NSA information gathering is done for reasons of national security, but Rousseff argued at length that this argument “cannot be sustained” while calling for “a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet.”  President Obama, who spoke directly after her, made no reference to the NSA spy program or Latin America at all, even though it was widely expected that Dilma would bring up these issues. 

When the press reported that Rousseff had cancelled a state visit to Washington last week, many writers contextualized the decision by describing the revelations of NSA espionage in Brazil: from collecting data on millions of private communications, to hacking the networks of oil company Petrobras (majority owned by the state), and even gaining access to Dilma’s personal communications.

Other helpful context for Dilma’s decision would be the ongoing talks between her administration and the U.S. government since the news first broke of NSA activity in Brazil in early July.  Here are highlights of official meetings that show Dilma’s decision to cancel the visit came after repeated, high level communications with U.S. government representatives:

  • U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Rousseff talk over the phone for 25 minutes, and Biden offers to provide more information and technical details to Brazil, but no specific plans are reported. (7/19) 
  • U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon (now replaced by Liliana Ayalde) meets with officials at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, where Foreign Minister Figueiredo asks for “a formal written explanation… as soon as possible, this week.” (9/2)
  • Obama meets with Rousseff on the sidelines of the G20 economic summit, and afterward the Brazilian president says she wanted specifics on the spying: “I want to know everything they have.  Everything.” The Obama administration agreed to a one-week timeline for a formal response, according to Rousseff. (9/5)
  • National Security Advisor Susan Rice meets with Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, saying that the Obama administration wants to clarify the issue and has ordered a comprehensive review of the NSA. (9/11)

A new CEPR paper by economist David Rosnick examines the impact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade and investment agreement, modeled on NAFTA – could be expected to have on U.S. wages.  The TPP, which is currently being negotiated by 12 countries in Latin America, Asia, North America – as well as by Australia and New Zealand – would result in a net lowering of wages for most U.S. workers, as the inequality effect of the increased trade would outsize the miniscule economic growth projections associated with it. Latin American governments involved in TPP negotiations include Chile, Mexico and Peru, all of which already have NAFTA-style trade and investment arrangements with the U.S.

Economic growth and job creation have historically been promoted as key incentives for why countries should rush to enact such so-called “free trade” agreements. NAFTA, for example, was touted as offering tremendous economic potential to Mexico, with predictions that the country would become a “First World” nation. But Mexico’s growth – stagnant since the neoliberal era that began in the 1980’s – did not pick up following NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot and then-Research Associate Rebecca Ray noted in a paper last year:

Mexico’s economic growth since 2000 has not improved over that of the long-term failure of the previous two decades.  Its average annual per capita growth of 0.9 percent for 2000-2011 is about the same as the 0.8 percent annual rate from 1980 to 2000, and a small fraction of the 3.7 percent rate of the pre-2000 era.  

Mexico’s economy since 2000 has also performed very badly as compared with the rest of Latin America.  Its annual growth of GDP per person is less than half of the growth experienced by the rest of the region.

The impact on Mexico from the global recession – caused by the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble and bubbles in European countries – has been significant, and negative. Mexico, whose exports to the U.S. accounted for 21 percent of its GDP in 2007, suffered the worst output loss -- 9.4 percent of GDP -- in Latin America during the 2008-2009 recession. Although Mexico's growth was good in the three years of recovery since its recession, inspiring a spate of articles in the business press with high praise and hopes that 30 years of economic sacrifice had finally paid off, the economy shrank in the second quarter of this year and projections for 2013 have now been halved to a meager 1.8 percent growth.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network released its World Happiness Report for 2013 last week. Following up on the first such report, released last year, the U.N. says that the 2013 edition

delves in more detail into the analysis of the global happiness data, examining trends over time and breaking down each country’s score into its component parts, so that citizens and policy makers can understand their country’s ranking. It also draws connections to other major initiatives to measure well-being, including those conducted by the OECD and UNDP’s Human Development Report…

The World Happiness Report, as with similar such studies as the Happy Planet Index is in part a response to perceived shortcomings with traditional economic and social measures such as growth, poverty rates, employment, education, life expectancy and other indicators.

While U.S. media coverage of the report was not overwhelming, there was some. The report was also covered in numerous international outlets in countries throughout Europe, in Asia, Africa and Australia and New Zealand, among others. CNN noted that 

“On a regional basis, by far the largest gains in life evaluations in terms of the prevalence and size of the increases have been in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Sub-Saharan Africa", the report said. Reduced levels of corruption also contributed to the rise.

But CNN neglected to mention that Venezuela ranked first – again – among South American nations as happiest.