The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

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.

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El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Bordering the country are the other two nations in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region: Honduras, with the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate in 2017, and Guatemala, in sixteenth place. North of Guatemala is Mexico, where a homicide rate quintupling that of the United States puts it in nineteenth. But the United States isn’t just a bystander to this tragic violence; the majority of these homicides are firearm-related, and 70 percent of guns seized from criminals in Mexico traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) come from the US. Almost 41 percent of guns seized in the Northern Triangle originate in the US, including almost half the guns in El Salvador.

The astonishing violence in Central America is a major root cause of forced migration to the US from the region. US guns play a clear role in fueling the crisis. A few of these weapons originated from US military shipments to militaries and paramilitaries in the region during the Cold War. Most modern traffic to cartels and gangs occurs through the black market, with US residents legally purchasing firearms here and then illegally transporting them south. Harry Penate — at the time the only ATF official responsible for US arms tracing in all of Central America — gave one example of a gun bought at a licensed gun store in Baltimore being recovered from criminals in El Salvador less than a week later.

But not all US guns come through the black market. US gun manufacturers regularly export guns to foreign buyers legally through a weak and underenforced regulatory system, often allowing guns to wind up in the hands of organized crime. The Trump administration has recently published regulations that will make the system even weaker. This will not only put profits before lives in Central America, but is likely to worsen the drivers of the very migrant flows Trump viciously opposes.

The current system of arms exports was established by the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and oversaw $45.4 billion in sales from 2013 to 2017. US gun sellers must register with the State Department and provide detailed information about their sales, including the ultimate recipients (“end users”) of the weapons. The State Department must approve any further transfer of the weapons to new end users, and US Embassies are responsible for ensuring the guns wind up in the correct hands. The State Department notifies Congress of any sales over a million dollars, and Congress has the ability to block deals through an informal process. In recent years, Congress has blocked large weapons sales to state security forces in the Philippines and Turkey over human rights concerns.

Though this system is tough in theory, insufficient enforcement has proven it to be weak in practice. When the State Department’s inspector general audited the process last year, examining 21 approved applications for arms sales, 95 percent were missing required information, including 62 percent that lacked sufficient end-use information.

In spite of this, the gun industry has long pushed for a further loosening of the system. Even the Obama administration (which itself sold twice as many arms to foreign governments as the Bush administration) bragged that they made steps toward deregulating private arms exports, but then abandoned plans for a full overhaul in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. The pressure to weaken the system likely grew under President Trump, as domestic gun sales have dropped significantly during his tenure due to collectors’ and enthusiasts’ reduced expectations of gun control laws. Thus, the Trump administration has decided to make up for gun companies’ losses at home through greater exports, issuing a rule in late January similar to the Obama administration’s original proposal to overhaul the current system for the worse.

Under the new rule, the regulatory system will be transferred from the State Department to Commerce with the aim of “reducing the procedural burdens and costs of export compliance on the U.S. firearms industry…” Under this system, US arms sellers will face far less scrutiny during the licensing process for most weapons, especially since the Commerce Department does not have access to the State Department lists of which arms dealers have been involved in suspicious or criminal transactions before. Worse, the number of countries with license exceptions for arms exports will expand from three close allies to 37 nations. Congress’s ability to review and block certain arms sales will also be eliminated.

Arms exports recipients will no longer be required to issue written certification that they won’t give the weapons to someone else without authorization, and the system for end-user verification will be gutted: rather than embassy staff, this will be export control officers’ (ECOs) responsibility. Despite that over 40 percent of all checks by the State Department are in the Western Hemisphere, there is not a single ECO responsible for verifying arms sales recipients in this half of the world, and there don’t appear to be any plans to hire any.

In other words, the new rules make it substantially easier to export arms abroad, and in Latin American countries where US guns already contribute to some of the highest murder rates in the world, there appear to be no US government staffers responsible for verifying weapons wind up in the right hands.

The consequences could be enormous. It would still be concerning if all private weapons sales went to state security forces in the region, seeing as such sales have already enabled human rights abuses: US gun companies have sold weapons to Mexico and Honduras that went on to be used in police massacres of civilians. But these new rules won’t just facilitate weapons sales to violent governments; they will make it much easier for cartels and gangs to get their hands on US guns as well.

Though weapons are sometimes stolen, the most common way that criminal organizations acquire legally exported weapons is more straightforward: they buy them from corrupt military or police officials. Salvadoran soldiers have been caught selling rocket launchers to the Milenio Cartel, and in a separate incident trying to sell off over 1,800 hand grenades. An illegal weapons cache en route to Colombia that was seized in Honduras in 2004 included rifles, grenade launchers, and anti-tank rocket launchers “as fresh as if they just left the factory, all US-made,” according to Honduras’ minister of security. The Honduran attorney general’s office estimates that 20 percent of the arms it seized from the Valle Valle criminal organization in 2014 were purchased from the military’s armory. From 2006 to 2017, more than 20,000 weapons belonging to the Mexican police were stolen or went missing. In Guerrero, the Mexican state estimated to have the second-highest number of “organized-crime-style homicides” in 2018, almost a fifth of the weapons acquired by state police from 2010 to 2016 vanished.

Some experts have alleged that Mexican state security forces intentionally fail to keep an accurate weapons inventory so that corrupt soldiers and officials can sell them off. In Honduras, the ATF has noted that Honduran law “is silent on pertinent inventory control provisions for the public security forces.” A former Honduran military official commented that stealing military ammunition at training sessions or shooting ranges for resale is easy: “You sign out with 10,000 rounds and use 5,000. Who is going to know what you do with the other 5,000?” Under a new regulatory regime in which end-use verification is even less viable, the amount of US arms and munitions going to organized crime could rise dramatically.

By making it easier for the gun industry to export arms, the US government is expanding access to those arms for both violent state security forces and criminal organizations in Mexico and Central America. In doing so, it will worsen violence in the region and contribute to the deteriorating humanitarian situation driving forced migration to the United States — the same refugee and migrant flows that Donald Trump has positioned his entire presidency around stopping. Alejandra Martínez, an activist in her early twenties who was shot at by police using American M4 rifles during a 2017 protest in Honduras, told the Miami Herald at the time: “We know that the guns come from the United States. These guns have no business in Honduras. They should stay in the United States. They are sending them to Honduras to kill us.” The next year, she joined a migrant caravan heading north toward the United States, saying, “If I return to Honduras they’ll kill me.”

The consequences of the new policy don’t seem to matter to the Trump administration (which did not consult arms trade experts about it), nor to American gun makers. The firearms industry lobby, which has estimated that the new system could increase their foreign gun sales by up to 20 percent, bragged that the Trump administration began moving on the rules the same day they flew in to Washington to meet with more than 70 members of Congress. When the new rules were posted, the group’s senior VP for government relations and public affairs said, “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry. We salute the Trump administration…” Likewise, the NRA complained that the old system involved “national and international security considerations trumping all other factors,” while the new one would give “American businesses who manufacture consumer products a larger footprint in international markets,” supposedly without harming national security. The US government seems to tacitly acknowledge the violence it is enabling abroad, however. It is notable that all of the weapons that the Trump administration is making easier to export will still remain on strict import control lists, meaning that the US considers the weapons dangerous when they’re coming here, but not when they’re going elsewhere.

The Trump administration’s new rules on arms exports are aimed at enriching the firearms industry at the expense of human lives around the world, especially in Mexico and Central America, where the likely absence of enforcement will put more weapons into the hands of both state security forces and criminal organizations known for massacring civilians. Congress should pass Rep. Norma Torres’ proposed Prevent Crime and Terrorism Act of 2019 to reverse the new deregulatory scheme before it takes effect on March 9, and indeed should take steps to strengthen the existing arms export control system to ensure that US guns don’t further destabilize what is already one of the most violent regions on Earth.

El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Bordering the country are the other two nations in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region: Honduras, with the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate in 2017, and Guatemala, in sixteenth place. North of Guatemala is Mexico, where a homicide rate quintupling that of the United States puts it in nineteenth. But the United States isn’t just a bystander to this tragic violence; the majority of these homicides are firearm-related, and 70 percent of guns seized from criminals in Mexico traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) come from the US. Almost 41 percent of guns seized in the Northern Triangle originate in the US, including almost half the guns in El Salvador.

The astonishing violence in Central America is a major root cause of forced migration to the US from the region. US guns play a clear role in fueling the crisis. A few of these weapons originated from US military shipments to militaries and paramilitaries in the region during the Cold War. Most modern traffic to cartels and gangs occurs through the black market, with US residents legally purchasing firearms here and then illegally transporting them south. Harry Penate — at the time the only ATF official responsible for US arms tracing in all of Central America — gave one example of a gun bought at a licensed gun store in Baltimore being recovered from criminals in El Salvador less than a week later.

But not all US guns come through the black market. US gun manufacturers regularly export guns to foreign buyers legally through a weak and underenforced regulatory system, often allowing guns to wind up in the hands of organized crime. The Trump administration has recently published regulations that will make the system even weaker. This will not only put profits before lives in Central America, but is likely to worsen the drivers of the very migrant flows Trump viciously opposes.

The current system of arms exports was established by the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and oversaw $45.4 billion in sales from 2013 to 2017. US gun sellers must register with the State Department and provide detailed information about their sales, including the ultimate recipients (“end users”) of the weapons. The State Department must approve any further transfer of the weapons to new end users, and US Embassies are responsible for ensuring the guns wind up in the correct hands. The State Department notifies Congress of any sales over a million dollars, and Congress has the ability to block deals through an informal process. In recent years, Congress has blocked large weapons sales to state security forces in the Philippines and Turkey over human rights concerns.

Though this system is tough in theory, insufficient enforcement has proven it to be weak in practice. When the State Department’s inspector general audited the process last year, examining 21 approved applications for arms sales, 95 percent were missing required information, including 62 percent that lacked sufficient end-use information.

In spite of this, the gun industry has long pushed for a further loosening of the system. Even the Obama administration (which itself sold twice as many arms to foreign governments as the Bush administration) bragged that they made steps toward deregulating private arms exports, but then abandoned plans for a full overhaul in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. The pressure to weaken the system likely grew under President Trump, as domestic gun sales have dropped significantly during his tenure due to collectors’ and enthusiasts’ reduced expectations of gun control laws. Thus, the Trump administration has decided to make up for gun companies’ losses at home through greater exports, issuing a rule in late January similar to the Obama administration’s original proposal to overhaul the current system for the worse.

Under the new rule, the regulatory system will be transferred from the State Department to Commerce with the aim of “reducing the procedural burdens and costs of export compliance on the U.S. firearms industry…” Under this system, US arms sellers will face far less scrutiny during the licensing process for most weapons, especially since the Commerce Department does not have access to the State Department lists of which arms dealers have been involved in suspicious or criminal transactions before. Worse, the number of countries with license exceptions for arms exports will expand from three close allies to 37 nations. Congress’s ability to review and block certain arms sales will also be eliminated.

Arms exports recipients will no longer be required to issue written certification that they won’t give the weapons to someone else without authorization, and the system for end-user verification will be gutted: rather than embassy staff, this will be export control officers’ (ECOs) responsibility. Despite that over 40 percent of all checks by the State Department are in the Western Hemisphere, there is not a single ECO responsible for verifying arms sales recipients in this half of the world, and there don’t appear to be any plans to hire any.

