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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Ending a very close race, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos won a decisive five-point victory Sunday in Colombia’s second round of presidential elections, beating challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round in an upset. The campaign centered on one issue: the future of the Santos-led peace process under way in Havana between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC that may have the potential to end a half century of civil war.

Zuluaga, who had been hand-chosen by Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and ran in opposition to the peace talks (though he had softened his position after the first round), quickly conceded defeat this Sunday. Uribe, however, wasted no time in claiming that the elections had been marred by “massive fraud,” a charge quickly rejected by international electoral observers. 

Santos’ victory has certainly dealt a major blow to ‘Uribismo,’ as the rightwing movement around Uribe is known. Colombians largely seem to support the peace process as well as efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador, and it looks as though few were convinced by Uribe’s wild charges during the campaign that the peace process would open the path to “Castrochavismo,” allowing the “FARC to run this country from Havana.” Uribe has long loomed over Colombian politics, but Zuluaga’s defeat signals that his influence may be waning, even on the political right. Meanwhile, Santos’ support of the peace talks won him the backing of some of Colombia’s most prominent business people, in addition to endorsements from indigenous groups and left-wing coalitions.  

Uribe might have thought twice about investing so much political capital in opposing the negotiations. While it is true that the peace talks had the support of Venezuela and Cuba, they also had the support of virtually every other country in the region, as well as the United Nations, in addition to broad domestic support. More to the point, the peace talks have the support of the United States. Just a month ago, on May 18th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. support for the peace process, which, given that they were the main election issue, arguably amounted to an endorsement of Santos.

While he was president, Uribe was the U.S.’s closest regional ally. At the time, his antagonistic posture toward neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, including his repeated accusations of their support for the FARC, were highly appreciated by the U.S.. More recently, his accusations tying Santos to Cuba, with their anti-Castro fervor, seem to come right out of the U.S.’s Cold War-era playbook.

Santos, meanwhile, has started to move away from U.S. policy on several important fronts; for example, emerging as a champion of regional cooperation and as a key participant in a regional effort to change course in the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But despite what might be a natural preference for a more pro-U.S. candidate (as any Uribe-endorsed candidate surely would have been), the U.S. simply might be unable to publicly oppose the almost universally-supported peace talks without risking serious and coordinated push-back. This development can be seen as another sign of Latin America’s growing independence from the U.S., though it’s important to remember that Santos also continues to cooperate with the U.S. militarily.

 

The Peace Talks, Paramilitaries, and the “War on Drugs”

The negotiations have taken on momentum over the past year. Before the election, a framework emerged that will include the vital input of the civil war’s victims as well as mutual acknowledgement of responsibility for crimes committed during the course of the war. Perhaps most importantly, the talks have now widened to include negotiations between the government and Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, increasing the reach of any potential deal. Since the talks began, the Colombian government claims that violence committed against civilians has significantly decreased.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about these peace talks, particularly about the chances that they will lead to real justice for the victims. While the FARC have committed many human rights abuses, the Colombian military and paramilitary groups with which the military has closely worked have been responsible for much of the violence targeting civilians. During the course of the war, paramilitaries alone have been responsible for up to 80 percent of all of the killings in the country, according to the United Nations. The fact that there has been strong collusion between these paramilitary groups and some senior Colombian officials is not a point of serious debate. In a move that bodes ill for the prospects for justice, in March, the government announced that it would release hundreds of paramilitary soldiers who had served lenient sentences for extremely serious crimes, continuing a demobilization process that has been widely criticized.

It is also almost guaranteed that the U.S. government and multinational companies, like DynCorp and Chiquita Banana, which have played a role in fueling this conflict over the decades, will also not be held to account. The U.S. has used the pretext of anti-narcotics campaigns to justify funding the Colombian military and Colombian political allies  despite longstanding evidence of their ties to paramilitary groups. Paramilitaries, who are major players in the drug trade themselves, have among a litany of other abuses, declared war on unions. In 2006, the “parapolitics” scandal story broke in Colombia, and 45 Colombian congressmen and seven governors were eventually convicted of ties to some of the country’s most notorious paramilitary groups. But even after these ties were brought out in the open, the U.S. government still defended the military aid it gave to Colombia.  At the height of the scandals, a partial, temporary freeze was enacted by a handful of Senate Democrats against the wishes of the Bush administration. After the even more shocking “false positives” scandal emerged in 2008, when it was discovered that the Colombian army had hired paramilitaries to kill civilians and dress the bodies up as rebel fighters, declassified documents released by the National Security Archive show that the U.S. knew as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces had ties to groups engaging in “death squad tactics” similar to those brought to light in the false positives scandal. There is evidence that the U.S. was still providing resources directly to some of these military units as recently as 2010. If the U.S. role is left out of the discussion and paramilitary groups are not held to account, this could diminish the credibility of the peace process.

But despite these obvious shortcomings, the peace talks may eventually lead to a huge change in the so-called “War on Drugs” in Colombia. An under-discussed aspect of the negotiations is the fact that both the government and the FARC have already agreed on key issues, including commitments to seriously limit the U.S.-led aerial eradication program (where tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent annually to spray powerful herbicides on coca plants in rural Colombia), and also on a commitment to implement badly-needed land reforms for rural Colombians as well as programs to create economic incentives for Colombian farmers to grow crops other than coca. If these reforms are implemented, many Colombian subsistence farmers may one day be able to lead normal lives, instead of being terrorized by aerial eradication that makes no distinction between coca plants and the food that farmers grow to feed themselves. Aerial eradication has entailed huge human and environmental costs, while being shockingly ineffective [PDF] in limiting cocaine production, despite U.S. claims to the contrary. 

At the same time, other countries are taking a stand against harmful anti-drug policies. In Peru, which in 2012 overtook Colombia as the world’s largest producer of cocaine, the government recently began a program to provide assistance to farmers to grow alternative crops. Since then, the reduction in the production of coca has been so significant that the government recently decided to postpone forced eradication efforts (Peru and Bolivia had both already banned aerial eradication in the past). The government of Peru also recognized that popular opposition to forced eradication is one of the reasons why the remnants of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas have had some popular support.  If the Colombian peace talks succeed, there is a chance that the decades-long struggles of Colombian farmers against aerial eradication might eventually take a decisive positive turn in the place where the policy has caused the most harm—where for a time, an astounding 8 percent of the arable land in Colombia was subject to the program.  

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts to developments in the peace talks, which may have big implications for U.S. policy in Latin America. Despite U.S. support for the talks, the U.S. government has been clear that it wants aerial eradication and other “Drug War” policies to continue. But if the talks are successful, there is a chance that the U.S. may be forced to accept real policy change—not just a curtailment of destructive counter-drug policies, but perhaps also a process of demilitarization that might weaken the U.S.’s main military foothold in the region.

Ending a very close race, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos won a decisive five-point victory Sunday in Colombia’s second round of presidential elections, beating challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round in an upset. The campaign centered on one issue: the future of the Santos-led peace process under way in Havana between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC that may have the potential to end a half century of civil war.

Zuluaga, who had been hand-chosen by Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and ran in opposition to the peace talks (though he had softened his position after the first round), quickly conceded defeat this Sunday. Uribe, however, wasted no time in claiming that the elections had been marred by “massive fraud,” a charge quickly rejected by international electoral observers. 

Santos’ victory has certainly dealt a major blow to ‘Uribismo,’ as the rightwing movement around Uribe is known. Colombians largely seem to support the peace process as well as efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador, and it looks as though few were convinced by Uribe’s wild charges during the campaign that the peace process would open the path to “Castrochavismo,” allowing the “FARC to run this country from Havana.” Uribe has long loomed over Colombian politics, but Zuluaga’s defeat signals that his influence may be waning, even on the political right. Meanwhile, Santos’ support of the peace talks won him the backing of some of Colombia’s most prominent business people, in addition to endorsements from indigenous groups and left-wing coalitions.  

Uribe might have thought twice about investing so much political capital in opposing the negotiations. While it is true that the peace talks had the support of Venezuela and Cuba, they also had the support of virtually every other country in the region, as well as the United Nations, in addition to broad domestic support. More to the point, the peace talks have the support of the United States. Just a month ago, on May 18th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. support for the peace process, which, given that they were the main election issue, arguably amounted to an endorsement of Santos.

While he was president, Uribe was the U.S.’s closest regional ally. At the time, his antagonistic posture toward neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, including his repeated accusations of their support for the FARC, were highly appreciated by the U.S.. More recently, his accusations tying Santos to Cuba, with their anti-Castro fervor, seem to come right out of the U.S.’s Cold War-era playbook.

Santos, meanwhile, has started to move away from U.S. policy on several important fronts; for example, emerging as a champion of regional cooperation and as a key participant in a regional effort to change course in the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But despite what might be a natural preference for a more pro-U.S. candidate (as any Uribe-endorsed candidate surely would have been), the U.S. simply might be unable to publicly oppose the almost universally-supported peace talks without risking serious and coordinated push-back. This development can be seen as another sign of Latin America’s growing independence from the U.S., though it’s important to remember that Santos also continues to cooperate with the U.S. militarily.

 

The Peace Talks, Paramilitaries, and the “War on Drugs”

The negotiations have taken on momentum over the past year. Before the election, a framework emerged that will include the vital input of the civil war’s victims as well as mutual acknowledgement of responsibility for crimes committed during the course of the war. Perhaps most importantly, the talks have now widened to include negotiations between the government and Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, increasing the reach of any potential deal. Since the talks began, the Colombian government claims that violence committed against civilians has significantly decreased.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about these peace talks, particularly about the chances that they will lead to real justice for the victims. While the FARC have committed many human rights abuses, the Colombian military and paramilitary groups with which the military has closely worked have been responsible for much of the violence targeting civilians. During the course of the war, paramilitaries alone have been responsible for up to 80 percent of all of the killings in the country, according to the United Nations. The fact that there has been strong collusion between these paramilitary groups and some senior Colombian officials is not a point of serious debate. In a move that bodes ill for the prospects for justice, in March, the government announced that it would release hundreds of paramilitary soldiers who had served lenient sentences for extremely serious crimes, continuing a demobilization process that has been widely criticized.

It is also almost guaranteed that the U.S. government and multinational companies, like DynCorp and Chiquita Banana, which have played a role in fueling this conflict over the decades, will also not be held to account. The U.S. has used the pretext of anti-narcotics campaigns to justify funding the Colombian military and Colombian political allies  despite longstanding evidence of their ties to paramilitary groups. Paramilitaries, who are major players in the drug trade themselves, have among a litany of other abuses, declared war on unions. In 2006, the “parapolitics” scandal story broke in Colombia, and 45 Colombian congressmen and seven governors were eventually convicted of ties to some of the country’s most notorious paramilitary groups. But even after these ties were brought out in the open, the U.S. government still defended the military aid it gave to Colombia.  At the height of the scandals, a partial, temporary freeze was enacted by a handful of Senate Democrats against the wishes of the Bush administration. After the even more shocking “false positives” scandal emerged in 2008, when it was discovered that the Colombian army had hired paramilitaries to kill civilians and dress the bodies up as rebel fighters, declassified documents released by the National Security Archive show that the U.S. knew as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces had ties to groups engaging in “death squad tactics” similar to those brought to light in the false positives scandal. There is evidence that the U.S. was still providing resources directly to some of these military units as recently as 2010. If the U.S. role is left out of the discussion and paramilitary groups are not held to account, this could diminish the credibility of the peace process.

But despite these obvious shortcomings, the peace talks may eventually lead to a huge change in the so-called “War on Drugs” in Colombia. An under-discussed aspect of the negotiations is the fact that both the government and the FARC have already agreed on key issues, including commitments to seriously limit the U.S.-led aerial eradication program (where tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent annually to spray powerful herbicides on coca plants in rural Colombia), and also on a commitment to implement badly-needed land reforms for rural Colombians as well as programs to create economic incentives for Colombian farmers to grow crops other than coca. If these reforms are implemented, many Colombian subsistence farmers may one day be able to lead normal lives, instead of being terrorized by aerial eradication that makes no distinction between coca plants and the food that farmers grow to feed themselves. Aerial eradication has entailed huge human and environmental costs, while being shockingly ineffective [PDF] in limiting cocaine production, despite U.S. claims to the contrary. 

At the same time, other countries are taking a stand against harmful anti-drug policies. In Peru, which in 2012 overtook Colombia as the world’s largest producer of cocaine, the government recently began a program to provide assistance to farmers to grow alternative crops. Since then, the reduction in the production of coca has been so significant that the government recently decided to postpone forced eradication efforts (Peru and Bolivia had both already banned aerial eradication in the past). The government of Peru also recognized that popular opposition to forced eradication is one of the reasons why the remnants of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas have had some popular support.  If the Colombian peace talks succeed, there is a chance that the decades-long struggles of Colombian farmers against aerial eradication might eventually take a decisive positive turn in the place where the policy has caused the most harm—where for a time, an astounding 8 percent of the arable land in Colombia was subject to the program.  

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts to developments in the peace talks, which may have big implications for U.S. policy in Latin America. Despite U.S. support for the talks, the U.S. government has been clear that it wants aerial eradication and other “Drug War” policies to continue. But if the talks are successful, there is a chance that the U.S. may be forced to accept real policy change—not just a curtailment of destructive counter-drug policies, but perhaps also a process of demilitarization that might weaken the U.S.’s main military foothold in the region.

The Rio de Janeiro city government inaugurated the most expensive public works project officially connected to the World Cup last week.  Although construction of some of the stations is expected to continue throughout the next few months, a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor called the Transcarioca now connects Galeão International Airport to the wealthy beachside neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, 39 kilometers away, without going anywhere near the city’s downtown, Maracanã soccer stadium or the tourist hotel neighborhoods on the city’s south side. The final cost of the project is estimated at R$2.2 billion (approximately US$970 million). Photos and videos of shoddy workmanship have cropped up on the Internet, and according to O Dia, a local newspaper, the inaugural voyage had only one paying passenger.

Despite spending around R$4 billion preparing for the World Cup, Rio de Janeiro, with a metropolitan area of over 12 million people, remains one of the world’s largest cities with no direct public transportation link between its international airport and downtown. Officially billed as a means by which World Cup tourists will move around the city during the games, the only apparent use of the Transcarioca will be to connect tourists to nearby metro or train lines which could have just as easily been connected to the airport if it weren’t for what author and geographer Chris Gaffney calls the “mafiaesque” influence that the city’s 49 private bus companies have on the city’s transportation policy.

The Brazilian government estimates that it has allocated R$25.8 billion on the World Cup, divided roughly in thirds between stadium construction and reformation; airport and infrastructure improvement; and public transportation projects. Although there is a large public outcry from across the political spectrum over the amount of money spent, especially on stadiums, some of the comparisons made with things like health and education have been blown out of proportion.  Even Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a traditional enemy of the ruling PT party, admitted recently that: 1) the total amount spent on the World Cup over the course of seven years is equivalent to around one month’s spending on public education; 2) most of this money was lent by the BNDES (the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank); and 3) a large proportion of the money lent went to the private sector, as in the case of stadium construction and reformation in cities like São Paulo and Curitiba, and will be paid back with interest.