In other words, the new rules make it substantially easier to export arms abroad, and in Latin American countries where US guns already contribute to some of the highest murder rates in the world, there appear to be no US government staffers responsible for verifying weapons wind up in the right hands.

The consequences could be enormous. It would still be concerning if all private weapons sales went to state security forces in the region, seeing as such sales have already enabled human rights abuses: US gun companies have sold weapons to Mexico and Honduras that went on to be used in police massacres of civilians. But these new rules won’t just facilitate weapons sales to violent governments; they will make it much easier for cartels and gangs to get their hands on US guns as well.

Though weapons are sometimes stolen, the most common way that criminal organizations acquire legally exported weapons is more straightforward: they buy them from corrupt military or police officials. Salvadoran soldiers have been caught selling rocket launchers to the Milenio Cartel, and in a separate incident trying to sell off over 1,800 hand grenades. An illegal weapons cache en route to Colombia that was seized in Honduras in 2004 included rifles, grenade launchers, and anti-tank rocket launchers “as fresh as if they just left the factory, all US-made,” according to Honduras’ minister of security. The Honduran attorney general’s office estimates that 20 percent of the arms it seized from the Valle Valle criminal organization in 2014 were purchased from the military’s armory. From 2006 to 2017, more than 20,000 weapons belonging to the Mexican police were stolen or went missing. In Guerrero, the Mexican state estimated to have the second-highest number of “organized-crime-style homicides” in 2018, almost a fifth of the weapons acquired by state police from 2010 to 2016 vanished.

Some experts have alleged that Mexican state security forces intentionally fail to keep an accurate weapons inventory so that corrupt soldiers and officials can sell them off. In Honduras, the ATF has noted that Honduran law “is silent on pertinent inventory control provisions for the public security forces.” A former Honduran military official commented that stealing military ammunition at training sessions or shooting ranges for resale is easy: “You sign out with 10,000 rounds and use 5,000. Who is going to know what you do with the other 5,000?” Under a new regulatory regime in which end-use verification is even less viable, the amount of US arms and munitions going to organized crime could rise dramatically.

By making it easier for the gun industry to export arms, the US government is expanding access to those arms for both violent state security forces and criminal organizations in Mexico and Central America. In doing so, it will worsen violence in the region and contribute to the deteriorating humanitarian situation driving forced migration to the United States — the same refugee and migrant flows that Donald Trump has positioned his entire presidency around stopping. Alejandra Martínez, an activist in her early twenties who was shot at by police using American M4 rifles during a 2017 protest in Honduras, told the Miami Herald at the time: “We know that the guns come from the United States. These guns have no business in Honduras. They should stay in the United States. They are sending them to Honduras to kill us.” The next year, she joined a migrant caravan heading north toward the United States, saying, “If I return to Honduras they’ll kill me.”

The consequences of the new policy don’t seem to matter to the Trump administration (which did not consult arms trade experts about it), nor to American gun makers. The firearms industry lobby, which has estimated that the new system could increase their foreign gun sales by up to 20 percent, bragged that the Trump administration began moving on the rules the same day they flew in to Washington to meet with more than 70 members of Congress. When the new rules were posted, the group’s senior VP for government relations and public affairs said, “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry. We salute the Trump administration…” Likewise, the NRA complained that the old system involved “national and international security considerations trumping all other factors,” while the new one would give “American businesses who manufacture consumer products a larger footprint in international markets,” supposedly without harming national security. The US government seems to tacitly acknowledge the violence it is enabling abroad, however. It is notable that all of the weapons that the Trump administration is making easier to export will still remain on strict import control lists, meaning that the US considers the weapons dangerous when they’re coming here, but not when they’re going elsewhere.

The Trump administration’s new rules on arms exports are aimed at enriching the firearms industry at the expense of human lives around the world, especially in Mexico and Central America, where the likely absence of enforcement will put more weapons into the hands of both state security forces and criminal organizations known for massacring civilians. Congress should pass Rep. Norma Torres’ proposed Prevent Crime and Terrorism Act of 2019 to reverse the new deregulatory scheme before it takes effect on March 9, and indeed should take steps to strengthen the existing arms export control system to ensure that US guns don’t further destabilize what is already one of the most violent regions on Earth.

Originally posted on Jacobin.

Last October, Bolivia held a presidential election that pitted incumbent Evo Morales against former president Carlos Mesa. Morales, a socialist that had been in power since 2006, was popular and successful, although his reelection bid was marred by a contentious decision to scrap presidential term limits. Many in the opposition had promised they wouldn’t recognize the results if Morales won.

On election day, as tallies trickled in and the election commission reported results from the unofficial “quick count,” Mesa preemptively declared victory, claiming that he had forced a second round of voting. (Presidential candidates in Bolivia must capture 50 percent of the vote, or must receive at least 40 percent of the vote and lead the second-place candidate by at least ten percentage points, in order to win outright.) Controversially, the election commission then stopped reporting voting tallies for the night. The outcome was up in the air.

Sound familiar?

Along with the suspension of results, both the Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa and the presidential election in Bolivia faced geographic challenges (there were more than 1,600 precincts in Iowa and 5,300 in Bolivia, many of them rural) as well as technological hurdles (using smartphone apps to record results requires technical familiarity and internet access). Security concerns in each election caused administrative delays, although in Bolivia the delay was briefer, and the official count — entirely separate from the quick count and tabulated in person — was not affected by the suspension.

One thing, however, is entirely different: Morales was overthrown in a violent coup, with the full backing of the United States. The worst that could happen in Iowa is the state losing its first-in-the-nation status — and even that’s unlikely.

In Bolivia, the electoral authorities restarted their quick count the day after the election, showing Morales’s lead increasing to over ten percentage points. The jump was in line with the previous trends in results, but the Organization of American States (OAS), which was observing the contest, criticized the “drastic” change-in-trend, implying that fraud had taken place. Even though Morales, the outright victor based on the official count, agreed to a second-round election, he was eventually forced out of office at the behest of the military.

The United States played a significant role in legitimizing the putsch. While the OAS has still failed to provide evidence of fraud, US politicians have congratulated the OAS on its work and quickly normalized relations with the de facto government. Led by Jeanine Áñez, the new government has repressed those associated with Morales and his party in the run-up to new elections.

It’s clear that US elites have double standards for elections based on where they take place and who is winning. If the country is Venezuela or Haiti or Bolivia, and undesirable candidates are leading, the United States can throw out the results or declare whoever they want as president with little justification. If a US ally steals an election, as happened in 2017 in Honduras, the “winner” can stay the winner.

And how about the United States itself, a country that bills itself as a champion of democracy abroad? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and undemocratic rules are now common elements of the electoral landscape. Overturning an election result, which happened in Florida in 2000, is not unheard of. In 2016, the candidate who came in second in the popular vote was inaugurated president. And while these problems are often to the detriment of Democrats, Democratic elites don’t seem to be too invested in solving them, even for their own nominating process (recent energy has been focused on stopping supposed Russian interference in elections, for example).

The ongoing Iowa caucus debacle illustrates quite a few things: the corruption and waste in the Democratic Party, the hubris around voting systems and security, and the backwardness of the US presidential nominating process. But perhaps above all it shows how voting is selectively weaponized by US elites: against left-wing candidates, against poor and working-class voters.

In Iowa, party leaders refuse to jettison a system that performed abominably and gave center stage to an undeserving, self-declared winner. Yet in Bolivia and other targets of imperialism, US elites are happy to seize on electoral hiccups — and use them to install more favorable, pro-US governments whole cloth.

Originally posted on Jacobin.

Last October, Bolivia held a presidential election that pitted incumbent Evo Morales against former president Carlos Mesa. Morales, a socialist that had been in power since 2006, was popular and successful, although his reelection bid was marred by a contentious decision to scrap presidential term limits. Many in the opposition had promised they wouldn’t recognize the results if Morales won.

On election day, as tallies trickled in and the election commission reported results from the unofficial “quick count,” Mesa preemptively declared victory, claiming that he had forced a second round of voting. (Presidential candidates in Bolivia must capture 50 percent of the vote, or must receive at least 40 percent of the vote and lead the second-place candidate by at least ten percentage points, in order to win outright.) Controversially, the election commission then stopped reporting voting tallies for the night. The outcome was up in the air.

Sound familiar?

Along with the suspension of results, both the Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa and the presidential election in Bolivia faced geographic challenges (there were more than 1,600 precincts in Iowa and 5,300 in Bolivia, many of them rural) as well as technological hurdles (using smartphone apps to record results requires technical familiarity and internet access). Security concerns in each election caused administrative delays, although in Bolivia the delay was briefer, and the official count — entirely separate from the quick count and tabulated in person — was not affected by the suspension.

One thing, however, is entirely different: Morales was overthrown in a violent coup, with the full backing of the United States. The worst that could happen in Iowa is the state losing its first-in-the-nation status — and even that’s unlikely.

In Bolivia, the electoral authorities restarted their quick count the day after the election, showing Morales’s lead increasing to over ten percentage points. The jump was in line with the previous trends in results, but the Organization of American States (OAS), which was observing the contest, criticized the “drastic” change-in-trend, implying that fraud had taken place. Even though Morales, the outright victor based on the official count, agreed to a second-round election, he was eventually forced out of office at the behest of the military.

The United States played a significant role in legitimizing the putsch. While the OAS has still failed to provide evidence of fraud, US politicians have congratulated the OAS on its work and quickly normalized relations with the de facto government. Led by Jeanine Áñez, the new government has repressed those associated with Morales and his party in the run-up to new elections.

It’s clear that US elites have double standards for elections based on where they take place and who is winning. If the country is Venezuela or Haiti or Bolivia, and undesirable candidates are leading, the United States can throw out the results or declare whoever they want as president with little justification. If a US ally steals an election, as happened in 2017 in Honduras, the “winner” can stay the winner.

And how about the United States itself, a country that bills itself as a champion of democracy abroad? Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and undemocratic rules are now common elements of the electoral landscape. Overturning an election result, which happened in Florida in 2000, is not unheard of. In 2016, the candidate who came in second in the popular vote was inaugurated president. And while these problems are often to the detriment of Democrats, Democratic elites don’t seem to be too invested in solving them, even for their own nominating process (recent energy has been focused on stopping supposed Russian interference in elections, for example).

The ongoing Iowa caucus debacle illustrates quite a few things: the corruption and waste in the Democratic Party, the hubris around voting systems and security, and the backwardness of the US presidential nominating process. But perhaps above all it shows how voting is selectively weaponized by US elites: against left-wing candidates, against poor and working-class voters.

In Iowa, party leaders refuse to jettison a system that performed abominably and gave center stage to an undeserving, self-declared winner. Yet in Bolivia and other targets of imperialism, US elites are happy to seize on electoral hiccups — and use them to install more favorable, pro-US governments whole cloth.

Foreign policy, an area very much in the hands of the executive branch, has afforded Bolivia´s de facto president Jeanine Añez, who does not behold a parliamentary majority, an ideal outlet for her radical program. Within days of taking power, the Añez government had cut off relations with Venezuela, expelled its diplomatic staff, recognized instead the self-proclaimed government of Juan Guaidó, and swiftly abandoned the ALBA group of states to join its right-wing counterweight, the Group of Lima. Bolivia soon reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel and rekindled close ties with the United States that had been seriously eroded since the US ambassador to Bolivia had been caught having secret meetings with key opposition figures in the midst of a violent separatist movement aimed at ousting Morales’s government in 2008.