The huge World Cup protests that were predicted by many northern media outlets earlier this year have not happened.  Labor unions, left activists and squatter’s movements like the MTST have held a series of small and well organized protests, however, linking complaints about the Cup to issues such as labor rights, housing and public transportation. In one such protest a group of 4,000 people shut down nine bridges in São Paulo during rush hour, bringing the entire city to a halt. The ease with which small groups of protesters can shut down traffic in a major city like São Paulo highlights some of the key problems in Brazilian cities that will continue long after the World Cup ends this July: too many cars on the road; underinvestment in the train and metro systems; and, in instances when money is invested in mass transportation such as in the case of the Transcarioca, prioritization of publicly-subsidized private bus systems that don’t serve the needs of the working population.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais.

The Rio de Janeiro city government inaugurated the most expensive public works project officially connected to the World Cup last week.  Although construction of some of the stations is expected to continue throughout the next few months, a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor called the Transcarioca now connects Galeão International Airport to the wealthy beachside neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, 39 kilometers away, without going anywhere near the city’s downtown, Maracanã soccer stadium or the tourist hotel neighborhoods on the city’s south side. The final cost of the project is estimated at R$2.2 billion (approximately US$970 million). Photos and videos of shoddy workmanship have cropped up on the Internet, and according to O Dia, a local newspaper, the inaugural voyage had only one paying passenger.

Despite spending around R$4 billion preparing for the World Cup, Rio de Janeiro, with a metropolitan area of over 12 million people, remains one of the world’s largest cities with no direct public transportation link between its international airport and downtown. Officially billed as a means by which World Cup tourists will move around the city during the games, the only apparent use of the Transcarioca will be to connect tourists to nearby metro or train lines which could have just as easily been connected to the airport if it weren’t for what author and geographer Chris Gaffney calls the “mafiaesque” influence that the city’s 49 private bus companies have on the city’s transportation policy.

The Brazilian government estimates that it has allocated R$25.8 billion on the World Cup, divided roughly in thirds between stadium construction and reformation; airport and infrastructure improvement; and public transportation projects. Although there is a large public outcry from across the political spectrum over the amount of money spent, especially on stadiums, some of the comparisons made with things like health and education have been blown out of proportion.  Even Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a traditional enemy of the ruling PT party, admitted recently that: 1) the total amount spent on the World Cup over the course of seven years is equivalent to around one month’s spending on public education; 2) most of this money was lent by the BNDES (the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank); and 3) a large proportion of the money lent went to the private sector, as in the case of stadium construction and reformation in cities like São Paulo and Curitiba, and will be paid back with interest.

The huge World Cup protests that were predicted by many northern media outlets earlier this year have not happened.  Labor unions, left activists and squatter’s movements like the MTST have held a series of small and well organized protests, however, linking complaints about the Cup to issues such as labor rights, housing and public transportation. In one such protest a group of 4,000 people shut down nine bridges in São Paulo during rush hour, bringing the entire city to a halt. The ease with which small groups of protesters can shut down traffic in a major city like São Paulo highlights some of the key problems in Brazilian cities that will continue long after the World Cup ends this July: too many cars on the road; underinvestment in the train and metro systems; and, in instances when money is invested in mass transportation such as in the case of the Transcarioca, prioritization of publicly-subsidized private bus systems that don’t serve the needs of the working population.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais.

On Sunday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry published an op-ed in the Miami Herald, in which he gave the official Washington view on democracy and economic progress in Latin America.

“Not so long ago, naysayers doubted that the growth of democracy in Mexico and elsewhere across the Americas would translate into better lives for the people who live there,” he writes.

And then the bait and switch: “The last decade has been a story of democracy and economic achievement in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region’s economies grew at a rate of 4 percent a year, trade with the United States nearly tripled, and more than 73 million people were lifted out of poverty.”

Now the part about the regional growth rate is true. But Mexico didn’t share in the recovery:

Figure 1. Mexico and Latin America: Average Annual Real Per-Capita GDP Growth, 1960-2013
Mexico v LA blogpostimage

The above figure used GDP growth per person, which is a better measure than the overall growth rate that Kerry uses (since population growth doesn’t increase living standards). Note that Latin America and the Caribbean did in fact experience a growth rebound in the past decade. Average annual growth was just 0.4 percent annually from 1980-2000 – a long-term growth failure that is uncommon in the history of capitalism.

The region grew at a vastly better 2.0 percent annual rate from 2000-2013, despite the Great Recession. But not Mexico, which averaged only 0.6 percent annually, slightly worse than during the lost decades. The poverty rate in Mexico in 2012 (52.3 percent) was as bad is it was in 1994 (52.4 percent). So much for “democracy and economic achievement” in Mexico. The U.S. government of course is reluctant to acknowledge this because Mexico has been run by friendly right-wing governments for decades, and NAFTA has been the model for subsequent commercial agreements.

Of course the story of Latin America’s record-breaking economic failure in the last two decades of the 20th century is one that has been widely unreported in the media, and hasn’t received much interest from economists either. So it’s not surprising that Kerry is unfamiliar with this economic history, and draws a link between democratization and economic development. In fact, Latin America’s fastest growth and development took place prior to political democratization, as the chart above shows. Brazil’s income per person grew by about 180 percent from 1960-80, most of that time under dictatorship; Mexico’s income per person doubled during the same period, under the rule of the PRI, and has been pretty dismal ever since.

For a time the pundits were worried that the Latin American electorate would begin to long for the days of dictatorship and rising living standards. Fortunately, they were wrong (as they generally are on Latin America). Instead, they voted for some economic democracy to go with the political democracy — left governments swept the region beginning in 1998, and the region has done much better (as Kerry noticed), except for Mexico (notwithstanding the 1988 election, which was stolen from the left, and the 2006 election, which was too close to call).

All of the left governments have done much better than their predecessors of the prior 20 years, but not nearly as well in terms of growth and development as the governments – including some dictatorships – of the 1960-1980 era. The story is different in each country, but in general it is not because dictatorships are better for the economy, but because the new left governments haven’t yet figured out how to implement more successful development strategies, or haven’t yet had the time and political space to do so.

Nonetheless, poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean has dropped from 43.9 percent in 2002 to 27.9 percent in 2013, after two decades without improvement. So Kerry is right about “the story of democracy and economic achievement in the region.” He could add that the region’s “second independence” from the United States, over the past 15 years, has also helped. After all, most of the failed policies implemented during the lost decades (1980-2000) were “made in Washington” – either directly by the IMF or through other influences. Maybe he could discuss that in his next op-ed.

On Sunday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry published an op-ed in the Miami Herald, in which he gave the official Washington view on democracy and economic progress in Latin America.

“Not so long ago, naysayers doubted that the growth of democracy in Mexico and elsewhere across the Americas would translate into better lives for the people who live there,” he writes.

And then the bait and switch: “The last decade has been a story of democracy and economic achievement in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region’s economies grew at a rate of 4 percent a year, trade with the United States nearly tripled, and more than 73 million people were lifted out of poverty.”

Now the part about the regional growth rate is true. But Mexico didn’t share in the recovery:

Figure 1. Mexico and Latin America: Average Annual Real Per-Capita GDP Growth, 1960-2013
Mexico v LA blogpostimage

The above figure used GDP growth per person, which is a better measure than the overall growth rate that Kerry uses (since population growth doesn’t increase living standards). Note that Latin America and the Caribbean did in fact experience a growth rebound in the past decade. Average annual growth was just 0.4 percent annually from 1980-2000 – a long-term growth failure that is uncommon in the history of capitalism.

The region grew at a vastly better 2.0 percent annual rate from 2000-2013, despite the Great Recession. But not Mexico, which averaged only 0.6 percent annually, slightly worse than during the lost decades. The poverty rate in Mexico in 2012 (52.3 percent) was as bad is it was in 1994 (52.4 percent). So much for “democracy and economic achievement” in Mexico. The U.S. government of course is reluctant to acknowledge this because Mexico has been run by friendly right-wing governments for decades, and NAFTA has been the model for subsequent commercial agreements.

Of course the story of Latin America’s record-breaking economic failure in the last two decades of the 20th century is one that has been widely unreported in the media, and hasn’t received much interest from economists either. So it’s not surprising that Kerry is unfamiliar with this economic history, and draws a link between democratization and economic development. In fact, Latin America’s fastest growth and development took place prior to political democratization, as the chart above shows. Brazil’s income per person grew by about 180 percent from 1960-80, most of that time under dictatorship; Mexico’s income per person doubled during the same period, under the rule of the PRI, and has been pretty dismal ever since.

For a time the pundits were worried that the Latin American electorate would begin to long for the days of dictatorship and rising living standards. Fortunately, they were wrong (as they generally are on Latin America). Instead, they voted for some economic democracy to go with the political democracy — left governments swept the region beginning in 1998, and the region has done much better (as Kerry noticed), except for Mexico (notwithstanding the 1988 election, which was stolen from the left, and the 2006 election, which was too close to call).

All of the left governments have done much better than their predecessors of the prior 20 years, but not nearly as well in terms of growth and development as the governments – including some dictatorships – of the 1960-1980 era. The story is different in each country, but in general it is not because dictatorships are better for the economy, but because the new left governments haven’t yet figured out how to implement more successful development strategies, or haven’t yet had the time and political space to do so.

Nonetheless, poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean has dropped from 43.9 percent in 2002 to 27.9 percent in 2013, after two decades without improvement. So Kerry is right about “the story of democracy and economic achievement in the region.” He could add that the region’s “second independence” from the United States, over the past 15 years, has also helped. After all, most of the failed policies implemented during the lost decades (1980-2000) were “made in Washington” – either directly by the IMF or through other influences. Maybe he could discuss that in his next op-ed.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter regarding “egregious violations of human rights” in Honduras signed by 108 members of Congress. The letter represents the latest in an ongoing effort by social movements and citizens’ organizations in Honduras, diaspora community groups, U.S. solidarity activists and many others to reverse the trend of political repression and human rights abuses since the 2009 coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D- IL), who circulated the letter, and early signers Rep. “Hank” Johnson (D- GA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D – CA) have all been engaged on this issue for years. The signers are concerned with human rights violations that have been documented under the National Party governments of President Porfirio Lobo and the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the most important change they are calling for is an end to U.S. government support and training for groups and individuals responsible for these human rights abuses.

The situation in Honduras is alarming. That country has the highest homicide rate in the world, with an average of 19 murders each day in 2013. Since targeted and politically-motivated killings have become an almost regular occurrence, people struggling for justice put their lives at risk. Based on the government’s record keeping, at least 33 journalists were killed during the previous president Porfirio Lobo’s term (2010-2014). As the congressional letter says, other targeted groups include “members of the LGBT community and indigenous and campesino activists.” Many lands rights activists have been killed, and the letter to Secretary Kerry explains how the Honduran government has allowed the homicides to take place with impunity:

According to the [Honduran] National Commissioner for Human Rights, during the last administration, dozens of lawyers and journalists were killed and 97 percent of cases regarding these suspected human rights abuses remain unpunished. The non-governmental group Rights Action cites allegations of almost 100 killings of lands rights activists in the area of Bajo Aguán. According to a Human Rights Watch study, there is “virtually complete impunity for crimes” believed to be associated with land conflicts in that region of the country.

In response to increased violent crime, President Hernández has ramped up militarization of the police. According to the Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library of Congress that conducts research and analysis for Congress, “there are indications that members of the Honduran security forces may have been involved in some of these attacks against journalists and activists.” The militarized police approach relies heavily on our government’s support through training programs, equipment sales and grants, and on-the-ground advising. Earlier this year, Congress made it harder for the U.S. to continue to facilitate corruption and impunity by including human rights clauses in the appropriations bill. Calling attention to these new rules, the letter to Secretary Kerry asks the Obama administration to “strictly evaluat[e] U.S. support and training for the Honduran police and military in accordance with human rights conditions placed in the 2014 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations law.”

The letter also raises concerns “about reports that last year’s election in Honduras was not free and fair” because “at least 18 members of the leading opposition party LIBRE were assassinated in the lead-up to the election, with an additional six LIBRE-affiliated individuals and a well-known progressive journalist killed in the weeks after.” This information is easy to find with a simple web search, and the pattern was evident before election day. Senator Kaine (D – VA) and 12 other senators sent a letter to Secretary Kerry ahead of last November’s elections to “raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.” The actions of the Obama administration suggested they had a different assessment: even before a winner was declared, the State Department released a note congratulating “the Honduran people for their peaceful participations in elections” and reporting that “the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties.”

Since the letter first went public and the campaign to get signatures started, several things have happened. First, members of the Honduran congress aligned with the LIBRE party — represented by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya in the most recent presidential elections — were beaten and expelled from the Hall of Congress. The letter to Senator Kerry was amended to reflect this latest act of political repression. Then there were several more targeted murders including those of Hernán Cruz, a LIBRE party member, radio host and former justice of the peace, and Irene Meza, husband of Councilwoman Ada Elizabeth Méndez of the LIBRE party. Finally, the World Bank hosted representatives of Corporación Dinant at an annual conference on “security and human rights” even though this company is owned by Miguel Facussé, Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful businessman who has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces in land disputes.

The congressional letter represents another important step in the right direction, but more action will be needed to reverse the trend of violence and repression that continues without abatement in Honduras.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter regarding “egregious violations of human rights” in Honduras signed by 108 members of Congress. The letter represents the latest in an ongoing effort by social movements and citizens’ organizations in Honduras, diaspora community groups, U.S. solidarity activists and many others to reverse the trend of political repression and human rights abuses since the 2009 coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D- IL), who circulated the letter, and early signers Rep. “Hank” Johnson (D- GA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D – CA) have all been engaged on this issue for years. The signers are concerned with human rights violations that have been documented under the National Party governments of President Porfirio Lobo and the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the most important change they are calling for is an end to U.S. government support and training for groups and individuals responsible for these human rights abuses.

The situation in Honduras is alarming. That country has the highest homicide rate in the world, with an average of 19 murders each day in 2013. Since targeted and politically-motivated killings have become an almost regular occurrence, people struggling for justice put their lives at risk. Based on the government’s record keeping, at least 33 journalists were killed during the previous president Porfirio Lobo’s term (2010-2014). As the congressional letter says, other targeted groups include “members of the LGBT community and indigenous and campesino activists.” Many lands rights activists have been killed, and the letter to Secretary Kerry explains how the Honduran government has allowed the homicides to take place with impunity:

According to the [Honduran] National Commissioner for Human Rights, during the last administration, dozens of lawyers and journalists were killed and 97 percent of cases regarding these suspected human rights abuses remain unpunished. The non-governmental group Rights Action cites allegations of almost 100 killings of lands rights activists in the area of Bajo Aguán. According to a Human Rights Watch study, there is “virtually complete impunity for crimes” believed to be associated with land conflicts in that region of the country.