Añez, a little-known senator whose party obtained a mere 4 percent of the vote in the last legislative elections, was ushered in after a coup toppled democratically elected president Evo Morales on November 10. It was soon clear that her lack of democratic legitimacy would not stop her from behaving as if she had a popular mandate to lead the country into a new era. She refused to personify the role of the prudent caretaker (as pro-coup spin termed it) seeking to guarantee the functioning of institutions required for the holding of elections in the shortest delay possible; and chose instead to rule.

After repeatedly pledging not to run in the elections, Añez finally announced her candidacy on January 24. Presidential candidates Carlos Mesa and Jorge Quiroga, among others in the Bolivian elite establishment, have expressed their disgruntlement with Añez’s change of heart. Her presence on the ballot will further divide the right in the context of an overcrowded race in which the candidates of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party, are front-runners. Supporters of the November coup, both inside and outside Bolivia, are concerned that Añez’s political ambitions discredit the argument that the coup plotters were selfless political actors, dedicated to the cause of “democratization” and not their own aggrandizement.

The Internationalization of Domestic Politics

In Bolivia’s conservative restoration, there is an inseparable connection between foreign policy and the domestic persecution of the MAS and its leadership. The coup government seeks to arrest Morales on charges of “terrorism” and “sedition.” Dozens of Morales government officials and MAS leaders have either fled the country, sought asylum in diplomatic missions, or have been arrested. Within 24 hours of the MAS announcing that its presidential candidate would be former finance minister Luis Arce, the de facto government announced “corruption” charges against Arce, and when he returned to Bolivia last week he was subpoenaed before even getting through airport immigration. A former minister and vice minister, to whom the Bolivian Foreign Ministry had granted safe passage so they could leave the Mexican embassy, proceed to the airport, and leave the country, were detained and manhandled. Only an international outcry denouncing this extraordinary violation of international law ― and the astonishing duplicity of granting asylees safe passage before detaining them once out of their diplomatic sanctuary ― finally led the Bolivian government to let them go.

The man in charge of this resurgence of the “internal war” ― Latin America’s infamous national security doctrine of the military dictatorships of the 1960s and ‘70s ― is Interior Minister Arturo Murillo. Murillo makes no secret of his international alliances to root out subversives and terrorists: “We have invited [the Israelis] to help us. They are used to dealing with terrorists. They know how to handle them.”

As for the widespread denunciations of human rights abuses that have resulted from such an approach, they are, for Patricio Aparicio, Añez’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, simply “lies and falsehoods.” Aparicio labeled the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and its denunciation of the Senkata massacre, merely the result of the workings of “consultants and operators from a certain type of international leftism, implanted in many inter-American institutions, who are not interested in the truth.”

In line with denying human rights violations, the Añez government has lashed out at governments taking a proactive stance to protect Bolivian victims of abuses. Jorge Quiroga, Añez’s “international representative” ― who finally resigned in January to launch his own presidential bid ― called Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador a “coward,” a “thug” and a “scoundrel” for having granted Morales asylum. Far from disavowing her representative’s frankness, within a week of Quiroga’s flowery insults, Añez expelled the Mexican ambassador as well as the Spanish chargé d’affaires and consul for their governments’ roles in protecting former Bolivian officials from persecution.

Añez’s next dispute was with the new left-leaning government of Argentina, where Morales currently lives in exile. There was more than a touch of irony when Añez, a president ushered in through a coup, publicly decried that Alberto Fernández, the democratically elected president of Argentina, “has no respect for democracy” on the day he took the oath of office.

A friendly neighbor

The international context has played a decisive role in bolstering Añez’s crusade against the Left. The Brazilian government, for one, has provided much support and encouragement. The Israeli foreign minister confirmed Brazil’s influence when he acknowledged “the help of the Brazilian president [Jair Bolsonaro] and [his] minister of foreign affairs” in the reestablishment of Israel’s relations with Bolivia, and, naturally, the importance of the coup: “The departure of President Morales, who was hostile to Israel, and his replacement by a government friendly to Israel, allows the fruition of the process.”

Notwithstanding the issue of Israel, it is clear that the Brazilian president is delighted with developments in neighboring Bolivia. Whereas Bolsonaro is a Catholic who was supported by Brazil’s many conservative evangelical churches in the 2018 elections, Añez is, in fact, the real thing: a devout hard-right evangelist with no love for progressive issues or for Latin America’s historic separation of church and state.

Bolsonaro has tried to help Añez in a number of ways, including easing rules for Brazilian imports of Bolivian natural gas. In December 2019, Petrobras’s 20-year-old contract with YPFB, Bolivia’s state-owned oil and gas company, expired. The negotiations taking place in the context of fast-declining Brazilian demand for Bolivian gas had been at a standstill before the coup. By December, however, Petrobras had made a temporary deal with YPFB, which gave the Bolivian government some much-needed slack until a more long-term contract is finalized. In January, the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy went further; granting the YPFB affiliate in Brazil the right to import and sell gas on the Brazilian market, in line with Bolsonaro’s broader effort to put an end to Petrobras’s monopoly over gas imports in Brazil. While caps on the quantity of freely traded Bolivian gas will remain, the ceiling is to grow steadily on a yearly basis.

The Break with Cuba

Brazil has also led by example. By breaking foreign policy taboos, by using provocative language, and by going against the mainstream liberal consensus and denouncing multilateralism as “cultural Marxism,” Bolsonaro, like Trump, makes it easier for smaller states to emulate his extreme behavior and policies. Brazil’s bombastic, rhetorically charged deterioration of relations with Cuba is a good example. When Bolsonaro attacked Cuba’s “More Doctors” program and claimed there were “a lot of terrorists among them” ― resulting in Cuba withdrawing over 8,000 medical doctors from Brazil ― he paved the way for other countries to take similar actions. In November 2019, both Ecuador and Bolivia put an end to their health cooperation with the island and Cuban doctors were repatriated from both Andean countries by year’s end.

In 2019, Brazil was one of three countries to side in favor of the US embargo on Cuba at the annual UN General Assembly vote. In doing so, the Bolsonaro government broke with Brazil’s historic multilateralist tradition and long-held opposition to US economic coercion against the island. Añez, however, took matters one step further: on January 24, 2020, the Bolivian government announced that it was cutting off diplomatic relations. Bolivia is now the only country in the Western Hemisphere that does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, and one of only three in the world (along with South Korea and Israel).

For decades, Cuba has sought to steer away from old Cold War diplomatic rifts. Not one to shy away from speaking out when it feels wronged or when close allies are threatened or overthrown, the Cuban government has nevertheless cultivated a cautious approach to potential detractors. Bolivia’s breaking off relations with Cuba seems to have resurfaced from another age.

Even the Trump administration, which has resuscitated Title III of the Helms Burton Law to pile more economic pressure on the island, has not yet swept aside the diplomatic relations with Cuba established under its predecessor. This is not to say, however, that Bolivia’s maverick approach to the Left in Latin America is not heartily encouraged in Washington. The influence of Marco Rubio on all things Latin American and the calculations ― or miscalculations ― of Trump’s presidential campaign keep fueling the US administration’s ever more aggressive stance toward the region. Ultimately, Bolivia’s Cold War-era politics is a leap back into a dark, undemocratic past which fits snuggly with Trump’s Monroeist vision of Latin America’s “backyard” role in the international system.

In recent days, Añez’s foreign minister, Karen Longaric, was warmly received by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro followed suit, and Longaric celebrated his “crucial role in the defense of democracy and the rule of law” and formally offered him Bolivia’s backing in his reelection bid at the head of the organization. The OAS was key in undermining the October 2019 elections and in bolstering a flawed narrative of fraudulent elections that greatly contributed to Morales’s overthrow. Longaric then gave a presentation at the Inter-American Dialogue on the importance of espousing a nonideological foreign policy. That afternoon, relations with Cuba were broken. At the event, Longaric was not confronted with uncomfortable questions.

From unlikely caretaker emerging from obscurity, to presidential candidate with a growing set of international allies, Añez has successfully made her zealous foreign policy a stalwart of her political strategy. In a regional and international context in which far-right extremism, far from being isolated, has become politically profitable, it is no wonder that Jeanine Añez should feel so emboldened.

Foreign policy, an area very much in the hands of the executive branch, has afforded Bolivia´s de facto president Jeanine Añez, who does not behold a parliamentary majority, an ideal outlet for her radical program. Within days of taking power, the Añez government had cut off relations with Venezuela, expelled its diplomatic staff, recognized instead the self-proclaimed government of Juan Guaidó, and swiftly abandoned the ALBA group of states to join its right-wing counterweight, the Group of Lima. Bolivia soon reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel and rekindled close ties with the United States that had been seriously eroded since the US ambassador to Bolivia had been caught having secret meetings with key opposition figures in the midst of a violent separatist movement aimed at ousting Morales’s government in 2008.

Añez, a little-known senator whose party obtained a mere 4 percent of the vote in the last legislative elections, was ushered in after a coup toppled democratically elected president Evo Morales on November 10. It was soon clear that her lack of democratic legitimacy would not stop her from behaving as if she had a popular mandate to lead the country into a new era. She refused to personify the role of the prudent caretaker (as pro-coup spin termed it) seeking to guarantee the functioning of institutions required for the holding of elections in the shortest delay possible; and chose instead to rule.

After repeatedly pledging not to run in the elections, Añez finally announced her candidacy on January 24. Presidential candidates Carlos Mesa and Jorge Quiroga, among others in the Bolivian elite establishment, have expressed their disgruntlement with Añez’s change of heart. Her presence on the ballot will further divide the right in the context of an overcrowded race in which the candidates of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’s political party, are front-runners. Supporters of the November coup, both inside and outside Bolivia, are concerned that Añez’s political ambitions discredit the argument that the coup plotters were selfless political actors, dedicated to the cause of “democratization” and not their own aggrandizement.

The Internationalization of Domestic Politics

In Bolivia’s conservative restoration, there is an inseparable connection between foreign policy and the domestic persecution of the MAS and its leadership. The coup government seeks to arrest Morales on charges of “terrorism” and “sedition.” Dozens of Morales government officials and MAS leaders have either fled the country, sought asylum in diplomatic missions, or have been arrested. Within 24 hours of the MAS announcing that its presidential candidate would be former finance minister Luis Arce, the de facto government announced “corruption” charges against Arce, and when he returned to Bolivia last week he was subpoenaed before even getting through airport immigration. A former minister and vice minister, to whom the Bolivian Foreign Ministry had granted safe passage so they could leave the Mexican embassy, proceed to the airport, and leave the country, were detained and manhandled. Only an international outcry denouncing this extraordinary violation of international law ― and the astonishing duplicity of granting asylees safe passage before detaining them once out of their diplomatic sanctuary ― finally led the Bolivian government to let them go.

The man in charge of this resurgence of the “internal war” ― Latin America’s infamous national security doctrine of the military dictatorships of the 1960s and ‘70s ― is Interior Minister Arturo Murillo. Murillo makes no secret of his international alliances to root out subversives and terrorists: “We have invited [the Israelis] to help us. They are used to dealing with terrorists. They know how to handle them.”