In response to increased violent crime, President Hernández has ramped up militarization of the police. According to the Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library of Congress that conducts research and analysis for Congress, “there are indications that members of the Honduran security forces may have been involved in some of these attacks against journalists and activists.” The militarized police approach relies heavily on our government’s support through training programs, equipment sales and grants, and on-the-ground advising. Earlier this year, Congress made it harder for the U.S. to continue to facilitate corruption and impunity by including human rights clauses in the appropriations bill. Calling attention to these new rules, the letter to Secretary Kerry asks the Obama administration to “strictly evaluat[e] U.S. support and training for the Honduran police and military in accordance with human rights conditions placed in the 2014 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations law.”

The letter also raises concerns “about reports that last year’s election in Honduras was not free and fair” because “at least 18 members of the leading opposition party LIBRE were assassinated in the lead-up to the election, with an additional six LIBRE-affiliated individuals and a well-known progressive journalist killed in the weeks after.” This information is easy to find with a simple web search, and the pattern was evident before election day. Senator Kaine (D – VA) and 12 other senators sent a letter to Secretary Kerry ahead of last November’s elections to “raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.” The actions of the Obama administration suggested they had a different assessment: even before a winner was declared, the State Department released a note congratulating “the Honduran people for their peaceful participations in elections” and reporting that “the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties.”

Since the letter first went public and the campaign to get signatures started, several things have happened. First, members of the Honduran congress aligned with the LIBRE party — represented by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya in the most recent presidential elections — were beaten and expelled from the Hall of Congress. The letter to Senator Kerry was amended to reflect this latest act of political repression. Then there were several more targeted murders including those of Hernán Cruz, a LIBRE party member, radio host and former justice of the peace, and Irene Meza, husband of Councilwoman Ada Elizabeth Méndez of the LIBRE party. Finally, the World Bank hosted representatives of Corporación Dinant at an annual conference on “security and human rights” even though this company is owned by Miguel Facussé, Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful businessman who has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces in land disputes.

The congressional letter represents another important step in the right direction, but more action will be needed to reverse the trend of violence and repression that continues without abatement in Honduras.

Locked out of international capital markets since its 2001 default, Argentina cleared a major hurdle on Thursday when it reached an agreement with the Paris Club, a grouping of 19 major economies, to resume debt payments and clear outstanding arrears. The Paris Club issued a statement, noting that:

The scheme offers a framework for a sustainable and definitive solution to the question of arrears due by the Argentine Republic to Paris Club creditors, covering a total stock of arrears of USD 9.7 billion, as of 30 April 2014. It provides a flexible structure for clearance of arrears within five years including a minimum of USD 1150 million to be paid by May 2015, the following payment being due in May 2016.

Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who led the negotiations for the Government of Argentina, told a local radio station that, “Argentina is continuing its path of regularizing and paying off the debt that 40 years of neoliberalism left us,” Reuters reported.

Long thought to be a lynchpin of any possible deal, Argentina secured the settlement without the involvement of the IMF. President Fernández told the press, “It is the first time that a country negotiates without the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (FMI), and without ceding our independence.”

Argentina’s 2001 default followed years of following IMF prescriptions, which only exacerbated the crisis. Argentina broke off relations with the IMF in early 2006, paying back all of its outstanding debt to the Fund in one move. In a statement following the current deal, Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of Jubilee USA, praised the lack of IMF involvement:

“Argentina negotiated an agreement that keeps the IMF out of Argentina… IMF austerity programs have wreaked havoc in both poor and wealthy countries.”

Business News Americas reported that the creditors agreed to exclude the IMF “in return for a larger down payment by Argentina.”

With the Paris Club settlement done, the final, and largest hurdle, to returning to capital markets is a solution to the vulture fund holdouts, which, unlike the other 93 percent of bondholders, did not accept the restructurings agreed upon with other creditors and have instead pursued full payment in U.S. courts. Jubilee USA noted:

Meanwhile, on May 27th the country filed its final arguments at the US Supreme Court in its dispute with hold-out creditors NML Capital and Aurelius Capital. These predatory hedge funds seek more than $1 billion in debt payments and refuse a deal that nearly 93% of Argentina’s creditors accepted after its default. The high court is expected to decide in June whether or not to take the case. Because of the case’s impacts on poor populations, global debt restructuring and poor country access to credit, Jubilee USA filed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court.

But, unlike the 93 percent of creditors who accepted restructuring, the Paris Club will be paid in full. Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign in the U.K. said:

It is unfair for the Paris Club countries to be demanding huge amounts more from Argentina than received by private lenders. Countries such as Japan, Germany and the UK lent money to previous Argentine governments recklessly. There is no reason why they should be paid in full.

Rich countries have condemned the profiteering of so-called vulture funds in debt crises around the world, but this is vulture-like behaviour from the Paris Club themselves. Trying to double their money from Argentina’s default after private lenders accepted a two-thirds write-down is extraordinary hypocrisy.

Jones goes on to point out that much of the debt that is being paid back to the Paris Club was actually lent to the military junta that ruled Argentina as well as other corrupt regimes:

The UK claims it is owed $119 million. Of this, Vince Cable’s UK Export Finance has admitted 38% of the debt comes from loans to the Argentine military junta in the 1970s to buy military equipment.

Jubilee USA notes that according to “Spain’s El Pais, two-thirds of the debt is rooted in previous Argentine dictatorships and corrupt regimes.”

“The Argentine people should not have to pay for dodgy deals between the UK government and the long gone military junta. UK funding for an oppressive military dictatorship was wrong, and Vince Cable should cancel the debt,” said Jones.

Locked out of international capital markets since its 2001 default, Argentina cleared a major hurdle on Thursday when it reached an agreement with the Paris Club, a grouping of 19 major economies, to resume debt payments and clear outstanding arrears. The Paris Club issued a statement, noting that:

The scheme offers a framework for a sustainable and definitive solution to the question of arrears due by the Argentine Republic to Paris Club creditors, covering a total stock of arrears of USD 9.7 billion, as of 30 April 2014. It provides a flexible structure for clearance of arrears within five years including a minimum of USD 1150 million to be paid by May 2015, the following payment being due in May 2016.

Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who led the negotiations for the Government of Argentina, told a local radio station that, “Argentina is continuing its path of regularizing and paying off the debt that 40 years of neoliberalism left us,” Reuters reported.

Long thought to be a lynchpin of any possible deal, Argentina secured the settlement without the involvement of the IMF. President Fernández told the press, “It is the first time that a country negotiates without the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (FMI), and without ceding our independence.”

Argentina’s 2001 default followed years of following IMF prescriptions, which only exacerbated the crisis. Argentina broke off relations with the IMF in early 2006, paying back all of its outstanding debt to the Fund in one move. In a statement following the current deal, Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of Jubilee USA, praised the lack of IMF involvement:

“Argentina negotiated an agreement that keeps the IMF out of Argentina… IMF austerity programs have wreaked havoc in both poor and wealthy countries.”

Business News Americas reported that the creditors agreed to exclude the IMF “in return for a larger down payment by Argentina.”

With the Paris Club settlement done, the final, and largest hurdle, to returning to capital markets is a solution to the vulture fund holdouts, which, unlike the other 93 percent of bondholders, did not accept the restructurings agreed upon with other creditors and have instead pursued full payment in U.S. courts. Jubilee USA noted:

Meanwhile, on May 27th the country filed its final arguments at the US Supreme Court in its dispute with hold-out creditors NML Capital and Aurelius Capital. These predatory hedge funds seek more than $1 billion in debt payments and refuse a deal that nearly 93% of Argentina’s creditors accepted after its default. The high court is expected to decide in June whether or not to take the case. Because of the case’s impacts on poor populations, global debt restructuring and poor country access to credit, Jubilee USA filed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court.

But, unlike the 93 percent of creditors who accepted restructuring, the Paris Club will be paid in full. Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign in the U.K. said:

It is unfair for the Paris Club countries to be demanding huge amounts more from Argentina than received by private lenders. Countries such as Japan, Germany and the UK lent money to previous Argentine governments recklessly. There is no reason why they should be paid in full.

Rich countries have condemned the profiteering of so-called vulture funds in debt crises around the world, but this is vulture-like behaviour from the Paris Club themselves. Trying to double their money from Argentina’s default after private lenders accepted a two-thirds write-down is extraordinary hypocrisy.

Jones goes on to point out that much of the debt that is being paid back to the Paris Club was actually lent to the military junta that ruled Argentina as well as other corrupt regimes:

The UK claims it is owed $119 million. Of this, Vince Cable’s UK Export Finance has admitted 38% of the debt comes from loans to the Argentine military junta in the 1970s to buy military equipment.

Jubilee USA notes that according to “Spain’s El Pais, two-thirds of the debt is rooted in previous Argentine dictatorships and corrupt regimes.”

“The Argentine people should not have to pay for dodgy deals between the UK government and the long gone military junta. UK funding for an oppressive military dictatorship was wrong, and Vince Cable should cancel the debt,” said Jones.

Ahead of a House vote to pass sanctions against Venezuelan officials today, 14 members of Congress sent a letter [PDF] to Secretary Kerry yesterday urging against sanctions, warning that they could undermine the dialogue process between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Instead, the members – who include John Conyers (D-MI) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) – suggested that the U.S. should exchange ambassadors with Venezuela. The sanctions bill passed the House this afternoon with the support of a number of Venezuelan ex-pats in the U.S. who are mostly “from the middle class and upper middle class,” and is championed by anti-Cuba hawks in the House such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate.

The letter also notes – unlike statements by sanctions proponents such as Ros-Lehtinen – that opposition protesters are responsible for some of the killings and other human rights abuses over the past few months, and that the Venezuelan government has taken steps to hold perpetrators accountable, with at least 19 arrests of “state agents.” The letter states:

at least 42 people have died, including opposition activists, government supporters, bystanders and security agents.   Government security forces have been implicated in killings and accused of human rights abuses, and at least 19 state agents have been jailed in relation to these alleged abuses.  A number of fatalities and injuries have reportedly been caused by protesters themselves.  Security forces and civilians have been shot and killed while trying to remove barricades erected by protesters and motorcyclists have been beheaded by wire stretched across the road by protesters.

It also notes that the U.S. would be isolated regionally in sanctioning Venezuelan officials, as

While the United States government does not have to agree with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, it should take their opinions into account, as it takes European or African governments’ opinions into account in those regions.  The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organization of American States (by a 29-3 vote) have all issued statements that are in various ways supportive of the Venezuelan government and that call for the respect of the country’s democratic institutions.  A number of presidents and governments, including Michelle Bachelet of Chile, have publicly warned against attempts to forcibly remove the democratically elected government of Venezuela. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki noted on Wednesday, there are “no indications that other Latin American countries at this time would support sanctions on Venezuela.”

UNASUR issued a statement [PDF] last week opposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials. As the AP reported:

Foreign ministers from the 12-member Union of South American Nations issued a statement Friday saying that the proposed legislation would constitute a violation of Venezuela’s internal affairs and undermine attempts by regional diplomats and the Vatican to foster dialogue between the government and opposition.

Sanctions represent “an obstacle for the Venezuelan people can overcome their difficulties with independence, and in democratic peace,” according to a statement after a meeting in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

The congressional letter has received a good deal of media coverage in outlets including the AP, the Miami Herald, BBC Mundo and Fox News, among others.

Ahead of a House vote to pass sanctions against Venezuelan officials today, 14 members of Congress sent a letter [PDF] to Secretary Kerry yesterday urging against sanctions, warning that they could undermine the dialogue process between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Instead, the members – who include John Conyers (D-MI) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) – suggested that the U.S. should exchange ambassadors with Venezuela. The sanctions bill passed the House this afternoon with the support of a number of Venezuelan ex-pats in the U.S. who are mostly “from the middle class and upper middle class,” and is championed by anti-Cuba hawks in the House such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate.

The letter also notes – unlike statements by sanctions proponents such as Ros-Lehtinen – that opposition protesters are responsible for some of the killings and other human rights abuses over the past few months, and that the Venezuelan government has taken steps to hold perpetrators accountable, with at least 19 arrests of “state agents.” The letter states:

at least 42 people have died, including opposition activists, government supporters, bystanders and security agents.   Government security forces have been implicated in killings and accused of human rights abuses, and at least 19 state agents have been jailed in relation to these alleged abuses.  A number of fatalities and injuries have reportedly been caused by protesters themselves.  Security forces and civilians have been shot and killed while trying to remove barricades erected by protesters and motorcyclists have been beheaded by wire stretched across the road by protesters.

It also notes that the U.S. would be isolated regionally in sanctioning Venezuelan officials, as

While the United States government does not have to agree with its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, it should take their opinions into account, as it takes European or African governments’ opinions into account in those regions.  The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organization of American States (by a 29-3 vote) have all issued statements that are in various ways supportive of the Venezuelan government and that call for the respect of the country’s democratic institutions.  A number of presidents and governments, including Michelle Bachelet of Chile, have publicly warned against attempts to forcibly remove the democratically elected government of Venezuela. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki noted on Wednesday, there are “no indications that other Latin American countries at this time would support sanctions on Venezuela.”

UNASUR issued a statement [PDF] last week opposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials. As the AP reported:

Foreign ministers from the 12-member Union of South American Nations issued a statement Friday saying that the proposed legislation would constitute a violation of Venezuela’s internal affairs and undermine attempts by regional diplomats and the Vatican to foster dialogue between the government and opposition.

Sanctions represent “an obstacle for the Venezuelan people can overcome their difficulties with independence, and in democratic peace,” according to a statement after a meeting in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

The congressional letter has received a good deal of media coverage in outlets including the AP, the Miami Herald, BBC Mundo and Fox News, among others.

En español | Em português

In their latest article on U.S. government spying for The Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras review and publish leaked documents that show that the U.S. government may have used the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to aid the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on U.S. citizens and non-citizens in foreign countries. The NSA is shown to have assisted the DEA with efforts to capture narcotraffickers, but the leaked documents also refer to “a vibrant two-way information sharing relationship” between the two intelligence agencies, implying that the DEA shares its information with the NSA to aid with non-drug-related spying. This may explain how the NSA has gathered not just metadata but also the full-take audio from “virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”

The authors write,

The DEA has long been in a unique position to help the NSA gain backdoor access to foreign phone networks. “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners,” the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts reported in a 2004 memo. Indeed, with more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies around the globe.

But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence.”

What’s more, Selander adds, the NSA has aided the DEA for years on surveillance operations. “On our reports, there’s drug information and then there’s non-drug information,” he says. “So countries let us in because they don’t view us, really, as a spy organization.”

While the documents accompanying the article reveal detailed information that has never before been available to the public, this is not the first time that the DEA has faced allegations of spying.

In 2005, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stopped cooperating with the DEA after accusing it of espionage in his country. At the time, a State Department spokesperson responded by saying, “the accusations that somehow the Drug Enforcement Agency is involved in espionage are baseless. There’s no substance or justification for them.” Using arguments that would change very little over the next nine years, a State Department official said at the time, “I think it’s pretty clear to us that the motivation for this is not the accusation itself or not what they state is the problem. The motivation is an effort to detract from the government’s increasingly deficient record of cooperation.”