As for the widespread denunciations of human rights abuses that have resulted from such an approach, they are, for Patricio Aparicio, Añez’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, simply “lies and falsehoods.” Aparicio labeled the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and its denunciation of the Senkata massacre, merely the result of the workings of “consultants and operators from a certain type of international leftism, implanted in many inter-American institutions, who are not interested in the truth.”

In line with denying human rights violations, the Añez government has lashed out at governments taking a proactive stance to protect Bolivian victims of abuses. Jorge Quiroga, Añez’s “international representative” ― who finally resigned in January to launch his own presidential bid ― called Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador a “coward,” a “thug” and a “scoundrel” for having granted Morales asylum. Far from disavowing her representative’s frankness, within a week of Quiroga’s flowery insults, Añez expelled the Mexican ambassador as well as the Spanish chargé d’affaires and consul for their governments’ roles in protecting former Bolivian officials from persecution.

Añez’s next dispute was with the new left-leaning government of Argentina, where Morales currently lives in exile. There was more than a touch of irony when Añez, a president ushered in through a coup, publicly decried that Alberto Fernández, the democratically elected president of Argentina, “has no respect for democracy” on the day he took the oath of office.

A friendly neighbor

The international context has played a decisive role in bolstering Añez’s crusade against the Left. The Brazilian government, for one, has provided much support and encouragement. The Israeli foreign minister confirmed Brazil’s influence when he acknowledged “the help of the Brazilian president [Jair Bolsonaro] and [his] minister of foreign affairs” in the reestablishment of Israel’s relations with Bolivia, and, naturally, the importance of the coup: “The departure of President Morales, who was hostile to Israel, and his replacement by a government friendly to Israel, allows the fruition of the process.”

Notwithstanding the issue of Israel, it is clear that the Brazilian president is delighted with developments in neighboring Bolivia. Whereas Bolsonaro is a Catholic who was supported by Brazil’s many conservative evangelical churches in the 2018 elections, Añez is, in fact, the real thing: a devout hard-right evangelist with no love for progressive issues or for Latin America’s historic separation of church and state.

Bolsonaro has tried to help Añez in a number of ways, including easing rules for Brazilian imports of Bolivian natural gas. In December 2019, Petrobras’s 20-year-old contract with YPFB, Bolivia’s state-owned oil and gas company, expired. The negotiations taking place in the context of fast-declining Brazilian demand for Bolivian gas had been at a standstill before the coup. By December, however, Petrobras had made a temporary deal with YPFB, which gave the Bolivian government some much-needed slack until a more long-term contract is finalized. In January, the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy went further; granting the YPFB affiliate in Brazil the right to import and sell gas on the Brazilian market, in line with Bolsonaro’s broader effort to put an end to Petrobras’s monopoly over gas imports in Brazil. While caps on the quantity of freely traded Bolivian gas will remain, the ceiling is to grow steadily on a yearly basis.

The Break with Cuba

Brazil has also led by example. By breaking foreign policy taboos, by using provocative language, and by going against the mainstream liberal consensus and denouncing multilateralism as “cultural Marxism,” Bolsonaro, like Trump, makes it easier for smaller states to emulate his extreme behavior and policies. Brazil’s bombastic, rhetorically charged deterioration of relations with Cuba is a good example. When Bolsonaro attacked Cuba’s “More Doctors” program and claimed there were “a lot of terrorists among them” ― resulting in Cuba withdrawing over 8,000 medical doctors from Brazil ― he paved the way for other countries to take similar actions. In November 2019, both Ecuador and Bolivia put an end to their health cooperation with the island and Cuban doctors were repatriated from both Andean countries by year’s end.

In 2019, Brazil was one of three countries to side in favor of the US embargo on Cuba at the annual UN General Assembly vote. In doing so, the Bolsonaro government broke with Brazil’s historic multilateralist tradition and long-held opposition to US economic coercion against the island. Añez, however, took matters one step further: on January 24, 2020, the Bolivian government announced that it was cutting off diplomatic relations. Bolivia is now the only country in the Western Hemisphere that does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, and one of only three in the world (along with South Korea and Israel).

For decades, Cuba has sought to steer away from old Cold War diplomatic rifts. Not one to shy away from speaking out when it feels wronged or when close allies are threatened or overthrown, the Cuban government has nevertheless cultivated a cautious approach to potential detractors. Bolivia’s breaking off relations with Cuba seems to have resurfaced from another age.

Even the Trump administration, which has resuscitated Title III of the Helms Burton Law to pile more economic pressure on the island, has not yet swept aside the diplomatic relations with Cuba established under its predecessor. This is not to say, however, that Bolivia’s maverick approach to the Left in Latin America is not heartily encouraged in Washington. The influence of Marco Rubio on all things Latin American and the calculations ― or miscalculations ― of Trump’s presidential campaign keep fueling the US administration’s ever more aggressive stance toward the region. Ultimately, Bolivia’s Cold War-era politics is a leap back into a dark, undemocratic past which fits snuggly with Trump’s Monroeist vision of Latin America’s “backyard” role in the international system.

In recent days, Añez’s foreign minister, Karen Longaric, was warmly received by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro followed suit, and Longaric celebrated his “crucial role in the defense of democracy and the rule of law” and formally offered him Bolivia’s backing in his reelection bid at the head of the organization. The OAS was key in undermining the October 2019 elections and in bolstering a flawed narrative of fraudulent elections that greatly contributed to Morales’s overthrow. Longaric then gave a presentation at the Inter-American Dialogue on the importance of espousing a nonideological foreign policy. That afternoon, relations with Cuba were broken. At the event, Longaric was not confronted with uncomfortable questions.

From unlikely caretaker emerging from obscurity, to presidential candidate with a growing set of international allies, Añez has successfully made her zealous foreign policy a stalwart of her political strategy. In a regional and international context in which far-right extremism, far from being isolated, has become politically profitable, it is no wonder that Jeanine Añez should feel so emboldened.

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CARICOM Stands Up to Bolivian Coup Regime — And to Almagro’s Interventionist Agenda
It went largely unnoticed in the media, but toward the last few days of 2019, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution challenging the narrative pushed by the United States and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro regarding the situation in Bolivia, including the removal of president Evo Morales in a coup on November 10.

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CARICOM Stands Up to Bolivian Coup Regime — And to Almagro’s Interventionist Agenda
It went largely unnoticed in the media, but toward the last few days of 2019, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution challenging the narrative pushed by the United States and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro regarding the situation in Bolivia, including the removal of president Evo Morales in a coup on November 10.

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Since 1986, US budget bills have included a provision – commonly identified as Section 7008 – that expressly prohibits providing financial aid to governments that have taken power via a military coup. In its most recent form, the provision reads:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available … shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or … a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes….

The language of this provision is clear, yet the State Department often fails to act when coups take place. In some cases, this is because the US government supports the coups (in some cases aiding or orchestrating them). It would appear that the US government has a selective approach to dealing with military coups, depending on whether they are seen as favorable or detrimental to US power and influence in the region. In cases in which the US government considers a coup a positive development, the secretary of state often avoids complying with Section 7008 by simply choosing to ignore that a coup has taken place. The aftermath of the overthrow of Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia provides the latest example of how US leaders disregard the law in this way, and indeed how they are growing bolder in doing so.

When Egypt’s elected president Mohamed Morsi was forced from office by the Egyptian army and replaced by former general Abdel el-Sisi in 2013, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was faced with questions about whether or not the event was a military coup, thus calling $1.5 billion in annual US aid to Egypt into question. Her response was that “[t]he law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Though every major media outlet in the world identified el-Sisi’s takeover as a coup, the State Department – to this day – has refused to do so.

Journalist David Francis explained that “[a]ccording to legal experts, the State Department and the White House have extraordinary leeway in what they do and do not term an official ‘coup,’ as well as if and how to … cut aid after formally designating one. Congress can disagree, but there’s not much lawmakers can do in response.” While the Congressional Research Service finds at least eight instances of the coup provision taking effect in the last decade, it also finds five additional examples over the same period in which the US decided it not need worry about the law. An article in the Harvard Law Review examined the provision’s history and found that the government often follows the law, but even then, it does so “as a matter of discretionary policymaking, while avoiding an admission that it is actually bound by the coup provision.”

The restrictions were first included in US law over concerns about a possible military coup in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. Since then, the US government has skirted Section 7008 several times when coups have taken place in Latin America. This issue was brought into headlines during the early Obama administration over Honduras. In 2009, the left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, at gunpoint, in a US-supported military coup. The United Nations passed a resolution, with US support, condemning the coup and calling for Zelaya to be returned to office. However, the Honduran coup government had powerful allies in Washington and the Obama administration made it clear that it wasn’t eager to see Zelaya restored to the presidency. While the US paid lip service to calls for Zelaya’s “immediate and unconditional restoration,” the Obama administration would block Organization of American States (OAS) resolutions demanding just that, and ultimately signaled it would recognize elections held under the coup regime, “which would render the question of Zelaya moot,” as Hillary Clinton put it in her memoir.

As part of this coup-washing, the State Department briefly tried to argue that, though Honduras did experience a coup, it would not be cutting off all aid because it wasn’t technically a military coup (the two terms ? “military” and “coup” ? were in juxtaposition in the original coup provision). Some aid was temporarily suspended until the November 2009 elections organized under the coup government (that the US was nearly alone in recognizing). This caused significant controversy among policy-makers, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, who publicly called on then secretary of state Hillary Clinton to “make it official” and call what happened a “military coup.” In order to prevent the State Department from attempting to skirt the law in this way again, Congress acted in 2011 to broaden the provision’s language to also include “a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” [Emphasis added.]

This makes what is happening in Bolivia right now particularly worthy of note. After the OAS made dubious claims, without evidence, about the integrity of the first round of Bolivia’s 2019 elections, President Evo Morales agreed to hold a new election if the OAS’s audit suggested it was warranted. When the audit’s preliminary results concluded that a new election was needed, Morales followed through on his promise and called for new elections. But, as a recent Congressional Research Service report politely puts it, “his offer did not satisfy the opposition.”

Protests against Morales that had begun before the election started to escalate into violence, and Morales faced a loss of control over the nation’s police force. Then, shortly after Morales agreed to new elections, the head of the Bolivian army asked Morales to resign. Morales, fearing for his family and his own safety and that of his cabinet members, allied lawmakers, and others, obliged, leaving office and fleeing the country along with a number of other officials. This forced departure led Jeanine Añez, a Christian conservative and opposition senator who claimed to be next in line of succession, to swear herself in as president after being elected head of the country’s senate without the required quorum, a move that Bolivia’s top court later appeared to justify. The next day, Bolivian police prevented former and current members of Morales’s MAS party (which holds a supermajority in the legislature) from entering the building. Añez has promised new elections, but whether they can be truly fair given present circumstances is an open question.

What has happened in Bolivia seems to easily meet the definition of a coup under Section 7008: the sitting president, democratically elected multiple times, was removed from power in a process in which the “military play[ed] a decisive role.” He was replaced with an unelected leader whose party won only 4.2 percent of the vote in the last election but who has already started changing policy despite claiming to serve as an interim “caretaker” president until the next elections. However, President Trump quickly Tweeted that the US was supporting Añez, while Secretary of State Pompeo praised her “for stepping up … to lead her nation through this democratic transition…”

Evo Morales was famously a critic of American foreign policy, and during his tenure he expelled the US ambassador who had been meeting with opposition figures amid a 2008 destabilization effort against the Morales government. He also rejected most forms of US-backed financial support in order to seek an independent economic development strategy, which ended up yielding positive results. So, if the US government were to acknowledge that a coup occurred, there would be little in the way of foreign aid to cancel.