Three years later, President Evo Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia saying, “there were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage.” He also said, “we can control ourselves internally. We don’t need any spying from anybody.” The State Department spokesperson said in response, “the charges that have been made are just patently absurd. We reject them categorically”, and the news agency EFE reported that “Washington has repeatedly denied that the DEA has been involved in any activities in Bolivia apart from the war on drugs.”

Few of the press reports from 2005 or 2008 took these accusations seriously, and the State Department dismissed the allegations categorically, but in 2008, CEPR’s co-director Mark Weisbrot wrote that “To the Bolivians, the U.S. is using the “war on drugs” throughout Latin America mainly as an excuse to get boots on the ground, and establish ties with local military and police forces.” To this list, we can now add access to national phone and communication networks, and storage of the content of phone calls.

En español | Em português

In their latest article on U.S. government spying for The Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras review and publish leaked documents that show that the U.S. government may have used the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to aid the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on U.S. citizens and non-citizens in foreign countries. The NSA is shown to have assisted the DEA with efforts to capture narcotraffickers, but the leaked documents also refer to “a vibrant two-way information sharing relationship” between the two intelligence agencies, implying that the DEA shares its information with the NSA to aid with non-drug-related spying. This may explain how the NSA has gathered not just metadata but also the full-take audio from “virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”

The authors write,

The DEA has long been in a unique position to help the NSA gain backdoor access to foreign phone networks. “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners,” the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts reported in a 2004 memo. Indeed, with more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies around the globe.

But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence.”

What’s more, Selander adds, the NSA has aided the DEA for years on surveillance operations. “On our reports, there’s drug information and then there’s non-drug information,” he says. “So countries let us in because they don’t view us, really, as a spy organization.”

While the documents accompanying the article reveal detailed information that has never before been available to the public, this is not the first time that the DEA has faced allegations of spying.

In 2005, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stopped cooperating with the DEA after accusing it of espionage in his country. At the time, a State Department spokesperson responded by saying, “the accusations that somehow the Drug Enforcement Agency is involved in espionage are baseless. There’s no substance or justification for them.” Using arguments that would change very little over the next nine years, a State Department official said at the time, “I think it’s pretty clear to us that the motivation for this is not the accusation itself or not what they state is the problem. The motivation is an effort to detract from the government’s increasingly deficient record of cooperation.”

Three years later, President Evo Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivia saying, “there were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage.” He also said, “we can control ourselves internally. We don’t need any spying from anybody.” The State Department spokesperson said in response, “the charges that have been made are just patently absurd. We reject them categorically”, and the news agency EFE reported that “Washington has repeatedly denied that the DEA has been involved in any activities in Bolivia apart from the war on drugs.”

Few of the press reports from 2005 or 2008 took these accusations seriously, and the State Department dismissed the allegations categorically, but in 2008, CEPR’s co-director Mark Weisbrot wrote that “To the Bolivians, the U.S. is using the “war on drugs” throughout Latin America mainly as an excuse to get boots on the ground, and establish ties with local military and police forces.” To this list, we can now add access to national phone and communication networks, and storage of the content of phone calls.

Sunday, May 11 marked the grim two-year anniversary of a tragic incident that CEPR has investigated and frequently blogged about: the DEA-related killing of four indigenous villagers in the northeastern Moskitia region of Honduras.  The victims – two women, a fourteen year-old boy, and a young man – were in a small passenger boat headed to the town of Ahuas when they were shot dead by a counternarcotics team made up of DEA and Honduran agents.  Four other boat passengers were injured.  When Honduran police authorities described the drug interdiction operation as “successful,” local authorities and human rights groups protested, pointing out that those killed all had legitimate reasons for traveling on the river and that there was no evidence that police agents had fired in “self-defense” as the DEA alleged.  

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), who initiated a congressional letter demanding a full U.S. government investigation of the incident back in January of 2013, has authored an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America that was published on the two-year anniversary date.  The piece laments the DEA’s response – or lack of response – to the congressional letter, which was signed by 58 members of the House of Representatives:

Sadly, the response we received from the DEA failed to address key questions about the U.S. agents’ role in the incident and showed no indication that measures would be taken to avoid future accidents of this kind. Though the official reply to the letter made no reference to our request for an investigation, an anonymous DEA official told the press that there would be “no separate investigation.”

Most appalling, though, was the news months later that the DEA had ignored Honduran investigators’ requests to interview the U.S. agents involved in the operation and perform forensic tests on their weapons. Given that Honduran police told the investigating team from the Public Ministry that the DEA had led the mission and ordered a helicopter gunman to fire on the passenger boat, this lack of cooperation could only heighten suspicions of DEA responsibility for the deaths.  

Johnson’s op-ed also notes that the “persistent call for a U.S. investigation of these tragic killings may have finally been heard.”  Concretely, the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has announced that it is joining the Department of State’s OIG in carrying out a review of the U.S. government response to three counternarcotics missions in Honduras in 2012 that involved the use of deadly force.  Aside from the Ahuas killings, the DEA was involved in two other controversial and deadly incidents during a two-month time period, during which DEA agents shot and killed alleged drug traffickers.   The wording of the OIG announcement, which mentions the issue of “cooperation of DEA personnel” and “information provided to Congress,” suggests that the Ahuas killings will be a big focus of the review.  Here is the full DOJ OIG statement, under “Ongoing Work”:

Post-Incident Responses to Missions in Honduras Involving the Use of Deadly Force

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of State OIGs are conducting a joint review of the post-incident responses by the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to three drug interdiction missions in Honduras in 2012, all involving the use of deadly force. The missions were conducted jointly among the Government of Honduras, the DEA, and State pursuant to an aerial interdiction program known as Operation Anvil. The joint review will address, among other things, pertinent pre-incident planning and the rules of engagement governing the use of deadly force, the post-incident investigative and review efforts by State and DEA, the cooperation by State and DEA personnel with the post-shooting reviews, and the information provided to Congress and the public by DOJ and State regarding the incidents.

In his op-ed, Johnson refers to the review as an important “first step”, one that has been “late in coming.”  But, he says,

further steps are necessary. To begin with, it’s time for the DEA to come clean about the Ahuas operation and release all relevant documents, including any transcripts and videos that can shed light on how the killings occurred. Going forward, we need to maintain transparency and accountability around U.S.-backed counternarcotic operations, whether or not U.S. agents are directly involved. Never again should we allow a young, promising life like [fourteen year-old] Hasked’s to become the collateral damage of the war on drugs.

Sunday, May 11 marked the grim two-year anniversary of a tragic incident that CEPR has investigated and frequently blogged about: the DEA-related killing of four indigenous villagers in the northeastern Moskitia region of Honduras.  The victims – two women, a fourteen year-old boy, and a young man – were in a small passenger boat headed to the town of Ahuas when they were shot dead by a counternarcotics team made up of DEA and Honduran agents.  Four other boat passengers were injured.  When Honduran police authorities described the drug interdiction operation as “successful,” local authorities and human rights groups protested, pointing out that those killed all had legitimate reasons for traveling on the river and that there was no evidence that police agents had fired in “self-defense” as the DEA alleged.  

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), who initiated a congressional letter demanding a full U.S. government investigation of the incident back in January of 2013, has authored an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America that was published on the two-year anniversary date.  The piece laments the DEA’s response – or lack of response – to the congressional letter, which was signed by 58 members of the House of Representatives:

Sadly, the response we received from the DEA failed to address key questions about the U.S. agents’ role in the incident and showed no indication that measures would be taken to avoid future accidents of this kind. Though the official reply to the letter made no reference to our request for an investigation, an anonymous DEA official told the press that there would be “no separate investigation.”