But in a flouting of the spirit of the law, the USAID administrator for Latin America met with Government Minister Arturo Murillo of the coup regime in December and expressed an “interest in supporting our country,” as Murillo put it. Karen Longaric, Bolivia’s new chancellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the coup government (which lacks a proper mandate to serve in an interim capacity, not to mention to make policy changes) said that Añez hopes to reverse course on US-Bolivian relations and bring the country back into the US sphere of influence. The US is again supporting a regime that emerged from a military coup, through various forms of assistance.

The purpose of the coup provision is to provide real consequences for the perpetrators of undemocratic coups, putting a concrete financial cost on attempts to undermine elections and elected governments around the world. When the State Department ignores the law by continuing to provide aid after a coup, it is signaling that it values its own set of strategic objectives over democracy and human rights. The case of Bolivia rewards the overthrow of an elected government that disagreed with the United States government. Lawmakers should demand this be officially identified as a military coup and begin exploring options to strengthen the coup provision, both through altering the language to include a greater degree of specificity and by reforming the decision-making process to make it independent of political conflicts of interest.

Since 1986, US budget bills have included a provision – commonly identified as Section 7008 – that expressly prohibits providing financial aid to governments that have taken power via a military coup. In its most recent form, the provision reads:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available … shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree or … a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role: Provided, That assistance may be resumed to such government if the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that subsequent to the termination of assistance a democratically elected government has taken office: Provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not apply to assistance to promote democratic elections or public participation in democratic processes….

The language of this provision is clear, yet the State Department often fails to act when coups take place. In some cases, this is because the US government supports the coups (in some cases aiding or orchestrating them). It would appear that the US government has a selective approach to dealing with military coups, depending on whether they are seen as favorable or detrimental to US power and influence in the region. In cases in which the US government considers a coup a positive development, the secretary of state often avoids complying with Section 7008 by simply choosing to ignore that a coup has taken place. The aftermath of the overthrow of Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia provides the latest example of how US leaders disregard the law in this way, and indeed how they are growing bolder in doing so.

When Egypt’s elected president Mohamed Morsi was forced from office by the Egyptian army and replaced by former general Abdel el-Sisi in 2013, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was faced with questions about whether or not the event was a military coup, thus calling $1.5 billion in annual US aid to Egypt into question. Her response was that “[t]he law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination.” Though every major media outlet in the world identified el-Sisi’s takeover as a coup, the State Department – to this day – has refused to do so.

Journalist David Francis explained that “[a]ccording to legal experts, the State Department and the White House have extraordinary leeway in what they do and do not term an official ‘coup,’ as well as if and how to … cut aid after formally designating one. Congress can disagree, but there’s not much lawmakers can do in response.” While the Congressional Research Service finds at least eight instances of the coup provision taking effect in the last decade, it also finds five additional examples over the same period in which the US decided it not need worry about the law. An article in the Harvard Law Review examined the provision’s history and found that the government often follows the law, but even then, it does so “as a matter of discretionary policymaking, while avoiding an admission that it is actually bound by the coup provision.”

The restrictions were first included in US law over concerns about a possible military coup in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. Since then, the US government has skirted Section 7008 several times when coups have taken place in Latin America. This issue was brought into headlines during the early Obama administration over Honduras. In 2009, the left-leaning Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was deposed, at gunpoint, in a US-supported military coup. The United Nations passed a resolution, with US support, condemning the coup and calling for Zelaya to be returned to office. However, the Honduran coup government had powerful allies in Washington and the Obama administration made it clear that it wasn’t eager to see Zelaya restored to the presidency. While the US paid lip service to calls for Zelaya’s “immediate and unconditional restoration,” the Obama administration would block Organization of American States (OAS) resolutions demanding just that, and ultimately signaled it would recognize elections held under the coup regime, “which would render the question of Zelaya moot,” as Hillary Clinton put it in her memoir.

As part of this coup-washing, the State Department briefly tried to argue that, though Honduras did experience a coup, it would not be cutting off all aid because it wasn’t technically a military coup (the two terms ? “military” and “coup” ? were in juxtaposition in the original coup provision). Some aid was temporarily suspended until the November 2009 elections organized under the coup government (that the US was nearly alone in recognizing). This caused significant controversy among policy-makers, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, who publicly called on then secretary of state Hillary Clinton to “make it official” and call what happened a “military coup.” In order to prevent the State Department from attempting to skirt the law in this way again, Congress acted in 2011 to broaden the provision’s language to also include “a coup d’état or decree in which the military plays a decisive role.” [Emphasis added.]

This makes what is happening in Bolivia right now particularly worthy of note. After the OAS made dubious claims, without evidence, about the integrity of the first round of Bolivia’s 2019 elections, President Evo Morales agreed to hold a new election if the OAS’s audit suggested it was warranted. When the audit’s preliminary results concluded that a new election was needed, Morales followed through on his promise and called for new elections. But, as a recent Congressional Research Service report politely puts it, “his offer did not satisfy the opposition.”

Protests against Morales that had begun before the election started to escalate into violence, and Morales faced a loss of control over the nation’s police force. Then, shortly after Morales agreed to new elections, the head of the Bolivian army asked Morales to resign. Morales, fearing for his family and his own safety and that of his cabinet members, allied lawmakers, and others, obliged, leaving office and fleeing the country along with a number of other officials. This forced departure led Jeanine Añez, a Christian conservative and opposition senator who claimed to be next in line of succession, to swear herself in as president after being elected head of the country’s senate without the required quorum, a move that Bolivia’s top court later appeared to justify. The next day, Bolivian police prevented former and current members of Morales’s MAS party (which holds a supermajority in the legislature) from entering the building. Añez has promised new elections, but whether they can be truly fair given present circumstances is an open question.

What has happened in Bolivia seems to easily meet the definition of a coup under Section 7008: the sitting president, democratically elected multiple times, was removed from power in a process in which the “military play[ed] a decisive role.” He was replaced with an unelected leader whose party won only 4.2 percent of the vote in the last election but who has already started changing policy despite claiming to serve as an interim “caretaker” president until the next elections. However, President Trump quickly Tweeted that the US was supporting Añez, while Secretary of State Pompeo praised her “for stepping up … to lead her nation through this democratic transition…”

Evo Morales was famously a critic of American foreign policy, and during his tenure he expelled the US ambassador who had been meeting with opposition figures amid a 2008 destabilization effort against the Morales government. He also rejected most forms of US-backed financial support in order to seek an independent economic development strategy, which ended up yielding positive results. So, if the US government were to acknowledge that a coup occurred, there would be little in the way of foreign aid to cancel.

But in a flouting of the spirit of the law, the USAID administrator for Latin America met with Government Minister Arturo Murillo of the coup regime in December and expressed an “interest in supporting our country,” as Murillo put it. Karen Longaric, Bolivia’s new chancellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the coup government (which lacks a proper mandate to serve in an interim capacity, not to mention to make policy changes) said that Añez hopes to reverse course on US-Bolivian relations and bring the country back into the US sphere of influence. The US is again supporting a regime that emerged from a military coup, through various forms of assistance.

The purpose of the coup provision is to provide real consequences for the perpetrators of undemocratic coups, putting a concrete financial cost on attempts to undermine elections and elected governments around the world. When the State Department ignores the law by continuing to provide aid after a coup, it is signaling that it values its own set of strategic objectives over democracy and human rights. The case of Bolivia rewards the overthrow of an elected government that disagreed with the United States government. Lawmakers should demand this be officially identified as a military coup and begin exploring options to strengthen the coup provision, both through altering the language to include a greater degree of specificity and by reforming the decision-making process to make it independent of political conflicts of interest.

In this November 12 video — excerpted from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s morning press conference — Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard describes how Bolivian president Evo Morales was transported to Mexico aboard a Mexican Air Force plane.  

The plane landed at Chimoré airport, located in the department of Cochabamba and controlled, at the time, by the Bolivian military. It was from here that Morales was eventually flown to safety.

Ebrard describes the tense negotiations that took place between the governments of Mexico and Bolivia, and the challenges posed by the vacuum of power in the hours following Morales’s forced resignation, when the military were visibly in command. Though his presentation is sober and diplomatic, Mexico’s top diplomat makes it clear that Evo Morales’s life was in danger, and that the attempt to rescue him almost ended in disaster.

Ebrard describes how other South American countries responded to Mexico’s attempt to retrieve Evo Morales. He recalls how several governments that had initially authorized the Mexican aircraft to transit through their airspace or refuel, including Peru and Ecuador, suddenly reneged on their word.

Ebrard makes clear that the decision to revoke permissions to land or use airspace were made at the highest level of government in each of these countries. The Mexican foreign minister’s assertions raise serious questions: Why did these governments change their mind? And were these countries under international pressure to prevent Morales from flying to safety?

Two further elements emerge from this important presentation, which received little attention in the media: first, the role played by the president-elect of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, who appears to have persuaded Paraguayan president Mario Abdo Benítez to allow the aircraft to land in Asunción. Fernández’s role in this story reinforces the hypothesis that a Mexican–Argentine axis is emerging. There has been much speculation regarding this possibility, especially since Fernández’s November 4 visit to Mexico, when he met President López Obrador. Fernández is also an active member of the Puebla Group, a Latin American coalition of progressive leaders in which the Mexican government has been playing an important role. Both Fernández and Mexican officials attended the group’s recent meeting in Buenos Aires.

The second element concerns Mexico’s reemergence as a Latin American middle power. This is evident in the manner in which Mexico is now venturing beyond its traditional political and commercial ties with its northern neighbors. Significantly, this reemergence of Mexico’s engagement with the rest of Latin America has coincided with a return to its erstwhile tradition of protecting the victims of political persecution throughout the region, when the region was dominated by military dictatorships. Unfortunately, the rekindling of Mexico’s tradition of protecting political refugees is also indicative of a new wave of authoritarianism, which has steadily been gaining pace across Latin America during the last few years.

For all these reasons, and in view of the historical importance of Ebrard’s disclosures, CEPR is posting this video with English subtitles so that it is accessible to English-speaking viewers.

In this November 12 video — excerpted from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s morning press conference — Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard describes how Bolivian president Evo Morales was transported to Mexico aboard a Mexican Air Force plane.  

The plane landed at Chimoré airport, located in the department of Cochabamba and controlled, at the time, by the Bolivian military. It was from here that Morales was eventually flown to safety.

Ebrard describes the tense negotiations that took place between the governments of Mexico and Bolivia, and the challenges posed by the vacuum of power in the hours following Morales’s forced resignation, when the military were visibly in command. Though his presentation is sober and diplomatic, Mexico’s top diplomat makes it clear that Evo Morales’s life was in danger, and that the attempt to rescue him almost ended in disaster.

Ebrard describes how other South American countries responded to Mexico’s attempt to retrieve Evo Morales. He recalls how several governments that had initially authorized the Mexican aircraft to transit through their airspace or refuel, including Peru and Ecuador, suddenly reneged on their word.

Ebrard makes clear that the decision to revoke permissions to land or use airspace were made at the highest level of government in each of these countries. The Mexican foreign minister’s assertions raise serious questions: Why did these governments change their mind? And were these countries under international pressure to prevent Morales from flying to safety?

Two further elements emerge from this important presentation, which received little attention in the media: first, the role played by the president-elect of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, who appears to have persuaded Paraguayan president Mario Abdo Benítez to allow the aircraft to land in Asunción. Fernández’s role in this story reinforces the hypothesis that a Mexican–Argentine axis is emerging. There has been much speculation regarding this possibility, especially since Fernández’s November 4 visit to Mexico, when he met President López Obrador. Fernández is also an active member of the Puebla Group, a Latin American coalition of progressive leaders in which the Mexican government has been playing an important role. Both Fernández and Mexican officials attended the group’s recent meeting in Buenos Aires.

The second element concerns Mexico’s reemergence as a Latin American middle power. This is evident in the manner in which Mexico is now venturing beyond its traditional political and commercial ties with its northern neighbors. Significantly, this reemergence of Mexico’s engagement with the rest of Latin America has coincided with a return to its erstwhile tradition of protecting the victims of political persecution throughout the region, when the region was dominated by military dictatorships. Unfortunately, the rekindling of Mexico’s tradition of protecting political refugees is also indicative of a new wave of authoritarianism, which has steadily been gaining pace across Latin America during the last few years.

For all these reasons, and in view of the historical importance of Ebrard’s disclosures, CEPR is posting this video with English subtitles so that it is accessible to English-speaking viewers.

Updated November 25, 2019

CEPR recent work and media appearances involving Bolivia include:

Guillaume Long’s op-ed in OpenDemocracy, “How the OAS, and the Media’s Lack of Scrutiny, Caused a Violent Coup in Bolivia,” November 25, 2019

Guillaume Long and Lola Allen’s blog post, “Evo Morales’s Life was in Danger, and He Almost Didn’t Make it Out of Bolivia,” November 20, 2019

Mark Weisbrot’s op-ed in MarketWatch, “The Organization of American States Has Deceived the Public, Terribly, on the Bolivian Election,” November 19, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on The Real News, “How OAS Deception Helped the Coup in Bolivia,” November 19, 2019

Kevin Cashman’s op-ed in Jacobin, “The OAS Helped Drive Bolivia into Crisis — And Enabled a Military Coup,” November 17, 2019

Guillaume Long’s op-ed in Al Jazeera English, “What Happened in Bolivia Was a Coup, and the OAS Played a Key Role in It.” November 16, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on The Majority Report on Evo Morales’ Ouster in Bolivia, The Majority Report, November 12, 2019

Alex Main interview with The Globe Post, “Everything You Need to Know About the Bolivian Coup and What Comes Next,” November 12, 2019

Guillaume Long on The Thom Hartmann Program, November 12, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on Democracy Now Discussing the Coup in Bolivia, Democracy Now, November 11, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on BBC News Discussing the Bolivian Elections, BBC News, November 9, 2019

Can the Trump Administration and the OAS Overturn Bolivia’s Election Results? by Mark Weisbrot in The Nation, November 8, 2019

What Happened in Bolivia’s 2019 Vote Count? by Guillaume Long, David Rosnick, Cavan Kharrazian, and Kevin Cashman, November 8, 2019
This paper presents results from statistical analysis of election returns and tally sheets from Bolivia’s October 20 elections. This analysis finds no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave President Evo Morales a first-round victory. (Spanish here.)

Bolivia’s Economic Transformation: Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes and Results, by Andrés Arauz, Mark Weisbrot, Andrew Bunker and Jake Johnston, October 17, 2019
Bolivia’s economy has undergone a structural economic transformation during Evo Morales’s presidency. This paper looks at the government’s macroeconomic policies, institutional and policy changes, as well as overall economic and social indicators in the 13 years since the Morales government took office. (Spanish here.)

Updated November 25, 2019

CEPR recent work and media appearances involving Bolivia include:

Guillaume Long’s op-ed in OpenDemocracy, “How the OAS, and the Media’s Lack of Scrutiny, Caused a Violent Coup in Bolivia,” November 25, 2019

Guillaume Long and Lola Allen’s blog post, “Evo Morales’s Life was in Danger, and He Almost Didn’t Make it Out of Bolivia,” November 20, 2019

Mark Weisbrot’s op-ed in MarketWatch, “The Organization of American States Has Deceived the Public, Terribly, on the Bolivian Election,” November 19, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on The Real News, “How OAS Deception Helped the Coup in Bolivia,” November 19, 2019

Kevin Cashman’s op-ed in Jacobin, “The OAS Helped Drive Bolivia into Crisis — And Enabled a Military Coup,” November 17, 2019

Guillaume Long’s op-ed in Al Jazeera English, “What Happened in Bolivia Was a Coup, and the OAS Played a Key Role in It.” November 16, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on The Majority Report on Evo Morales’ Ouster in Bolivia, The Majority Report, November 12, 2019

Alex Main interview with The Globe Post, “Everything You Need to Know About the Bolivian Coup and What Comes Next,” November 12, 2019

Guillaume Long on The Thom Hartmann Program, November 12, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on Democracy Now Discussing the Coup in Bolivia, Democracy Now, November 11, 2019

Mark Weisbrot on BBC News Discussing the Bolivian Elections, BBC News, November 9, 2019

Can the Trump Administration and the OAS Overturn Bolivia’s Election Results? by Mark Weisbrot in The Nation, November 8, 2019

What Happened in Bolivia’s 2019 Vote Count? by Guillaume Long, David Rosnick, Cavan Kharrazian, and Kevin Cashman, November 8, 2019
This paper presents results from statistical analysis of election returns and tally sheets from Bolivia’s October 20 elections. This analysis finds no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave President Evo Morales a first-round victory. (Spanish here.)

Bolivia’s Economic Transformation: Macroeconomic Policies, Institutional Changes and Results, by Andrés Arauz, Mark Weisbrot, Andrew Bunker and Jake Johnston, October 17, 2019
Bolivia’s economy has undergone a structural economic transformation during Evo Morales’s presidency. This paper looks at the government’s macroeconomic policies, institutional and policy changes, as well as overall economic and social indicators in the 13 years since the Morales government took office. (Spanish here.)

The economic crisis in Argentina continues to intensify, with high inflation, rising poverty, and decreasing investor confidence. The implementation of a record $57 billion IMF bailout program, rather than alleviating Argentina’s economic woes, has seen poverty and unemployment rise, and a surge in debt levels. 

Argentine political sentiment was tested in August when voters went to the primary polls and delivered a decisive defeat to President Mauricio Macri and his ruling coalition. With a nearly 16-point lead, Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are in a strong position to win the general presidential election on October 27. Their broad-based, progressive coalition is also poised to capture the legislature and key governorships, significantly reshaping Argentina’s political terrain.

In light of these developments, and Argentina’s uncertain future, on Tuesday, September 24, three economists, who have been closely following political and economic developments in Argentina, presented their analysis to congressional staffers and civil society representatives at the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, DC. 

The briefing began with opening remarks by US Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington’s Seventh District and Brian Finnegan, Global Worker Rights Coordinator at the AFL-CIO’s International Department.

Representative Jayapal, Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, emphasized her admiration for Argentina’s history of progressive policy reforms, high union density, and activist political culture, while expressing her concern over the dire effects that austerity policies are having on the country.

Finnegan followed up Jayapal’s remarks by highlighting the importance of Argentine partners in the labor movement for US workers, ranging from their organized and influential presence at the International Labor Organization and the G20 to the key role Argentine labor militancy played in the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005.

The first panelist was Cecilia Nahón, a Ph.D. economist specializing in international affairs and development. She has more than 20 years of high-level public policy, diplomatic, and academic experience, including her role as Ambassador of Argentina to the United States; Argentina’s sherpa (top negotiator) to the G20; and in representing Argentina at the United Nations, IMF, World Bank, OECD, WTO, CELAC, and MERCOSUR.

Nahón delivered a brief overview of the political and economic situation in Argentina and summarized key elements of the current crisis, weighing in on what led to the current economic situation. She focused on the Macri administration’s neoliberal measures, which she labeled part of the “Wallstreet Consensus,” due to their similarities to the Washington Consensus of the 1990s. However, Nahón remarked, many of the important lessons of the 1990s era were not considered, especially regarding the role of debt. In her view, rather than funding real economic growth via the current debt measures, “the economy became a casino” for financial speculation, and “the engines of the real economy were turned off,” significantly aggravating the Argentine economy’s structural vulnerabilities. 

Following Nahón was CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. In addition to 20 years of following the political and economic situation in Argentina, he coauthored a prescient report last December titled “Argentina’s Deal with the IMF: Will ‘Expansionary Austerity’ Work?” that analyzed procyclical elements of the IMF’s debt package and predicted many of the negative outcomes currently taking place. 

Based on that report, Weisbrot examined different ways the IMF program was faulty from the outset, including its inaccurate and overly optimistic macroeconomic projections. He also addressed the great potential that Congress has to reform the IMF, citing the 1998 Meltzer Commission reforms and the 2002 congressional fight against IMF user fees on primary health care and education in low-income countries. Weisbrot argued that restructuring the way the IMF functions — especially its lopsided governance structure, which favors the US and Europe — is imperative to achieving sustainable debt outcomes and equitable development.

The last panelist was Martin Guzman, an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires. Guzman also directs the Columbia University Initiative for Policy Dialogue’s Debt Restructuring Program and is the editor in chief of the Journal of Globalization and Development.

Guzman’s analysis focused on elements he believes helped create the current crisis, and pointed to the important role the United States will have in future developments. Elaborating on Weisbrot’s presentation, Guzman found fundamental issues with the IMF’s emphasis on a fiscal surplus and massive spending adjustments, which led to a contraction of Argentina’s economic activity. Stabilization, he argued, will only follow a macroeconomic program that centers on the recovery of economic activity to strengthen debt service capacity. In addition to this program, Guzman sees negotiations with bondholders, to reprofile the debt, and constructive renegotiation with the IMF as necessary next steps. Given that the majority of the debt has been issued under New York law, he predicted that US courts will once again play an outsized role in Argentina’s economic future. 

The economic crisis in Argentina continues to intensify, with high inflation, rising poverty, and decreasing investor confidence. The implementation of a record $57 billion IMF bailout program, rather than alleviating Argentina’s economic woes, has seen poverty and unemployment rise, and a surge in debt levels. 

Argentine political sentiment was tested in August when voters went to the primary polls and delivered a decisive defeat to President Mauricio Macri and his ruling coalition. With a nearly 16-point lead, Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are in a strong position to win the general presidential election on October 27. Their broad-based, progressive coalition is also poised to capture the legislature and key governorships, significantly reshaping Argentina’s political terrain.

In light of these developments, and Argentina’s uncertain future, on Tuesday, September 24, three economists, who have been closely following political and economic developments in Argentina, presented their analysis to congressional staffers and civil society representatives at the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, DC. 

The briefing began with opening remarks by US Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington’s Seventh District and Brian Finnegan, Global Worker Rights Coordinator at the AFL-CIO’s International Department.

Representative Jayapal, Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, emphasized her admiration for Argentina’s history of progressive policy reforms, high union density, and activist political culture, while expressing her concern over the dire effects that austerity policies are having on the country.

Finnegan followed up Jayapal’s remarks by highlighting the importance of Argentine partners in the labor movement for US workers, ranging from their organized and influential presence at the International Labor Organization and the G20 to the key role Argentine labor militancy played in the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005.