Most appalling, though, was the news months later that the DEA had ignored Honduran investigators’ requests to interview the U.S. agents involved in the operation and perform forensic tests on their weapons. Given that Honduran police told the investigating team from the Public Ministry that the DEA had led the mission and ordered a helicopter gunman to fire on the passenger boat, this lack of cooperation could only heighten suspicions of DEA responsibility for the deaths.  

Johnson’s op-ed also notes that the “persistent call for a U.S. investigation of these tragic killings may have finally been heard.”  Concretely, the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has announced that it is joining the Department of State’s OIG in carrying out a review of the U.S. government response to three counternarcotics missions in Honduras in 2012 that involved the use of deadly force.  Aside from the Ahuas killings, the DEA was involved in two other controversial and deadly incidents during a two-month time period, during which DEA agents shot and killed alleged drug traffickers.   The wording of the OIG announcement, which mentions the issue of “cooperation of DEA personnel” and “information provided to Congress,” suggests that the Ahuas killings will be a big focus of the review.  Here is the full DOJ OIG statement, under “Ongoing Work”:

Post-Incident Responses to Missions in Honduras Involving the Use of Deadly Force

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of State OIGs are conducting a joint review of the post-incident responses by the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to three drug interdiction missions in Honduras in 2012, all involving the use of deadly force. The missions were conducted jointly among the Government of Honduras, the DEA, and State pursuant to an aerial interdiction program known as Operation Anvil. The joint review will address, among other things, pertinent pre-incident planning and the rules of engagement governing the use of deadly force, the post-incident investigative and review efforts by State and DEA, the cooperation by State and DEA personnel with the post-shooting reviews, and the information provided to Congress and the public by DOJ and State regarding the incidents.

In his op-ed, Johnson refers to the review as an important “first step”, one that has been “late in coming.”  But, he says,

further steps are necessary. To begin with, it’s time for the DEA to come clean about the Ahuas operation and release all relevant documents, including any transcripts and videos that can shed light on how the killings occurred. Going forward, we need to maintain transparency and accountability around U.S.-backed counternarcotic operations, whether or not U.S. agents are directly involved. Never again should we allow a young, promising life like [fourteen year-old] Hasked’s to become the collateral damage of the war on drugs.

As we’ve described before, there is much controversy surrounding the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation’s investment in palm oil production in the Bajo Aguan, Honduras. Wealthy landowners have been engaged in a violent conflict with campesinos, resulting in the deaths and forced evictions of many campesinos at the hands of security forces both governmental and private. The company at the heart of the investigations and recent media scrutiny is Dinant, owned by the man many consider to be Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful, Miguel Facussé.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the Food First Information and Action Network, the International Federation for Human Rights and other groups details a number of killings, kidnappings, torture, forced evictions, assaults, death threats and other human rights violations that victims, witnesses and others attribute to Facussé’s guards.

Facussé has attempted to clean up his public image before, such as a notable December 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he made the case that just because he keeps a gun on his desk, and just because he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and just because one of his private planes was used to fly the foreign minister out of the country (against her will) during the 2009 coup, and just because he was aware of the coup plans before the coup, he’s really not a “bad guy.” And sure, he admitted he “probably had reasons to kill” attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf of campesino groups in the Aguan, but Facussé said, “I’m not a killer.”

Now Dinant has demonstrated a similar PR savviness. Writing in the Guardian after a series of articles examining the IFC/Dinant controversy, Dinant corporate relations director Roger Pineda Pinel noted among other things that “We have never engaged in forced evictions of farmers from our land; such evictions are undertaken exclusively by government security forces acting within the law and under instruction from the courts.”

Considering what we know about Honduras’ security forces’ respect for human rights and the law –the frequent subject of U.S. congressional concern and human rights organizations’ statements — that should make everyone involved feel better, right?

Update, May 28, 2014: Yassid Kababie, Social Affairs Corporate Manager for Corporación Dinant, sent a response to this post, which we have posted here. [PDF]

As we’ve described before, there is much controversy surrounding the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation’s investment in palm oil production in the Bajo Aguan, Honduras. Wealthy landowners have been engaged in a violent conflict with campesinos, resulting in the deaths and forced evictions of many campesinos at the hands of security forces both governmental and private. The company at the heart of the investigations and recent media scrutiny is Dinant, owned by the man many consider to be Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful, Miguel Facussé.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the Food First Information and Action Network, the International Federation for Human Rights and other groups details a number of killings, kidnappings, torture, forced evictions, assaults, death threats and other human rights violations that victims, witnesses and others attribute to Facussé’s guards.

Facussé has attempted to clean up his public image before, such as a notable December 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he made the case that just because he keeps a gun on his desk, and just because he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and just because one of his private planes was used to fly the foreign minister out of the country (against her will) during the 2009 coup, and just because he was aware of the coup plans before the coup, he’s really not a “bad guy.” And sure, he admitted he “probably had reasons to kill” attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf of campesino groups in the Aguan, but Facussé said, “I’m not a killer.”

Now Dinant has demonstrated a similar PR savviness. Writing in the Guardian after a series of articles examining the IFC/Dinant controversy, Dinant corporate relations director Roger Pineda Pinel noted among other things that “We have never engaged in forced evictions of farmers from our land; such evictions are undertaken exclusively by government security forces acting within the law and under instruction from the courts.”

Considering what we know about Honduras’ security forces’ respect for human rights and the law –the frequent subject of U.S. congressional concern and human rights organizations’ statements — that should make everyone involved feel better, right?

Update, May 28, 2014: Yassid Kababie, Social Affairs Corporate Manager for Corporación Dinant, sent a response to this post, which we have posted here. [PDF]

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed Colombia’s president Juan Manual Santos and described his thoughts on the controversial ouster of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro:

Mr. Santos said he didn’t want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.

Well, lucky for Santos, he got his wish. The New York Times reported on April 23:

But a judge in Bogotá on Tuesday found that Mr. Santos had acted improperly when he ignored a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend the ouster because it could violate the mayor’s rights.

“Some might like it and others not, but my obligation as president of the country is to obey the law and the rulings of judges,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he had no choice but to reinstate Mr. Petro.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps not. On April 25, the Associated Press reported:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he’ll appeal a court ruling that forced him to reinstate the capital’s mayor a month after the official was removed for administrative irregularities.

And why would he do such a thing, if he was indeed “ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so”, as “some judge” had in fact done? The AP explains:

Santos said Friday said that he will appeal the decision because it has put the government’s credibility at risk.

Last week the Wall Street Journal interviewed Colombia’s president Juan Manual Santos and described his thoughts on the controversial ouster of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro:

Mr. Santos said he didn’t want to oust Mr. Petro, but he had to follow the law, even though it hurt him politically. He said he was ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so.

Well, lucky for Santos, he got his wish. The New York Times reported on April 23:

But a judge in Bogotá on Tuesday found that Mr. Santos had acted improperly when he ignored a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to suspend the ouster because it could violate the mayor’s rights.

“Some might like it and others not, but my obligation as president of the country is to obey the law and the rulings of judges,” Mr. Santos said, adding that he had no choice but to reinstate Mr. Petro.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps not. On April 25, the Associated Press reported:

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says he’ll appeal a court ruling that forced him to reinstate the capital’s mayor a month after the official was removed for administrative irregularities.

And why would he do such a thing, if he was indeed “ready to reinstate Mr. Petro if some judge ordered him to do so”, as “some judge” had in fact done? The AP explains:

Santos said Friday said that he will appeal the decision because it has put the government’s credibility at risk.

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