The first panelist was Cecilia Nahón, a Ph.D. economist specializing in international affairs and development. She has more than 20 years of high-level public policy, diplomatic, and academic experience, including her role as Ambassador of Argentina to the United States; Argentina’s sherpa (top negotiator) to the G20; and in representing Argentina at the United Nations, IMF, World Bank, OECD, WTO, CELAC, and MERCOSUR.

Nahón delivered a brief overview of the political and economic situation in Argentina and summarized key elements of the current crisis, weighing in on what led to the current economic situation. She focused on the Macri administration’s neoliberal measures, which she labeled part of the “Wallstreet Consensus,” due to their similarities to the Washington Consensus of the 1990s. However, Nahón remarked, many of the important lessons of the 1990s era were not considered, especially regarding the role of debt. In her view, rather than funding real economic growth via the current debt measures, “the economy became a casino” for financial speculation, and “the engines of the real economy were turned off,” significantly aggravating the Argentine economy’s structural vulnerabilities. 

Following Nahón was CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. In addition to 20 years of following the political and economic situation in Argentina, he coauthored a prescient report last December titled “Argentina’s Deal with the IMF: Will ‘Expansionary Austerity’ Work?” that analyzed procyclical elements of the IMF’s debt package and predicted many of the negative outcomes currently taking place. 

Based on that report, Weisbrot examined different ways the IMF program was faulty from the outset, including its inaccurate and overly optimistic macroeconomic projections. He also addressed the great potential that Congress has to reform the IMF, citing the 1998 Meltzer Commission reforms and the 2002 congressional fight against IMF user fees on primary health care and education in low-income countries. Weisbrot argued that restructuring the way the IMF functions — especially its lopsided governance structure, which favors the US and Europe — is imperative to achieving sustainable debt outcomes and equitable development.

The last panelist was Martin Guzman, an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires. Guzman also directs the Columbia University Initiative for Policy Dialogue’s Debt Restructuring Program and is the editor in chief of the Journal of Globalization and Development.

Guzman’s analysis focused on elements he believes helped create the current crisis, and pointed to the important role the United States will have in future developments. Elaborating on Weisbrot’s presentation, Guzman found fundamental issues with the IMF’s emphasis on a fiscal surplus and massive spending adjustments, which led to a contraction of Argentina’s economic activity. Stabilization, he argued, will only follow a macroeconomic program that centers on the recovery of economic activity to strengthen debt service capacity. In addition to this program, Guzman sees negotiations with bondholders, to reprofile the debt, and constructive renegotiation with the IMF as necessary next steps. Given that the majority of the debt has been issued under New York law, he predicted that US courts will once again play an outsized role in Argentina’s economic future. 

A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.

Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.

Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.

Trump and Venezuela

In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.

It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”

Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.

The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”

Trump and Brazil

The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.

In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).

Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.

Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.

This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.

But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,” making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.

Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.

In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).

It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.

Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.

The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).

Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”

Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).

The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.

Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.

By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.

In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”

“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”

It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 million residents).

Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.

Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”

Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”

Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.

Taking State Violence Seriously

The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.

In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.

A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.

If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.

All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.

A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.

Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.

Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.

Trump and Venezuela

In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.

It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”

Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.

The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”

Trump and Brazil

The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.

In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).

Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.

Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.

This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.

But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,” making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.

Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.

In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).

It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.

Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.

The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).

Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”

Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).

The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.

Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.

By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.

In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”

“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”

It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 million residents).

Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.

Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”

Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”

Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.

Taking State Violence Seriously

The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.

In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.

A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.

If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.

All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.

The first two Democratic Party presidential primary debates in Miami covered a lot of foreign policy ground — but it is a stretch to say the candidates’ statements rose to the level of a real “debate.” They tended to agree with one another and merely emphasize different priorities.

There were two exceptions to this consensus:

  1. Four candidates (former congressman of Maryland John Delaney, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio) called China one of the US’s greatest geopolitical threats, while two candidates (former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang) argued for a new relationship with China built on cooperation.

  2. Ryan argued for maintaining US engagement in Afghanistan, while Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former vice president Joe Biden called, without reservations, for withdrawal.

Very little in these debates shed light on the differences among these candidates in how they would approach foreign policy if elected. However, given the great range of foreign policy issues raised, one can hope that the candidates will engage in a more robust conversation on foreign policy as the field winnows—including talking about many issues that have thus far been left out.

Here were some of the foreign policy issues the candidates discussed:

Climate

These debates marked a major shift in the extent to which presidential candidates have addressed climate change, with two candidates (California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Governor Jay Inslee) referring to a “climate crisis.”

In fact, the 15 minutes of discussion dedicated to climate change, across the two debates, were greater than all the time spent on climate change during the nine Democratic primary debates in 2016.

Four candidates (Castro, Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Biden) mentioned rejoining the Paris Agreement — and Castro said his first act as president would be to recommit to it. (According to The Washington Posts issues tracker, all 20 qualifying candidates have committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that federally funded research in green technologies should be made available to any companies that use it to manufacture products in the United States. Warren, Ryan, and Biden suggested that exporting green products should be a major part of US trade strategy going forward.

Four candidates called climate change either the single greatest “geopolitical threat” to the US, or among the greatest threats: former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Warren, Inslee, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Castro. Inslee made it clear that combating the climate crisis would be his first priority as president.

Iran

In the first debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”), only Booker did not raise his hand. Although he acknowledged it was a “mistake to pull out of that deal,” he insisted he would try to “leverage a better deal.” (He did not elaborate.)

Klobuchar insisted that any military action against Iran should go before the Congress for approval. She also blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA for “giv[ing] unlimited leverage to China and Russia.”

Gabbard, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made clear their total opposition to a war in Iran, with Gabbard and Sanders insisting such a war would be far worse than the war in Iraq, leading to a regional disaster with much greater loss of life.

Gabbard, Sanders, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke all blamed Trump’s policies for making a war with Iran more likely, with Gabbard criticizing Trump’s “chickenhawk cabinet” — and specifically calling out Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

When asked what she considered the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, Klobuchar’s answer included “what’s going [on] in the Mideast with Iran.” When Gillibrand was asked which country she would most like to “reset” the US relationship with, she said it should be Iran, in order “to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.”

Mexico and Central America

Both Ryan and Warren mentioned the flight of American jobs to Mexico and the need for an “industrial policy” focused on domestic manufacturing.

Castro was the only candidate to explicitly call for an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers whose port of entry is on the US-Mexico border to remain in Mexico as their asylum claims are processed.

Given the humanitarian crisis at the border, engineered in part by Trump’s own actions, numerous candidates discussed factors pushing people to leave Central American countries. Four candidates (Castro, Booker, O’Rourke, and Biden) called for investing in the Central American countries most asylum-seekers come from. Castro called for a “Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador,” and Biden called for a “surge immediately [of] billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region.” Both Booker and Castro criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries.

Only author Marianne Williamson talked about “American foreign policy in Latin America and how we might have in the last few decades contributed” to the situation — although she ran out of time before she could elaborate.

China

Ryan, Warren, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Yang, Buttigieg, and Hickenlooper mentioned China in connection to the outsourcing of jobs and the need to reform US trade policies. Yang cited Chinese “pirating” of US intellectual property as a major problem. Hickenlooper likewise criticized China’s “cheating and stealing.” Buttigieg and Yang both critiqued Trump’s tariffs against China as counterproductive.

Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan cited China as either the greatest, or one of the greatest, geopolitical threats the US faces. Hickenlooper and Yang said the US relationship with China was the most important to reset, so that the US and China can cooperate on global challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Russia

ORourke accused Vladimir Putin of “attack[ing] and invad[ing] our democracy.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Russia was the US’s top geopolitical threat, for the same reason. Bennet called Russia “the biggest threat to our national security…because of what they’ve done with our election.” Klobuchar also mentioned Russian electoral interference, as did Yang and Harris. California Congressman Eric Swalwell insisted the US must “brea[k] up with Russia and mak[e] up with NATO.”

North Korea

O’Rourke, Harris, and Bennet all criticized Trump’s haphazard negotiations with North Korea, with Harris criticizing Trump for “embrac[ing] Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Bennet called out Trump for failing to criticize North Korea and Russia while picking fights with US allies.

Yang called for cooperation with China to improve the situation with North Korea, the closest any Democratic candidate came to putting forward a strategy for peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula.

Afghanistan

Two candidates called for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan: Gabbard and Biden. Gabbard and Ryan got in a heated exchange over this issue when Ryan insisted that the US should “have some presence” in Afghanistan in order to prevent “bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard argued that there was no reason to think the US would ever be able to “squash” the Taliban, and so the only responsible thing to do — given the financial and human costs of the war — was to pull out. She took Ryan to task for his suggestion that the Taliban was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminding him that al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Two candidates mentioned Saudi Arabia: Gabbard, in connection with their alleged “protect[ion]” of al-Qaeda, and Sanders, in connection with his opposition to US support for “the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Sanders was the only candidate to mention Yemen.

Europe, NATO, and Other Allies

When asked which relationship, as president, they would prioritize for a reset, Biden, Harris, and Swalwell all named NATO. Williamson said she most wanted a reset with “European leaders.” Bennet said he would prioritize a reset with “our European allies” — as well as Latin American countries, so that the US can work with them to alleviate the refugee crisis. Buttigieg argued that “our relationship with the entire world needs to change,” but specifically called for a reset with “our most important allies.”

Bennet argued that we must “restore the relationships that [Trump]’s destroyed with our allies, [and] not just in Europe” — specifically mentioning Germany and Japan. Klobuchar criticized Trump’s departure from the JCPOA as not “stand[ing] with our allies.” O’Rourke argued that any intervention to curb crimes against humanity should be “undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Biden argued that we should never conduct an antiterrorism campaign “alone,” but in cooperation with “our alliances.”

War Powers Act

De Blasio and Sanders were the only candidates to mention the War Powers Act. De Blasio argued that, even in cases of crimes against humanity, the US military should not intervene in the absence of congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. Sanders mentioned that he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act,” in order to end US backing for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

Biden said he would eliminate “the AUMF,” but also said he would “make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists.” Since both the 2001 AUMF authorizing the “War on Terror” and the 2002 AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq remain operative, he may be implying that we should repeal only the Iraq AUMF and leave the War on Terror AUMF in place, while curtailing its overuse. However, his meaning was not clear. It is also surprising that, as the only person on stage who voted for both authorizations, he would also be the only one to propose repeal (of at least one).

United Nations

When asked what was the most important global relationship for the US to reset, Sanders said it was the US relationship with the United Nations, so that “we can solve conflicts without war, but with diplomacy.” He was the only candidate to mention any intergovernmental organization besides NATO.

Terrorism

Terrorism was hardly mentioned in the debates — a far cry from the degree of emphasis on this issue in the last two decades of US politics. Ryan mentioned the threat of terrorism during his exchange with Gabbard on Afghanistan, with Gabbard mentioning Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for al-Qaeda. Gillibrand argued that Trump’s funding for private detention centers had diverted funds from fighting “cross-border terrorism,” and Biden insisted his experience best prepared him for building the kind of cooperation that the United States needs to combat international terrorism.

What Was Left Out

Economic sanctions were not mentioned in the debates, nor was there mention of Cuba, where Trump has rolled back the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions. Brazil was not discussed, where Trump has embraced the far-right President Bolsonaro; nor Venezuela, where Trump has backed regime change by recognizing a parallel government and imposing sanctions that have led to the deaths of up to 40,000 people.

There was no mention of Egypt, where Trump has praised the extraordinarily brutal Sisi dictatorship; nor Libya, where Trump has supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in that country’s ongoing civil war; nor Syria, where Trump has engaged in an illegal bombing campaign; nor Israel/Palestine, where Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off humanitarian aid to Palestinians, supported the annexation of the Golan Heights, and proposed a “peace deal” that seems to dial back the US’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution.

Although there was a question on “crimes against humanity” and whether the US has a “responsibility to protect” (as it is known in foreign policy circles), the debate sidestepped mention of most countries ? including various US allies such as Colombia and the Philippines ? where such atrocities are happening, not in some hypothetical future, but in the present.

Despite a strong focus on immigration, no candidate mentioned the threatened tariffs against Mexico — designed, in an unprecedented fashion, as retaliation for Mexico’s (supposed) failure to stop asylum-seekers from reaching the US-Mexico border. Similarly, despite Trump’s heavy emphasis on trade in his 2016 campaign, no candidate said whether they would support the new NAFTA (the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).

Conclusion

Jen Kirby at Vox argues that foreign policy was the “loser” of the Democratic debates. Kirby is right to say that many candidates’ answers “lacked substance.” However, it appears that the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to international relations means that foreign policy is very much up for discussion in 2020.

Given that foreign policy is an area where US presidents have great, unencumbered executive power, it is important that presidential candidates address a much wider range of foreign policy issues facing the country — and that they are pressed for specifics — so that voters can better understand where the real differences among them lie.

If voters are to make an informed choice for their next commander in chief, they need a real foreign policy debate.  

The first two Democratic Party presidential primary debates in Miami covered a lot of foreign policy ground — but it is a stretch to say the candidates’ statements rose to the level of a real “debate.” They tended to agree with one another and merely emphasize different priorities.

There were two exceptions to this consensus:

  1. Four candidates (former congressman of Maryland John Delaney, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio) called China one of the US’s greatest geopolitical threats, while two candidates (former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang) argued for a new relationship with China built on cooperation.

  2. Ryan argued for maintaining US engagement in Afghanistan, while Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former vice president Joe Biden called, without reservations, for withdrawal.

Very little in these debates shed light on the differences among these candidates in how they would approach foreign policy if elected. However, given the great range of foreign policy issues raised, one can hope that the candidates will engage in a more robust conversation on foreign policy as the field winnows—including talking about many issues that have thus far been left out.

Here were some of the foreign policy issues the candidates discussed:

Climate

These debates marked a major shift in the extent to which presidential candidates have addressed climate change, with two candidates (California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Governor Jay Inslee) referring to a “climate crisis.”

In fact, the 15 minutes of discussion dedicated to climate change, across the two debates, were greater than all the time spent on climate change during the nine Democratic primary debates in 2016.

Four candidates (Castro, Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Biden) mentioned rejoining the Paris Agreement — and Castro said his first act as president would be to recommit to it. (According to The Washington Posts issues tracker, all 20 qualifying candidates have committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that federally funded research in green technologies should be made available to any companies that use it to manufacture products in the United States. Warren, Ryan, and Biden suggested that exporting green products should be a major part of US trade strategy going forward.

Four candidates called climate change either the single greatest “geopolitical threat” to the US, or among the greatest threats: former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Warren, Inslee, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Castro. Inslee made it clear that combating the climate crisis would be his first priority as president.

Iran

In the first debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”), only Booker did not raise his hand. Although he acknowledged it was a “mistake to pull out of that deal,” he insisted he would try to “leverage a better deal.” (He did not elaborate.)

Klobuchar insisted that any military action against Iran should go before the Congress for approval. She also blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA for “giv[ing] unlimited leverage to China and Russia.”

Gabbard, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made clear their total opposition to a war in Iran, with Gabbard and Sanders insisting such a war would be far worse than the war in Iraq, leading to a regional disaster with much greater loss of life.

Gabbard, Sanders, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke all blamed Trump’s policies for making a war with Iran more likely, with Gabbard criticizing Trump’s “chickenhawk cabinet” — and specifically calling out Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

When asked what she considered the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, Klobuchar’s answer included “what’s going [on] in the Mideast with Iran.” When Gillibrand was asked which country she would most like to “reset” the US relationship with, she said it should be Iran, in order “to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.”

Mexico and Central America

Both Ryan and Warren mentioned the flight of American jobs to Mexico and the need for an “industrial policy” focused on domestic manufacturing.

Castro was the only candidate to explicitly call for an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers whose port of entry is on the US-Mexico border to remain in Mexico as their asylum claims are processed.

Given the humanitarian crisis at the border, engineered in part by Trump’s own actions, numerous candidates discussed factors pushing people to leave Central American countries. Four candidates (Castro, Booker, O’Rourke, and Biden) called for investing in the Central American countries most asylum-seekers come from. Castro called for a “Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador,” and Biden called for a “surge immediately [of] billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region.” Both Booker and Castro criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries.

Only author Marianne Williamson talked about “American foreign policy in Latin America and how we might have in the last few decades contributed” to the situation — although she ran out of time before she could elaborate.

China

Ryan, Warren, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Yang, Buttigieg, and Hickenlooper mentioned China in connection to the outsourcing of jobs and the need to reform US trade policies. Yang cited Chinese “pirating” of US intellectual property as a major problem. Hickenlooper likewise criticized China’s “cheating and stealing.” Buttigieg and Yang both critiqued Trump’s tariffs against China as counterproductive.

Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan cited China as either the greatest, or one of the greatest, geopolitical threats the US faces. Hickenlooper and Yang said the US relationship with China was the most important to reset, so that the US and China can cooperate on global challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Russia

ORourke accused Vladimir Putin of “attack[ing] and invad[ing] our democracy.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Russia was the US’s top geopolitical threat, for the same reason. Bennet called Russia “the biggest threat to our national security…because of what they’ve done with our election.” Klobuchar also mentioned Russian electoral interference, as did Yang and Harris. California Congressman Eric Swalwell insisted the US must “brea[k] up with Russia and mak[e] up with NATO.”

North Korea

O’Rourke, Harris, and Bennet all criticized Trump’s haphazard negotiations with North Korea, with Harris criticizing Trump for “embrac[ing] Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Bennet called out Trump for failing to criticize North Korea and Russia while picking fights with US allies.

Yang called for cooperation with China to improve the situation with North Korea, the closest any Democratic candidate came to putting forward a strategy for peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula.

Afghanistan

Two candidates called for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan: Gabbard and Biden. Gabbard and Ryan got in a heated exchange over this issue when Ryan insisted that the US should “have some presence” in Afghanistan in order to prevent “bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard argued that there was no reason to think the US would ever be able to “squash” the Taliban, and so the only responsible thing to do — given the financial and human costs of the war — was to pull out. She took Ryan to task for his suggestion that the Taliban was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminding him that al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Two candidates mentioned Saudi Arabia: Gabbard, in connection with their alleged “protect[ion]” of al-Qaeda, and Sanders, in connection with his opposition to US support for “the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Sanders was the only candidate to mention Yemen.

Europe, NATO, and Other Allies

When asked which relationship, as president, they would prioritize for a reset, Biden, Harris, and Swalwell all named NATO. Williamson said she most wanted a reset with “European leaders.” Bennet said he would prioritize a reset with “our European allies” — as well as Latin American countries, so that the US can work with them to alleviate the refugee crisis. Buttigieg argued that “our relationship with the entire world needs to change,” but specifically called for a reset with “our most important allies.”

Bennet argued that we must “restore the relationships that [Trump]’s destroyed with our allies, [and] not just in Europe” — specifically mentioning Germany and Japan. Klobuchar criticized Trump’s departure from the JCPOA as not “stand[ing] with our allies.” O’Rourke argued that any intervention to curb crimes against humanity should be “undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Biden argued that we should never conduct an antiterrorism campaign “alone,” but in cooperation with “our alliances.”

War Powers Act

De Blasio and Sanders were the only candidates to mention the War Powers Act. De Blasio argued that, even in cases of crimes against humanity, the US military should not intervene in the absence of congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. Sanders mentioned that he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act,” in order to end US backing for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

Biden said he would eliminate “the AUMF,” but also said he would “make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists.” Since both the 2001 AUMF authorizing the “War on Terror” and the 2002 AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq remain operative, he may be implying that we should repeal only the Iraq AUMF and leave the War on Terror AUMF in place, while curtailing its overuse. However, his meaning was not clear. It is also surprising that, as the only person on stage who voted for both authorizations, he would also be the only one to propose repeal (of at least one).

United Nations

When asked what was the most important global relationship for the US to reset, Sanders said it was the US relationship with the United Nations, so that “we can solve conflicts without war, but with diplomacy.” He was the only candidate to mention any intergovernmental organization besides NATO.

Terrorism

Terrorism was hardly mentioned in the debates — a far cry from the degree of emphasis on this issue in the last two decades of US politics. Ryan mentioned the threat of terrorism during his exchange with Gabbard on Afghanistan, with Gabbard mentioning Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for al-Qaeda. Gillibrand argued that Trump’s funding for private detention centers had diverted funds from fighting “cross-border terrorism,” and Biden insisted his experience best prepared him for building the kind of cooperation that the United States needs to combat international terrorism.

What Was Left Out

Economic sanctions were not mentioned in the debates, nor was there mention of Cuba, where Trump has rolled back the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions. Brazil was not discussed, where Trump has embraced the far-right President Bolsonaro; nor Venezuela, where Trump has backed regime change by recognizing a parallel government and imposing sanctions that have led to the deaths of up to 40,000 people.

There was no mention of Egypt, where Trump has praised the extraordinarily brutal Sisi dictatorship; nor Libya, where Trump has supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in that country’s ongoing civil war; nor Syria, where Trump has engaged in an illegal bombing campaign; nor Israel/Palestine, where Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off humanitarian aid to Palestinians, supported the annexation of the Golan Heights, and proposed a “peace deal” that seems to dial back the US’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution.

Although there was a question on “crimes against humanity” and whether the US has a “responsibility to protect” (as it is known in foreign policy circles), the debate sidestepped mention of most countries ? including various US allies such as Colombia and the Philippines ? where such atrocities are happening, not in some hypothetical future, but in the present.

Despite a strong focus on immigration, no candidate mentioned the threatened tariffs against Mexico — designed, in an unprecedented fashion, as retaliation for Mexico’s (supposed) failure to stop asylum-seekers from reaching the US-Mexico border. Similarly, despite Trump’s heavy emphasis on trade in his 2016 campaign, no candidate said whether they would support the new NAFTA (the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).

Conclusion

Jen Kirby at Vox argues that foreign policy was the “loser” of the Democratic debates. Kirby is right to say that many candidates’ answers “lacked substance.” However, it appears that the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to international relations means that foreign policy is very much up for discussion in 2020.

Given that foreign policy is an area where US presidents have great, unencumbered executive power, it is important that presidential candidates address a much wider range of foreign policy issues facing the country — and that they are pressed for specifics — so that voters can better understand where the real differences among them lie.

If voters are to make an informed choice for their next commander in chief, they need a real foreign policy debate.  

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